The Past Lives on in the Present: Customized Learning then and Now

Pupils are working on their own. The second and third grade reading class of 63 pupils … is using a learning center and two adjoining rooms. Two teachers and  the school librarian act as coordinators and tutors as the pupils proceed with the various materials prepared by the school’s teachers and … developer, The Learning and Research Development Center at the U. of Pittsburgh. Each pupil sets his own pace. He is listening to records and completing workbooks. When he has completed a unit of work, he is tested, the test is corrected immediately, and if he gets a grade of 85% or better he moves on. if not, the teacher offers a series of alternative activities to correct the weakness, including individual tutoring, There are no textbooks. There is virtually no lecturing by the teacher to the class as a whole. Instead, she is busy observing the child’s progress, evaluating his tests, writing prescriptions, and instructing individually or in small groups of pupils who need help.*

The school is Oakleaf elementary near Pittsburgh (PA) and the time is 1965. Implemented across all grades, the innovative program was called Individually Prescribed Instruction or IPI (el_197203_tillman-2, p. 495).

Nearly a half-century ago, before there were desktop computers, university developers and school-site practitioners championed IPI as a program where students move through materials at differentiated paces until each achieved mastery of the content and skills to then continue on to the next unit of study.  Observers found students engaged in the process, pleased with the prompt feedback, and delighted that each could move at his or her pace rather than wait for the entire class to move to the next lesson.

Sound familiar?

It should. IPI was a more sophisticated version of psychologist B.F. Skinner’s “teaching machine” in the 1950s that evolved from “programmed learning” engineered by psychologist Sidney Pressey in the 1920s.


IPI was a prototype for subsequent online learning once electronic devices became widespread in K-12 and higher education. The DNA of present-day blended learning (e.g., Rocketship schools’ Learning Labs, Carpe Diem schools) and MOOCs in  higher education reaches back nearly a century into  “programmed learning,” “teaching machines,” and  IPI.


Alright, Larry, you made the self-evident point that earlier renditions of self-paced, individualized learning appeared nearly a century ago. So what?

At that time and now, those various incarnations of individualized, self-paced learning sprang from competing ideologies of what children and youth should learn and how they should learn it. Student-centered vs. teacher-centered ways of teaching and learning (and mixes of both) have competed for time and space in K-12 schools for the past two centuries in schools. Teacher-centered instruction (e.g., lecture, discussion, textbook, worksheets, quizzes and tests) has won time and again and dominates classroom lessons. Yet student-centered instruction challenged conventional practice repeatedly.

Connecting students to the real world, students working in small groups and individually, teachers acting as guides and mentors, and a host of other student-centered activities that blend different subjects and skills (e.g., math, science, art, and poetry) moved to center stage of public attention on different occasions (e.g., progressive curriculum and instruction in the 1920s; open classrooms in late-1960s). But after a brief fling in the spotlight receded to the wings in past decades.  Of course, there have been hybrids of both where many teachers hug the middle of the spectrum of instruction, but advocates for each pedagogical ideology continue to contest one another even today when K-12 battles erupt over different kinds of math content, reading textbooks, and early childhood programs.

In higher education, rival ideas about teaching and learning, albeit under wraps, drive  different versions of MOOCs.  The answer, then, to my “so what” question is that  pedagogical ideologies that drove earlier versions of individualized, self-paced instruction are active in current versions of MOOCs.

The prevailing version of MOOCs offers traditional, technology-enriched teacher-centered instruction, that is, lecturing to large groups of people, asking occasional questions, online discussion sections, and multiple-choice questions on exams. Such MOOCs possess advantages of efficiency in delivering information especially in particular subjects (e.g. procedural knowledge in computer science, mathematics). Computer science departments at Stanford, MIT, and Harvard launched the initial MOOC offerings, not the Humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences, according to Keith Devlin, a Stanford University mathematician currently teaching a MOOC course on mathematical thinking.

There are other ways of teaching these courses, however. Some enthusiasts for MOOCs see opportunities for non-traditional forms of teaching where students learn from one another, form online communities, crowd-source answers to problems, create networks that distribute learning in ways that seldom occur in bricks-and-mortar colleges and universities. To Devlin, “the key to real learning has always been bi-directional human-human interaction (even better in some cases, multi-directional, multi-person interaction), not unidirectional instruction.” In other words, student-centered or learner-centered pedagogy.

So these rival ideologies contend with one another in MOOCs as they did when “teaching machines” and IPI were garnering public attention. Chances are efficiencies in cost and delivery will drive MOOCs toward teacher-centered instruction, as has occurred in the past. I would hope, however, that there would be attention to (and discussions of) MOOCs where benefits derived from student-centered ways of learning occur.



