Alongside current enthusiasms around EdTech ‘futures’, we still have much to learn from the histories of EdTech



The past few years have seen a flurry of academic writing on the history of technology in schools. This work includes Barbara Hof and Regula Bürgi’s (2021) account of the construction of technological imaginaries within the OECD education agendas, as well as Katie Day Good’s (2020) study of educational media (such as film, stereoscopes and radio) in early museum education. This work sits alongside Audrey Watters’ (2021) history of twentieth century teaching machines, and Victoria Cain’s (2021) book on screen-based education encompassing films, instructional television, and classroom microcomputers. To round things off, Hof and Good are currently editing a special issue of Learning Media & Technology on the topic of ‘local and global histories of educational technology’.

Of course, these are not the first pieces of scholarship around the history of EdTech. Hof, Good, Cain et al. follow on from Bill Ferster’s (2014, 2016) books on twentieth century teaching machines and screen media, as well as a number of preceding studies of the introduction of computers into Swedish, Polish and English school systems (Syslo 2014, Kaiserfeld 2000, Selwyn 2013). Underpinning all these, of course, is Paul Saettler’s earlier (1990) ‘Evolution of American Educational Technology’ and  Larry Cuban’s (1988) seminal history of classrooms and pre-digital technologies such as the film-strip, radio and television. 

Indeed, the historical accounts provided by Cuban and Saettler toward the end of the twentieth century are often used by commentators wanting to challenge dominant narratives of EdTech progressing smoothly along a linear pathway of continued innovation and progress. These historical accounts highlight entrenched impediments and barriers to the take-up of technology in education. These histories point to recurring cycles of political manipulation and institutional disinterest, accompanied by a regular sense of disappointment and overall failure to impact. In short, these histories suggest that any claims for education being ‘transformed’ through the introduction of digital technology needs to be recast as a messy case of ‘one step forward, two steps back’.

All told, amid current (post)pandemic times when it is being reasoned that education needs to adapt to all things online and digitally ‘remote’, it seems appropriate to remind ourselves to take a long view of the integration of technologies into educational contexts. Yet, notwithstanding the authors just identified, academic discussions of education technology remain curiously disconnected from these histories. For example, current critical scholarship around EdTech remains far more interested in the allure of ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’ and speculative ‘education futures’. The question remains, therefore, why is the history of EdTech not playing a more central role in critical discussions around education and digitisation? Why is the history of EdTech not more revered and refined by critical commentators? In this sense, it is well worth reminding ourselves what can be gained from taking the history of education seriously.


So what can history do for us?

At this point we can turn to a series of compelling arguments made by Johannes Westberg (2021) regarding what he frames as the ‘wonderful usefulness of history in educational research’. Here, Westberg makes a series of important points about the need for education researchers to fully embrace the history of education. While Westberg is keen to sell history to all facets of education research,  his arguments certainly give us a good sense of what can be gained from historical accounts of education and technology.

#1. History offers us alternate sources of ‘evidence’ 

Creating knowledge from existing source materials and retrospective accounts means that historians pay close attention to aspects of technology use that are often overlooked by other ‘empirical’ approaches. For example, the oral testimonies of those involved in the early development and eventual use of specific technologies often provide telling personal reflections on ‘ground level’ compromises and constraintsMore often than not, these in situ narratives different considerably from the more abstracted hyperbole of the time regarding what could, or should, have happened with the technologies in question.

Historians also pay close attention to the technological artefacts of the time – the hardware, software, accompanying documentation and other texts that often get overlooked when empirically studying present-day EdTech. Indeed, one of the most interesting elements of history of technology scholarship is artefact analyses of early hardware devices and classic educational software titles – akin to what is sometimes termed a ‘media archaeology’ approach (Parikka 2013). Retrospectively approaching these artefacts can reveal all manner of inferences about the nature and form of EdTech that otherwise can go unnoticed. For example, Katharine Slater’s (2017) exploration of the classic ‘Oregon Trail’ ‘simulation program from 1981 unpacks and problematises the values underpinning the construction of educational software from this time – ranging from implicit pedagogical intentions, to more explicit racist, gendered and colonialist mindsets of these EdTech developers and marketers.

