Monday, January 30, 2012

Smart Weapons: Pigeons, Teaching Machines and Learning


I read an insightful posting on cognitive illusions and biases called The Over Justification Effect a psychological theory about intrinsic/extrinsic motivation from You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney. It got me thinking about scientific research and data collection on learning and motivation.

Anyway this led me down the path to researching the history, innovation and source of computer instruction and electronic gaming machines. Through the web, I was reintroduced to B.F. Skinner's study of pigeons and his infamous Skinner boxes; which brought about the development of Teaching Machines (circa 1950s) and Programmed Instruction which utilized the method of Linear Sequential Learning or Linear Learning. Machines (computers) at that time were primarily used for calculations not for teaching and/or learning with students- most machines today use software programs that capitalize on linear algebraic formulas or what is called "secret sauce".

On Research, Computers and Learning - There is an classic article on computers in the classroom and its effectiveness on learning from the Atlantic (1997)  called The Computer Delusion by Todd Oppenheimer. I retrieved this article because it mentions Skinner's device and the buy-in from the government...also Ex-Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, prophetically mentions something vaguely-sounding like Anytime, Anyplace Online Learning just imagine the possibility of a NEWT-U.

A recent online article from The Chronicle (2011) which talks about the company, Knewton, that features predictive and analytic software using the hot tech topic of "Adaptive Learning"; ideas and concepts originally developed by B.F. Skinner (see video below) and a interactive video-game UI for low socio-economic and poor performing learners. Given the problems that schools are having today with funding schools, districts and states will be using more of this approach due to cheaper costs and relative ease of data collection.
Critics, however, note one crucial problem: Few good studies have been done on the outcomes of these programs, particularly at the community-college level, which serve the kind of vulnerable students they are supposed to help most.
Still, advocates say an advantage of the software is that it gives these and other students more control in a course. Historically, "students have had to work in the order that the instructor and textbook author think is most relevant," says A. Daniel Johnson, a senior lecturer in biology at Wake Forest University..." The Chronicle, (2011)
The scientific research and debates are still continuing on the effectiveness of machines and automation on teaching and learning.

So the humble pigeon's technosavy and influence on machine teaching and learning is with us to this very day... remarkable and strange indeed.

                                                                                                                  Video - YouTube - please use the CC transcription

Curious Side Note to this Posting:
I rediscovered the etymological trivia root of the word Pigeon-Brain or Bird Brain courtesy of the web and Wikipedia- apparently there was a WWII program led by BF Skinner called Project Orcon using pigeons as guided SMART weapons! who knew? It also the development of early touch screen technology for the pigeon-guided bomb. I think there is a potential e-book in the works called Bird Brains: The Development of Smart Weapons, Teaching Machines and their Influence on Computer-Aided Learning. The curious and humble role that birds have played in Science, Warfare and Education in America is meritorious.

(CC- Creative Commons) 
Some work is copyrighted by Original Content Authors of linked journals. 

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