Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Curious story of the first Teaching Machines... did Skinner really rear his daughter in a box?

Mention Skinner and people will tell you of how he put his daughter in a box, reared her with stimuli for food and that she then sued him, suffered from mental illness and eventually committed suicide. None of this is true and when Lauren Slater wrote a book, Opening Skinner's Box, claiming it was, Deborah Skinner, his actual daughter, an artist who lives in England, wrote a scathing article in The Guardian saying it was all hogwash. Every few years a book of this sort pops out, from people who want to make exaggerated claims about the malign influence of technology in learning.

In fact, Skinner's Box was actually the device in which he trained rats and pigeons. Some critics mistake this for the air-conditioned crib Skinner designed, designed to keep a child warm. It had nothing to do with teaching or learning. Quite another of Skinner's activities were his 'Teaching Machines'. These also arouse strong reactions. Yet they were a product of their time, simply mechanical and actually quite ingenious, as they did what few instructional designers do today and that's accept open input by the learner. They were not the first, that was Pressey decades earlier, with his multiple choice questions.

Teaching machines didn’t appear in a vacuum. These were serious psychologists who based their designs on deeply held beliefs about learning theory. They were created, unsurprisingly, during the behaviourist era, by quirky academics with strong views. It was also a period of technological and mass manufacturing. Yet, oddly, the educational system and manufacturers remained stubbornly immune to their charm. So, despite all the fuss, nothing really happened on scale and few who work in technology for learning see these machines as having had real influence on their work. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating period and one from which we can learn.

19th Century Precursors

Automona had been written about since the Greeks and then actually produced, for centuries, by the Byzantines, Arabs and Europeans, creating highly imaginative, essentially mechanical, clockwork devices that performed fixed choreographed movements and tasks. 

But it wasn’t until the 19th century that mechanical devices were patented for teaching and learning. Mellan (1936) uncovered hundreds of these patents, although most were hand-cranked devices that offered little in the way of feedback. The first that was automated, was in 1866 by Halycom Skinner (no relation to BJ Skinner), for an automated spelling teaching machine. It fell short of giving feedback but was credible in terms of teaching. George Altman was another who had a scrolling device for teaching arithmetic patented in 1897, then Aikins in 1911 obtained a patent for a spelling machine that made you match letters to a shown object, which actually mentions the psychologist Thorndike as a justification for its efficacy. This late Victorian era was looking for industrial solutions to make mass schooling more efficient. None were actually manufactured and sold on scale.


The true origin of teaching machines was the relatively unknown figure of Sidney Pressey, who came up with his idea for a teaching machine in 1915. He had to shelve the idea, as the First World War intervened, until he finally filed a patent in 1926. This was the first known machine to deliver content, accept input and deliver feedback. He is therefore the true originator of the first teaching machine.

Pressey was a cognitive psychologist long before it was seen as a school of psychology. He refused to accept learning theory based on the reductionist behaviourism of animal psychologists such as Pavlov, the behaviourist evangelist Watson or Skinner, who he knew personally, and had little time for learning theory that excluded consciousness, language and mental phenomena. The claim, therefore, that Teaching Machines were based on crude behaviourism, is simply false. His teaching machines reflected his cognitive-based learning theory.

His first machine used old typewriter parts to present multiple-choice questions with four options. The learner pressed a key for the right answer and the results were stored on a counter. It had the three necessary conditions for a teaching machine, the presentation of content, input by users and feedback. 

His second machine had the innovation of not moving on until you got the right answer and he continued to innovate with teaching machines into the late 1950s. Pressey understood that such machines could be used for both teaching and testing. You could set the machine, using a simple lever, to only move on if the learner got the right answer or alternatively assess by recording all of their answers, right and wrong. 

Using the second machine was easy, the learner simply pressed one of five keys (1-5), it had a small window that showed the numbers of questions asked and a window on the side showing the number of questions they got correct. In teaching mode the learners had to continue until the correct answer was chosen and the next question appeared. The questions number did not change until it was answered correctly and the window on the side showed the number of tries. He argued that this was quick, gave immediate results so that the learner didn’t have to wait days for results and saved the teacher time from the drudgery of marking, also eliminating marking errors. He also argued that this could free teachers to teach in a more inspirational manner. The learner could also repeat the experience until they got full mastery. You could quickly reset for the next student in seconds or the next test and could cope with up to 100 questions. These arguments are sound. An interesting attachment to the main machine delivered a candy if you passed a threshold number of correct answers (the threshold could be changed on the machine via a dial). All for under $15. Unfortunately, his timing was bad and the Great Depression put an end to his dream of manufacturing and popularising individualised learning.

Skinner’s teaching Machine

Skinner came nearly 40 years later, as a well known cultural figure, and grabbed all the attention with his own Teaching Machine, the GLIDER in 1954.


His yellow, wooden box contained a spindle for various rotating, paper discs. The questions were written along the radii of the discs and shown one by one in a window. The student had to write they answer on a roll of paper to the right of the questions in another aperture. When the student advanced the question, a model answer was seen, so the student could compare what they had written with the correct answer, without being able to change their answerThe learning was structured in a series of small steps. Hints and prompts maximise success and being right, so there is progress towards more complex knowledge. Skinner saw the machine as giving quick feedback, free from error, providing active learning and the fact that the student moves at their own pace was seen by him as a real benefit, whether faster or slower, at the rate most appropriate for that student. He claimed that this machine-based learning doubled the rate of learning, compared to the traditional classroom.