#2. History provides explanations of education change and continuity over time

Second, is the way in which history of education provides vital explanations of change and continuity over time – another aspect that is often lacking elsewhere in education technology research. As Westberg (2021, p.239) notes, historians are able to produce accounts of educational phenomena “with the benefits of psychological distance and a generous timeframe”. This sits in sharp contrast to most critical accounts of education technology, which tend to be fixed ‘in the moment’ and concerned most with immediate problems and likely risks, harms and diminishments.

Instead, history allows us to make sense of existing long-term effects of technology-centred reforms. Most industrialised countries now have a near forty-year history of education technology initiatives and policies, constituting “an incredible collection of experiences that, both in volume and width, supersede that of our living present” (Westberg 2021, p.236). On one hand, this long-term perspective on education technology can help makes sense of why digital technology has yet to radically ‘transform’, ‘disrupt’ or ‘revolutionise’ education systems. For example, historical accounts can shed valuable light on the continuity of pre-digital educational traditions (such as age-related grouping, individualised high-stakes assessment), and how particular organisational conditions and logics become ‘imprinted’ onto schools, colleges, and universities. This was certainly the thrust of Larry Cuban’s powerful conclusion that ‘Computer Meets Classroom, Classroom Wins’ – pointing to self-reinforcing sequences of events within schools and school systems that often powerfully shape the ways in which new technologies are enacted and ‘tamed’.

On the other hand, historical accounts are also useful in identifying where notable changes have occurred, and under which conditions and contexts. Historians take great care not to slip into accounts that over-emphasise a sense of inevitable continuity, and a fatalistic presumption that ‘history repeats’ – what might be termed historical determinism. Historical studies can be especially useful in pinpointing where unnoticed and unheralded changes have taken hold as result of technologies in education, as well as how widespread and sustained these shifts eventually proved to be. All told, history is a way of challenging and refining our presumptions around the inevitability of technological change (or the lack of it). As Westberg (2021, p.236) puts it:

“Historical perspectives consequently allow us to avoid simplified narratives, nostalgia, progress, innovation, and inertia (for example, the belief that the challenges of teaching remain fundamentally the same)”.

#3. History offers a set of contextual reference points to current trends 

Third, Westberg makes the point that historians of education provide valuable comparisons and contextual reference points to present-day education. In this sense, as well as looking back to previous digital technologies, historians can also provide useful comparison cases of past instances of ‘analogue’ education that might help make sense of current digital predicaments. This was certainly the case during the initial stages of the COVID pandemic in 2020 and 2021, when education commentators, policymakers and leaders understandably became very interested in previously obscure accounts of school responses to the 1919 ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic. These 100 year-old accounts of the rapid development of correspondence-learning packs, telephone-based tutoring, and outdoor classrooms all lend substances to ongoing debate over what could be done in light of the unfolding COVID crisis.

While no historical case can provide a specific on-point ‘lesson’ that totally explains the present situation, such historical examples can provide what Westberg terms “a necessary background” (p.237) and valuable a set of contextual ‘reference points’ to guide our understanding of the present. Oftentimes these comparisons will remind us that no education ‘problem’ or proposed ‘solution’ is wholly unprecedented. For example, one recurring point from Audrey Watters’ (2021) history of mid-twentieth century teaching machines is that current enthusiasms for ‘personalised learning systems’ are simply re-animating many of the same logics as 70 years’ earlier, as well as bumping up against many of the same impediments. As Watters (2021, p.10) puts it:

“I want to correct the historical record … personalised learning is not, in fact, a ‘hot, new thing’, invented by and facilitated by the latest batch of technology start-ups and the technology billionaires who fund them. Nor is resistance to mechanised education just a matter of technologically backward teachers, clinging to a system that refuses to change. Indeed, some of those who resisted and undermined the development of teaching machines in the 1950s and 1960s were education reformers and corporate executives – the very figures who claim they’ll fix things for us today. To correct the historical record, then, is to show there is a long history of automating and individualising education and to demonstrate that much of today’s education technology has its roots in these mid-twentieth century teaching machines”

