(Originally presented by Sean Mills at Wake Forest University in 2009)

An Origin Story for Modern Tooled Education

I am going to be talking about a little known origin of some of our very familiar educational methods. Many lectures today will use a POWER POINT slide show or some equivalent to help illustrate and pace their presentations. These mechanically aided lessons are examples of tooled education, and they are a fundamental part of any type business as a way of communicating. My goal will be to discuss the first attempts to codify and implement these ideas to assist teaching. Hopefully, this review of the past will help improve our teaching.

"Tooled education" is a term used to explain the physical way in which information is submitted to its audience of students. There was an essay by Modernist Designer George Nelson, which discussed his role in a demonstration of teaching methods. His use of the term “tooled education” was more casual than my use, because in that moment, he was simply explaining his demonstration. This demonstration containing film, slide projection, audio recording, and graphic design proposed a new kind of education curriculum. His argument states that education, and in this instance, higher education in a college setting, could naturally benefit from the tools of industry.

While most educators still believed in a classic model of the classroom involved an instructor simply speaking to his students discussing examples, the competitive business world required a more structured dissemination of information in direct ways. These business ways usually emphasized quantifiable facts offered in the most expedient way. Industry cannot allow for unintended mystery, and demands haste in order to  compete. The methods of industry were indeed being measured by the new notions of time motion studies, scrupulous accounting of minutes and balances. These findings were presented with the new tools of projectors, film, audio tape, and what could be called info-graphics which Nelson helped pioneer for the U.S. goverment.

This concept of industrial style in education is crucial, a revolution in the way information is handled. The argument of Nelson and his collaborator Eames, was in some ways anathema to a way of life. In this talk, I will be explaining this argument in depth and outline the results that followed.

Tooled Education is a net that I believe all methods of disseminating information, knowledge, or wisdom from some form of expert to some form of student. In this way, a written lecture, delivered under the power of the speakers voice into the ears of a their audience is a type of tool. In this the simplest forms of communications, one quickly recalls the utility of amplifying the speakers voice. This is done through the architecture of the room or perhaps a microphone. These items too, can be tooled education.

Part of Nelson's offered his vision of an optimum type of tooled education. I hope to illustrate this process which we will now come to refer to as "Modern Tooled Education or "MTE."  This MTE prefigures some of our contemporary tools such as our POWER POINT presentations, WEBSITES, as well as educational videos.

This qualifier "modern" is apt because MTE was a product of its times, it was the era of the Modern Architecture, the rise of industrial design, and the proliferation of prefabricated products, a new ways of making things. The "World of Tomorrow" was being discussed in a post war, post recession period of growth in America and abroad. George Nelson, in particular, had a hand in shaping this Modern world through his career at HERMAN MILLER, and in his writing. It is Nelson's definition of modern that I am interested in preserving.

I can simplify this idea of the Nelsonian Modern like this, "Combining the classic forms with the new technology, for a practical purpose, perhaps on the path to an ideal (world)." So, in a literal example, Nelson would sometimes cite his time as a scholar in Italy seeing the ruins of a Roman relic integrated into a new building, marble mixing with glass and carpet made of wool and later Nylon, the strength of an old structure upholding the face of perhaps a coffee shop where contemporary people continued to live and work. In this way, one can appreciate the perspective behind what Nelson was attempting to explore in education. An ever adapting consideration of  the past to facilitate the present and resulting in innovation.

