The evolution of classroom tech, from wax tablets to the iPad

Dragging education into the Information Age has taken centuries of technological improvements.

Evolving education

Classroom technology has been revolutionizing learning ever since people in Mesopotamia used the first abacus all the way back in 2700 BCE—and it has been moving especially fast since the latter half of the last century.

So, what technological teaching aids came before the laptop and tablet? Read on to find out, and feel free to take (Ever)notes—there may just be a quiz at the end.*

*Not really

14th century BCE: Wax tablet and stylus

Before the iPad, there were Windows XP tablets. (Remember, Steve Jobs wasn't a visionary—he was a re-visionary.) And waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay before Windows XP tablets, there were wax tablets, which were simply wood slates covered in a layer of wax, sometimes with a closing cover. Eat your heart out, Smart Cover.

Spats over which tablet came first extend even to these slimy slates. The Greeks still get all the wax-tablet glory, but the earliest wax tablets were found in a shipwreck in Turkey.

Image: Roman-style wax tablet via Wikipedia

1500s through 1900s: Magic lanterns

Long before film projectors—heck, long before pencils—there were magic lanterns.

Thrust those visions of Aladdin from your head. These early image projectors looked like miniature stoves, and when you put a glass slide etched with an image inside, they cast the image for all to see. The secret sauce? A convex mirror and a light source. Unfortunately, because light sources back then consisted of candles and other ho-hum flames, the resulting image wasn't exactly high fidelity.

Unscrupulous charlatans used magic lanterns to “conjure” demons, but the tech also helped to spread knowledge of art and architecture throughout the world, according to

Image via Wikipedia

1890: Chalkboard

The humble chalkboard did not see widespread use until the late 1800s, long after magic lanterns had woven their mystical spells over the scholarly and the gullible alike. To be fair, chalkboards for educational purposes had popped up on occasion a few hundred years earlier, but c’mon—it's kind of like inventing the printer before you invent the wheel.

Pencils came shortly thereafter, in 1900. But enough about static technology! Let’s dive into classroom tech with honest-to-goodness moving parts.

Image via Wikipedia

1950: Headphones and language labs

Say what you want about Beats by Dre—headphones started playing a vital role in the classroom in the 1950s. Language labs mashed up audio reels or cassette tapes with real, live instructors to help teach students around the world how to say hola en español. Yay, monotonous repetition!

Language labs are still around today, but they rely on digital files and modern PCs rather than scratchy old magnetic tapes.

Image via Wikipedia

1951: Videotapes

What headsets and reel-to-reel tapes did for audio, videotapes did for audio and video. Pretty much any American schooled in the latter quarter of the last century can attest to how much of a mainstay the ol’ VCR was to the U.S. educational system—especially after Sesame Street and PBS arrived around 1970. Heck, plenty of schools still bust out videotapes to this day, despite the VCR’s being a dead technology at least twice over.

Image via Wikipedia

1957: B.F. Skinner's teaching machine

B.F. Skinner was an inventor and a psychologist (among other things), and in the late ’50s, he crammed his two loves together to create the forerunner of today’s educational software: the aptly named teaching machine.

Students using the earliest teaching machines tapped along with a rhythm that the contraption spit out, or responded to its basic yes/no questions. Correct answers resulted in some sort of positive reinforcement, and instructors could fine-tune a machine to fit an individual student’s pace.

Teaching machines enjoyed modest success in the classroom, which is more than pigeon-guided missiles designed to take out German battleships—another Skinner invention—can claim. And hey, years later, Portal’s companion cubes happened, so everybody wins.

Image via Wikipedia

1950s and 1960s: Projectors

The late ’50s brought students everywhere their first look at slide projectors. The devices were similar to magic lanterns, but better (thanks, incandescent lightbulbs!), and they had more breakable internal parts. In 1962, Kodak rolled out the first carousel-style slide projector, which was basically like a magic lantern mixed with a Gatling gun—all too appropriate, since projectors were first popularized in the military.

Overhead projectors—also introduced to education in the ’50s—made it easy to walk through math problems with the whole class, and remained popular in schools for decades, though the advent of whiteboards stole some of the projector’s luster.

Image via Wikipedia

1970: Handheld calculator

Who needs to work through math problems when you have a calculator? In the early 1970s, the first portable handheld calculators appeared, sporting low-powered chips and the itty-bitty LED displays still in use to this day.

Fancy-schmancy graphing calculators roared onto the scene in the mid-’80s, though it took until 1996 for the legendary TI-83 to appear and to amuse bored students around the globe with its killer drawing capabilities.

Images via Wikipedia

1972: Scantron

Tabulating machines and basic data processing are centuries old, but until Scantron’s machines started dispassionately judging student work in the early 1970s, teachers had to grade multiple-choice exams by hand. Scantron’s easy-to-use roboscoring sent the popularity of multiple-choice tests skyrocketing, and midterms were never the same again. (Remember: When in doubt, choose “C.”)

Fun fact: Scantron grading machines are like razors. The machine is typically free, but the proprietary test papers cost beaucoup bucks.

Image via Loyola Marymount University

1980s: Apple II

Plenty of personal computers existed around the same time as the Apple II, including the IBM PC, the first truly successful mainstream desktop. Apple’s computer stole the education spotlight in the ’80s and early ’90s, however, thanks to the aggressive volume discounts Apple offered to schools.

