The Travelator Paradox

Educators, have you got a travelator under your belt?

A travelator is an automated moving walkway. If you think you have never seen one, think again – at some point one must have carried you and your luggage from one departure gate to another at an airport or a train station. There is one at the Bank Tube Station in London and at a number of other locations around the world. The fact is, however, that they feature more in old science-fiction visions of the future than in present day reality. H.G. Wells imagined moving walkways in his 1897 novel A Story of the Days To Come, and Fritz Lang put them in his dystopian 1927 film Metropolis. So did Isaac Asimov in The Caves of Steel and Arthur C Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night. Why did the “rolling pavement” from the retro futurist stories never really catch on and remained a feature of a handful of airports and train stations?

Two separate studies, reported last week by the BBC, set out in 2009 to look for an answer. What the researchers at Princeton and Ohio State universities found out was quite interesting. It turns out that travelator passengers tend to slow their pace or stop walking altogether once they step on the machines, defeating the purpose which the travelators are supposed to achieve – to save time.

People standing on a travellator instead of walking

I think of this as the travelator paradox and the story fascinates me. It has prompted me to think of the possibility of similar travelator paradoxes hidden in our arsenal of learning and teaching practices which we expect to carry us into the future of learning and teaching. It seems to me that part of the reason for the “rolling pavement” to fail is that it changes the role of people from travellers-navigators to passengers. Once they get onto the machine, people are guaranteed to reach their destination, even if they remain passive and put no effort. They do not need to interact with the others around them or even notice them. Also, the destination is unexciting, because the route is predetermined, obvious and uniform for everyone on the travelator – there is neither mystery nor adventure so again, there is no reason for people to be alert or take action.

Once I extended the analogy into the domain of education, travelators started emerging. An e-learning course, for example, can turn into a travelator if all it contains is text, posted online in a way in which learners can go through it without having to engage with the material or with each other, with only a single route leading them to the planned learning outcomes. Students, coming in for a lecture, knowing that their lecturer is going to tell them exactly what he or she has been saying to the students in the previous year and the year before, and exactly in the same way, are in for a travelator – they will get to their destination, but the journey will be one of boredom and dullness.


Students in a boring VLE or passengers on the trottoire roulant at the 1900 Paris Expo?

If I were to find myself 20 years in the future from now, I would want to see which of the learning technologies of great promise today will have remained sidelined like travelators, instead of changing the world of learning. Whichever these learning technologies turn out to be, I think their failure will brought by a lack of supporting pedagogies which could have helped learners to create their own learning journey rather than just be there for the ride.

Sandra Romenska

Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) Project

BDRA, 7 October 2010

Leave a comment


  1. I like this travelator metaphor, Sandra. I’m in the primary sector in the UK, so the course-oriented VLE is perhaps less relevant, but commercial VLEs still worry me because they represent a monolithic ‘company store’ approach which suggests that you can get everything in one place and students must use one set of tools. This seems to me to be nothing like the real world of the internet, which is much a more an ecosystem of ‘small pieces loosely-joined’.

  2. Simon

     /  October 8, 2010

    Great post, Sandra, that nicely encapsulates the whole problem.

  3. Ale

     /  October 10, 2010

    Sandra, you state: “passengers tend to slow their pace or stop walking altogether once they step on the machines, defeating the purpose which the travelators are supposed to achieve – to save time.”

    In my case that’s not the primary purpose. I use those machines, especially when I am carrying luggage. The purpose of using them is to make the ‘walk’ less taxing. Speed is rarely the issue. Stepping on a travelator and putting your bags on the moving floor is the whole point.

  4. Susan

     /  October 11, 2010

    I agree with Ale. The travellators that I have seen were beside the ordinary floor. Some people, especially those with wheels on their luggage, chose the ordinary route. I chose the convenience of not having to carry my luggage. Those who stood with their luggage kept to the right, allowing the fast-movers to quick-walk to the left in an un-marked passing lane. I think it is those unexpressed assumptions that determine the design of the travellator and the design that may confine the choices of the users.

  5. it is quite sad that most train stations these days are horrendously overloaded “”

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