Nelson was chosen to oversee a special commission on behalf of the United States. In July of 1959, they debuted an exhibition of “science, technology, and culture” in Sokolniki Park in Moscow.  The American National Exhibition was a political act of diplomacy that would take the place of a World's Fair. This display of American life in the Soviet Union was the location of Vice President Nixon and Russian Premier Nikita Krushchev’s  “Kitchen Debate.” They compared ways of life and as, “historian Elaine Tyler-May has noted, instead of discussing “missiles, bombs, or even modes of government…[the two leaders] argued over the relative merits of American and Soviet washing machines, televisions, and electric ranges.”  (Columina 8)

The household appliances were on display like a shopping mall with no cashiers, but it was the film by Charles and Ray Eames’ that really stole the show.  Inside the Buckminster Fuller designed Dome, under the supervision of George Nelson, the Eameses had assembled seven screens that were suspended from the ceiling each containing images projected in quick succession.  In one example, the screens all displayed a bird’s eye views of highways all over America, with each example combining to form a pattern of curving lines.  The movies began with the an image of the night sky and with this narration, “The same stars that shine down on Russia shine down on the United States. From the sky our cities would look much the same.” (Demetrios 235).

At a time when the satellite sputnik hung as an ominous warning in that same sky, the designers made an appeal to the Soviets' common humanity.  It seems like a fitting gesture, a polite introduction and argument for peace.  Amazingly, the content of this multimedia presentation “Glimpses of the U.S.A.” was seen in public for the first time in Moscow with no input or critique from the U.S. Government.  As the only individuals capable of such feats of production in such little time, the designers held unique power.  This exchange of National Exhibits was put into motion with less than a year to plan. Eames would become famous for executing the flash projection of 2,200 color photographs that were taken by himself and culled from the archives of America's various magazines.

This multimedia lesson, was an introduction of the way Americans lived in order that the USSR might be persuaded not to annihilate these ways of life through war. For example, they had to prove that the American Highways were a convenient way to get around and that their nuclear family's were a happy productive unit. So, in this particular way, Eames reasoned that if hew were to tell someone that everyone drives their Buick's around these big roads that connect all our cities, a skeptical audience might not believe him, or simply assume that he was exaggerating. However, by displaying a huge amount of examples, there is a type of indexical proof. At the same time, this display provides a more complex concept of what and how Americans drive then any one metaphorical example might illustrate. This was a type of tooled education that had to compress the concept of a foreign country into about 15 minutes.

The designers of this production were George Nelson, Charles Eames and his wife Ray Eames, who managed to put together this show because they had all worked on such a project once before:

As Beatriz Colomina writes:
“What kind of genealogy can one make of the Eameses’ development of this astonishingly successful technique? It was not the first time they had deployed multiple screens. In fact, the Eameses were involved in one of the first multimedia presentations on record, if not the first. Again, it was George Nelson who set up the commission. In 1952 he had been asked to make a study for the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Georgia in Athens, and he brought along Ray and Charles Eames and Alexander Girard. Instead of writing a report, they decided to collaborate on a ‘show for a typical class” of fifty-five minutes. Nelson referred to it as “Art X” while the Eameses called it, “A Rough Sketch for a Sample Lesson for a Hypothetical Course.”  

While Nelson and Eames were putting together the National Exhibit in Russia,  faculty members at the University of Georgia were putting into practice similar shows based on the original work which debuted in Athens, Georgia seven years earlier.  It started with a cold phone call placed by Lamar Dodd to George Nelson in June.

Lamar Dodd was the head of The University of Georgia’s art program, which he helped transform from a department of “3 faculty members, 50 broken slides, and a budget of $50” as a visiting artist in 1937 into a school with “50 Professors and budget of $2 Million,” when he left the position as Director (Mack 10C).  Dodd’s reputation as a southern painter preceded him, and he eventually convinced Nelson to at least visit Georgia. (Abercrombie 141).  George Nelson’s own reputation was firmly established at this time, he was the head of Herman Miller and his critiques of art and architecture were influential.  Dodd won a General Education Board Grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave him a considerable amount of money to dispose with as he saw fit.  This is crucial, because he was asking George Nelson to consult with him to critique educational policy to the chagrin of the faculty. It would take an individual with a discretionary fund to move forward with this project.

Busy with his the duties of his office, yet intrigued by Lamar Dodd’s opportunity, Nelson came to study the many classes offered in UGA's art program.  As a former architecture teacher at Columbia and Yale, Nelson was familiar with teaching, but not administrative procedures. Nelson came away with what he considered, “several uneasy thoughts.”