The content was carefully programmed to build, step by step towards synthesis and complex ideas. The machines then began to include more complex branching, with audio and screen presentations. Industrial and military applications focused on vocational learning. 

Learning theories

Pressey has very specific views on learning theory, more towards cognitive psychology than pure behaviourism. Errors or the correction of misconceptions were, for him, fundamental to learning, hence his fondness for multiple choice questions, which had 4/5 wrong answers. He saw learning as a complex process where relatively stable, cognitive structures had to be created. This had to be achieved through the analysis of errors, along with individualisation, diagnosis and feedback. Learning, for Pressey, was not a form of reinforcement, as with animals but involved uniquely human mediation through language, speaking, listening, reading and writing. It was a deeply cognitive process. He even formulated an early theory of Blended Learning, which he called, rather clumsily, ‘Adjunct Autoinstruction’. This involved the combination of programmed learning through technology and human teaching.

Plessy was the antithesis of Skinner, whose teaching machine was designed around positive reinforcement, hence his avoiding multiple choice questions, where the wrong answers (negative stimuli) outnumbered the right answer, that were actually given to the student, in advance of them having to think. Skinner saw this as weak learning and didn’t buy the idea that the study of wrong answers was anything but a distraction and, more seriously, seeding confusion in terms of what was learned.

Contemporary relevance

There are several lessons we can learn from this episode in the development of learning technology. First, that the cultural inertia in education is as strong today as it was then. Second, that learning technology, if it is to teach, must provide the presentation of material, cognitive interaction and feedback. Third, that marking is an area ripe for automation as it frees teachers to do more and better teaching. 

However the most important lessons lie around pedagogy. There is a serious debate around the nature of interaction and feedback, with one side still sticking to Pressey's multiple-choice questions and their variants versus Skinner's open input. AI is also being used to automatically create Skinner type content, along with AI identified links to the outside world. Open input (a feature of Skinner’s machine), and rarely applied even now in online learning, can now be interpreted using semantic analysis of open text answers. It requires more cognitive efforts with multiple choice questions, the answer is already given and you are selecting, rather than having to think deeply and recall. this was not coercion but a structured apron h to learning that puts the responsibility in the hand of the learner.

The advantages which automated, computer-based learning offer are much the same as they were 100 years ago, when Pressy built his first Teaching Machine. In fact, there is renewed interest in spaced, deliberate and retrieval practice, which have all shown significant learning gains, as well as learning in small steps (chunking). At its most advanced, adaptive learning systems resequence learning experiences to match the individual student’s progress. This optimises the path the student takes, based on individualised and aggregated data. Every learner learns uniquely. This keeps the student, on their learning journey, at the right level, neither pushing too far ahead nor making it too easy, both of which can destroy motivation and actual learning.

It turns out that both were correct. Pressey was right in seeing error correction with feedback a as powerful force in learning Metcalfe (2017). Skinner was right in seeing effortful learning, Brown (2014), as an important driver in learning. These were the germs of truth in their view that technology could significantly revolutionise learning, which has happened.


Pressey was convinced that education had to be reformed and called for an ‘industrial revolution’ in learning, based on the use of technology. He suffered a breakdown when his devices failed to sell and felt that the education system was closed to innovation. Skinner has similar frustrations. So by the 1960s mechanical teaching machines had had their day. As mechanical devices they were clunky and relied on discs, barrels, levers and buttons, all hardware and no software. They had little real effect on learning technology in the long-term, other than objects of obscure interest by commentators who perpetuate myths about Skinner’s Box being a Teaching Machine (it was not) and him hot housing his daughter (which he did not).

It is also a mistake to see these machines as being some sort of consequence of strict behaviourism. Pressey was more of a cognitive psychologist than behaviourist and Skinner's design had open input by the students, something few systems have to this day, hardly a primitive stimulus-response. Behaviourism was more than Skinner. In the long-term, Tolman's latent learning, along with Thorndike's work on transfer have stood the test of time. They were all much more sophisticated that their recent critics suggest.

In truth it was Babbage’s calculating machine in 1882 that was the real breakthrough, paving the way for computers and computer based learning. It was computers that were to provide the hardware and more importantly, the flexibility of software, logic and media presentation abilities that form the real evolutionary path for technology based learning. The 1970s saw the real rise of the personal computer and real teaching machines, with real software. The other great technological developments were in media; radio, television and film. It was this confluence of hardware and software that created teaching machines that really were manufactured, sold and eventually became the desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones, bought by billions of consumers on a global scale, using that global network - the internet.


Slater, L., 2005. Opening Skinner's box: Great psychological experiments of the twentieth century. WW Norton & Company.
Benjamin, L. T. (1988). A history of teaching machines. American Psychologist, 43(9), 703–712.
Mellan, I., 1936. Teaching and educational inventions. The Journal of Experimental Education4(3), pp.291-300.
Petrina, S., 2004. Sidney Pressey and the automation of education, 1924-1934. Technology and Culture, 45(2), pp.305-330.
Ferster, B., 2014. Teaching machines: Learning from the intersection of education and technology. JHU Press.
Metcalfe, J., 2017. Learning from errors. Annual review of psychology68, pp.465-489.
Brown, P.C., 2014. Make it stick. Harvard University Press. General summary of Teaching Machines Skinner on his Teach Machine

Edward Tolman (1886-1959) - latent learning

Edward Tolman was a US psychologist who is often seen as a behaviourist, having discovered purposive behaviourism, but had some decidedly cognitive views of psychology. In studying rats he found that some learning seemed to take place without Pavlovian or Skinnerian conditioning and reinforcement. He saw that internal cognitive entities could also play a mediating role in learning. He was more influenced by William James and the gestalt psychologists than other behaviourists, which allowed him to think beyond the strictures of Watson’s behaviourist manifesto, towards wider conceptualisation of psychology and learning. He fought strongly for academic freedom during the McCarthy years. 

