A History of Technological Hype

tags: technology, education history

VICTORIA E.M. CAIN (v.cain@northeastern.edu) is an associate professor of history at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, and author of the forthcoming Schools and Screens: A Watchful History (MIT Press, 2021).

ADAM LAATS (alaats@binghamton.edu; @AdamLaats) is a professor of education and history (by courtesy) at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He is the author of Creationism USA: Bridging the Impasse on Teaching Evolution (Oxford University Press, 2020). 

Ask any parent, teacher, or school administrator: This is the most difficult school year they have ever faced. No one wanted schools to shut down for months on end. No one wanted to resort to a patchwork of online education, anxious in-person meetings, and cram sessions about “learning management systems.” Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced educators to pin their hopes on digital tools and platforms. 

The suddenness of the shift to remote instruction may be unprecedented, but this is hardly the first time our schools have placed massive bets on new technology. Historian Larry Cuban (1986) has described how efficiency-minded administrators foisted media technologies ranging from radios to computers on teachers in efforts to reform education. Many such pedagogical “innovations” have been introduced over the past two centuries, often with sobering results. As our own research shows, in times of crisis, educational leaders often turn, with unfounded confidence, to technological solutions for the problems they face, leaping before they look.  

At the beginning of the 1800s, for instance, reformers in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, alarmed by the limited educational opportunities available to low-income children, turned to the work of Joseph Lancaster, a young teacher in London who had developed a system of education that took place in vast open rooms. A century and a half later, another generation of reformers, also horrified by the state of American schools, looked to the new technology of television as a means of providing high-quality education at scale. 

In both cases — the Lancasterian mania of the 1800s and the rush toward instructional television in the 1950s and 1960s — reformers’ enthusiasm outpaced their due diligence. They were buoyed by the extravagant promises of new technology. And in both cases, they made significant investments in technology without conducting even basic research into its effectiveness. In the end, as each modern marvel failed, schools and teachers were left to pick up the pieces and start again. 

In the first decade of the 1800s, officials in many of the nation’s big cities became concerned that if local children were unable to attend school, they would instead receive an education in crime, becoming a danger to the public. At the time, a majority of children in New York City, Philadelphia, and other cities had some access to education, but there was nothing like a coherent, well-planned school system in place. Rather, what had taken shape was a jumbled mix of many kinds of schools, varying widely in their quality. Further, most of them charged tuition, leaving few options for students from low-income families. And while some churches offered free schools, often called “charity” schools, not every student belonged to a church.  

Desperate to get more children into school, urban leaders looked to a model created by famed London reformer Joseph Lancaster. Swayed by his reputation and rumors of his success, they committed themselves to Lancaster’s reforms, especially his biggest single technological innovation, which was architectural. Instead of educating children in traditional school buildings — divided into small rooms, each serving one teacher and a dozen or so students — Lancaster envisioned vast, open schoolrooms capable of seating a thousand students or more. At one end of the open room, the teacher would reign from a raised platform. The students would sit on benches, rising auditorium-style toward the back, with the least advanced students in front and the most advanced sitting at the rear. Around the edges of the room were “reading circles,” where student monitors would lead other students in reading from placards.  

No detail was too small to escape Lancaster’s attention. For instance, according to his “scientific” reasoning, walls would have to be painted white. Windows would have to be large, able to open, and placed at least seven feet above the floor, to limit distractions. The floor should not be stone, as that created loud echoes. Ideally, air would circulate through a “sufficient number of tubes so contrived that they may be opened or shut at pleasure” (Manual, 1817, p. 2). The room would be stuffed with “pendulums” and “telegraph” machines to send information to students efficiently (Dale, 1820, p. 12). Lancaster even toyed with electrifying the student benches to shock recalcitrant students into submission (Lancaster, n.d.). For Lancaster’s devoted followers, these complicated systems and specialized technological tools accounted for much of the allure. The system was assumed to work precisely because it required so many modern implements.  

Throughout the first three decades of the 1800s, American reformers were positively giddy about the promise of Lancasterian education. In New York, for example, Mayor DeWitt Clinton gushed, “I recognize in Lancaster the benefactor of the human race — I consider his system as creating a new [era] in education, as a blessing sent down from Heaven to redeem the poor and distress this world from the power and dominion of ignorance” (Clinton, 1810, p. 7). 

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