By Matt Novak
Every generation has its shiny new technology that’s supposed to change education forever. In the 1920s it was radio books. In the 1930s it was television lectures. Here in the second decade of the 21st century, it seems the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) is the education tech of tomorrow. Let’s hope it pans out better than previous attempts.
Today we take a look back at 10 technologies that were supposed to radically change the way that people are educated around the world. Some innovations were mostly hype. Others had an undeniably meaningful impact.
It’s important to remember, though, that throughout the 20th century it was often hard to tell the difference between the two.
This piece originally appeared on the Paleofuture blog in January of 2014 and included five additional technology examples.
1) Electrified Books at the Turn of the 20th Century
At the turn of the 20th century, a French artist by the name of Villemard imagined what the world of 2000 might look like. There were robot barbers, picturephones, and more flying machines than you could shake a baguette at. But there were also the learning machines of tomorrow—machines that translated books into audio, pumped right into students’ heads.
2) The Radio Book of 1924
In the early 1920s, radio was making its shift from a nerd’s toy to a mainstream darling. People imagined that soon, radio would be everywhere. Even in our books!
The November 1924 issue of Science and Invention magazine promised that once radio finally dominated the classroom, kids would love to do their homework.
With the everyday added perfections in the transmission and reception of radio, such a remark as the above will soon be a thing commonplace. Little Mary Jane will enjoy her radio lessons as much as she now enjoys her bedtime stories. Everything will be an “open book” to her. A complete set in the shape of a leatherette covered book will take the place of bulky primers and readers. Home work will now be a great joy to the kiddies and lesson will be learned with much greater facility.
3) Long-Playing Records in the 1930s and 40s
Today, the LP may be known as the hipster’s music medium of choice, but back in the 1930s and 40s, it was used almost exclusively for education.
In 1934 the American Foundation for the Blind struck a deal with the National Association of Book Publishers, creating the age of the audiobook. Long-playing record technology was still in its infancy, and didn’t sound very good for recorded music. But the LP was perfectly fine for the spoken word, and opened up an entirely new world for people with visual impairments.
In fact, given the strange intellectual property agreements hammered out at the time, it was essentially illegal for anyone but blind people to use an LP record player in the 1930s.
4) TV Teachers From 1938
Universities were some of the very first institutions to see the potential of TV technology. In the early 1930s they predicted TV would usher in the distance learning that radio had failed to deliver.
Then on May 20, 1938 an NYU professor named Dr. C.C. Clark took his students to the 62nd floor of the RCA Building in New York. They were there to see the future of education—a future filled with TVs.
Dr. Clark’s students sat quietly as they watched him projected on 15 TVs, all set up in one long room. Television was still more than a decade away from invading American homes. But Dr. James Rowland Angell, an education consultant at NBC who was there for Dr. Clark’s experiment, was quite optimistic: “Five years from now, I expect to see television used very frequently in the classroom.”
5) Push-Button Education From 1958
The post-WWII baby boom put tremendous pressure on the American education system. Schools were bursting at the seams, as the most resource-hungry generation to ever grace American soil bulldozed their way into U.S. classrooms. With too many rugrats, and too few teachers, what was a school to do?
Well, in the late 1950s, the futuristic answer was installing more technology in them. “Push-button education” was the topic of the May 5, 1958 edition of the Sunday comic strip, Closer Than We Think. The comic imagined a world where the problems of overcrowding would be fixed when every child has her own high-tech workstation as a desk. Problem solved!
Pupils would record attendance and answer questions by pushing buttons. Special machines would be “geared” for each individual student so he could advance as rapidly as his abilities warranted. Progress records, also kept by machine, would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.
6) Robot Teachers of the 1950s and 60s
Who wouldn’t want a robot teacher? Plenty of people from the 1960s, as it turns out.
Automation in the classroom has certainly been a controversial topic over the years. But back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was so much hype around the robot teacher of the future, that the National Education Association had to issue a statement saying Rosey the robot wouldn’t be subbing for your kids quite yet.
The August 24, 1960 edition of the Oakland Tribune ran with the headline “NEA Allays Parent Fears on Robot Teacher.” The article assured parents that no matter what they’d been hearing recently, robot teaching machines were simply tools.
It is true that teaching machines are on their way into the modern classroom and today’s youngsters will have a lot more mechanical aids than his parents. But the emphasis will still be on aid — not primary instruction.
7) The Answer Machine of 1971
Today, we take online search engines for granted. But back in the early-70s, typing something like “who invented the phonograph?” into a magic machine and expecting an answer was the height of futurism.
This two-page spread from a 1971 kids encyclopedia showed just such a magic machine, an “Answer machine” that not only responded with text, but allowed you to see and hear media applicable to your question.
8) Homework Machine of 1981
Learning at your own pace was going to be one of the great benefits of the computer revolution, at least according to the 1981 book World of Tomorrow: Work and Play by Neil Ardley. Looking even further into the future, the book promises that the computer could eventually do away with classrooms and teachers altogether.
Instead of sitting in classes and learning each subject from a particular teacher, schoolchildren will be able to learn individually from computers. They will be able to make their own choice of subjects, and the teachers will be there to help them as they learn.
But if we look further into the future, there could be no schools and no teachers. Schoolwork may not exist. Instead you will have to do homework, for you will learn everything at home using your home video computer. You’ll learn a wide range of subjects quickly and at a time of day to suit you. However, it’s probably that someone like a teacher will visit your home to check that all is going well.
9) Floating Schools of 1982
Who wants to read about the pyramids of Egypt when you can just hop in your giant floating classroom and travel their yourself?
The 1982 book The Whole Kids’ Future Catalog promised kids of the 1980s that floating schools would surely be the wave of tomorrow.
Classes will never be boring on an airship traveling around the world! Imagine gliding over the Amazon River in South America or retracing Ulysses’ journeys through the Greek Islands. Picture what it would be like to hover over the Great Pyramids in Egypt or follow a herd of elephants across the African plains. The University Blimp will turn geography lessons into exciting real-life adventures.
10) Videophone of the 1980s
So you broke your leg and can’t get to school? Back in the old days that might be grounds for staying home and slacking off. But not in the future—thanks to videophones!
The 1987 GTE concept video “Classroom of the Future” imagined a scenario where a young man has to stay home from school due to a sports injury. How will he ever collaborate with his partner to prepare a presentation about the Battle of Marathon? He’ll use the videophone.
He doesn’t even need to get out of bed to talk with his teacher and classmates. And learning about the battle is easy thanks to his computer’s voice recognition software, multimedia presentations, and ability to dial up library databases.
About the Author
Matt Novak writes the Paleofuture blog at Gizmodo. Matt is a historian of the future who has written for Slate, Wall Street Journal, BBC Future, Pacific Standard, The Verge, GOOD, TheAtlantic.com, FWD, Smithsonian.com and The Daily.
He’ll be delivering the opening plenary at edUi 2014, A Brief History of Tomorrow.