Latent learning

In a famous experiment Tolman (1930), he took three groups of rats, separately, in the same maze. The first were rewarded for finding their way through to the food. The second group were left to themselves with no reward. The third group were left to themselves for ten days then received reinforcement on the eleventh day. The first group behaved as a behaviourist would predict, they learned to find the food quickly, with few errors. The second group, also predictably, failed to learn or reduce the time taken to find the food. The surprise was the third group, who behaved much like the second group but learned quickly on the eleventh day to find the food, performing as well as the first group. 

This third group had been learning all along, mapping out the maze. Tolman called this Latent Learning, a term he borrowed from Blodgett (1929). Learning had taken place without reinforcement. This blew a sizeable hole in the radical behaviourism. Tolman continued to experiment with rats in mazes to show that, even where the mazes were significantly altered, then rats had learned to use their mental maps to navigate efficiently towards the food.

Latent learning in humans

Latent learning was later studies in humans Stephenson (1954), with children who had to locate keys to unlock a box. Among the items containing the key were items that did not contain keys. The children could still remember and find those irrelevant items, despite them not containing the key, showing that latent learning had taken place. This opens up the whole idea of learning without teaching, learning, for example, in the workplace by simply doing.

Latent learning in the workplace

Latent learning has received a revival with the renewed focus on more informal, workplace learning. Most of what we learn, we learn incidentally or unintentionally, by simply doing things. When people are busy working, they learn what is known as ‘on the job’. Marick & Watkins (1990) in Informal and incidental learning in the workplace called this ‘incidental’ learning. Gery (1991) describes it as ‘unintentional’ learning. This is when learning is simply a by-product of actual work activities. Cross (2011) called it informal learning. Far from being totally passive, this latent learning also seems to be driven by curiosity Wang (2021).

Cognitive maps

Tolman’s cognitive maps are internal, mental representations of external things and environments Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men (1948). This happens incidentally but once known can be used by the learner to achieve specific tasks and goals within a complex map. He showed that we are adaptable in problem solving within cognitive maps, taking shortcuts or different routes.


Although a less well known psychologist from the behaviourist era, his work on latent learning and decision making have had a long lasting influence. Latent learning has been revived in workplace learning. His concept of cognitive maps has also reverberated through cognitive science to this day. 


Tolman, E.C. and Honzik, C.H., 1930. Introduction and removal of reward, and maze performance in rats. University of California publications in psychology.

Blodgett, H.C., 1929. The effect of the introduction of reward upon the maze performance of rats. University of California publications in psychology.

Stevenson, H.W., 1954. Latent learning in children. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 47(1), p.17.

Marsick, V.J., Watkins, K.E., Callahan, M.W. and Volpe, M., 2008. Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. In Handbook of research on adult learning and development (pp. 592-622). Routledge.

Gery, G.J., 1991. Electronic performance support systems: How and why to remake the workplace through the strategic application of technology. Weingarten Publications, Inc.

Cross, J., 2011. Informal learning: Rediscovering the natural pathways that inspire innovation and performance. John Wiley & Sons.

Wang, M.Z. and Hayden, B.Y., 2021. Latent learning, cognitive maps, and curiosity. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 38, pp.1-7.

Tolman, E.C., 1948. Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological review, 55(4), p.189.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Is the classroom a Faraday Cage where the rules of the outside world are suspended? Time to think outside of the box that is the classroom?

For many the classroom is a Faraday Cage where the rules of the outside world are suspended. A recent summary of research in cognitive science pointed to the lack of actual classroom evidence for many of the findings recommended. That’s fine. This does not mean that the research should be ignored or thrown out, only that more research is needed. What we also need is a more fundamental, questioning of the efficacy of the classroom.

In education, most pedagogic and technological debate simply assume that the classroom should be the primary focus of learning. It remains the basic unit of currency of education, the formal box into which everything must be unthinkingly squeezed. But cramming people into a classroom has all sorts of unexpected consequences, not all good. In terms of learning, the classroom is a Pandora’s box, where dysfunctional things can happen simply because it is a classroom. Most of the time, these problems are contained by the hard pressed teacher, but as young people become increasingly less compliant as learners, it can be depressingly difficult. So here are a few issues that may be worth airing.

Madness of moving

Let’s start with the context. Why do hundreds of thousands of students have to up sticks and walk to another room every hour? Can you imagine this in any other walk of life? Let’s say in companies and organisations up and down the land, every employee had to stand up and march off from one room to another, every hour. The amount of time spent just packing up, rising, walking, sitting down again and unpacking is astounding. Huge amounts of time, every day, by learners, crushed into corridors, which are rife with friction and bullying. 

