“The medium is the message”: The message of educational technology

Image courtesy of Pranav Bhatt

Image courtesy of Pranav Bhatt

I’ve had it wrong all along. Time and again I have said that technology is simply a tool and it is how we use it that makes it good or bad, but that isn’t entirely true.

This week I have been preparing to submit a conference proposal on how to critically evaluate the educational technology we choose to use in our classrooms. It got me thinking about the old adage, “the message is the medium” and I started to explore what that really means. The saying actually comes from a book by Marshall McLuhan called “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” (1964) where McLuhan carefully unwraps the idea that the instruments of delivery, the medium, also has a message embedded within it. In fact, you can even have a medium without “content”, but still sharing a message.

His simplest illustration is that of a light bulb. As it is, the light bulb doesn’t deliver “content” unless it is used to shine out a message, but without it, surgery or nighttime sports would almost be impossible. As McLuhan puts it, “This fact merely underlines the point that ‘the medium is the message’ because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (emphasis added). He continues by stating:

“The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth” (emphasis added).

When you consider the use of any particular educational technology “medium” such as webtools, apps, LMS/CMS/VLE, and hardware, we also need to be aware of the “message” that is being delivered simply in the choice, or non-choice as is the case in certain situations. When it comes to learning environments such as Class Dojo, Blackboard, Canvas, and many others, we need to also be aware of the theory of learning that is foundational in its creation.

Take ClassDojo for example. You can love it, hate, and even don’t care, but whatever your feelings towards it, this environment carries with it a theory of learning and even human psychology that is instrumental in its design and implementation. It comes from a certain perspective of the role of teacher and student, human motivation, and learning approaches, and places these within the “medium” of the platform. There is no implicit message, but it there.

Even some of the simplest “tools” have a message embedded in them. An example of this is Quizlet, the online flashcard platform. While it is simply a “medium”, there is a message carried though it on how people learn through repetition and memorization. Even something as simple as cloud storage communicates a message much in the same way that McLuhan talks about electric light and power.

What we need to do as educators is to educate ourselves on the messages embedded in the medium we are using in our classrooms. Are they communicating the message we want? In order to know that, we first need to deeply understand what we believe about teaching and learning, something that I think we have, but maybe haven’t taken the time to articulate. From that, create a set of questions to ask ourselves when evaluating the effectiveness of the instruments we choose to carry our and our students’ message. Like it or not, those “tools” are shaping and controlling “the scale and form” of the interactions between students, ourself, and all others with vested interest in what goes on in our classroom.

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The Transformational Power of E-learning

Great quote from the introduction of D. R. Garrison and Terry Anderson’s book E-learning in the 21st Century:

The essential feature of e-learning extends beyond its access to information and builds on its communicative and interactive features. The goal of quality e-learning is to blend diversity and cohesiveness into a dynamic and intellectually challenging ‘learning ecology.’ This interactivity goes far beyond the one-way transmission of content and extends our thinking regarding communications among human beings engaged in the educational process. Not long ago, the provision of increased learner independence in terms of space and time meant a corresponding loss of collaboration and increased isolation. Independence and collaboration seemed contradictions. More of one inherently meant the loss of the other. The transformational power of e-learning goes to the heart of this issue. We now can provide freedom and control within a vibrant community of inquiry. E-learning recognizes and integrates the personal and public aspects of an educational experience.”

Garrison and Anderson (2003) p. 3. Bold and italics added.

It made me think about how Socrates developed the elenctic method where the teacher became the facilitator and encouraged the students to discover things on their own. Debating and questioning were central to the creation and ownership of thought at that time. It appears to me that this is what teachers and educators are striving to (re)create in the current classroom with technology. It is not, as Garrison and Anderson put it, simply used to access information, but to build upon it. That should be the goal of anyone integrating technology into the educational process. This can be in the classroom or might, and likely should, extend beyond those boundries into the students’ lives.