A couple of years ago, MIT released a report titled “Online Education: A Catalyst for Higher Education Reforms.” Among its recommendations were to “support the expanding profession of the ‘learning engineer’” – a person who possesses “knowledge base in the learning sciences, familiarity with modern education technology, and an understanding of and practice with design principles,” but who also has a deep background in a specific academic discipline. The learning engineer would be a “new breed of professional.”

The report prompted a flurry of articles about the current breed, if you will, of professional – those whose job titles include “instructional designer” and “instructional technologist” and whose degrees are in “education technology,” “curriculum and instruction,” and the like. Was “learning engineer” simply a rebranding? A way to rename one’s profession into power and prestige by associating it with the broader field – the lucrative field – of engineering? Or by associating it with elite, engineering-oriented institutions like MIT, Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon?

The MIT report credited Herbert Simon with coining the phrase “learning engineer,” citing an excerpt from his 1967 article “The Job of a College President” which appeared in the American Council on Education’s The Educational Record.

The learning engineers would have several responsibilities. The most important is that, working in collaboration with members of the faculty whose interest they can excite, they design and redesign learning experiences in particular disciplines. […] In particular, concrete demonstrations of increased learning effectiveness, on however small a scale initially, will be the most powerful means of persuading a faculty that a professional approach to their students’ learning can be an exciting and challenging part of their lives.

Simon was not, as the title of his article might suggest, a college president; he was a professor at Carnegie Mellon. But “like most faculty members,” he wrote in its opening sentence, “I have a vast experience of offering advice to college presidents – advice usually unsolicited, and often unheeded.” The advice in the article centered on making the operation of colleges more “professional,” as Simon accused them of being run by amateurs – by administrators who knew nothing about management and by professors who knew nothing about teaching or learning. “There is no simple path that will take us immediately from the contemporary amateurism of the college to the professional design of learning environments and learning experiences,” Simon wrote. “There are some obvious first steps along the way. The most important step is to find a place on the campus for a team of of individuals who are professionals in the design of learning environments – learning engineers, if you will.” Learning engineers would, he hoped, transform higher education. “Perhaps the discipline-oriented professor will prove as obsolete as the horse and buggy,” he suggested, giving way to faculty members versed in learning processes and “learning machines.”

Simon would not have seen himself as a “discipline oriented professor.” He worked across (even founding) a number of departments at Carnegie Mellon, conducting research in economics, public administration, computer science, artificial intelligence, and cognitive psychology. The latter areas certainly informed his conception of the learning engineer. Simon rejected constructivism and behaviorism as simplistic and scientifically inaccurate. For a glimpse, perhaps, of what Simon saw the learning engineer as building, one might look at the “intelligent” drill-and-kill math software he helped develop, later spun out of the university and into the company Carnegie Learning.

I’ve never been convinced that cognitive-informed ed-tech was as big of a break from behaviorism as its proponents would have you believe. But that’s another story. Nevertheless, it should be no surprise that, despite being hailed as “first,” Herbert Simon was not the only person to have argued that education needed to be better engineered. If nothing else, “behavioral engineering” was precisely how B. F. Skinner described his whole damn project, teaching machines and otherwise.

What does it mean for the future of education technology to tell a story about its past that centers on Herbert Simon (and by extension, Carnegie Mellon, artificial intelligence, and cognitive psychology)?

The use of the word “engineering” with some sort of educational adjective has a long history, one that certainly predates the “cognitive turn” – which is about as much history as folks in ed-tech seem to want to learn. John Dewey wrote about “education as engineering” in 1922, for crying out loud, although in fairness, in his short essay on the subject, Dewey admitted that “there is at present no art of educational engineering.” “There will be will not be any such art until considerable progress has been made in creating new modes of education in the home and school,” Dewey argued, because one can’t actually have an art of engineering until after one has sufficiently experimented and built something. As such, demanding that new educational practices adhere to an orthodoxy of science – “premature science” – “does endless harm.”

Others throughout the twentieth century have been much more jubilant about engineering’s potential to reshape education.

In 1945, W. W. Charters, the head of the Bureau of Educational Research at Ohio State University, asked “Is There a Field of Educational Engineering?” Charters contended that curriculum design was a form of engineering, and he argued that the phrase “educational engineers” could describe those knowledgable about statistics, psychology, and administration who were engaged in scientific exploration and problem-solving. (Statistics, psychology, and human capital management are the disciplinary features of educational engineering – to Herbert Simon as well.)

In 1957, Simon Ramo (“the father of the intercontinental ballistic missile”) called for the transformation of school into “a center run by administrators and clerks,” with only a very small number of highly skilled and intelligent teachers. Technological advancements would bring about a new profession, Ramo argued, the “teaching engineer,” “concerned with the educational process and with the design of the machines.”

Henry A. Bern, a psychologist for the Office of Naval Research, wrote about educational engineers in 1967, the same year as Simon’s article was published, observing the emergence of “powerful combines of industrial and publishing giants” – General Electric, IBM, Xerox, RCA, Raytheon, Random House, and Litton Industries – working to design teaching materials and teaching machines. “Whatever questions may exist about the consequences of these transactions,” Bern wrote, “there is little question about one consequence – the infusion of an engineering orientation and of engineers themselves into vital operations of education.”

Engineering is a social production not merely a scientific or technological one. And educational engineering is not just a profession; it is an explicitly commercial endeavor. For engineers, as David Noble has pointed out, are not only “the foremost agents of modern technology,” but also “the agents of corporate capital.”

“Learning engineers,” largely untethered from history and purposefully severed from the kind of commitment to democratic practices urged by Dewey, are poised to be the agents of surveillance capital.

(Subscribe to HEWN where this essay first appeared.)

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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