Boxes pedagogy

Teachers and learners are literally boxed in psychologically in a classroom. It’s crowded, rushed and distracting, often with not enough room to focus, explore and learn. On top of this, it excludes the opportunities to apply, practice and reinforce what you’ve learnt. Researched techniques, such as spaced practice, retrieval practice and interleaving, to name just a few are difficult to implement as they lie outside of the one hour period and physical constraints of timetables and classrooms.

Tyranny of time
The one hour period, in itself, is rather odd. There’s nothing in the psychology of learning that points towards an ‘hour’ being a basic unit in learning. We only have hours because the Babylonians had a base-60 number system! We could at least have some flexibility, perhaps just three learning periods a day; one up to first break, the second up to lunch, and one after lunch. It can be done and has been implemented but there is not enough research on the variations.


Teachers get trapped in a soapbox role as their backs are literally against the wall. I’m not against direct instruction. In fact, I’d say it is essential and this is what classrooms are set up to deliver. The whole dynamic is set up to encourage a forced, whole-class form of teaching, where teachers feel duty bound to play the role of classroom manager and lecturer. Top-down lecture methods are still the norm in universities and as degrees are required for teacher training and lectures still practiced in teacher training, so there’s enormous modelling pressure to ‘teach by lecture’ (Brightman 2007).  As a defence mechanism, inexperienced teachers end up keeping learners quiet by being didactic, talking at them. We know that this often results in cognitive overload for learners, a failure to differentiate and low levels of personalised feedback.

Personal space

Classrooms stay the same size but numbers of learners can increase. They are often cramped, pushing young people into uncomfortably close contact with each other, causing niggles and a never-ending series of petty distractions. They poke, kick, snigger, talk, doodle, throw things and disrupt others. Distraction is such a confined space is viral. 30+ learners in a relatively small space is a recipe for disaster and boxing them into a tight space creates well know ‘territorial’ problems. This is an area well studied in psychology. Hall described the ‘emotionally charged bubble of space which surrounds each individual’ and research by Felipe and Sommer (1966) showed extreme psychological discomfort among people who have their personal space invaded. On top of this, to move from class to class means that the learner has no defined territory, and cannot mark and defend their personal territory. The learner is set adrift. These territorial spaces, such as one’s bedroom or favourite chair, are a feature of one’s identity. Classrooms deny almost every aspect of this basic human need. Peer pressure is also amplified in this context.


Boxed in

Children go to school to watch teachers work is the old adage. Given what we know about the brain and learning some claim that the last thing we’d design is the classroom. We have not evolved to be sedentary learners in a sealed box. The mind has its own box from which it must escape to learn. This is where we should focus our attention. Talking of attention, we need to be psychologically attentive, calm and focused to learn. This is the starting point for learning, without it, learning does not take place. As psychological attention is needed for learning, 30 other people in such a small space means that the room is crammed with distractions. Classrooms are a cornucopia of distractions, which is why so much time and effort is put into behaviour management and not learning. The context is so unnatural that the teacher’s efforts are mostly spent on control. This is why the job is so exhausting.  

Black boxes

Technology fits uneasily into a classroom. We’ve seen technology get smaller, faster, smarter, easier to use, wireless, connected and cheaper. It’s personal and portable, not fixed to any one location. All of this is at odds with the very idea of the classroom. Technology provides, by definition, personalised learning. There is barely a child or student in the land that, post-Covid, doesn’t have a powerful computer, whether it be a mobile phone, PC, Mac or laptop. It is now clear that one laptop per child is a laudable aim and gets learning content, contact and collaboration into the hands of learners.

Technology frees learning from the tyranny of time and location, to screw it down inside classrooms is to abolish those freedoms and advantages.

Whiteboards as blackboards 

Classroom geography demands a dominant wall, with a whiteboard. There is no evidence for their efficacy, other than anecdote. Indeed, Professor Frank Coffield claims that ‘the two major studies in the UK show no significant effect on learning’. Tech-savvy children feel frustrated when they see the teacher struggle with simple tasks as they are used to being in control of their online environments. It’s odd for them to simply watch online material on a large screen under someone else’s control. The blackboard was invented in 1870 and we are in danger of keeping it alive well by its sell-by date. It promotes a ‘chalk and talk’ approach to teaching which is at odds with the psychology of learning. If technology is to be used sensibly in learning it must be embedded in the learning process, not fixed to the walls and tables in classrooms. Consumer demand for small, smart, cheap, wireless devices seems insatiable. This surely tells us something.

Staffroom as a box

When Malcolm Gladwell was asked what one thing would most improve education he replied, ’Abolishing teacher staff-rooms’. He may have been right – a survey published in 2007 showed that teachers top the worst ‘gossips at work’ poll, with 79% talking about their colleagues behind their back. John Taylor Gatto, a National award winning teacher in the US gave up teaching quoting one of the reasons as he could no longer stand the culture of the staffroom. Teachers may lose rank among their peer group if they don’t join in the gossip (Nias 1989) and, worse, may be subjected to rumour and gossip if they shun the staffroom (Rosenholz 1989). These studies show troubled teachers, in particular, being at risk. Kainan’s study (1994) of staff-rooms found that they were often simple, colourless, monotonous, devoid of clear functionality and were often split into several cliques; veteran, novice, supply and student teachers. It was a clear hierarchy. Worse than this, the Hammersly study (1984) found conversation about students and their parents/carers, was largely condemnatory. Is there a case for scrapping school staff-rooms? No other professions have a ‘panic room’ just for managers to chill out, so why have school staff rooms? Surely that’s exactly the time when students are at their most vulnerable in terms of bullying? It’s an out of the box idea but interesting.


