Technologies to manage employees: Adaptive e-learning (Skinner’s Teaching Machine realized?)

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By Barbara Bucklin, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

As a manager or supervisor, you’ve undoubtedly tried various methods to train your employees. If you’re like most, some methods worked better than others. Did you know that you can apply principles of behavior analysis to teach job skills to your employees, and that those methods produce results superior to traditional, lecture-based training? Some in our field are unaware that B.F. Skinner was an instructional design pioneer. In the 1950s, Skinner recognized the poorly designed materials used in education at all levels, along with a need to remedy the situation. He devised a teaching method that adapts to each student – a student-controlled pace, the ability to move ahead only when material is mastered, and positive reinforcement given for mastery of each step. He and his students designed programmed instruction using these principles, and even created an early Teaching Machine to deliver instructional materials. This fascinating history is outlined in Skinner’s book The Technology of Teaching (1968).

Skinner criticized ‘teacher-controlled’ instruction, with materials presented to learners as passive receivers. Sadly, this approach is still the norm across educational levels – K-12, Universities, and corporate training alike. Skinner noted that advanced audio-visual technologies at the time (1950s and 60s), such as televisions and film projectors, were incorporated into classrooms as presentation devices with little-to-no student involvement or interaction. This trend has continued throughout time, with the latest technologies used primarily for passive instruction. When computer-based training (CBT) and web-based training (WBT) – also known as e-learning – became widespread in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was one of many behavior analysts hopeful that this technology would quickly be used as Teaching Machines for the masses. Sadly, the movement exploded as another technology to push out instruction to passive learners. Sure, some of us incorporate learning built teaching-machine-like e-learning; but even then, our clients generally didn’t see the value or were reluctant to pay for the extra programming it would take (the multitude of reasons for this are beyond the scope of this article, so I won’t digress). This unfortunate history from the late 1990s to today has resulted in more negative opinions about e-learning than positive, with learners who admit to pressing ‘play’ and leaving the room or engaging in competing behaviors during instructional lessons. You and your employees may have similar experiences; however, let’s fast-forward to e-learning technologies available now.

The purpose of this article isn’t to discourage you from using e-learning. In fact, it’s to encourage you to try some of the newest, most promising, e-learning technologies called ‘Adaptive Learning’ or ‘Personalized Learning.’ Recently designed course-building software exists with built-in algorithms that adjust the experience based on a learner’s progress. Very much like Skinner’s early Teaching Machine, carefully programmed instruction shapes the behavior to be learned by providing sequenced response opportunities, with mastery requirements, along with reinforcement for correct responses. This learning technology seems to be picking up momentum from the articles and presentations I’ve seen in traditional corporate learning venues. I’m hopeful it will turn the e-learning industry into what we behavior analysts expected it to become two decades ago.

I encourage you to explore these new ‘Adaptive Learning’ course-building platforms. If you work in a clinical setting, you may use a form of programmed instruction with your clients.  Adaptive learning technologies allow you to use the same instructional principles to train your staff in the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in their jobs. Experienced employees won’t waste time practicing skills they’ve already mastered, and less experienced staff members won’t fall behind with training that moves ahead too quickly. Plus, adaptive instruction, requires active, meaningful responding rather than passive, ‘sit-back and watch’ instruction.

At the time of this article, there are several companies that market their software to create adaptive learning for organizations (e.g., Area9), which is one of the best platforms I’ve explored). Beware that some of them use cognitive and neuroscience to describe their products; however, despite the marketing language, the instructional algorithms work the way Skinner would’ve hoped for.

As always, if you have questions or comments, I’d enjoy discussing them with you. You can email me at [email protected].  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Skinner, B.F. (1968). The technology of teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.


Barbara Bucklin, PhD is a global learning and performance improvement leader with 20 years of experience who collaborates with her clients to identify performance gaps and recommend solutions that are directly aligned with their core business strategies. She oversees design and development processes for learning (live and virtual), performance-support tools, performance metrics, and a host of innovative blended solutions.

Dr. Bucklin serves as President and is on the Board of Directors for the Organizational Behavior Management Network. She has taught university courses in human performance technology, the psychology of learning, organizational behavior management, and statistical methods. Her research articles have appeared in Performance Improvement Quarterly and theJournal of Organizational Behavior Management. She presents her research and consulting results at international conventions such as the Association for Talent Development (ATD), International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), Training Magazine’s Conference and Expo, and the Organizational Behavior Management Network.  You can contact Dr. Bucklin at [email protected].

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1 Comment on "Technologies to manage employees: Adaptive e-learning (Skinner’s Teaching Machine realized?)"

  1. LeSeillonnais | March 19, 2018 at 10:56 am | Reply

    Thanks Lynda! I’ll keep you posted:)

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