Forbes: B.F. Skinner Can Save Education

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

Phil DeMuth wrote an article for Forbes called “How B.F. Skinner Will Save Online Education.”  Online education, according to Phil, was supposed to be the answer to what he sees as a bloated and inefficient education system.  In a way, transitioning classes to the virtual environment can have a democratizing effect for students, opening up accessibility while reducing cost and infrastructure.

However, Phil noted “online education got started on the wrong foot.”  By this he means that most online courses simply repackage the old brick-and-mortar way of teaching into a web-based format.  He compares the trend to the dawn of film, which consisted primarily of filming plays, or the first television shows as televised radio broadcasts.  Online education is doing the same thing.

Instead of simply putting lectures online, which he regards as “a form of punishment” for students, he suggests adopting the programmed instruction of B.F. Skinner.  Programmed instruction has a few key ingredients, outlined by Phil: (a) information is provided in small chunks, (b) feedback is given immediately after the student’s response, and (c) activities are individualized to proceed at the student’s pace.

Phil goes on to discuss how “prompts are given initially and then gradually faded out as the student displays competence.”  He actually structured the latter part of his article in a programmed instruction format, by gradually fading letters and words as the article progresses.  In Skinner’s system, successfully “filling in the gaps” or failure to do so would result in immediate feedback regarding the appropriate response.  Moreover, the interactive nature of the learning tends to keep students engaged more than a passive lecture.

You can read the full article, and experience a bit of programmed instruction for yourself, here.

Let us know your experiences with programmed instruction in the comments below, and remember to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

10 Comments on "Forbes: B.F. Skinner Can Save Education"

  1. Readers may be interested in an editorial that I wrote in 2001 entitled The Consequences of e-Learning:

    I spent the last 15 years of my academic career studying and using programmed instruction and collaborative peer tutoring. I rarely published in “behavioral” journals. The formal behavioral academic community needs to move beyond JEAB and JABA. Otherwise, the potential impact of our orientation and work will never be appreciated and applied. I’m sharing this not to toot my own horn but to suggest how challenging it is to do behaviorally oriented work in the area of education and to survive within a traditional academic context.

    • Thanks Henry! I agree, the public doesn’t read JEAB or JABA or academic journals for that matter. Thankfully, a new movement seems to be gaining momentum in the online dissemination of behavior analysis through non-academic outlets such as this site and many others. We can always do more, however. And, we should be comfortable talking in non-technical language if we want others to listen.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more! Thank you for saying it. I am working right now on a book about the science of learning and how it can transform not only elearning but classrooms across the country. Unfortunately, it is not easy writing about the science of learning in words that are not off-putting to educators not training in the field of behavior analysis. But I’m not giving up. I just hope I outlive the project.

      • That’s great to hear about the book Margaret! We at bSci21 would love to be notified when it is released.

  2. How does Skinner’s programmed instruction differ from Fred S. Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction (PSI)?

    • I made an attempt to address both programmed instruction and Keller’s PSI in a chapter entitled: Computer-Based Tutoring Systems: A Behavioral Approach. In J.A. Jacko & A. Sears (Eds.), Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction (pp. 677-697), Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates, 2003.

      The chapter can be accessed on my webpage:

  3. Allison Bickelman | October 4, 2015 at 9:15 pm | Reply

    I’d argue that the bigger issue is education in general, though online programs do better lend themselves towards the use of PI. While conducting research for my masters thesis, titled An Evaluation of Bonus Points for Paced Study Habits, I found a lack of published articles in ABA journals that related to education. However, we know that we have the technology to alter the education system for the better. People don’t all fit into the same cookie cutter, and that is what the overarching education system implies. PI would eliminate this issue and create a personalized and more efficient education experience.

  4. Hi Todd! I completed the BCBA requirements after close to a decade of working as an OT, because I felt it would help me in my work. And it does. I think that some of the behavior analytic research and skills could be valuable to any field. It has helped me better understand myself and those around me. Thanks for the awesome post, Todd!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.