Being boxed in, physically and psychologically, is perhaps the primary problem in learning. It’s unnatural, cramped, at odds with the psychology of learning and a management nightmare. Teachers are overwhelmed by over-stimulated and territorially challenged youngsters, and forced into unnatural, soapbox behaviour. Should this be the primary way to run a learning organisation? Can’t we think out of the box, and design learning around learners, not teachers and traditional buildings.

I should add that I'm not arguing for the scrapping of all classrooms and all classroom learning, only appealing for a balance between this and other contexts for delivery, which include; open learning spaces, libraries, large audience events teaching hundreds at a time, home learning, event learning, museum and gallery learning, workplace learning and online learning.

As personalised, online learning, driven by data and AI, becomes more prevalent, we can look towards dismantling most classroom learning. In many ways the classroom is just a function of a numbers problem, but as learning gets increasingly devolved to technology should we put more focus on investing in that technology and less on lecture-halls and classrooms?


When Pandora opened her box, against the wishes of Zeus, all the evils, ills and diseases of mankind escaped, but at the very bottom there lay ‘hope’.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Disneyfication of learning

If online learning were streamed, it would most resemble the Disney Channel. I don’t have the Disney channel. Its target audience is the parents of young kids. It’s a stream of cartoon and animation-skewed, apple-pie, American product.It's a world where everything is controlled, safe and anodyne.

What saddens me is that this is the bar for much of what I see as online learning. Teaching largely addresses deficits in motivation and effort, learning is largely achieved by oneself but current learning design, for over 30 years, has ploughed the same presentation furrow. It is hopelessly imbalanced, assuming that presentation of media as 'experieneces' (teaching) works best, as opposed to cognitive effort (learning). I’ve just finished a book on ‘Learning eXperience Design’ that tries to lift us out of this paradigm, where evidence-based learning leads to a consideration of optimal learning experiences as a process not event, designed to facilitate learning not teaching.

This video by PweDiePie has been viewed 3.7 million times and is possibly the worst example of the Disneyfication of online learning I’ve seen, a mish-mash of cartoon graphics, awful multiple-choice questions and Pavlovian gamification.


Here are some of the symptoms of the Disneyfication of learning…


Everything needs to be ‘fun’. No it doesn’t. Learning is not a circus and we are not clowns. This relentless imposition of fun ice-breakers, jolliness and crass activities, offline and online, are mere distractions. They more often or not inhibit rather than lead to successful learning. Edutainment, as has oft been said, is more ‘tainment’ than ‘edu’. 


‘Engagement’ is the most used yet most misunderstood word in learning. Learners can be engaged but not learning, simply going through things they already know, even doing harm to learning. It’s a vague proxy that smothers other more important and well-researched areas, such as attention, motivation, practice, application and transfer.

Cartoon learning

Online learning folk seem determined to foist cartoon art direction and crude animation on learners. The use of those flat clip-art cartoon characters is genuinely out of control, with their flat=pack, paint-chart colour schemes on diversity, click to see speech bubbles and flat, 2D design. If designers really did have ‘empathy' for learners, they wouldn’t treat them like kids.


We’re not talking about the wonderful world of computer games. That’s on a different level. Most games in learning are way below par, as they’re not designed by games' players or games' designers. They’re pale shadows of what people think are good games. In most cases an emphasis on scenario-based learning and simulations would be better.


The Pavlovan gamification of learning is way worse. Here we take scores, collecting tiny cartoon reward symbols and leaderboards in a desperate attempt to solve the problem of motivation, all the time ignoring the research that shows intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivation is what really matters in the long-term. Most of this is childish and short-lived.


The badges movement has run its course. It lacks credibility, objectivity, is motivationally suspect, don’t travel, has awful design and branding. Supply is not matched by demand, as adults need less not more primitive credentialism. They've become meaningless artefacts in systems that put the artefacts of learning above actual learning. 


Too many ‘fun’ keynotes these days, from non-practitioners. American conferences are by far the worst with expensive entertainers telling us about learning. I still remember those awful moments at the Masse Conferences, when Disney characters would enter the conference hall; the sheer crassness of the experience. Or Devlearn, where the two Keynotes were a Jim Carey tribute act and entertainer from a Children’s TV show.


Then there's the content that urges us to comply to whatever faddish idea HR people have of 'correct' behaviour, from mindfulness to well-being and unconscious bias. They seem to see learners as having some sort of mental deficit, which need re-education.


You know those round-table sessions, questions are put to groups sitting at round tables, we choose a ‘chair', chew the cud, feedback on big bits of Flipchart paper. It passes the time but it ain’t learning. That’s what passes for collaborative learning in a lot of classroom training. It’s straight out of the infants’ school. playbook The Disneyfication of learning is the online equivalent. This has led to 2D multimedia production, where the cognitive effort is largely hopelessly inadequate multiple-choice questions, drag and drop or simple, remedial branching. We have low quality tools that are largely about ‘presentation’. These tools now use designers, as opposed to designers using the tools. They force us into designing media not learning. Time for a change.

Friday, June 25, 2021

M-learning - from a van!

I gave talk today about 'mobile learning', working from my VW campervan in remote parts of Scotland, with mobile, hotspotted laptop, solar power on roof & storage battery. Next time, plan to give that talk, about freeing learning from tyranny of place, from my campervan.

While on the move, doing nearly 200 miles from Brighton to Cape Wrath at the extreme NW edge of Britain, we (Gil, Doug the dog and I) used a lot of tech and learned a lot.

The idea had been brewing for some time. Buy a van and get out there but it was watching Nomadland that sparked the purchase. There really is a social and demographic movement around this, especially in the US and now elsewhere. Not just the vacation van but the living and working van, a house on wheels. My young friend Lewis lives in an old, red Post Office delivery van. It was cheap and buying a house in Brighton impossible without external support. He watches no TV, reads a lot, has a community of similar friends, works when he needs to top up his funds, and sets off when he can, to Scotland, wherever. On a grassy mound behind a huge deserted beach on the northern coast of Scotland I had a long conversation with Noreen, from Northampton, who, before Covid, sold her house, bought a van and was sitting here with her beautiful alsatian, clearly at ease with the world. “My kids and mates thought I was mad…” she said, “but it’s easily the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m living, nor proving anything, not answerable to anyone, that’s the point.” Occasionally she’d go back and stay with her now grown-up kids but soon wanted to back on the road. She put me on to ‘park4free’, an app that layers free parking spots for vans on to Google maps. Her van was full of things she had made from shells and wood. She had made it her home. All she needed was fuel and food.

We did our van research online, found the van online, made the purchase with an online transfer and off we went. First trip was to Canterbury, at the end of a year-long pilgrimage to St Martins, the oldest Church in the English speaking world. We parked in the long-stay car park (recommended in Britstops, a book with free or cheap overnight stops), which was empty and had free buses running to and from the city. It was blissful and we ironed out a few things, like the right bedding, storing things so they don’t rattle and so on. Then the big one - up to Scotland and the N500, 500 miles of stunning landscape. We checked the weather runes, the van was made ready, and off we went. Doug the dog loved it. The van was his den and he was with his family. He ran on deserted beaches and barked happily, without rebuke. A dog and a van are a perfect match.

Just a bit about the van comms. It has, on the dashboard, a screen that can be paired with your mobile, so satnav and calls can be made through the speaker system in the car. My front seat was incredibly comfortable and can be rotated 180 degrees to face back into the van. There’s a table inside the van. So the van becomes a mobile office, kitchen, dining lounge and bedroom. On the roof is a long solar panel that powers the lighting, fridge and water pump. You can also charge your mobiles and iPad from this 12V source. It never runs out. Powering a laptop requires more punch but OK if you’re hooked up in a campsite or have a storage battery.

Comms, either through wifi you find when you’re parked up (in Ullapool they had a town wifi service) or through your mobile as a hotspot, was fine. To be honest, for meetings, the mobile with 4G was adequate, even, as we found, at the very top of Ben Nevis. I managed to participate in board meetings (one, in a good way, the most important in the company’s history), gave talks at online conferences, made and took calls. It was all rather easy.

Google maps was, of course, invaluable, as was the app ‘park4free’. If we did need a campsite, you could find one and book it online. The history (clearances, Culloden, U-boats etc), geology (3 billion year old rocks and astounding formations), flora (wild flowers and orchids galore) and fauna (seals, deer, raptors, puffins, even a snow bunting in the snow at the top of Ben Nevis) were all available, in depth, online. Photography’s my hobby and I could load up and post images throughout the entire trip. I can honestly say that it was both exhilarating and satisfying. I haven’t felt this free and happy for a long time. Sure it was partly an escape from the straightjacket of Covid but it was more than this. It was a glimpse into another way of living, free from the trappings and tyranny of a fixed location. Every day gives you new perspectives. Everyone we met seemed happy, talkative, helpful. It was as much of a community as any fixed place. 

‘Autonomy’ is the word I’d use. The freedom of being on the move. It opens and stimulates the mind. You walk more, think more and if you want to focus on a topic, it allows you to take a deep dive, as you have the time to take the leap. You just find yourself thinking at a deeper level. We downloaded a motherload of Netflix stuff and podcasts but, to be honest, the real world was so spectacular and we did so much that we barely watched anything on a screen. I drifted into reading and writing more and was just as functional, if not more productive, as I was at home.

It’s not that we should all be living and working from vans. But that’s a real option, I think, for the young and maybe half and fully retired. The lesson is that learning, real mobile learning, can free itself from the tyranny of the clock and place. Most learning is asynchronous, done in your own time with you in control. Learning is a process not a live event and the idea of having to turn up for umpteen lectures per week (40% dont turn up anyway, even though they’ve paid), is an anachronism. It is certain that more people will be working from home post-Covid. Gardner predicts that 80-% of classroom training in the workplace will disappear. Young people will almost invariably learn this way in the workplace. Mobile learning turns out not to be learning from your phone, it is learning anything, anytime, anywhere.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Eric Mazur- peer and online learning

Mazur is Professor of Physics at Harvard but perhaps better known as an educator. He has taken a data-driven approach to his teaching and moved from lecture to peer learning then online learning, in response to that data. He uses pre-and post tests to assess the methods he uses.

As an evangelist for peer learning and online learning, he is an academic who has taken his research mindset into his practical teaching. Spurred on by research, such as Freeman (2014), showing that active learning results in higher attainment than lectures, he has constantly striven to improve his teaching, all on the back of proven, measurable results.

Peer instruction

Explained in his book Peer Instruction (1997) Mazure xplained how he used clickers to improve his teaching for many years. Rather than deliver long lectures, without interruption, he stops at key points and asks diagnostic questions. These questions tend to be natural language questions that really test the underlying principles of physics, rather than the application of formulas. Teachers/lecturers can use them diagnostically to assess the overall state of knowledge of the class. This, as Dylan Wiliam states, needs the use of clever 'hinge’ or diagnostic questions, that really do test understanding, as opposed to recall. This is precisely what Mazur does at Harvard with stunning results in attainment. If the histogram shows that many of the class have not understood the point, he arranges them into groups so that peer-to-peer learning can take place, asks the question again, then moves on. The data he’s gathered suggests that this approach has led to significant increases in attainment and some universities have since adopted this approach. Note that it is the feedback process that is important. Mazur claims that coloured cards work just as well.

Mazur also found that seating in classes has pedagogic consequences. Move poor performing students to the front of the class and they improve attainment, yet the attainment of high performing students is unaffected when they are moved to the back but when moved to the corners, the whole class does better.

Online learning

Mazur described the Nobel winners who teach as “being no better than dinner party commentators when it comes to teaching and education”. He has spent decades pushing active learning and interactive learning and after he redesigned and shifted his course at Harvard completely online during the pandemic, claimed “I have never been able to offer a course of the quality that I’m offering now. I am convinced that there is no way I could do anything close to what I’m doing in person. Online teaching is better than in person.”. Minimizing synchronous elements he found that learners had better attainment gains and felt better supported than face-to-face students. He suggested that, after seeing the gains, it is “almost unethical” to return to classroom teaching.

His approach is to use lots of regular, but small assignments, make it acceptable for students to fail and redo work, rely on peer pressure for engagement and completion. Students work through a structured online textbook, posing and answering questions online for each other then groups do assignments and present, in their own time, as groups. It is this freeing learners from the tyranny of the clock that he sees as a vital ingredient in his methods. Another advantage of being online is that there is no front to back seating in rows. “When you teach online, every single student is sitting in the front row” says Mazur. This tradical shift from peer learning in lectures to peer learning online, marked a second major another shift in his thinking.


Mazur is a world-class physicist and teacher. Rare in Higher Education, he has applied his experimental and data-driven approach in physics to teaching and learning. This has resulted in a series of practical teaching methods that have been widely applied in Higher Education and other contexts.


Mazur, Eric (1997). Peer Instruction: A User's Manual, Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-565441-6

Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H. and Wenderoth, M.P., 2014. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), pp.8410-8415.

Teaching: Why an Active-Learning Evangelist Is Sold on Online Teaching

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Little bits of transcendence?

Easy to get too esoteric over this Covid malarky but has something deep and oddly subversive occurred during Covid? Some sort of personal reassessment? It has for me.

Have people seen that work, even education, is not all that it used to be in our lives, that schools and offices, far from being rich social spaces, can be  unnatural and, at times, quite dull, even toxic? When forced to re-evaluate what we thought gave our lives meaning - education and work - have we come to experience joy in other things? Not the endless drudge of classrooms, uniforms, courses and exams but joy and sometimes learning in real places, with real people and real life? Was the car, bus, or train commute anything at best a daily dose of discomfort, at worst a serious threat to your mental health? Did you miss dressing for work, banal offices, in modern parlance your ‘leaders’ at work? Have you eaten better not being at work, seen more of your family? Has the whole offline-online balance of work, learning, eating and entertainment changed? It’s all more blended.

We had time to breathe, literally and metaphorically. Perhaps experience more beauty, the pure blue sky with birds not planes, deliberately suck in fresh air in streets without traffic, feel the earth beneath your feet, listen more, walk more, talk more, think more, read more, sleep more, cook more, watch more great drama. Even drop the things and people who turned out to be not what you thought they were. If I were honest, I haven’t really missed restaurants, early morning trains to London, office meetings or the canyons of Canary Wharf. I’ve travelled further, not in distance, to places I’d never seen, that were nearer and turned out to be dearer to me.

Now that it’s all threatening to surge back, I have a sense of dread. Then I speak to people who’ve had similar experiences - little bits of transcendence. They’ve had time to lift their heads and see all of this busyness and business for what it is - the illusion of progress. Things have changed and they’ve changed for the better.

Monkey’s mind plays pong - no hands. Frictionless interface. Here’s my musings on 10 possible, and probable, mind-blowing applications in LEARNING

This is the most fascinating video I’ve seen in 2021. It’s haunting me. Not because of what them monkey is doing, that’s astounding in itself, but what it points to in the future, that’s mind-busting.

What’s happening here? 

The monkey got  banana milk-shake rewards through a tube by learning to play ‘pong’ with a joystick. He got rather good. Remember that pong is a complex set of skills, where you have to anticipate the physics and movement of a bouncing ball off fixed and mobile objects. It requires good cognitive and motor skills. Then they pulled the joystick lead out of its socket and  simply read the data from a fine fibre array in the monkey’s brain using AI to translate those thoughts into action. They are literally using AI to mind-read. If this doesn’t blow your mind, what will?

