Google Books Ngram Viewer is a data visualization tool that uses the Google Books database to show how often a word or phrase has been used in print sources over the years. There are some bugs—inaccurate years of publication, spotty OCR—but it’s pretty damned cool. I was trying to track down the first use of the phrase “educational technology,” and here’s what I got:

Prevalence of the phrase “educational technology” in books and articles published in English between 1800 and 2012.

The blip around 1850 is in error. Starting around 1900, the others are mostly correct. I would have expected more usage in the 1950s, but I’m not shocked to see flutters late in the decade followed by an explosion starting in 1960. I have no idea why there was the precipitous drop after 1980; possibly because constructivism and cognitivism were by then firmly entrenched, and “educational technology” had been so strongly associated with behaviorism. As for the rise from 1990 through 2000, well… the Internet happened.

I still haven’t tracked down the first use of the phrase with its modern meaning—a distinct field of study focused on the use of technology in education. Instead, enjoy these nonstandard early uses!

1901 (case dates to December, 1900), London, England

The Law Reports of the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting. King’s Bench Division and on Appeal Therefrom in the Court of Appeal, Decisions on Crown Cases Reserved and Decisions of the Railway and Canal Commision. Google Books link.

The title of the publication continues, but let’s stop there. This is a record of legal decisions from 1900-1901 in England and Wales. It’s either the King’s Bench Division or the Queen’s Bench Division, depending on how you look at it: Queen Victoria died after most of these cases were decided, but before the reports were published.

The words “educational technology” appear in the decision on a case titled “The Queen v. Cockerton,” in which the issue was whether a school board could use taxpayer funds to pay for adult education conducted in elementary school buildings. Specifically, the phrase is used by a judge named Wills as he discusses the laws governing school curricula. The relevant passage is about evening classes, and Wills is himself trying to track down the origin of a different phrase:

 In 1893 appears for the first time the phrase “evening continuation schools.” I do not know, and the learned counsel could not tell us, who invented the expression. It is not to be found in any of the Elementary Education Acts nor in any Act which has been brought under our notice. I gather, however, from two extracts from speeches by Mr. Mundella, given in Murray’s Dictionary (1) under the word “continuation,” and dated respectively 1887 and 1888, that it was introduced from the educational technology of Germany. They in Murray as “schools in which the education of the elementary school is continued to a more advanced age.”

What does “educational technology” mean here? 

It seems pretty clear that Wills is using the phrase to describe the educational practices or structure of Germany, as distinct from those of England. Essentially, it means “the state of educational progress.”

The judge ruled that the school board could not use their budget for adult and continuing education, because the money was intended to educate children. Want to learn as an adult? “London and the large towns in the country are full of working men’s colleges, polytechnic institutions, and other similar establishments,” said Wills.

November 12, 1902, Indianapolis, Indiana

A caricature of “Professor Chilblains” accompanying the article.

The Weekly Northwestern Miller. Google Books link.

This is a trade publication for the flour milling industry. Why “Northwestern”? Not sure. Indiana was not in the northwest of the U.S. circa 1902.

I love this use of the phrase “educational technology.” It appears in a rambling article which satirizes contemporary claims that whole grain bread was healthier than heavily refined “patent flour.” In essence, the author is accusing a nutritionist of using junk science and nostalgic advertising copy to promote his own secret recipe for healthy bread. The relevant passage:

There is in Chicago an “analytical chemist,” at least his letterhead so proclaims him, whose name is not Chilblains and yet it somehow suggests this rather annoying ailment; hence, in this story, he will be thus called Chilblains. Professor Chilblains is a magnificent word producer. It would be perfectly safe back this gentleman against the field in the use of words of more than four syllables. When it comes to carbo-hydrates, educational technology, and similar combinations of verbal jaw-breakers, Professor Chilblains is a master and he can juggle technical and scientific terms in a manner to make the lay man weak and dizzy.

What does “educational technology” mean here? 

There is no way to know what the phrase might have meant to the good professor, but it’s obviously a mockable bit of jargon by the standards of the author. It means nothing, or else it means something that could be explained just as easily in layman’s terms by someone who wasn’t trying to pull a fast one. Of course, the author is trying to dismiss “carbo-hydrates” as nonsense in the same sentence, so I’m thinking he might have an agenda.

Oh, and “chilblains” is a circulatory condition that causes symptoms similar to frostbite. I had to look it up.

1906 (paper dated 1904), Newcastle, England

J. O. Arnold. Discussion of the paper “The Mining Department of the University of Birmingham,” by R. A. S. Redmayne. Transactions of the Institution of Mining Engineers, Volume XXVIII. Google Books link.

Ever heard the expression “carrying coals to Newcastle?” It means the same thing as “pissing in the ocean.” Mining was the industry in 18th and 19th century Newcastle, and this is the publication produced by the professional and academic society of mining engineers. Of course, this was the age of empire, and their interests extended beyond Newcastle and even beyond England.

The phrase “educational technology” appears in a rebuttal to a paper proposing the establishment of a department at the University of Birmingham dedicated to teaching metallurgy as an applied science. Professor Redmayne is the author of the paper, and Professor Arnold is the author of the rebuttal. Arnold argues that the proposed course of study is too vast for the time alloted, and also that there is no natural base for a student body in such a department. Officials in mining companies are making too much money to commit to a full-time three-year program, and workmen who might want to better themselves cannot afford to (and would be too tired to attend night classes if offered). The relevant passage:

The palpable ability of Prof. Redmayne’s paper, and the fact that he himself had “been through the mill,” seemed to constitute guarantees that he would eventually establish his department in the University of the midland metropolis on a sound basis, unless indeed it was overshadowed by the great laboratory of metalliferous mining which seemed likely to be established in London under Government auspices. It might, however, well be that in this connection there was room for both London and Birmingham to train those urgently-needed mining metallurgists of British origin, whose duty it would be to command the mines of Britain’s colonies. But before Prof. Redmayne could claim like him (Prof. Arnold) to have had 15 years’ stern experience in a great industrial centre, he was destined to endure anxious moments while steering his mining ship through the troubled waters of British educational technology.

Those three sentences are altogether confusing. Professor Arnold never met a clause he didn’t like, on top of which he refers to himself in the third person. Deep breath, though. We’ll get through this together.

What does “educational technology” mean here? 

This use seems much closer in subject to the modern sense of the phrase, but precisely what Professor Arnold is saying is frustratingly unclear. There are two likely options:
  1. Arnold is using the phrase in the same sense as the judge did just a few years earlier, to mean “the state of education.”
  2. Arnold means something like “technological education,” or education about technology, and is simply transposing the words relative to the way we would use them today.

Well? Are you on the edge of your seat? Young Leslie Nielsen wants to know.

You can send your theories, along with a Jacuzzi Allusion Luxury Bath equipped with the Salon Spa Hydrotherapy Experience package, to Car Talk Plaza, Box 3500, Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA 02238.

Are there no other interesting examples of early uses of the phrase “educational technology”?

Well, thank you for asking that SEO-friendly question. In fact, I have four more good examples. I’ll get to those some time; let me know if you’re on the edge of your seat.

Just for fun, if you’ve read this far: