“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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On pools and other abandoned spaces

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When my wife and I moved into our new high-rise apartment building in January, a couple of mysteries began to emerge. The more obvious one had to do with the green space directly below our second floor balcony. Even though there are stairs leading to a fence and pathways with flowers and ornamental rocks leading in and out of the three building complex, there does not appear to be a way for us to get to it.  The fence cannot be opened to the stairs and any doors in our complex do not open out to the grassy area. The other mysterious thing is a door in our basement that is marked as a pool entrance, but there does not appear to be a pool nor any key that opens that door. This oddity is compounded by the fact that our apartment seems to be directly above this space that we can’t enter.

Last night, we finally had enough with trying to figure this out and we were determined to find a way into the green space and then look in the windows of the space directly below our apartment to determine what is there once and for all. We looked at the satellite view from Google Maps and best determined a way into the green space through the adjacent parking lot. We wandered through the lot and over a short berm and through the trees down to the pathway that we have never been able to get to before last night. It was like walking into a secret garden, only not as pretty. We wandered around and found all sorts of strange things such as another small building that used to house a swimming pool, but has been abandoned for some time. We made our way under our balcony and to the windows of the space below. There was a small patio area and peeking through the windows, we saw a stairwell that must be behind the mystery ‘pool’ door. We made our way around the corner until we could find a place to peek through the windows. Lo and behold, there was a small abandoned pool that is situated directly below our bedroom (see the picture above)!

When these buildings were built approximately forty years ago, someone thought it would be a great idea to install an indoor pool to attract new tenants. I am sure when it first opened, people took advantage of it and the children especially had fun splashing around in it at the end of the school day. I don’t know the ins and outs of what eventually happened, but I suspect the novelty wore off as tiles cracked, the pool was closed for maintenance over long stretches, and eventually the owner of the building decided it was too expensive to maintain and insure, so the pool was drained and the doors were locked for the last time.

With the mystery of the pool solved, I needed to get back to planning for a PD session I am jointly giving in a couple of weeks and I realized that much of what we do in the area of education technology is like the empty swimming pool below my bedroom. In order to attract attention from students, teachers, and parents, technology is purchased to show how ‘transformative’ the school is becoming. Interactive whiteboards were installed, laptops or tablets (or both) were purchased, and TVs were installed around the school. Slowly, the novelty wears off as teachers are not properly trained on the pedagogical reasons for using education technology and are also not given the help they need to use them. Slowly, the equipment breaks down or is left aside as students and teachers get bored or frustrated with it and give up.

Here is the problem. Technology gadgets are not going to ‘transform’ your school. Education technology is not about the equipment in front of you, it is about the equipment you already have between your ears. Having a good, solid basis founded on well researched pedagogy and clear goals along with the assistance needed to achieve them is the same for all areas of education, not just education technology. I fear that most people enter the use of technology in the classroom out of necessity, not because they see the value in it. Selling educators on outcomes, not gadgets is the way to go here.

There are a number of things that also need to be considered outside of good pedagogy. Here are some of my thoughts on those:

  • Costs: Could the finances being spent on major technology upgrades be better spent in other ways? Just like the pool, a cost / benefit would be beneficial, especially in the long run. When I was selling computers and printers, we would talk about the TCO, the Total Cost of Operation. Sure, I can sell you a printer for next to nothing, but the ink will drain you dry financially if you use it every day. You may be better off spending more on the printer, such as in the case of a laser printer over an inkjet, and save in the long run on consumables. Consider things like leasing. Leasing you computers can save you in the long run if you have to upgrade on a regular basis. Thinking of spending a pile of money on expensive equipment? Look at the TCO, not just the upfront budget.
  • Training: I would suggest that instead of buying the equipment and then training the teachers, train the teachers and then buy the equipment. You would be surprised what you can find out when giving a training session. Teachers can give you feedback on what would work and what won’t. Also, if they see the value in the tools before you spend money on it, they can spend time planning their lessons so they can take advantage of them. In one school in which I worked, teachers were required to come up with various lesson ideas in detail that could be shared amongst the teachers that made good use of the technology at hand. Over time, these could be updated and stored so other teachers could make use of them instead of having to reinvent the wheel each time. For many teachers, they see the value in the use of technology, but they don’t know where to start. Get them started, and then keep them going. Eventually, they will start to come up with things on their own. To assist in this area, I have started to come up with printable edtech tips that can be shared with teachers who are less tech savvy. Feel free to use them as you see fit. I plan on adding more lesson ideas as well.
  • Privacy: Always we aware that you are responsible for the privacy of each student, even if they are adults. In some places, this is legislated, for other areas, it is just good common sense. Online tools such as those from Google or Edmodo are great, I use them myself, but these are still companies who are not doing this out of the goodness of their heart. They still need to turn a profit. How do they do this? Various ways, but the most profitable of all is data. Social media giants get that way out of the ability to sell off data. Now before you start getting into a debate about legislation safeguarding this, such as is found in countries around the world, keep in mind that data breaches happen all of the time (ex. Heartbleed, hackers). It can happen in your own network, but criminals tend to target those that get them the most money and I am sure a school network is pretty low on their list. I am not saying that you shouldn’t be using GAFE (Google Apps For Education) or Edmodo, but there needs to be a frank discussion amongst all stakeholders on what is going to happen. Also, bear in mind that simply asking students or parents for approval is not the same as having them in the discussion. Schools, especially teachers, hold a position of power and need to be careful how they use it. Students may be afraid to speak up in fear that their grades may be influenced. As crazy as that sounds, we need to be aware that there needs to be a way for them to openly disagree without fearing for their marks. Lastly, what are you going to do if even one student opts out of the use of this tool? Do you make them do things differently, or do you not do it at all? Are there compromises to be made?

These are only some of things that make the use of education technology such a hot topic. There are some you have bought in and are using it well. There are some who are sold on the ‘cool’ factor and are seeking newer and better things all of the time, driving their students and colleagues crazy by constantly changing their system. There are skeptics, frustrated ‘newbies’, and many more, but I hope we all have the same goal in mind, to create a positive and productive learning environment for our students.

So dive in, but just make sure the pool isn’t empty.

Why I blog

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Back in January, I made a resolution that I would try to connect with teaching professionals through Twitter and my blog. I have used Facebook for a few years now for my personal connections, but I felt I needed a professional outlet where I could share and learn along with other teachers on a variety of topics. I doubted that I had anything valuable to share since there are so many great people out in cyberland who are better and more knowledgeable than me.

I took some time to ‘lurk’ on Twitter before deciding to dip my toe in the water in January. Since then, I have been able to participate in Twitter chats, discussions, and even shared a picture or two. I can’t believe that I have shared over 3500 Tweets in that time and written 93 blog posts. My blog has been a work in progress as I felt out what I wanted to share in more detail. My blog has turned into more of an education technology site where I share webtools and ideas on how to use them in the classroom. This is not unusual since there are so many other great sites out there that do a better job than I do. My focus is on giving new users the assistance they need to use the tools in their classroom by giving step-by-step instructions, called tech recipes, that they can even print out and give to their students or post in the staff room. I don’t pretend to be an expert in anything, but I do want to share what I do know with those that are more proficient in other areas.

There are two things that I am trying to communicate here. I am not in competition with other bloggers who are so much better at sharing what they know, and I do not pretend to be a ‘digital guru’ or ‘tech expert’. I am just a normal guy who hopes that he can give back a little to those who are able to give so much. I appreciate my online colleagues and the valuable information and support each one of you give to me each day. You have no idea how encouraging it is to me to get a Tweet or comment from you. I just hope I can return the favour.

Thank you.

Cambridge University Press ELT Teacher Support

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Have you discovered the Cambridge University Press ELT Teacher Support page yet? It has a number of free booklets written by familiar names in ELT such as Jack Richards, Judy Gilbert, and Michael McCarthy. There is also a presentation from Jack Richards as well.

Each booklet has valuable tools based on solid research that will help teachers at all levels. I would recommend spending some time going over this material. It may just help you in your lesson preparation.

Have you used this material before? Was it helpful? Do you have any other links to add on pedagogical material that may be helpful?