So what are the potential consequences for learning?

1. Learn to move

Neurolink, who developed this technology, the robot that inserts the fibres, the fibre array and the AI that reads the brain signals see its immediate application in helping those with physical disabilities, missing, damaged or paralysed limbs. One can literally use your mind to operate robotic arms or legs. So we’re on the move.  But let’s also speculate on including those with dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, ADHD. Could we also tackle issues of inattention, demotivation and persistence?

2. Learn by doing

Beyond the fantastically inclusive ideas that this enables disabled people to perform physical tasks in life, it also means they can ‘learn’ fine-tuned motor skills. You could play a musical instrument, conduct an orchestra, paint, play lots of sports, computer games and build things. You can learn to DO things. Note that learning to DO things can include doing things at any distance across the internet, even for able-bodied people, just by thinking them.

This is the instantiation of a famous experiment that took place 20 years ago by Pascuale-Leone (2001), where two groups practised piano, one on a real piano, the other just isn their head. Both groups resulted in similar brain changes as measured by FMRI.

Let’s take this a step further, we could ALL practice DOING things with AI software that formatively assess us, in realtime, provides coached feedback to improve our performance. This feedback can, of course be automated. Such coaching would be personalised, available at any time to anyone at any place, anytime. Behavioural skills could also be assessed. Want to know if I can do something. I need only think it and you need only interpret and assess it.

4. Thinking skills 

This may also apply to other cognitive skills such as speaking and writing. We are moving towards a world where we do not have to use a physical interface, keyboard, mouse or touch screen towards voice, already available in our cars and home on our phones, with voice activation and voice assistants, such as Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa. This will move towards invisible interfaces straight from brain to screen or machine. We all have a phonological loop. Close your eyes and say ‘I am Scottish’ in a Scottish accent. You can do this because you have an internal voice as a feature of working memory. That can be read and with AI translated into words on a screen or speech.

5. Tricky skills

Maths is an area of catastrophic failure. The vast majority never get beyond basic numeracy, even then, calculating an average or understanding a logarithmic scale on a graph is beyond many. You can’t progress in maths unless you master pre-requisite skills, as it has high dependencies on prior knowledge. Imagine a system that reads what you think, diagnoses the misconception, corrects that misconception through feedback, worked examples and so on, then asks you to try things within or just beyond your level of competence at that exact moment. Personalised, adaptive maths, globally scalable from the cloud, could massively accelerate and increase attainment and massively reduce early drop-out.

Let’s take another different skill, learning a second language, another area of catastrophic failure. All kids in the UK and US get years of language education, yet few could ask for a sandwich in that language, never mind hold a basic conversation. Imagine being able to try that language, privately, without public embarrassment and have your thoughts read, interpreted by AI and constructive correction and feedback, say correct pronunciation, position in sentence or endings. Personalised, adaptive, language learning, with immersive practice available, to everyone at any time, would revolutionise language learning.

6. Critical skills

Now imagine cognitive skills, where you can engage your mind in conversation with an expert, who can tune there reprises to your level of skill. Now, transformers that encode and/or decode natural language, such as GPT-3, BERT, BART,  MegatronLM, Turing-NLG, We saw an interesting example some years back when IBMs Watson debated with a national debating champion. These transformers can generate text and start to show how complex interactions with humans, drawing upon huge databases of existing text. Digital Einstein is a recent example of this. Imagine being able to just conjure any famous writer, scientist, artist, whoever, and start asking them questions, in your mind. Your questions will be interpreted and answers based on their archived works, used to provide meaningful answers.

7. Translations

Learning is often hindered by the lack of available teachers and resources in m minority languages. Text to speech and speech to text are limited to mainstream languages. Facebook has recently managed to get AI to learn how to translate any language just by exposing the software to speech in that language. This would free all of the above and liberate those who feel trapped an unsupported in their own first language. 

8. Write to minds

Now let’s take a final leap. And it is a big leap. Almost the above is about reading minds, what of we can write to minds. This is already there with neural ink and other invasive technologies, but not at the semantic or skill level. Imagine being able to pick up maths or a second language very quickly in days or weeks not months and years. Wouldn’t that be desirable? Hell yeah.

9. Mental health

Let’s take another leap and suppose that breakthroughs allow us to write to brains in a way that reduces or eliminates depression and other widespread disorders. Think for a moment about the vast reduction in human suffering that would follow. There is no doubt that education has been increasing mental health problems, inducing stress and in some case suicide. Almost every major institution has killed or helped kill young people. That’s sobering.

10. Anything, anywhere, anytime

You may be thinking, could ALL learning be liberated by such technology? The answer is probably yes. Time will tell and we don’t yet know how long it will take. One thing we do know is that these innovations are now coming thick and fast. Combined with other physical, global innovations, such as Starlink, a global network of low level satellites that give high speed, 5G, internet coverage to the whole world with no blindspots, and we have an educational network that excludes no one.


They used to say that information wants to be free. That’s done. Most information. Is free. We should now ask whether education wants to be free. Teaching is a means to an end, the relatively permanent change in the long-term memory of the leaner. If we can automate that process, make it frictionless, personalised available to anyone, at anytime, anywhere, we should. Learning longs to be free. Let’s not let our conceits hold that back.


Pascual‐Leone, A., 2001. The brain that plays music and is changed by it. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences930(1), pp.315-329.