The allure of educational technology is easy to understand. Classroom instruction is an expensive and time-consuming process fraught with contradictory theories and frustratingly uneven results. Educators, inspired by machines’ contributions to modern life, have been using technology to facilitate teaching for centuries.

This book examines past attempts to automate instruction from the earliest use of the postal service for distance education to the current maelstrom surrounding Massive Open Online Courses. It tells the stories of the entrepreneurs and visionaries who, beginning in the colonial era, developed and promoted various instructional technologies. Ferster touches on a wide range of attempts to enhance the classroom experience with machines, from hornbooks, the Chautauqua movement, and correspondence courses to B. F. Skinner’s teaching machine, intelligent tutoring systems, and eLearning.

The famed progressive teachers, researchers, and administrators that the book highlights often overcame substantial hurdles to implement their ideas, but not all of them succeeded in improving the quality of education. Teaching Machines provides invaluable new insight into our current debate over the efficacy of educational technology.

Bill Ferster, PhD is a research professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and the director of visualization for the Sciences, Humanities & Arts Technology Initiative (SHANTI). He is the author of Interactive Visualization: Insight through Inquiry, MIT Press, 2012. In past lives, he founded StageTools, a leading developer of digital motion control tools with its MovingPicture product; Editing Machines Corporation (EMC), EMMY award winning developer of the first digital nonlinear editing system; and West End, a pioneer in PC-based animation and presentation graphics tools.

"This sweeping overview of teaching tools from the hornbooks of the seventeenth century to the cloud-based apps of the twenty-first provides rare and necessary perspective on a topic of perpetual debate."

— Ed Ayers, President, University of Richmond

"With wit and lucidity, Bill Ferster shows how technology has always been deployed in service to education, though not always with successful results. He demonstrates how early mechanical devices—books, telephones, radio, television, and computers—have been used to make education more effective, efficient, and profitable. His lessons speak volumes about our latest attempts to use machines to educate and enlighten."

— Donald L. Bitzer, North Carolina State University

"A valuable history of educational technology, Bill Ferster takes us from PLATO to MOOCs, B. F. Skinner to Sebastian Thrun with elegance and healthy skepticism."

— Bryan Alexander, Senior Fellow, National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education

"Never have there been so many people grabbing at what they perceive as opportunities to use technology in education, and yet most have little understanding of the consequences of such applications, especially the changes in teaching methods and institutional structures that are necessary if technology is to have more than a marginal effect on learning. Ferster’s engaging, original argument—that knowing what happened when older technologies were used should be of great practical and academic value today—is one of the most exciting ideas I have encountered for a very long time. Teaching Machines adds a historical and conceptual perspective to the hoopla surrounding contemporary technology-driven innovation. I would love to see every teacher in training read this book."

— Michael G. Moore, editor of The American Journal of Distance Education

"This interesting book explores the history of teaching machines and the reasons they have not lived up to their promise of revolutionizing education. The book draws the reader in by providing a story of the people who were prominent in developing each technology and their hopes for improving education. The final chapter discusses lessons learned from these past failures and provides suggestions for developing more effective technologies. This should be required reading for all instructional designers and computer engineers interested in teaching machines and/or education."

— Debra R. Sprague, George Mason University

Images from the book

Johns Hopkins University Press
Hardback, 216 pages
Publicist: Robin Noonan -
Johns Hopkins official website
High resolution book images and author photo
Available in October 2014
Bill Ferster
University of Virginia
+1 (540) 592-7001
Twitter: @bferster
Order it from here