‘Telephone teaching’ was the remote learning of the 1950s

Before Zoom, we had phone classrooms.


July 21, 2020

Part of a new series where we spotlight a trend from way back when that still feels relevant today.

Think Zoom schooling sounds novel? Seven decades ago, America was experimenting with a different sort of remote classroom.

In the 1940s, an intercom manufacturer called Executone Inc. began testing a new concept known as “telephone teaching.”

The target audience: Kids with polio or other long-term illnesses.

Telephone teaching was never supposed to replace the classroom. But it kept kids in school even if they were battling an illness — all they had to do was call in.

So how did it work? 

Executone sent out 2 portable intercoms, one to the school and one to the student’s home. Then it gave the student a talk switch and a volume controller.

In 1958, South Dakota’s Rapid City Journal wrote about Karen Cavner, a high school student who broke both her legs in a car accident.

Karen’s friend Mary Ellen Seiler — who shared her schedule — carried her intercom to and from classes, leaving it on an empty desk during lectures.

Mostly, Karen just listened in. But “when called upon to recite or participate in group or class discussion,” the Journal reported, “the shut-in student can snap a switch and talk to the class.”

The project was a hit

By 1960, Executone had telephone learning systems in 46+ states and territories, with thousands of kids using them.

The only hitch? Visuals. As the Journal noted, “The teacher must merely remember the shut-in child is there but cannot see.”

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