First, he noticed that many students were taking art classes who were not planning careers as artists. He noticed that the teaching method towards artists and those taking classes simply because they “wanted to” were all the same.  Nelson concluded that the real goal of the department was not instructing students in the technical skills required to paint, draw, weave, or sculpt. Instead, Nelson claimed “isn’t the real problem to foster understanding and creative capacity so that these qualities could be employed in any situation? And if this were the real problem, how would a school go about meeting it? Is intensive instruction in drawing and modeling the best way? Or is this method used simply because it has always been the art school method?”(Nelson 2).

The faculty joined with George Nelson to evaluate their objectives.  The discussion was a rare act of self-reflection for an institution; it included everything from subject matter, the role of the teacher, and ultimately the very subjects in the curriculum. Instructors asked themselves should students be required to perform a fifth “graduate” year after their bachelor studies?  Afterward, Dodd convinced Nelson to head up an advisory committee in the fall and Nelson agreed while asking Dodd to invite Charles Eames.  In his article recounting his experiences, “The Problems of Design,” Nelson explains:

“Now that we had asked the basic questions, it was perfectly clear that much time was being wasted through methods originally developed for other purposes. For example, one class was finishing a two-week exercise demonstrating that a given color is not a fixed quantity to the eye but appears to change according to the colors around it. In a physics class such a point would have been made in about five minutes with a simple apparatus, and just as effectively.

We cited this example in an effort to establish a principle by which teaching effectiveness could be evaluated. We suggested that if a school knew fairly precisely what it wanted to communicate, a yardstick could be used for checking its methods. The yardstick was a clock. In other words, given the intention of communicating something specific, the shortest time taken to do this-without loss of comprehension or retention-represented the best method…

…From the faculty's point of view, there were good reasons for opposing mass educational techniques at a college level. For many of them college is the last stronghold of individualized instruction, where the student-teacher relationship is the vital core of education. Others, we realized, were exasperated by proposals, which would mean new burdens on the school budget and their own scarce time. There exists in the art professions a strong feeling that their problems arc unique and that methods sanctioned by tradition need not be questioned too closely. All of this was perfectly understandable, for in education, standards of performance are not under the same pressure as in industry, and the price of inefficiency is not exacted as swiftly or as ruthlessly.” (Nelson 2-3)

Eames and Nelson were effectively challenging a way of life for the UGA faculty and antagonizing the established education system.   The theory was that a) the memorization of facts was overemphasized, and b) understanding how concepts are connected is an underlying goal. Thus, the theory predicts that this kind of understanding is accelerated through a designed, automated process. In other words, memorizing items in a list, like names and dates was taking precedence over useful knowledge that students would be using in their lives and careers. Nelson and Eames were hoping to provide an alternative by expertly synthesizing the information the teachers already had into a multi-media presentation. This novel use of multi media was the means by which lessons could be standardized and complex ideas could be explained thoroughly. Inevitably this would lead to the same information being taught faster than before.

The team of Charles Eames and George Nelson was completed with the addition of Alexander Girard. Girard would would provide the exhibitions or displays and posters which would accompany the lecture. Months went by while the committee worked in their respective studios: Nelson in New York, Girard in Michigan, and the Eames in California. Eames and Nelson decided to split an hour long class in two, each man designed a presentation with three slide projectors onto three screens using cans of film, boxes of slides, and reels of magnetic tape.  Girard produced large displays with diagrams and symbols referenced in “canned lecture.”  Their methods were exhaustive, pouring the staff and resources of three design firms into research and assemblage of their lecture.

Explaining what this production looked and sounded like requires both a good imagination and some familiarity with film and photography of the 1950’s. As Nelson later remarked, “Any audio visual presentation that is more than a series of stills strung together cannot be described except in its own terms.”  However, this is an attempt at explaining the Art X demonstration. Picture “a dry voice” narrating from within an completely enclosed environment, in one case many samples invoke the concept of  “abstraction.” The images are projected in quick succession on three screens simultaneously: a slide from a Picasso painting, a picture of London, a selection of streets on a subway map, all the while images are shifting constantly.  “The entire space dissolves into sound, space and color.”
(Nelson 3).

