“A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be”.
Arthur C. Clark
The concept is concerned with the different procedures, methods and equipment used in the improvement of effectiveness in the learning process. Although the definition has a broad meaning and comprises many proposals that trace back to ancient times and the Sophistic pedagogy, here we focus the attention on practices that highlight the importance of teaching with aids such as actual objects, models and pictures.
This perspective was in accordance with the premises of the empirical viewpoint consolidated in the Enlightenment. It was in this period when a significant number of intellectuals maintained that knowledge was built basically through the acquisition and addition of simple observations and experiences. According to these ideas, visual resources provided a more effective understanding of the world than verbal constructions and books. In addition, the confirmation of theories by means of public demonstrative experiments and mechanical devices was regarded as a definite proof of its consistency and therefore utility.
As a consequence of this vision, since the 1750s there has been an increasing interest manifested by educational authorities in the acquisition of large collections of objects and models. Every reference to up-to- date education and modernization included the allusion to the provision of equipment intended to illustrate scientific and technical branches of knowledge. This situation and principles remained almost untouched throughout the 19th century, the only significant innovation being the formation of pedagogical museums in the second part of this period. In the concrete-abstract debate, the appeal to visual material was seen as the perfect antidote against verbalism. As the following text put it in 1886,
The objects of thought used in teaching are the real object, which is the material object in relation with the senses, or the mental object distinctly in consciousness; the model, which represents, in the solid, the form, color, size, and relative positions of the parts of the object; the picture, which imperfectly represents on a surface the appearance of the object in position, form, color, and relative position of parts; the diagram, which represents on a surface the sectional view of the object; the experiment, which shows the action and effects of physical forces; language, as an object of thought, in the formation of words. (Proceedings of the National Education Association, quoted in Paul Saettler, 2004, 140).
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th the tendency described was reinforced by the educational model promoted by the visual instructional movement. Both trends responded to the coming of the machine age by demanding more practical curricula. The new instruments proposed to meet the requirements were the museum exhibits, the photographs, and the projected slides (together with the promotion of excursions to give students firsthand experiences of farms, factories, workshops…). Companies devoted to the production of different type of media contributed in a decisive way to the consolidation of the “visual education” perspective. A representative sign of the spirit of the times and the expectations arisen from the new mentality is what T. A. Edison said in 1913: “Books will soon be obsolete in schools”, and “Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye. It is possible to touch every branch of human knowledge with the modern picture” (quoted in Larry Cuban, 1986, 11).
Primary attention was given in these contexts to the virtues possessed by the technology rather than to the effects of the devices on students. Therefore other pedagogical orientations contemplated the use of artifacts in class and museums as heuristic resources intended to improve student’s skills in the process of searching solutions, understanding the principles of a mechanism or learning the rules of technical knowledge. This perspective stressed the active implication of the student and rejected the passive attendance to contents mediated by technological demonstrations. In this constructivist approach, technology objects were not just instruments (in a behaviorist sense) but essential parts of an integral learning process.
Concerning the results of the visual-media education philosophy, P. Saettler (2004, 168) quotes the following words written by F. Dean McClusky, professor of education at the University of California and researcher in the field of audio-visual instruction from the early years of its diffusion:
The coming of the machine age and the realization that all who went to school could not enter white-collar jobs implemented the growing demand for more practical curricula and more functional methodologies. A wholesome distrust of “book learning”, as such, was to be found in many quarters. However, educators in general were slow to adopt new techniques of communication as they became available at the close of the nineteenth century. Evolving slowly were ideas on how best to use new media, such as the museum exhibit, the photograph, the projected still picture, and the motion picture, in instruction.
There were pioneers, of course, who experimented with the new media, and they made history. But the impact of their efforts on the broad stream of instruction caused little more than ripple on the surface. Education is conservative. It takes time to bring about widespread changes in content and methodology […]
The dream of educators, as Larry Cuban points out, has been making instruction both productive and enriching. This means, for the author, wishing that students learn more and faster while teachers teach less, a recurrent ideal that has persisted from the invention of the lecture centuries ago to the appropriation of projectors, films, radios, televisions and computers (Cuban, 1986, 2). The problem is nevertheless that the high speed of innovations, celebrated by politicians, administrators and wholesalers, contrasts with the slow pace of acceptance of technologies by the ultimate responsible of mastering and using them in class, the teacher.
Villemard, “À l’école”, En l’an 2000, 1910.
Further reading: Larry Cuban, Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920, Nueva York, Teacher College, 1986; Paul Saettler, The Evolution of American Educational Technology, Greenwich, Connecticut, IAP, 2004; M. Eraut (ed.), International Encyclopedia of Educational Technology, Oxford/New York, Pergamon Press, 1989.