The Evolution of Classroom Technology

Found via the Twitter stream today is a link to The New York Times visual timeline of classroom technology and how it has evolved over the last few centuries. Starting in 1650 with a simple Horn-Book (the finest schoolroom technology of the American Colonial Era), the interactive time line covers 26 of some of the most significant changes in classroom tech, all the way through the 2010 introduction of Apple’s hugely popular tablet computing device, the iPad. Each new invention is displayed with a brief description of the learning tool, and either it’s year of invention, or roughly the years it was used widely. For example, the “Magic Lantern” was once all the rage in Chicago Public Schools between 1870 and World War 1. However, that’s just about where the usefulness of the time line runs out.

Scantron MachineWhile it’s interesting to see the progression of instructional technology, or rather the lack there-of in the 17th and 18th centuries, there’s not much to this timeline beyond a few simple facts. Which got me to thinking; surely a large news media organization like The New York Times could create a much more useful tool for exploring how technology has helped shape instructional practice during the 19th century, or how the rapidly increasing adoption of newer technologies in the later half of the 20th century gave way to a complete inundation of new tools like the interactive whiteboard, the internet, personal computers, and more. Or perhaps, rather than rely on the news organization to provide those details, bring the interactive timeline into your classroom, and start asking some probing questions of your students, and guide them through a deeper exploration of how technology and education have been intermingled in the U.S. in the past 300 years.

For example, according to the timeline of classroom technology, Thomas Edison was quoted as saying that with the invention of the filmstrip projector “books will soon be obsolete in schools. Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye.” Given the filmstrip projector was being used in the classroom in 1925, I’d say Mr. Edison was more than a tad off, considering the majority of students both in k-12 and higher education settings still rely on text, worksheets, and books for their primary means of educational materials. That’s not a critique of his vision, but rather an observation that could lead to an examination of effective instructional modalities, and how technology has played a role in supporting them, or hindering them. Film was rapidly adopted as an entertainment medium in the early 1900s, and while engaging in the theater, many students, and teachers, can often recall sitting through mind-numbing “educational” films that were no better than a dryly written textbook.

If I were to use this timeline in the classroom, I would most likely use it as an assignment for students to choose one of the pieces of technology and delve deeper into the social, educational, and economic impact these pieces of ed tech had on not just schools, but society as well. I would include a few more inventions as well, such as the internet, mobile phones, portable music devices, the CD-Rom, etc. and would probably give the students a road map starting with a few guiding questions:

  • “What existing technology did this invention replace or improve upon?”
  • “How was this device used in the classroom in it’s own time, and how might it be perceived by students and teachers today?”
  • “Did schools struggle to find ways to effectively use each of these pieces of technology when they first came out?”
  • “How has this particular piece of technology exist today?”

I’d love to know what other educators think, so feel free to add your own probing questions in the comments below. I’d be even more tempted to create a lesson or two around this topic with a bit more input 🙂

images: Horn-Book – Spencer Research Library/University of Kansas, Scantron – Benjamin Innes/The New York Times


  1. Great post and thank you for mentioning interactive whiteboards, which enable interactive teaching capabilities that allow instructors to deliver lessons and insight that engage and encourage students. Teachers want tools to help their students collaborate in- and outside the classroom and it’s becoming easier and easier with the advent of smaller, more portable devices that can enable multimedia learning anywhere. You never know when or where an idea will be sparked. We sure have come a long way from the hornbook…

    1. Yes, technology is a great tool and with the advances it has made it easier to incorporate technology to enhance student learning. However, a problem I have come across is the school district not having sufficient funds to provide all this technology in the classrooms. Another issues is many students also lack the technology at home to do all the work that is asked of in an assignment. All this technology is great, but when will it become affordable for all students to benefit from it?

      1. Access is now becoming the largest common denominator in a school’s ability to experience a truly trans formative learning environment. Hopefully, the miserable failure of many pilot 1 to 1 programs a decade ago will give way to the newer experiments and trials that are currently going on with netbooks, mobile devices, and new 1 to 1 programs that are rooted in good pedagogy with the support of strong professional development.

    2. I find your blog to be very interesting on how technology has and will evolve to teach others. Edison predicted that one day books will become obsolete because of the invention of the film projector. One can see this happening in our period of time because of global warming and the “Green” movement. We have books on tape,cds, dvds, e-books on the Internet and much more. Who knows where the present knowledge will evolve. The classrooms where I work have smart boards that work like a chalkboard, computer, and movie screen. The teacher can instruct, write instructions, record and show recorded lessons, and much more. I am really awed by the potential of the smart board and its evolution over the next few years.

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