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The 1960's - The White Heat of Technology

By Peter Avis September 27th 2014

The sixties saw the birth of educational technology as a distinct but multi-purpose discipline. It was a time when technology in general was high profile with large, government-funded technological projects and individual consumers buying and using technology regularly in their everyday lives. Two factors helped its birth. First, teachers began to use audio-visual technology and a whole range of other devices to liven up their lessons and a few pioneers began to incorporate computers into their teaching. Second, Government was worried that the education system was not producing the skills needed for the future and both political parties developed ways to intervene, and create mechanisms to 'improve' the education process. These factors are developed in more detail in later sections but the article below provides the broad context for the birth of educational technology.

Tony Benn and Harold Wilson

UK and USA lag in space race
leads to education rethink

Along with sex-drugs-and rock 'n' roll the sixties invented technology including educational technology - well almost.

It was a time of large conspicuous technological projects when governments aimed to reach the moon and develop supersonic aircraft but also a time when people began to buy and use technology regularly in their everyday lives, washing machines, cars, hoovers and there was great interest in new audio-visual devices; TVs, radios, slide projectors. These became much more accessible at home - and of course to schools and colleges.

The use of equipment including film projectors, epidiascopes and other audio-visual equipment was well embedded in many schools including primary schools by the middle of the sixties (London Illustrated News, 1967). More powerfully the concept that learning needed to be managed in an organised and systematic way (Rowntree, 1974) was gaining ground and early attempts at programmed learning were developed.  The advent of the earliest computers also accelerated interest and activity in this area.

Whitehall begins to intervene in education

Technology had an impact on education in an indirect but powerful way during the sixties. Political concern about the outcomes of education and training was raised by the Soviet Union's launch of the sputnik in 1957 and its launch of the first man into space with Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Both the UK and the USA governments were concerned that their scientific and technological education lagged behind the USSR, particularly in the quality and quantity of the scientists and engineers produced by the system but also in how schools could modernise their curriculum and methods of teaching. "Are we satisifed that in the face of this pressure that the education service as a whole is properly equipped to first study and then to introduce acceptable changes in content and teaching methods without compromising fundamentals?" Lord Eccles, Minister of Education 1962 The school curriculum was very much a local concern, decided by individual headteachers under the loose control of local government but the Conservative administration of the early 1960s believed they were not necessarily equipped to always make the right choices in the face of the pace of change and embarked on a number of developments to reform educational practices at all levels (Times, 1962).

The Minister of Education, David Eccles belived that much of the content and processes of education were out of date (Times, 1964) and established a curriculum study group within the Ministry.. In 1964 his Conservative successor, Sir Edward Boyle, replaced the group with the Schools' Council. To counter accusations that local autonomy over the curriculum had been undermined by the study group, the Council was based on a partnership between central and local Government and teachers. It advanced a wide range of national projects that typically sought to develop new ways of teaching and assessing a subject and to spread good practice. SMP Mathematics, Nuffield Physics and a number of other initiatives were also set up to change the school curriculum landscape.

MacDonald and Kemmis (1975) described this as a time when relatlvely substantial efforts were made by governments to accelerate and shape educational systems to meet the manpower needs of technology-based economies". They saw the Schools Council as a direct part of to this, a curriculum innovation system based on centrallsed invention and production followed by dissemination.

More specifically for educational tehnology, in 1963 the Ministry of Education (soon to become the Department for Education and Science), recognised the importance of audio visual devices and other technologies and set up the Brynmor Jones Committee to investigate their use in higher education (Mackenzie, 2005). They reported in 1966 and as well as advising on university education they advised on school and college use. One of the outcomes of the Brynmor Jones report was the setting up the National Council for Educational Technology in 1967.

White Heat of Technology

quotesThe Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry."

Harold Wilson (1963)

Tony Benn and Harold Wilson

Tony Benn and Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson's government of 1966 was committed to developing the UK as a technological leader but his oft quoted words about the 'White Heat of technology' that the technological revolution would only become a reality with major changes to the way people did things. This has real resonance for the next fifty years of educational technology where often practice lagged well behind technology. Wilson appointed Tony Benn as Minister for Technology in 1966 who took responsibility for projects such as the development of Concorde and the formation of International Computers Ltd (ICL).

Change was also happening in education with experiments in distance learning such as the National Extension College and later the Open University being fostered and supported.

Commentary - History repeats itself
The response from government to the use of audio-visual devices was a process repeated a number of times over the next fifty years. Broadly the process starts off with the development of a new technology which some teachers and students pioneer in the classroom, raising questions about the need to adapt and develop the curriculum and teaching approaches. Government sets up an expert group who consider new developments both in technology and pioneering approaches by teachers, often from the US, after a time produce a report that supports the need for change but also identifies the need for further advice and intervention in the education system. Government creates an intermediary organisation to help achieve the change needed but also protecting itself from direct responsibility if the change is risky. The same kind of process can be seen in the early 1970s with computers and NDPCAL, in the late 1970s with microelectronics and MEP, and in the late 1990s with the internet and Becta.

Date Technology Committee/Report Organisation/Programme created
early 60s
Audio Visual devices
Brynmor Jones Committee and Report NCET in 1967
early 70s Computers Duke report and CET feasibility studies NDPCAL
late 70s Microelectronics and personal computers Hubbard report from CET to DES. MEP
mid 90s Internet/Superhighways Stevenson Committee and Report Becta - reformed from NCET

This isn't so remarkable a case of history copying itself because it stems from the fact that in England (and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) the Education Department has no internal mechanism nor any desire to carry out research and development or to implement change, so an area like educational technology which continually throws up new challenges is a problem to it.

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Brynmor Jones,1965. 'Report on Audio-Visual Aids in Higher Scientific Education', London: HMSO

London Illustrated News. (1967, 15th April). School wired for sound and vision.

MacKenzie N.,2005. Genesis: the Brynmor Jones report. British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 36 No 5 2005

Macdonald, B and Kemmis, S (1976) Macro-project and Meta-evaluation – the UNCAL Experience. Research Intelligence, 2. pp. 36-39 (online version)

Rowntree D. (1974) Educational Technology in Curriculum Development, Harper and Row, London

The Times (1964) "What To Teach." Times [London, England] 14 Mar. 1964: 9. The Times Digital Archive.

The Times (1962) "Scrutiny Of Methods In School." Times [London, England] 13 Mar. 1962: 12. The Times Digital Archive.

Wilson H., 1963 'Speech opening the Science Debate at the Party's Annual Conference', Scarborough, 1963, published in Harold Wilson, Purpose in Politics: Selected Speeches (London, 1964),