If you’re an American between the ages of roughly 25 and 40, you probably spent part of your youth in a computer lab chock-full of these puppies, fiddling with floppy disks and staring at green letters flickering on the Apple II’s black screen—unless, of course, you were a member of a later, luckier generation that got updated Apple IIs with the full color spectrum and the utterly awesome Oregon Trail.

Image via Wikipedia

1991: Interactive whiteboard

David Martin and Nancy Knowlton first dreamed up interactive whiteboards—big, computerized displays with touch controls—in 1987. By 1991, they cofounded SMART Technologies and rolled out their first SMART boards. Those early models consisted of touchscreen LED monitors connected to a PC; nowadays, a wide array of interactive whiteboards are available, with input technologies ranging from infrared touch to electromagnetic pens to your basic resistive touchscreen.

Interactive whiteboards are especially common in Britain, where as of 2007 [PDF], 98 percent of secondary schools and all primary schools had at least one IWB.

Image via Wikipedia

1992: The Interwebs!

The early Internet was the exclusive stomping ground of the government and cutting-edge universities, and classroom use of the Web didn't flourish until the National Science Foundation lifted the ban on commercial Web use in the early ’90s. In 1994, a mere 3 percent of classrooms were Net-connected. By 2001, that number had skyrocketed to 87 percent, and now, virtually all American teachers (and many of their students) have a computer and the ability to surf Reddit—um, research—while the Scantron hums along.

1993: First fully online university

Once the Internet floodgates opened, the first online-only university soon followed. Jones International University was the first educational institution to sling bits and bytes rather than distribute physical books, opening its e-doors in 1993 and gaining official accreditation in 1999 (another first for an e-school).

Twenty years later, homebodies have all sorts of options for studying reading, writing, and arithmetic online. Not only do online universities abound, but many physical schools offer online courses in some capacity, and you can find all sorts of ways to get a completely free education online. Among the options are Ivy League schools, open platforms such as Wikiversity , and massive online open courses from Coursera, Udacity , and more, all clamoring to fill inquisitive brains for nary a dime.

2001: Wikipedia

Classrooms, meet Web 2.0. No site holds more sway over education than the seminal Wikipedia, which launched in 2001 and now spans 30 million entries in 287 languages, according to Wikipedia’s Wikipedia page. Sure, most teachers may frown on using the collaboratively edited website for research, but everyone does it—even if only to check out the listed sources for a topic of interest.

But even beyond that, Wikipedia is startlingly accurate. A 2005 test by Nature magazine found Wikipedia to be just as accurate as the legendary Encyclopedia Britannica, which announced in 2012 that it would no longer create print editions—a decision no doubt prompted by Wikipedia’s massive influence.

2006: Khan Academy

No talk of classroom technology would be complete without mentioning the splendiferous Khan Academy. A labor of love by Harvard Business School/MIT graduate Salman Khan, Khan Academy taps into advances in video technology and broadband Internet to bring a remarkably robust library of more than 4500 educational videos straight to your browser.

Each clip is between 3 and 10 minutes long, targeting education levels from kindergarten on up to college-level physics and humanities courses. Progress trackers and practice exercises ensure that the knowledge sticks—and that you’re watching the vids in the best possible order. And people are using those resources: According to the site, more than a quarter-billion e-lessons have been served over the years.

2006: One Laptop Per Child

Laptops have become a staple in the classroom, but not everyone can afford an aluminum-clad MacBook Air. The nonprofit One Laptop Per Child organizations were founded to ensure that underprivileged children in developing countries are able to tap into modern learning resources. OLPC created its own custom, ruggedized laptop—the XO—with a long battery life, zero movable parts, and other rough-condition features, and has thus far distributed more than 2.4 million of the machines worldwide.

In August 2013, OLPC announced that Uruguay will be the first country to receive the organization’s new XO Tablets, which are also available for purchase at numerous retailers in the United States, including Amazon and Walmart. Which brings us to our next entry…

2010: The iPad

It’s difficult to overstate just how huge of an impact the iPad has had in the three short years since its introduction. Beyond pushing PC sales over a cliff, the iPad and its ilk have been absolute monsters in the classroom. As of February, Apple has sold more than 8 million slates to educators worldwide. More than a third of all K-12 classrooms rock an e-reader or tablet, according to PBS. Almost half of Advanced Placement courses lean on tablets in some way, according to Pew Research. E-textbooks are a blossoming business, too. Earlier this year, iTunes U cracked the 1 billion downloads mark.

“The adoption of the iPad in education is something I’ve never seen in any technology,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a 2012 conference call, and boy, is he right. Tablets are already radically reshaping the course of education.

The future? Oculus Rift

Predicting the future is harder than acing the SATs, but we’re going to give it a shot. Though the hardware is still in developmental beta and it’s ostensibly designed for gaming, not grading, the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset could be the next big thing in classrooms around the globe. The price is right, the technology is astounding, and the Rift’s broad software support already impresses.

Read about the nongaming uses of Oculus Rift to learn how the headset could—could—be a boon to history students, medical students, journalism students, and millions of others.

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