Skinner’s Teaching Machine related to current trends in education

The concept of automated teaching dates back to the 1950’s when skinner developed a Teaching Machine to improve student success. The teaching machine could be used by individual students in any situation where they are using words or symbols during the learning process. Skinner believed teaching machines can have a dramatic effect on teaching, yet, 70 years later teachers and lecturers are not (yet) replaced by educational technologies but the idea of technology-supported teaching resurfaced in the format of Intelligent Tutoring Systems.

Based on this presentation, the following questions need to be asked when we develop online courses:

  • What are teaching education technologies?
  • How can they be used to support teaching, learning, and assessment?
  • What can they teach?
  • Who prepares the teaching material?
  • How does this material differ from text books, television and lectures?
  • What impact can technology-assisted teaching have on face-to-face and distance education?

Skinner refers to the learning supported by the Teaching Machine as programmed learning, which fitted his behaviouristic worldview. From this worldview, learners are essentially passive, responding to environmental stimuli. They start off as clean slates (tabula rasa) and their behaviour is shaped through positive or negative reinforcement. Therefore, their learning paths can be pre-programmed. Skinner’s ideas are critiqued based on methodological shortcomings and questionable underlying principles, yet based on this short video presentation, Skinner did touch several ideas that can support course designers in building effective online courses.

The first idea touched, is the need to carefully design learning journeys. Students need to be guided from the initial stage where they are unfamiliar to the subject, to a final stage where they are competent. In order to do that, Skinner believed that students have to take a large number of small steps, arranged in a cocurrent order. Each step should be so small, that it is almost predictable that the student can complete it successfully. These steps should be designed in such a way that it shows progress in the right direction. According to Skinner, the average students should be able to be right 90% of the time without any prior study. It is, according to Skinner, possible if the student have successfully mastered all preceding steps. According to Skinner, the average high school student can cover about twice the amount of work with the same amount of time and effort than possible in traditional settings when teaching machines are integrated.  According to Skinner, Teaching Machines bring the student in direct contact with the author of the programs.

The second idea touched, is the need to be in constant interaction with the students. Different from text books, teaching machines are in constant interaction with the students. The interaction can be mediated in different ways, and each way need a different kind of teaching machine. These machines should be identified based on their features and their advantages.

The second idea touched, is the need to provide as much help as possible. According to Skinner, the material should be designed in such a way that it provides as much help as possible, without testing the students. Instead, helpful hints, suggestions and prompts should maximise the possibility that students would be right.

The third idea touched, is the need to allow students to pace their own learning, also known as self-directed, self-regulated and self-paced learning. The machine adjust end-use to allow students to pace their learning. Individual students see a short text or a formula missing information that the student has to provide.  As soon as the missing information is provided, the machine is operated in order to tell the student if he or she was right or wrong.  According to Skinner, classrooms where machines are used to support teaching are characterised by intense concentration. Another affordance of machine learning, according to Skinner, is that the students are free to pace their learning. In traditional classrooms, the class is forced to move together. According to Skinner, such practices waste the time of bright students since they are forced to slow down to allow the other students to catch up. Furthermore, the slow students, who may not be inferior, are forces to quicken their pace. If a student is not likely to complete one day’s assignment, he or she will also be likely not to complete a second assignment, therefore such a student gets further and further behind and often gives up all together unless remedial steps are taken. According to Skinner, a student who use a machine to learn, moves at a pace that is most convenient for him or her. Therefor, a fast students can complete a course in less time, but a slower student can cover the same ground if he or she is allowed to pace his or her own learning. In fact, according to Skinner, both students learn the material thoroughly. Furthermore, when a student is absent, he or she takes off where they have stopped, without missing any work.

The fourth idea touched, is the need to provide quick feedback. According to Skinner, quick response on the adequacy of a response improve student success. Behaviorists support the idea of rewards and punishment for corresponding positive and negative responses. In traditional distance education, students often wait for long periods to get feedback after assessment. Skinner, argues that immediate feedback (Skinner used knowledge) is most important because a)  it leads to the formation of good behaviour since the student quickly learns to be right and c) there is a motivational effect since students are free of uncertainty or anxiety with regard to his success or failure. According to skinner, students find the work is pleasurable and they do not have to force themselves to study due to quick feedback. Skinners believes it is not only important for effective learning, it also contributes to high levels of interest and enthusiasm.

The fifth idea touched, is the need for remedial intervention when students do not cope with the pace set by the lecturer. According to Skinners students give up when they fall behind when the teacher pace the learning and slow students can even dropout all together. However, such a perspective assumes that the teaching material are effective. Current research shows that student success is also determined by the learning activities itself.

The sixth idea touched, is the need to master learning. Form a behavioristic perspective, Skinner argues that learning is mastered when outcomes, set during the programming of learning tasks are met. From a constructivistic perspective, learning is mastered when students can apply newly acquire knowledge, skills and techniques is new contexts. Therefore, it is not sufficient to require of students to complete sentences and formulas, They should also be provided with opportunities to  apply the newly acquired knowledge. In order to do that, they need to be allowed to develop into critical thinkers, who can assess and evaluate what they have learned.

However, a few current ideas with regard to successful course design and student success have not been touched.

The first idea is the need to assess students’ preparedness for the learning journey.  According to Skinner, 90% of average students will pass if certain conditions, controlled from the outside are met. In fact, he states that immediate feedback leads to high levels of enthusiasm, interest and therefore improve student success and reduces student dropouts. In reality, student preparedness for the learning journey also impacts on student success. Therefore, course designers have to be able to assess student preparedness to understand how courses can be adapted to serve the needs of those who are not prepared as well. A possible solution is to provide various entry levels.

The second idea not touched is the need to provide effective feedback. Right or Wrong feedback, is not sufficient, nor is the provision of the correct answers. If a student do not understand where he or she went wrong, it an lead to high levels of anxiety and a believe that they will fail. Therefore, students should rather be provided with more opportunities to complete the same assignment. They can also be provided with related activities in order to help them to complete related activities successfully.

The third idea not touched, is the the need to guide all students towards proximal development. Skinner acknowledges that some students are working quicker and others slower, therefore he suggests that students should be allowed to pace their own learning journeys.  Although it seems to be a learner-centered perspective, it actually supports behaviorism. Furthermore, they are provided with cues, translated to positive or negative reinforcement during the learning process. Various factors can contribute to student dropout,

The fourth idea not touched, is the need to actively involve students during the learning process – a concept known as active learning. However, several principles of gamification , self-directed learning and self-regulated learning processes can be identified when listening to this presentation:

  • goal setting (gamification/self-regulated learning, self-directed learning)
  • status/affirmation (gamification)
  • reputation (gamification)
  • norms of reciprocity (gamification, self-regulated learning)
  • deadlines (gamification, self-regulated learning)
  • scarcity (gamification, self-regulated learning, self-directed learning)
  • reinforcement (gamification)
  • loss aversion (gamification)
  • set completion (gamification, self-directed learning, self-regulated learning)

The last idea not touched, is the need to continuously assess course material.  When programs are written, the students who will take the courses have not yet enrolled. Therefore, it is possible that the learning material will not be suited for the students. In traditional distance education, it might be problematic, since ineffective learning material can often only be identified after students have written their final examination. This problem can be solved when technologies are integrated to support teaching and learning, since various techniques, known as learning analytics, are available to collect data while the students are busy with their learning activities. The teaching embedded in new- aged Intelligent Tutoring Systems can be investigated to afford course designers and lecturers with relevant information to allow them to intervene in time by providing Just-in-Time teaching opportunities in order to increase learner success.


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