Stanley Abecrombie gives this description:

“The beautifully put together hour-long lesson began with a 10 minute film by Nelson that dissolved into a 10 minute series of three screen slide projections, also composed by Nelson. A 10 minute film by Eames on “communication process” came next; then more slides by Nelson (some single, some triple) on the subject of abstraction, then a 4-minute excerpt from a French film on the evolution of lettering and 3 minute segment edited by Eames, on “the animated calligraphy of sound,” Next, 10 minutes edited by Nelson from a film on Egyptian art and architecture by Ray Garner, and, to close, another Eames film segment on “communication method.”

Eames said, “we were anxious to treat multimedia as a tool and not a show.”(Demetrios 237.) This tool was a technical innovation.  Both Nelson and Eames were using a three-screen set-up, which they admitted was the result of thrift.  The idea is that if you had a big enough screen you can fully encompass your viewers’ field of vision.  Without access to an all encompassing large screen, setting up three screens together accomplishes much of the same goal, but it added flexibility as well. The designers manipulated three separate sets of images independently and at different speeds.  The side effect was larger  gestalt image, on the three screen in addition to the original three slides. Another break through came from the slide projectors which were used to fill the gaps left behind in 16mm film segments. Originally, the committee figured they would use preexisting film samples to amplify their points, but this proved expensive and impossible to collect.  Instead Eames used his own photographs-he argued that individual photographs complemented naturally with the way our memory functions.  That humans capture single crucial images more readily than continuous moving images. The images and examples played on the screens were later recalled the stationary Girard’s posters.

Nelson felt confident that their demonstration successfully communicated large amounts of information in a short amount of time and in a reliable manner.  Their multimedia invention communicated complex thoughts with a great deal of impact on the audience, according to Eames:
“We used a lot sound, sometimes carried to a very high volume so you would actually feel the vibrations…. We did it because we wanted to heighten awareness…. The smells were quite effective.  They did two things: they came on cue, and they heightened the illusion. It was quite interesting because in some scenes that didn’t have smell cues, but only smell suggestions in the script, a few people felt they had smelled things-for example the oil in machinery.”(Kirkham 318).

Eames refers to the bottles of synthetic smells, which were piped into the air conditioning system.  The initial audience of faculty members was impressed and after 6 more screenings, their work was packed up and was shown to even more people at UCLA, then again in Pittsburgh. In 1955, Nelson and Eames both returned to Athens, this time to watch UGA’s faculty perform their own version of Art X. 
The faculty of the University of Georgia’s art school put the theories of the committee into their daily practice of teaching freshman art students. Immediately, after the Eames-Nelson Demonstration the art school combined the subjects of drawing, modeling, painting, carving, and automated lectures into their curriculum.  With no additional equipment or budget, two teachers were able to produce thirty packages in one year. 
The transition from theory to practice was an learning experience for the UGA faculty,  itself.  “The Basic Art Courses,” as described by faculty member Dr.Erwin M. Breithaupt, were taught for decades with the goal of introducing students to a complete understanding of art.  This series of classes was continually refined and taught by new professors over its lifetime.  Art 120 was the first course for an entering art student on the path to become an artist.  The tool of automated projection augmented the personal instruction of the professors.  In some ways, it was also a sort of boot camp that shook students out of their preconceived notions and opened them up the possibility of their own capabilities.