*Thanks to Justin Reich and Dan Meyer for pointing me to IPI as a past reform that lives in the present.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

22 responses to “The Past Lives on in the Present: Customized Learning then and Now

  1. Pingback: The Past Lives on in the Present: Customized Learning then and Now by @larrycuban | A New Society, a new education! |

  2. In her essay, “Making Excellent Teachers,” Erica Mcwilliam notes how post war academics quite ruthlessly set about dismantling the entire notion of the great teacher. Shifts in policy today paralleling the growth of the para-professional in medicine especially, have seen a steady increase in adults in classrooms who are not qualified teachers, doing jobs which purport to either support teachers, or leaners, but in some cases are more about securing votes for politicians than anything educationally meaningful.

    Alongside this largely ideological movement to undermine the teacher as expert, the dominance of constructivism as the most influential psychological theory in education means there is an almost universal fascination and focus on learner-centric practice. Add to that the reality that people who join the teaching profession tend to be more interested in other people, and one can see why so much e-learning effort has gone into understanding and supporting the learner, arguably at the expense of empowering and improving the teacher.

    Which is curious, given that the one thing most intelligent educational reformers agree on worldwide, is that if you want to improve childrens’ educational performance, then give them great teachers. The entire drive behind the e-learning movement has largely been from the learner-centric, policy end of the spectrum while the “great teachers” who arguably should have been in the e-learning driving seat making sure what was done delivered educational benefits, have been largely missing in action.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Joe,
      From this side of the Atlantic, distance learning and now online learning has always had a “great teacher” (think lecturer) tradition. The idea was that there are so few “great” teachers that capturing their lectures on a TV camera and beaming it out to millions will spread knowledge and all will be well. That tradition lives on in this early stage of MOOCs, particularly those coming out of elite institutions. A companion movement has been to make these MOOCs (and earlier versions in customized, self-pacing individual lessons) student-friendly with much peer interaction, creation of groups of students who collaborate outside of MOOC or distant learning courses, etc. Both, however, depend upon a teacher-centered lesson where content is explained, concepts unpacked, and ideas turned into smart graphics. This teacher-centered version of instruction continues to dominates online instruction in the U.S. Thanks for the comment.

      • Larry, thanks for explaining the US take on this in higher education. I’ve come across some universities where the same “great teacher” concept has mileage but I don’t come across it in the schools sector at all.

        But perhaps most pertinently, in the past few months I’ve been scripting hours of lectures myself for a European company for a new MSc course they will be offering online and, even as an experienced author who has written for a whole range of media, I’ve found it an extremely difficult challenge. As “teacher,” producing a brief script for an online lecture, is a completely different process and experience to preparing a lesson or live lecture and I am not at all sure how successful it is likely to be from the student’s perspective. Not something I’m used to feeling about live events.

      • larrycuban

        I would have not thought that there would be such a difference, Joe.

  3. Jeff Bowen

    Variations on pedagogical continuums lik this occur within the academic disciplines. I remember Charlie Keller, for instance, whose approach to teaching social studies or history was called post holing.back in the 60’s. This contrasted with traditional survey-type history courses and instead focused on in-depth examination of a particular era or topic. I have heard these things called pendulum swings,.but the pendulum doesn’t end up quite where it started, and therein lies hope that we will come closer and closer to the multidirectional approach that we need as individual teachers and learners.

    • larrycuban

      It has been many years since I heard Charlie Keller’s name, Jeff. Thanks also for the reminder of pendulum swings and how the back-and-forth seldom ends up at the same place.

  4. Pingback: The Past Lives on in the Present: Customized Learning then and Now | Digital Delights |

  5. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Interesting post (again) by Larry Cuban following a theme I had this weekend on this blog with technologies being older than you think. Where in the 2 previous posts it was all a bit of fun, this time it’s much more serious as there are interesting lessons to be learned about MOOC’s for instance.

  6. Robert J. Garmston

    In the sixties, I administered an individualized program in math, language arts, science and social studies. Westinghouse’ Project Plan changed teachers view of teaching and six months in the program was working the way it was designed. This was for an Aramco school in Saudi Arabia and eventually parents through the program out because it was promoting “student thinking” . While not perfect, it changed teachers’ identities – at least for a while. Robert J. Garmston

  7. Pingback: The Past Lives on in the Present: Customized Learning then and Now | Innovations in e-Learning |

  8. Pingback: The Past Lives on in the Present: Customized Learning then and Now | Training, Learning and Instructional Design |

  9. Pingback: The Past Lives on in the Present: Customized Learning then and Now | Learning Labs |

  10. Pingback: The Past Lives on in the Present: Customized Learning then and Now | Teaching & Learning Blogs |

  11. Rich Graham

    Your description of Oakleaf Elementary really took me back in time. You see, I attended that school from 1968-73, and I remember well learning through the IPI process.

  12. Pingback: The Past Lives on in the Present: Customized Le...

  13. Pingback: Is there a good way that schools could better serve their most advanced students? – Teaching With Problems

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