Introducing The Automatic Professor Machine:

One of the areas of controversy in which I’ve been involved over the years has to do with recurring campaigns to “revolutionize” and “revitalize” education through infusions of new hardware, software and information systems.  My overall view of these initiatives is that they (1) typically lack any sound, coherent philosophy of education supported by evidence from actual practice; (2) often simply reflect the quest for immediate profit among technology corporations; (3) usually include overt or covert attacks upon the teaching profession and, especially, teachers unions; (4) all-too-often try to enlist unwitting educational administrators and teachers with the chimerical promise that they’ll become “pioneers” in exciting new approaches to learning.  Left in the shadows in this never-ending stream of well-financed promotions is a key question about education: What do young people need?

My criticisms on this score are not a blanket judgment that information technologies have no valid role in education.  In fact, I believe that education at all levels ought to be well equipped and readily available to everyone at low cost.  Among the kinds of devices I’d place on the list would be books, maps, musical instruments, science lab apparatus, sports equipment of all kinds, stages and props for theatrical performance, computers as appropriate, etc.  My problem comes when a particular genre of equipment – usually the latest gadget or system from commercial electronics – is proposed in a monomaniacal solution to the possibilities and problems of education.  Symptoms of this derangement began with Thomas Edison’s early 20th century dream of replacing school classrooms with Kinetoscope motion picture theaters and have continued with wave after wave of flashy technological gadgets to this day. 

During the 1980s and 1990s I attended a number of gatherings that debated the promise and problems of educational technology.  I was typically one of the critical voices within a room full of people boosting the latest and greatest gadgets – “personal” computers, the LOGO program, educational video games, laptops, and a variety of software packages, etc. – many of which are now deservedly forgotten as anything one could even remotely call significant contributions to today’s education.  In the late 1990s after offering my skeptical arguments within several talks and papers, I received yet another invitation to attend a conference on computers and education, this one at Penn State.  But rather than give yet another straight forward talk, I decided to present a send-up of the typical edu-tech pitch. 

The fairly large audience that morning included a number of luminaries including Neil Postman and Ivan Illich.  After a brief introduction by the conference organizer, I stepped to the podium and announced, “Many of you know me as a critic of educational technologies of various kinds.  But recently I’ve had a change of heart.  I think there are wonderful possibilities for applications of hardware and software in our schools and colleges.”  An audible “gasp” arose from the audience.  (Oh no!  Not Langdon!)  Stepping to the back of the state and changing my sport coat, I emerged as the brassy Silicon Valley BS artist, L.C. Winner, CEO of Educational Smart Hardware Alma Mater, Inc. (EDU-SHAM), touting the features of the Automatic Professor Machine (APM) and its academic home: The Glow Ball University.

During the months that followed I presented the skit, “Introducing The Automatic Professor Machine,” at other universities and conferences.  Eventually I produced the video you see here with the help of my RPI colleague Bruce Laplante.  While it’s a fairly grainy production in both picture and sound, the basic ideas come through pretty well.  In my view, the same skeptical views found in the video apply to more recent generations of educational technology – MOOCs, Schools in the Cloud, Virtual Reality goggles –- you name it.  As successive generations of edu-garbage steadily gravitate toward the local landfill, their failure simply becomes an opportunity for the next great “innovation.”


A serious, scholarly statement of my views appears in the essay “Educational Amnesia and Information Technology” on this web page. 

Introducing the Automation Professor Machine, Part II

A Breakthrough in Educational Technology , Part I

"The Masked Marauders" rock LP:


During the two years in which I wrote articles and reviews for Rolling Stone Magazine, there was one episode of particular interest.  The popularity of a stream of hastily organized “super group” albums at the time raised the question:  What would the ultimate super session be?  One evening in the summer of 1969 a couple of Berkeley friends, Greil Marcus and Bruce Miroff, got together to offer a plausible answer, writing a fantasy review of a non-existent album, “The Masked Marauders.”  As published in the Rolling Stone record review section shortly thereafter, the piece described an exquisite collaboration of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and several other rock luminaries.  Of course, it was all in fun, but a good number of R.S. readers seem to have taken it seriously.


At the time I had a weekly radio program on KMPX in San Francisco with my friend John Morthland who was a writer/editor at the magazine.  We’d play old and new records and talk about them in an informal, rambling way.  When “The Masked Marauders” review appeared it occurred to John and to me that just because there was no such album didn’t mean one couldn’t hear it.  This was the 1960s after all, when anything could happen and usually did!  We knew some folk/rock musicians, including those in The Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band, and had met a fellow who’d recently built a little recording studio in the garage of his Berkeley home.  One evening a couple of days before the radio program, John and I along with Greil Marcus and a group of several serious musicians got together in the makeshift studio, looked over the phony review, and proceeded to record three of the songs it mentioned: “I Can’t Get No Nookie,” “Cow Pie,” and “Duke of Earl.”


At the conclusion of our Friday afternoon radio show, Morthland and I announced a special treat.  “Although many people think that “The Masked Marauders” album does’t exist and is simply a ridiculous hoax, we are here to tell you that the band is completely real.  Here are The Masked Marauders and we’re sure you’ll agree they’ve never sounded any better!”  Then we played the three songs and took phone calls from Bay Area listeners, all of whom seemed amused by the gag. 


The rest of the story involved circulating a tape of the three cuts to other radio stations just for the hell of it.  Soon thereafter I received a telephone call from people at Warner Brothers records in Los Angeles asking if a complete LP could be produced.  Led by Phil Marsh and his musician colleagues, the band reassembled and cranked out what was soon issued as the actual “Masked Marauders” LP. 


The Wikipedia article on this episode contains full details, especially and most importantly the names of all the musicians.  (I played piano and sang on backup vocals.)  Brian Williams report on his NBC Rock Center show offers a video overview of the caper.  


Brian William's Report on NBC Rock Center Show


The Odyssey of Captain Beefheart: Rolling Stone's 1970 Cover Story

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: Deja Vu

Neil Young: After The Gold Rush

Rod Stewart: Gasoline Alley

Miles Davis: Bitches Brew

Paul McCartney: McCartney

The Jackson 5: Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5