#4. History can debunk the mythologising of the past 

Finally, Westberg also points to the ways in which history can draw attention to the mythologising of past times that often pervades discussions of education – especially within policy, IT industry and other reformist circles. Indeed, the education historian David Tyack has observed that reformers usually feel compelled to make some reference to the past when attempting to justify their proposals, and so tend to play fast and loose with what they would have us believe precedes their own intervention. As Tyack (1989, p.408) bluntly observes,  “[education] policymakers do not have a choice about whether to use history. They do, willy-nilly.

Indeed, the imperatives and rationales for the adoption of emerging digital technologies in education often revolve around a number of well-worn abuses of history. As such, historians of education are well-placed to debunk recurring historical myths promoted by ‘boosterist’ politicians and other EdTech proponents.  These include caricatures of long-standing workplace shortages in ‘hi-tech’ skills, assertions that ‘schools are broken’, portrayals of the outmoded nature of ‘industrial era classrooms’, ‘factory schools’ and inherently conservative teacher workforces who are steadfastly opposed to change.

Conversely, history also serves to problematise some of the mythologising that EdTech is prone to develop around celebrated instances and episodes in its own brief history. For example, Morgan Ames’ (2019) recent retrospective account of MIT’s ‘One Laptop Per Child’ initiative portrays a deeply flawed intervention whose ambitions of scale and ‘disruption’ resulted in the culturally-inappropriate and socially-divisive insertion of laptops into complex local contexts that the project team had little understanding of. This account provides a valuable corrective to the relentless positive spin that still lingers around OLPC – contesting the narrativization amongst ‘edu-prenuer’ circles that this was an audacious ‘moon-shot’ idea that should inspire others to follow suit. As Westberg (2021, p.241) points out, “historians remind us of what we might prefer to forget”.



All told, Westberg (2021) makes a compelling argument that history can help researchers address the fundamental ‘big think’ questions that need to be asked of any aspect of education, not least digital technologies. The dangers of focusing wholly on current and emerging forms of technology in education is that we sideline important issues of context, politics, economics and the messy realities of everyday life. These are all factors that have proven crucial to the (non)take-up of education technologies in the past, and are all factors likely to remain crucial in shaping the (non)use of digital technologies in the future. In this sense, Westberg evokes Durkheim to infer that history allows us to move away from ‘surface-level’ accounts of how technologies appear at the time to fit (or not) with our education systems (in Durkheim’s words: “only history can penetrate under the surface of our present educational system”).

There is, of course, no one ‘history of education technology’. Instead, it is more useful to think of histories plural. Alongside the existing accounts of Cuban, Watters, Hof and others, it is also worth considering what additional histories of EdTech are also necessary – in short, the hitherto marginalised aspects of EdTech that historians might now help us uncover. For example, there is clearly room for developing histories of the gendered and/or racialized nature of EdTech development over the past 40 years. There are also opportunities to develop histories of EdTech that stretch beyond the Anglo-Saxon accounts of Cuban, Hof, and Day-Good, and perhaps shed light on the educational uses of technologies arising within African, East Asian and Islamic contexts. These might also be accompanied by histories of education technologies that ‘failed’ to take hold at the time, but offer glimpses of alternate approaches to education technology. One recent example of this can be found in Jan Müggenburg’s (2021) insightful accounts of the influence of cybernetic machine modelling on 1970s’ experimental pedagogies based around counter-cultural intellectual values. This was a short-lived example of an ‘other’ education technology that might have risen to provenance in another set of circumstances.

For all these reasons, then, there are good grounds to hope that the current resurgence of historical perspectives from scholars such as Hof, Good, Cain and others, can be sustained and expanded. If the critical studies of EdTech is to mature as a field of study then a lively and informed historical sensibility seems essential. As Genevieve Bell (2022, n.p) concludes:

“Histories are more than just backstories. They are backbones, blueprints and maps to territories that have already been traversed. Knowing the history of a technology… reveals potential pitfalls and lessons already learned”.



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