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TechTrends (2016) 60:313315

DOI 10.1007/s11528-016-0068-x


How Historical Thinking Helps with Technology Decision-Making

Bernard Bull 1

Published online: 30 April 2016

# Association for Educational Communications & Technology 2016

Can history help us make decisions about educational technology adoption? The history major may not gain headlines in
popular media regarding the highest demand jobs of the future.
Nonetheless, a foundation in history or historical thinking continues to provide those interested in educational technology
with tools that offer a foundation for everything from consulting
in learning organizations to making decisions about technology
adoption. With that in mind, this article describes five ways in
which history or historical thinking assists those grappling with
educational technology challenges and opportunities.

Trends: Perspective
Education is rich with a constant influx of new terms,
methods, models, technologies and frameworks: adaptive
learning, personalized learning, learning analytics, MOOCs,
the flipped classroom, virtual and augmented reality, digital
badges and micro-credentials, and more. If we look at them
from an historical perspective, it is interesting to discover that
few of them are completely new. Consider an historical perspective on the flipped classroom. If we strip away the technology and give ourselves some liberty with how we define
our terms, the first flipped classroom goes back to the 16th and
17th century with the emergence of the printing press followed by mass-produced texts used in the curriculum. Such a flip
did not use video, but it did allow students to experience
content out of class and then come to class for higher order

* Bernard Bull

Concordia University, Mequon, WI, USA

thinking activities. The same is true for one-to-one and bringyour-own-device programs. The concept of the one-to-one
laptop is new, although many dont realize that even that goes
back 20 years to a private school in Australia (Johnstone
2003). When we look at the basic concept of a flipped classroom, one could argue that the idea of one-to-one devices
relates to the first time students could bring a text between
home and school, allowing students to work through content
at a different time, pace, and place.
For another example, we turn to contemporary concerns
about a topic like grade inflation and academic rigor in K-12
or higher education. To what extent are these new concerns?
Consider the following quote from a 1971 article written by
Louise Cureton on The History of Grading Practices:
BThe present age is one of transition in higher education:
the American college is on trial. Condemnation is heard on
every hand. The capital charge is preferred that there is general
demoralization of college standards, expressing the fact that,
as the college serves no particular educational purpose, it is
immaterial whether the student takes the thing serious or
notThe college is charged with failure in pedagogical insight at each of the critical junctureseducation, so that a
degree may be won with little or no systematic exertion, and
as a result our college students are lacking as a class, concentration, seriousness, and thoroughness^ (Cureton 1971, p. 1).
Note that this quote is taken from an article published in
1971, not from a current issue of the Chronicle of Higher
Education. Even more startling, these are not the authors
(Louise Cureton) words. Rather, this is a quote that she included in her 1971 article that comes from a 1911 essay by W.T.
Foster, President of Reed College. Cureton included it to illustrate the point that some trends are not as new or novel as we
might think. How much louder is Curetons point appreciated
by modern readers, recognizing parallels between concerns of
higher educations institutions in 1911, 1971, and 2016?


This sort of historical perspective allows us to see the educational present as something that grew out of concepts that
have a long history, and we can learn from that history.
Working from this perspective, we analyze the new trends
and models by comparing them to their predecessors, considering what is new and what is not, why practices gained traction in one historical context and not another.

TechTrends (2016) 60:313315

Continuing with the example of the letter grade system as a

technology, our study of its history might lead us to conclude
that such a longstanding history makes it a technology that is
too deeply embedded in the current education system to invest
in trying to create an alternative.

Appreciating History: Learning Organizations

Longstanding Practices: Perspective
An historical viewpoint helps put current practices into perspective. Suppose a person is challenged to help a learning
organization consider an alternative to traditional letter grades
as the dominant assessment technology. Many educators and
students alike may have never known a legitimate school that
does not use letter grades. Letter grades and schooling are
inseparable for them. Others might be concerned about the
current debates over grade inflation. What happens when we
put these topics in historical perspective? It can be helpful to
point out times in history where letter grades were less common or not used at all.
Consider contemporary conversations about the benefits,
limitations and alternatives to the letter grade system: with
new conversations about everything from standard-based
report cards to narrative assessment, portfolio assessment,
and even newer innovations like micro-credentials and digital badges. Mark Durms 1993 summary of key observations about the history of letter grades points out several
facts, including references to concerns in 1911 about the
limitations of letter grades, pointing out that letter grades
have different meanings across organizations. What it takes
to earn an BA^ in one school may not be what it takes to earn
the same grade in another school. This insight from 1911
further suggests that it was still possible to have a highly
rigorous education prior to the use emergence of the letter
grade system in history.
Similarly, by looking at historical accounts of educational
innovations, there also may be insights into the initial motive
for innovations that are now embraced as standard practice.
Consider Neil Postmans (1992, p. 13) claim that the letter
grade system can be traced to William Farish, a Cambridge
tutor in the late 1700s who was paid by students, and devised a
faster letter grade approach to ranking student papers as a
means of being able to take on more students and increase
his salary. While this particular example is difficult to verify,
such illuminations provide context for current practices and
traditions. This example reminds us that the adoption of a
technology, in this case an assessment technology, brings
about benefits and limitations.
An historical perspective also can lead us to be more open
to potential changes and innovations. It also might lead to the
conviction that certain longstanding practices should remain.

