From Slide Rule to Skinner's Machine: History of Education Tech Part 2

17th July 2014

Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time - Chinese Proverb

Last month we looked at the earliest developments in the history of education technology from the adoption of papyrus in ancient civilisations to the introduction of radio for educational instruction. This month we will be looking at the changes that came during the 20th Century.

The Over Head Projector (OHP)

In 1945 the US army were the first organisation to use the Overhead Projector for training purposes, and the machine was quickly adopted for use in schools. It is still a widely used device to this day. The OHP allowed teachers to pre-write on transparent sheets and project them onto the screen, so they were able to continue to face the class as they taught, and did not have to keep turning their back on students to write information on the board.

The transparent sheets could also be re-used so the teacher did not have to keep erasing and refreshing the writing on the blackboard. All of this facilitated much better in class communication, while having the added benefit of saving class time; not to mention the convenience of no longer having to nominate some poor student to bang the board erasers together to remove the chalk dust!

The Ball Point Pen

In 1931 the original ball point pen was invented by Ladislas Biro. By 1945 Marcel Bich had perfected the design and these pens were cheap to make, disposable and could be mass produced. In 1965, the French government approved their use in schools, with other countries soon following suit. Initially the fact that you threw them away when the ink ran out was met with suspicion, with educators being concerned that their disposable nature would somehow make students de-value the written word.

However, the ballpoint pen turned out to have a vastly positive effect on literacy. Students no longer needed to continually pause to dip their fountain pens in ink, or sharpen their pencils, or ensure the nibs or leads did not break. Writing became more 'portable' as they were easy to carry and could be found everywhere. Despite the increase in smart devices, a recent study showed that 73% of people still carry writing instruments with them and 83% use ballpoint pens daily. After all, a ball point pen never needs charging! The ball point pen simply made writing so much easier, for students, teachers and everyone else.

The Mimeograph

The Mimeograph was essentially an early photocopier, which was cranked by hand, upon which teachers could make copies of teaching materials and worksheets. They were first sold in the 1900s but their popularity increased throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

However, as soon as Xerox photocopying became available it quickly supplanted the mimeograph. Obviously the ability to 'easily' print out multiple copies of teaching materials so each student received their own copy of the information was a great boon to teachers, and dramatically changed the way teachers structured lessons and set homework.


Today every self-respecting teenager has a pair of headphones to listen to music on their phones or ipods. But headphones have also been used in schools for decades. The earliest headphones were used for radio communication and telephone operators in the late 19th century, but by the 1950s they were being used in schools, mostly to facilitate learning labs - audio stations where students could listen to linguistic instruction tapes.

Students still use headphones in schools to help them learn languages, and to use programs like ConquerMaths, but audio tapes have been replaced computers and smart devices. If students are using ConquerMaths on their own we have always highly recommended using headphones, so students can concentrate properly on the sound of Pat's voice.

The Slide Rule

The Slide Rule is a calculation device which goes all the way back to the 17th Century. It was the most widely used 'calculator' for centuries, used by engineers, students, mathematicians, astronomers and teachers right up until it was replaced by the modern scientific electronic calculator in 1974.

The device's merit is obvious, it allowed students to calculate more complex equations quickly without the need for transcribing them to paper, and they were able to apply these equations to advance in other subjects. They were, however, never popular with the general public in the way that the modern electronic calculator has become.

Skinner's Teaching Machine

The 1950s saw the advent of psychologist and behavioural scientist B.F Skinner's Teaching Machine. Based on principles of learning he developed working with pigeons, Skinner came up with a machine that fed questions to students, rewarding correct answers with new academic material; wrong answers meant that the student had to study the question again. "The student quickly learns to be right" Skinner said. The program does all the teaching through a response/reward mechanism, and was a labour saving device because it can "bring one programmer into contact with an infinite number of students."

We feel that Skinner's machine was the first pre-cursor to the style of automatic adaptive learning that the ConquerMaths system incorporates, with immediate feedback and adaptation to students' learning curves. A student can in theory learn a whole course without the intervention of a physical teacher, but even Skinner knew that teachers were still important in the learning process.

Educational Television

Educational television was introduced in the 1960s and by 1969 there were 175 educational channels in the USA and the BBC has been a forerunner in producing educational programming since the early 1960s. As we commented in the previous article, children engage readily with the film/television format and the small screen allows them to take impossible field trips, allows them to travel the world, to meet new people and hear their ideas and can be used to illustrate complex, abstract concepts through animated, 3-D images. Children's programming often has an educational focus, and children learn without even realising they are doing it.

The Open University programs were aimed at adult learners, but many children watched them as well with fascination � our very own Managing Director was one of them!

In the 1960s schools could also have film strip viewers so individual students could view film strips of topics which interested them - a very early form of the ipad perhaps? We remember watching videos with headphones on in the library at lunch break, and now students can watch ConquerMaths videos on their laptops - as the technology improves it facilitates easier access, and even better results!

The BBC Micro

The British BBC Micro was introduced in the early 1980s and was quickly adopted in schools. Not long after its release 80% of schools in the UK had a "Beeb" as they were nicknamed. UK schools used the machines to teach computer literacy, and coding, as well as to supplement other subjects, and inspired a generation of programers. The machine incorporated a simple programming language called BBC BASIC which even very young children could follow and learn.

The BBC Micro was so popular with schools that by 1982, 24,000 had been sold. By the 1990s, when PCs running Microsoft software began to replace the ageing BBC machines in the classroom, a million had been sold. The Micro, and the coding experience that came with it inspired countless students to get into programming or IT careers, but the replacement Microsoft machines didn't have BASIC, and pupils are now taught "ICT" (information and communications technology) rather than coding.

The recent push to teach schoolchildren coding is starting to really gain momentum but once it was possible for children to effectively teach themselves and explore the nuts and bolts of the technology and code. This was not the only way the machines were used either. Stephen Furber, one of the designers of the BBC Micro who is now professor of computer engineering at the University of Manchester says that "If you look at the way BBC Micros were used in schools, a lot of that was using software produced by the very large number of software companies that developed to ride the bandwagon and a lot of the schools' use was not actually around writing programmes." As there is now, there was software available for nearly every subject and children responded very well to the new technology, as they do to new technology today.

We will stop there, as we enter the age of computing in education. Next month we will look at the explosion in Educational Technology from the nineties until the present day, and how it is shaping how our children learn and grow.