History of Technology in the Classroom

Instructor: Laura Gray

Laura has taught at the secondary and tertiary levels for 20+ years and has a Ph.D. in Instructional Design for Online Learning.

This lesson traces the history of educational media and technology in the classroom. For example, we'll discuss the major inventions and milestones of the past 200 years, as well as how they may pave the wave for classroom technology in the future.

We've Come a Long Way, Baby!

We cannot argue that technology in the classroom has increased by leaps and bounds over the last several centuries. Some of you may even be old enough to remember teachers using chalkboards and mimeograph machines. Who knew that by the 21st century, students and teachers would be using iPads, personal computers and Smart Boards instead of textbooks?

Even in its earliest form, classroom technology allowed teachers to be more flexible and pursue several approaches to instruction. More recent devices help to promote student and teacher engagement while providing opportunities for collaborative learning and creativity. Let's take a look at some of the more primitive and advanced forms of classroom technology.

1800s: Chalkboards and Slide Rules

James Pillans, a high school and college teacher in Edinburgh, Scotland, invented the chalkboard in the 1800s. The earliest chalkboards were level pieces of natural slate; later forms were painted green, which proved to be easier on the eyes. As forms of primitive broadcast technology, they allowed teachers to share information with many, as opposed to just one student. Smaller versions of the chalkboard, called slates, were made of porcelain or painted wood and allowed students to write and solve math problems.

Credit for the invention of the slide rule goes to two English ministers: Edmund Gunther and William Oughtred. As a basic analog computer, the slide rule consists of three parts: a base, movable center and two transparent faces that make up the cursor. Both the far left and right sides of the rule are marked with bar and logarithmic scales. From the late 1800s to approximately 1970, high school and college students, as well as engineers, scientists and other professionals, used the slide rule to perform basic and complex math problems, such as those related to exponents and trigonometry.

Slide rules were used in the classroom up until 1970

1900s: Pencils, Paper and Film Projectors

Around 1900, mass-produced pencils and paper replaced slates. In comparison to slates, they gave students the opportunity to write, correct and save their work. As advocates for the technology, the National Association of Teachers declared in 1907 that 'Pen and ink will never replace the pencil.' While we don't know who actually invented the pencil, a 16th century Swiss named Conrad Gesner was the first to describe it as a writing instrument.

In the late 1800s, lecturers were using 'magic lanterns' fueled by candles and oil lamps to make presentations. They were replaced by filmstrip projectors, invented in 1925, that could display as many as 50 still images on a screen or wall while students listened to an accompanying cassette or record. Audio cues let teachers know when to advance to the next image; later models performed this function automatically Filmstrip projectors remained in use until the 1980s and the introduction of the videocassette.

1940s: Mimeograph Machines and Ballpoint Pens

The mimeograph machine, the forerunner of the modern copier, provided students with access to worksheets, pre-written tests and take-home papers. Originally invented by Thomas Edison, mimeograph machines consisted of rotating cylinders that forced ink through typed stencils onto sheets of paper, which came out damp, purple and a little bit smelly.

Unlike dip and fountain pens, ballpoint pens, invented and patented by Laszlo Biro in 1938, did not need to be refilled. However, not all educators warmed to their use: According to Federal Teachers in 1950, 'Ballpoint pens will be the ruin of education in our country. Students use these devices and then throw them away.'

Modern copiers originated with mimeograph machines

1950s: Television

Schools began instructional television (ITV) in the 1950s, utilizing an electronic technology developed by Philo Farnsworth during the 1920s. When first introduced, some people thought televisions might eventually replace classroom teachers. The three basic types of ITV include broadcast programming, classroom-specific programming and distance learning. Although not interactive, classroom television programs can be used to introduce and help generate student interest in a topic, as well as present age-appropriate events in real time.

1960s: Overhead Projectors

Roger Appeldorn, an employee of the 3M Company, invented the overhead projector in the early 1960s. Marketed specifically to businesspeople and teachers, the overhead projector allowed users to write on a clear piece of film and project their work on a screen, such as math problems. Although still in use, 3D projectors and high-definition document cameras with zoom features have mostly replaced overhead projectors.

1970s: Handheld Calculators and Scantron Sheets

Jack Kilby, Jerry Merryman and James Van Tassel, three engineers at Texas Instruments, invented the handheld calculator in 1967. As a replacement for the slide rule, the handheld calculator was a battery-powered instrument based upon an integrated circuit. Initially, teachers were reluctant to use them for fear students would forget how to perform simple mathematical operations. Beginning in 1972, students could also purchase a pocket scientific calculator, which cost about $135.

Although scantron sheets as a testing tool can be found as early as the 1930s, they became increasingly popular in the 1970s as they allowed teachers to grade standardized exams in a very short amount of time. During tests, students recorded their answers to multiple-choice questions by darkening small ovals with #2 pencils, which were later scanned and evaluated using optical mark recognition (OMR) technology.

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