Organizational histories, historical reviews of milestones and

development over time, provide one important insight that
allows for easier navigation of change and the potential implementation of new innovations. Trying to carry out changes
in an organization without looking at the historical context is
an exercise in jogging through a field of social-cultural land
mines. Using the tools of the historian to develop an historical
background around a given topic or theme helps us more
safely navigate our way through that field.
I used to teach a graduate educational technology class
where students had to write a 50-year historical study of educational technology in a school. At first, students wondered
about the value of such an assignment, but most of their minds
changed by the time they finished. Such organizational histories might, for example, suggest that there is a long history of
resistance to new technologies, that they had significant failures in technology implementations in the past that might lead
to apprehension, or that they have a long history of embracing
new technology without careful planning or consideration.
Through oral histories and looking at historical documentation, it is possible to surface all sorts of important insights that
can guide decisions about leading (or wisely resisting) the
adoption of new educational technologies.

Starting Simple: Find the Origins

In the digital world, there is no shortage of information. In
fact, it is easy to feel like we are drowning in data. One
way to find our bearings when learning about a new educational trend or innovation is to trace a trend back to
days when it was a simpler concept. Consider the idea of
computer hardware that is used in education. Years ago,
as a new educator interested in exploring a new field, I
signed up for an evening class on computer hardware. In
the class, we started by showing up in a lab full of old
personal computer parts. After reading a simple article
about a particular generation of computer, we had to rebuild that computer. We went through a similar activity
each class until we finally got to the class where we built
a modern computer. This activity made the modern computer seem far less complex because we better understood
where it came from and how it evolved from simpler
days. I am told that many people had similar experiences

TechTrends (2016) 60:313315

when learning how to work on cars. They started with an

older and easier project and worked their way up to the
newer and more complex systems. This same approach
can work with learning about educational trends, innovations, and longstanding organizations. If nothing else, it
gives us a sense of grounding that helps us handle new
and emerging educational innovations.

Escaping the Spirit of the Age

Each age within a given civilization or sub-culture develops
certain ways of thinking, certain shared beliefs, largely unquestioned practices, convictions, or ways of making sense
of the world around them (Edgar 2012). Looking at the past
can help us to partially escape those patterns of thinking,
allowing us to see a current issue or practice from a new
perspective, sometimes walking away with a fuller understanding of benefits and limitations of a current educational
practice. As explained by C.S. Lewis in his essay On the
Reading of Old Books (Lewis & Athanasius 1953):
BEvery age has its own outlook. It is especially good at
seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will
correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period and
that means the old books. All contemporary writers
share to some extent the contemporary outlookeven
those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.
Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies
of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually
assuming without question a good deal which we should
now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as
completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact
they were all the time secretly unitedunited with each
other and against earlier and later agesby a great mass
of common assumptions^ (Lewis, iv).


Column Editors Note

Dear Readers,
I have served as the creator, editor, and sometimes author of the
BHistory Corner^ column since its inception in 2007. During
that time, the column has featured many historical pieces of
instructional technology, as well as articles on various aspects
of the history of our field. My reason for creating this column
was to highlight our fields beginnings. At the time, I was also
chair of AECTs History and Archives Committee, a post I held
for 12 years, and I wished to ensure that the readers of uwere
also introduced to our history, since much of the journal focused on current and future trends. I additionally tried to use
this column to feature new authors doctoral students, junior
professors, and other interested individuals.
I feel it is now time for someone else to take over the post of
column editor for the BHistory Corner.^ I retired as faculty
from Northern Illinois University this past fall, and with this
particular column, I now retire from the position as editor of
this column. (Interestingly enough, as I end this position, my
last author is a former doctoral student of mine, and the new
column editor is someone who I asked to first write a column
here when she was a junior professor!)
The new editor of the BHistory Corner^ column will be Dr.
Darryl Draper of Old Dominion University. Deri is currently a
member of AECTs History and Archives Committee, and her
fascination with the historical aspect of our field has already
resulted in several presentations and articles. I feel that I am
leaving the column in good hands!
Thanks to all of you interested readers, who during my
tenure as column editor I have heard from, as you reflected
on particular articles or column information. I appreciate very
much your interest in what has been written here!
Rebecca P. Butler
Distinguished Teaching Professor, Retired
Northern Illinois University


History might not repeats itself, but history provides important
perspective and context to thought and action in the present,
even (perhaps especially) as we deal with topics related to
educational technology and emerging possibilities for teaching and learning in the digital age. Cultivating these five perspectives provide new insight as educational innovators and
leaders grapple with the challenges, opportunities,
affordances, and limitations of life and learning in an increasingly technological age.

Cureton, L. W. (1971). The history of grading practices. Series Special

from the National Council on Measurement in Education, 2(4), 18.
Durm, M. W. (1993). An A is not an A is not an A: a history of grading.
The educational forum. Spring, 57(3), 14.
Edgar, D. W. (2012). Learning theories and historical events affecting
instructional design in education: recitation literacy toward extraction
literacy practices. Sage Open. doi:10.1177/2158244012462707.
Johnstone, B. (2003). Never mind the laptops: Kids, computers, and the
transformation of learning. New York: iUniverse, Inc.
Lewis, C. S., & Athanasius. (1953). On reading old books: Preface to St.
Athanasius on the Incarnation. In P. Lawson (Ed.), St. Athanasius on
the incarnation: The treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei. Crestwood.
N.Y: St. Vladimirs Orthodox Theological Seminary.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology
(p. 13). New York City: Knopf.