The Rise of Teaching Machines

Josh Fischman:

At Arizona State University, a high-tech teaching tool with roots in the pre-Internet 1950s has created a bit of a buzz. “I think it’s going to be quite good,” says Philip Regier, dean of ASU Online. “Looking forward to it,” says Arthur Blakemore, senior vice provost of the university. “I’m excited,” says Irene Bloom, a senior lecturer in mathematics at the downtown campus.
All are anticipating this summer’s debut of Knewton, a new computerized-learning program that features immediate feedback and adaptation to students’ learning curves. The concept can be traced back a half-century or so to a “teaching machine” invented by the psychologist B.F. Skinner, then a professor at Harvard University. Based on principles of learning he developed working with pigeons, Skinner came up with a boxlike mechanical device that fed questions to students, rewarding correct answers with fresh academic material; wrong answers simply got them a repeat of the old question. “The student quickly learns to be right,” Skinner said.