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Teaching the Many, Rather than the Few

Four decades before the MOOC, a 1970 essay anticipates the potential boon of an education by computer.
December 18, 2014

Excerpted from “Computers in Human Society: For Good or Ill?” by MIT professor Robert M. Fano, from the March 1970 Technology Review.

“One of my greatest frustrations as a teacher has been my inability to meet simultaneously the needs of all my students. Students differ greatly from one another, not only in their intellectual capabilities: some proceed from the general to the specific; others from the specific to the general; some refuse to pay attention to details before they have acquired an overall view, while others cannot see the forest before having examined each tree. Individual instruction is the ideal answer; however, the necessary number of qualified teachers is just not available. Computers, if properly used, may provide a way out.

“Computer-aided instruction is often misleadingly described as ‘replacing teachers with computers.’ This interpretation implies mechanizing, rather than personalizing, education. Instead, we should strive for an interaction between teacher and student through the medium of a computer system. The goal is to make it possible for a teacher to provide individual guidance to many students instead of a few.

“We may envision computer-aided instruction operating as follows: Each student uses the material stored in the computer system, learning and answering questions, under control of a program appropriate to his needs. The teacher monitors progress, and modifies the control program for each student as needed. If a student encounters difficulties, the teacher is called to give personal assistance through his own computer terminal.

“This opportunity hinges on bringing the power of computers to the service of the individual, a significant departure from the attitudes and trends that prevail today.”

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