The Dial-a-Drill: Automating the Teacher with Ed-Tech in your home

The Dial-a-Drill: Automating the Teacher with Ed-Tech in your home

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Yes, it has actually been a little quiet on Hack Education lately. Even HEWN has gone dormant.

Greetings. Thank you quite for inviting me to speak to you today. You have discovered yourself enrolled in maybe the most perfectly and horribly timed class, as you’re asked to consider education innovation seriously, right as the coronavirus crisis plays out across schools and colleges worldwide and as trainees and instructors are forced– much more than normal– to turn over their educational experiences to ed-tech.

I want to talk at you briefly about some history of ed-tech– I’ll yammer on for about 20 minutes or so, and then I hope we can have a conversation.

But first, a little preface on why history, why now …

I recognize that most everybody– especially on social media– wants to discuss the now or the future. Even with whatever currently upside down, I insist that understanding the history of education technology is important. History works not even if of some “lessons” that we may obtain from the past. Whether we actively recognize it or not, where we are today is an outgrowth of history– our systems, our practices, our beliefs. There is no magical “break” from the past, even if it seems like whatever right now is different. History informs and shapes us. All our choices about the now and the future include some concept of what has actually come before– even if those ideas are extremely inaccurate (such as the extremely typical narrative– a favorite of the current Secretary of Education– that schools have actually not altered in over one hundred years). It’s worth remedying these ideas, obviously. And it’s also beneficial to stop and maybe soothe the people who are throwing up their hands right now and insisting that “all this is completely extraordinary!” Due to the fact that there is historical research and social scientific research study about education and about ed-tech– understanding that can assist us analyze this minute and minutes to come more sensibly.

We do understand– that is, we have years of research that shows– that some ed-tech works fine for some students in some subject areas under some situations. We likewise know that all of those qualifications in that previous sentence– which ed-tech, which students, which subject areas, what sort of scenarios– tend to play out in ways that worsen existing instructional inequalities.

We also know– that is, we have years of history that demonstrates– that the push to automate education is not new nor is it dependent on how well the software works. We know that, as historian Larry Cuban wrote practically twenty years back, computers– the most current mentor machines– have actually been “oversold”; their promises mostly unsatisfied.

I want to tell you a story about computer-assisted direction (CAI) in the 1960 s. I desire to do so, in part, due to the fact that this really isn’t a story I inform in my upcoming book, Teaching Makers, and I feel like getting some of this down on paper.

In 1962, Patrick Suppes, whose name is one of those most closely related to the development of CAI, and his fellow Stanford professors, Richard Atkinson (who ‘d later end up being the president of the University of California) and William Estes, got a million dollar grant from the Carnegie Corporation– that has to do with $8 million in today’s dollars– to study the computer-assisted teaching of math and to construct an automated computer-based program.

1962 was, of course, prior to the advent of the desktop computer, however at Stanford, Suppes and his team had access to an IBM 7090 and a PDP-1, two mainframe computer systems. In their laboratory, they established 6 “finding out stations” where first-grade trainees were brought in 5 days a week for 20- minute sessions to deal with a computer-based mathematics curriculum. The logistics were undoubtedly difficult, and so the project was quickly moved off the Stanford school and into the students’ school– but that too was much easier stated than done. You couldn’t put a giant mainframe computer system in a grade school building, although it was possible to install “dumb” terminals that could link back to the mainframe via a phone line. Initially, you had to persuade the telephone company that it was alright to send signals over the wire this way. And after that you had to find space for the terminals– keep in mind, the “baby boom” had left numerous schools overcrowded. The only free area for terminals: the storage closet. That’s where the students were sent, one at a time, to work on their math lessons– “drill and kill” type workouts.

In his 1964 report to his funder, Carnegie, Suppes explained how the teletype– a customized typewriter keyboard and a ticker tape printer linked to the Stanford mainframe, was utilized day-to-day at Walter Hays Primary School in Palo Alto (among the greatest ranking grade schools in the state of California, it’s worth keeping in mind):

We are “on the air” for about 2 1/2 to 3 hours with a class of 40 trainees and we attempt to process all 40 students throughout that period. Each student is at the teletype terminal from 2 to 5 minutes. What we are finding is that when detailed and objective control of the environment is possible, we can hope to train a student to a level of precision and perfection of action that is very tough to attain in a classroom environment.

( For the sake of time, I am going to skip over a whole discussion here about B. F. Skinner and operant conditioning and the training of children and the training of pigeons. But sufficed to say, do not let anyone attempt to inform you that computer-assisted education rejected behaviorism and welcomed cognitive science.)

When the trainee entered their name on the teletype, the computer would bring up their file and figure out the workouts to give them based upon how they ‘d done the previous day– the idea to deal with– say, least common multiples– along with the level of problem. These workouts typically included twenty concerns, and students had 10 seconds to address every one. If they responded to incorrectly, the computer system would offer the appropriate answer. At the end of the student’s time at the machine, the teletype would print out the student’s rating, along with the average of previous sessions. It would conclude with a friendly goodbye: “GREAT BYE, O COURAGEOUS DRILL TESTER.” And then “TEAR OFF ON DOTTED LINE”– the student would grab the receipt from their session.

Suppes argued– as had earlier supporters of mentor devices– that, in this method, computer systems would “individualize” education. “The computer makes the individualization of guideline easier,” he composed, “due to the fact that it can be set to follow each trainee’s history of finding out successes and failures and to utilize his past performance as a basis for selecting brand-new problems and new concepts to which he ought to be exposed next.” The computer system, he believed, would act as a tutor– a personal tutor– and take over from the instructor classroom direction. He predicted in a 1966 short article for Scientific American that “in a couple of more years millions of school children would have access to what Philip of Macedon’s kid Alexander enjoyed as a royal authority: the personal services of a tutor as knowledgeable and responsive as Aristotle.”

By 1967, Suppes’ computer-based curriculum remained in use in seven schools in California. The very first city in which every elementary school student found out mathematics through his computer-based system, Suppes boasted, was McComb, Mississippi– a far cry from the elementary school down the street from Stanford. “Computer helped instruction might well be a technique fit for.
closing the academic gap,” according to a 1969 report on the task in McComb, adding that drill-and-kill workouts by means of computer system may not be suitable for more advantaged (read: white) students.

In 1967, Suppes established a company the Computer Curriculum Corporation, which offered its “standard abilities” courseware, along with IBM mainframe computers and terminals, to elementary schools, securing a large agreement in its first year with the Chicago Public Schools expressly to supply remediation to having a hard time trainees. Suppes’ business also had a hard time. As you can envision, this all required an amazing monetary investment from school districts. Computer-based education didn’t conserve money; it really cost more. Critics decried the computer system as simply a “thousand dollar flash card.” And honestly, the outcomes just weren’t that incredible: trainees who used computer-assisted instruction did about along with students who got standard teacher-based direction. (By The Way, Suppes’ company did not go out of business, thanks in part to an influx of federal dollars that supported programs providing remediation for disadvantaged students– by the late 1960 s, metropolitan renewal had actually replaced Sputnik as the academic crisis that required technological intervention. Computer Curriculum Corporation was sold to Simon & Schuster in 1990.)

Rather than a teletype, the Dial-a-Drill used the telephone; it would call the trainee at house and pose concerns that the trainee would then answer by pushing the buttons on the telephone in action. Let me duplicate that– the program called the student; the trainee did not call the program.

A Computerworld article in 1970 promoted the progress students in New York City made after getting 3 five-minute drills per week. “One factor for the one-year-old program’s evident success,” the article announced, “is that a trainee can not ‘stop working’ in the conventional sense. Echoing what has been the guarantee of education technology since at least the 1920 s, the machine would make it possible for students to move at their own pace, providing lessons and quiz questions at the right ability level so as to reduce mistakes.

Although Suppes boasted that Dial-a-Drill might teach math, reading, foreign language, and computer programming, there were apparent restrictions to how any subject might be taught using the system. Drills– more drills more typically– were precisely what many in the “back to fundamentals” movement at the time were calling for trainees to do– less of that “brand-new math” and more repeating of standard skills.

The passion for computer-based direction broadly and for Dial-a-Drill specifically did not last. An op-ed in InfoWorld in 1980, questioned whether or not these sorts of workouts were what computers should be utilized for. “Among the most significant capacities for personal computers is taking education out of the school and putting it back in the home,” Infoworld argued. “Definitely programs like Dial-a-Drill will be one of the options readily available– an easy method for parents to turn over the obligation for part of their kids’s education to a remote computer. What we need to guarantee is that the potential advantages of this state-of-the-art hickory stick do not come at the cost of more ingenious academic software application.”

Of course, computer-assisted instruction never ever really went away; it re-emerged with the individual computer; it re-re-emerged with mobile devices.

Even before the introduction of “remote learning” this spring, we could also see the methods in which, as that Infoworld story gleefully predicted, instructional computing was sneaking into the house. I do not believe so, not for the large bulk of students. Now, with students at home, online, it’s more crucial than ever to believe about what this creep may imply– especially for disadvantaged trainees, especially for educators.

Written by

Audrey Watters


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