Using slides from their library and resorting to making their own from pieces of paper taped to glass, Breithaupt focused on the tool of multimedia to quickly project images and then demand that the students react- a sort of learning by doing technique that was so crucial to the Art X committee.  Richard J. Olsen , another Art 120 teacher who witnessed some of the last years of its use, recalls the student experience in his class:  

“They don't know when it is going to happen- here it comes...and then it doesn't come. AND THEN it does come, and, "I wasn't looking! I was asking a neighbor!" But, whatever happened, happened.  And you're responsible for leaving some reaction to the image on your paper.  So the marks on the 4” x 4” Flash Slides were made by the people that put the course together, huge, lozenges, cylinder shapes. Marks...vertical, maybe a slight tilt-A one o'clock tilt.-But all about the same size and length-On a piece of paper, that is photographed, and put onto a slide which you will put on the screen.  So there was this whole bunch of work that set up the making of these marks, These marks, are from one to two to three, Just a huge series of marks that you and then you get into position, and then you get into the size of the marks. Hundreds and hundreds of slides, then, later as a teacher, you could pick slides that had to do with building complexity, then turn around and use marks of less complexity. You know you could keep the suspense going, the anticipation going, and you never gave them what they expected. So you got all that going for you, but you have the equipment, the slides to shoot, so when I would pick slides I would always set up the class to have the rug pulled out from under them. So that no one ever could trust me at all, (laughs ironically) they had to learn to trust themselves.”

If the goal was to use modern tools to assist in teaching, the teachers’ fear was that modern tools would render their role obsolete.  Meanwhile, a scientific approach to drawing was gaining attention, with research into both the psychology of how our brains interpret images as well as studies into visual perception.  In 1947, Hoyt L. Sherman a painter and professor at, Ohio State, published his only book, “Drawing by Seeing.” This work inspired Betty Edwards for her more well known work, “Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain” (1978).  (McWhinnie 3) Sherman’s legacy was a teaching environment called, “the flash lab.”

“This was a room that could be blackened was equipped for the projection of images upon a large screen. These were not ordinary slide images and the room was not designed for the typical University art slide lecture or art studio drawing class. The images were all simple lines, shapes, forms, textures, and color not unlike materials found in typical textbook on Gestalt psychology. (3)

These images were flashed upon the screen for intervals of one-tenth of a second;; the students standing at specially constructed drawing stations, drew in the absolute dark with large chalks on sheets of 18”x24” paper.” (McWhinnie  8) 

Breithaupt, who obtained both an M.F.A. and Ph.D. from Ohio State University, brought Hoyt Sherman’s methods to the University of Georgia, setting up a “flash lab,” one of a few flash labs to ever be constructed.  Already using to automated presentation for art history lessons, the Sherman method addresses the teaching artists how to see.  Sherman’s use of the tachistoscope represented a technological leap forward in training artists to see.  Originally developed by the U.S. Armed Forces for the training of pilots, tachistoscopes allowed the slide projector to produce an image at fractions of a second and to perform this feat at programmable intervals.  Instead of testing the armed forces to recognize the model of air planes outside their cockpit, teachers were now training artists to capture stimuli in their studios and in life. 

The Eames-Nelson Demonstration in 1952 introduced multimedia and automation to education, but this introduction was not well met. The first step was improving technology and overcoming the stigma of the tools. Nelson’ concluded in his report of the project with an appeal towards accepting new technologies:
“Art X said its piece in an industrial vernacular because industry has given us more and better ways to say things than we had before. The pictures, which flickered across the multiple screens were made by machines, developed by machines and projected by machines. The voices, music and sounds were electronically recorded, amplified and played back. But it was people who said the words, wrote the music, and made the final statement. This is why there is no need to be afraid of our tools-even in education. The teacher may become less visible in the new classroom, but he will still be there.”

Nelson had hoped that a large grant could be procured to fully investigate their plans, a new program for learning in the modern world. Nelson figured their plan it would take millions of dollars, which might be divided up between many different Universities working together.  The subsequent Moscow exhibition was government funded, and the IBM “Think” Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair was commercially funded. These special clients were the only ones capable of funding an automated multimedia presentation on such a large scale.  Yet, with improved technology individuals now have technological capacity to pick up where, “Art X” left off a half century ago.
The Basic Art Courses were successful in accomplishing its goals, yet there were obvious weaknesses.  The faculty produced whatever they could, in the time they had, with the resources they had.  In contrast Charles Eames’ was the director over a design studio, while George Nelson had considerable resources at Herman Miller Inc., Alexander Girard had a staff of his own.
The instructor was required to reproduce the labor of dozens of men on a schedule of three classes a week. Certainly, a design studio embedded in a school could be put to use in a way similar to the Art X experiment.

Hoyt Sherman, like the professors of art at UGA spent years researching the nature of visual perception, but the bulk of their research is represented in the success of their students not in published papers or patents.   In the case of Sherman, there is some promising evidence that experiments using control groups proved the efficacy his teaching methods (Sherman, 1972).  And, the marriage of cognitive science and teaching methodology has become more accepted in both the public taste and in school administrations.

We can reasonably assume that it is only a matter of time before any breakthroughs in cognitive psychology make their way into the automation of education; indeed, they already have in some degrees.  The danger is not that we will fail to present information via modern tools, but rather that we will fail to use them to their full potential.  One disconnect comes in the implementation of these rules which is left up to the student.  The successful student is the one that is able to negotiate how to absorb information and apply it, but we can assist students more.  Simply put, learning strategies need to be taken out of freshman level survey courses and guidance counselor fliers and implemented directly into automated lessons of University classrooms.
So far it has been implied that there is a great advantage in the use of automation, multimedia, and design for teaching over the traditional methods.  Traditional methods can be defined as lectures, reading assignments, and guided exercises.  Modern tooled education does not replace tradition completely, but rather it will supplement these methods and in some cases take on the bulk of the labor for both student and teachers. 

Hermann Ebbinghaus first proved that memory recall will fail at predictable intervals at the end of the 18th century, thus the psychology of learning curves.Yet there has been too few educators able to work with this knowledge. (Mueller 7.)   Only recently it was discovered that by automating the rehearsal of information at the crucial intervals, we can greatly increase our ability to memorize data.  This is one special example of how modern tooled education could improve learning.
Immediately after the first discussion, the committee in Athens realized that they were investigating learning for all disciplines, not just fine art. The conclusion they drew was that education is more complicated than quantity of information. The real goal is providing the best understanding of useful concepts. Meanwhile, teacher could use access to design principles to illustrate their specialized knowledge. With a designer directing illustrators, photographers, writers, actors, and perhaps most importantly video editors, an ideal lesson can be produced.  The instructor becomes the chief in the educational factory of each classroom.  An expert may not always be an expert at teaching his techniques.  However, this does not mean we can do without the expertise, we simply need to assist him with every tool possible. 

We already augment personal teaching with various aides, such as textbooks, diagrams, and videos. All that is left is to present the material in an optimized way, instead of relying on the students to synthesize it, themselves.  Treating classroom lessons like daily news package may be the key to accelerating learning, which in turn accelerates progress of society if handled properly.   If this model is imposed on the highest levels of learning where there is the most urgent need for expertise there could be exponential growth in all disciplines.


Works Cited

Abercrombie, Stanley.  (1995) The Design of Modern Design.  MIT Press.

Demetrios, Eames.  (2001)  An Eames Primer, Universe Publishing.

Colomina, Beatriz.  (2001) Enclosed by Images: The Eameses’ Multimedia Architecture, MIT


Guasquae, Yara. (2005) Immersive and Participatory Environments,  RERFRESH


Kirkham, Pat. Charles & Ray Eames- Designers of the 20th Century,

Mueller, Richard J. and Mueller, Christine L.  (1995) The Cognitive Revolution and the

Computer,  ERIC.

McWhinnie, Harold J.  (1989) Hoyt Sherman, Adelbert Ames, Jr. & Betty Edwards On

Drawing and Seeing, ERIC.

Mack, Dr. Tom. (1994) The Aiken Standard, Aiken, S.C. Sunday, December 11.

Nelson, George. (1957) The Problems of Design, Whitney Publishing.


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