The military has long been involved in the development of education technology – hardly surprising considering the number of people it must train. From a 1988 report from the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment:

The military services continue to support important work on basic research on cognition, artificial intelligence, speech recognition, interactive learning systems, and converging technologies. The military has been a major, and occasionally the major, player in advancing the state-of-the-art. Computers would probably have found their way into classrooms sooner or later. But without work on PLATO, the IBM System 1500, computer-based equipment simulation, intelligent instructional systems, videodisc applications, and research on cognition, it is unlikely that the electronic revolution in education would have progressed as far and as fast as it has.

The military has influenced the shape that educational technologies have taken: the prioritization of efficiency, efficacy, and standardization, for example. There’s also been a long-running push for automation: not simply because machines can perform certain tasks more rapidly, but because in doing so military personnel can be spared. As Simon Ramo put it in his 2011 book, Let Robots Do the Dying.

Let Robots Do the Teaching

Sometimes described as “the father of the intercontinental ballistic missile,” Simon Ramo helped develop missile and microwave technologies, as well as General Electric’s electron microscope. Ramo is also the oldest person to have received a patent, when at age 100, his patent for a “Method and apparatus for interactive, computer-based, automatically adaptable learning” was published. (“Preferably, but not necessarily, the apparatus includes an instructor,” it reads.)

(Note the American flag in this illustration that accompanies the patent.)

Ramo’s patent echoes the vision for the future of education that he laid out in an article he wrote many decades earlier, “A New Technique of Education,” published in Engineering and Science Monthly in 1957. (1957 was, incidentally, the same year that the Soviets launched Sputnik I.)

The rapid and potentially dislocating scientific advance can be expected to heighten the coming crisis in education. Already, the increasingly technical world uses more scientists and engineers, yet the very industrial development that is part of the growing technical society takes the engineers and scientists away from the university and high-school facilities, and the fast world in which we live makes the long study of science seem unattractive to the youngsters. The technical society is complex, rapid, and increasingly dangerous. We can blow up the whole world, yet such a premium is put on the use of our human and physical resources for everything but education that it seems that the new technical society is going to be accompanied by a weakened ability to keep pace education-wise.

What we need to address this crisis, Ramo argues, is “a new technique of education,” one that is as technologically sophisticated as the rest of modern science.

Here’s Ramo’s vision of the high school of the future:

First of all, we will get the student registered. I won’t burden you with the details here: when the registration is complete and the course of study suitable for that individual has been determined, the student receives a specially stamped small plate about the size of a “charga-plate,” which identifies both him and his program. (If this proves too burdensome for the student, who will be required to have the plate with him most of the time, then we may spend a little more money on the installation and go directly to the fingerprint system)

When this plate is introduced at any time into an appropriate large data and analysis machine near the principal’s office, and if the right levers are pulled by its operator, the entire record and progress of this student will immediately be made available. As a matter of fact, after completing his registration, the student introduces his plate into one machine on the way out, which quickly prints out some tailored information so that he knows where he should go at various times of the day and anything else that is expected of him.

Students are tracked and monitored - both their location and their academic progress.

A typical school day will consist of a number of sessions, some of which are spent, as now, in rooms with other students and a teacher and some of which are spent with a machine. Sometimes a human operator is present with the machine and sometimes not.

But can a machine replace a teacher?

One thing needs to be said at the outset. Any attempt to extend the teaching staff with any kind of mechanical aids would appear to have at least one very fundamental limitation. It would seem that, unless a highly intelligent, trained, and authoritative teacher is available, there is no equivalent way of adapting the material to be presented to the individual student’s need, or to judge the understanding and reception of the material and adjust it to the student during the presentation, to discover his questions, weaknesses and misunderstandings, nip them in the bud, and otherwise provide the feedback and interaction between teacher and student that are so essential in transferring knowledge from one person to another.

It is for this apparent reason that, although we can use motion pictures and television to replace a lecturer and can, in theory at least, be more efficient in the use of one skilled teacher’s time, enabling him to reach a larger audience, we can only use such techniques for a limited fraction of the total school day. However, you will see in the systems that I propose that, in principle at least, modern technology can go a long way toward removing this apparently fundamental limitation.

Push-Button Classes

Artwork inspired by Ramo. Image credits

This classroom has some special equipment. Each chair includes a special set of push buttons, and, of course, that constant slot into which the student places his identification plate. The plate automatically records his presence at that class, and it connects his push buttons with the master records machine.

If the class is large, our student is much less likely to sleep or look out of the window than in a normal lecture by a human teacher, because, throughout the motion picture that presents some phrase of the fundamentals of trigonometry, he is called upon to respond by pushing various keys. He is asked questions about the material just presented, usually in the form of alternatives. Sometimes he is told that the concept will be repeated and the questions re-asked, this time for the record. He may even be asked whether, in his opinion, he understood what we being presented.

How “personalized” the push-button classes will be!

At certain other periods during the week, this student continues his trigonometry instruction in a different kind of environment. This time he is seated in front of a special machine, again with a special animated film and a keyboard, but he is now alone and he knows that this machine is much more interested in his individual requirements. It is already set up in consideration of his special needs. It is ready to go fast if he is fast, slow if he is slow. It will considerably repeated what he has missed before and will gloss over what he has proven he knows well. This machine continues the presentation of some principles and asks for answers to determine understandings.

What becomes of the teacher’s role then?

A brilliant student could romp through trigonometry in a very small fraction of the course time. A dull student would have to spend more time with the machines. The machines can be so set up that if a student fails to make progress at the required rate, he can be automatically dropped from the course. Of course, before that happens or before the brilliant student is allowed to complete the course, a special session with that student by a skilled teacher is indicated. But the teacher will be aided by having before him the complete records of what could be weeks of intensive machine operations.

The teacher as mentor; the teacher as interventionist and counselor; the teacher as data analyst. But mostly, the machines as teacher.

A New Education Industry

To back this up, of course, one would have a very substantial new industry in the United States concerned with the creating of these educational machines and the motion pictures and memory data used by the machines. In general, the industrial organizations concerned with the creation of machines that make possible the teaching of mathematics would have to employ experts in education, experts in mathematics, and experts in engineering. And this industrial team would have to be in good contact with the skilled teachers who make up the high school staff in order that they might be able to improve their machines, create proper material, and learn the shortcomings of all their designs – either of the machine or of the material.

In addition, the high-school teaching staff would include education analysts, probably specializing in the various subjects. These individuals would go through the records of the individual students. They would be constantly seeking to discover the special problems that need special attention by the direct contact of teacher and pupil.

We notice a number of very significant points here. The high school becomes partially transformed into a center run by administrators and clerks, with a minimum of the routine assigned to the teaching staff. The teaching staff is elevated to a role that uses the highest intelligence and skills. A smaller number of teachers makes possible the education of a larger number of pupils. The creation of educational material moves partially out into industry, which goes into the education business in partnership with educators.

There is probably a new profession known as “teaching engineer,” that kind of engineering which is concerned with the educational process and with the design of the machines, as well as the design of the material.

A new profession, and a new industry. A future of education that is intertwined, as Ramo would frame it, in scientific and technological advancement - automation and teaching machines - for the sake of national security.

Ramo's description of the future of a "push-button school" might seem far-fetched, but it was actually quite influential. As USC education and instructional technology professor James D. Finn called it, Ramo's essay provides "the greatest visions of what might be possible in education."

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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