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NEPC Talks Education: Discussing “Teaching Machines” and Personalized Learning

BOULDER, CO (November 18, 2021) – In this month’s episode of NEPC Talks Education, NEPC Researcher Christopher Saldaña interviews Audrey Watters about her new book, Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning. Watters is a writer on education and technology and the creator of the popular blog, Hack Education.

In her book, Watters explains that “teaching machines” were used to support teaching and learning during the 1950s and 60s. Watters uses the work of Sidney Pressey, B.F. Skinner, and Benjamin Wood—three early advocates of teaching machines—to describe how today’s educational software and technologies are rooted in the research they conducted, the theories they developed, and the beliefs they expressed. Pressey, Skinner, and Wood, for example, argued teaching machines would make teachers more productive by automating instruction and grading, allowing them to spend more time mentoring students: a claim made regularly by today’s advocates of personalized learning.

Education stakeholders should be concerned, Watters argues, by how much the products proffered by today’s ed tech evangelists resemble the teaching machines of the past. She describes how behavioral models of learning that rely on positive behavioral reinforcement—such as the practice of “nudging” students towards “productive” habits—are still used. She believes these practices rob students of their autonomy and agency. When adopting new practices and technologies, she recommends that listeners consider whether and how these “new” products are actually a departure from century-old failed ideas.

Watters points out that although teachers are often singled out as the harshest critics and most formidable barrier to the adoption of ed tech, Skinner’s efforts to design, produce, and sell a teaching machine were, in fact, largely impeded by questions about the profitability of his product. Today, thanks to a lax regulatory environment and the pro-technology policies adopted over the past three decades, tech firms are scoring large profits selling digital technologies to schools.  Indeed, today the profit motive is perhaps the most powerful driver of the aggressive advocacy of ed tech. Big profits, however, do not necessarily result in either innovation or in technologies that serve students well. Watters encourages listeners to raise questions about how the industry of educational technology itself impedes advancements in the quality of educational technology and classroom practices.

A new NEPC Talks Education podcast episode, hosted by Christopher Saldaña, will be released each month from September through May. 

Don’t worry if you miss a month. All episodes are archived on the NEPC website and can be found here.

NEPC podcast episodes are also available on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher, under the title NEPC Talks Education. Subscribe and follow!

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: