Moving beyond technology in designing online learning

December 11, 2014 Tony Bates
Don't just sit there - DO something! Image: © www.earth911.com

Don’t just sit there – DO something!
Image: © www.earth911.com

This next post in my chapter on ‘Understanding Technology in Education’ for my book, Teaching in a Digital Age‘ is a long one, but it’s a topic I don’t want to chop up too much. This is probably going to be fairly controversial as I have a very idiosyncratic approach to the topic of media and technology in education. So let’s see how you react to this section:

Defining media and technology

Philosophers and scientists have argued about the nature of media and technologies over a very long period. The distinction is challenging because in everyday language use, we tend to use these two terms interchangeably. For instance, television is often referred to as both a medium and a technology. Is the Internet a medium or a technology? And does it matter?

I will argue that there are differences, and it does matter to distinguish between media and technology, especially if we are looking for guidelines on when and how to use media or technologies. There is a danger in looking too much at the raw technology, and not enough at the personal, social and cultural contexts in which we use technology, particularly in education. We shall also see that media and technology represent different ways altogether of thinking about the choice and use of technology in teaching and learning.

Technology

There are many definitions of technology (see Wikipedia for a good discussion of this). Essentially definitions of technology range from the basic notion of tools, to systems which employ or exploit technologies. Thus ‘technology refers to tools and machines that may be used to solve real-world problems’ is a simple definition; ‘the current state of humanity’s knowledge of how to combine resources to produce desired products, to solve problems, fulfill needs, or satisfy wants’ is a more complex and grandiose definition (and has a smugness about it that I think is undeserved – technology often does the opposite of satisfy wants, for instance.).

In terms of educational technology I think we have to consider a broad definition of technology. The technology of the Internet involves more than just a collection of tools, but a system that combines computers, telecommunications, software and rules and procedures or protocols. However, I baulk at the very broad definition of the ‘current state of humanity’s knowledge’.  Once a definition begins to encompass many different aspects of life it becomes unwieldy and ambiguous.

I tend to think of technology in education as things or tools used to support teaching and learning. Thus computers, software programs such as a learning management system, or a transmission or communications network, are all technologies. A printed book is a technology. Technology often includes a combination of tools with particular technical links that enable them to work as a technology system, such as the telephone network or the Internet.

However, for me, technologies or even technological systems do not of themselves communicate or create meaning. They just sit there until commanded to do something or until they are activated or until a person starts to interact with the technology. At this point, we start to move into media.

Don't just sit there - SAY something! Image: © www.earth911.com

Don’t just sit there – SAY something!
Image: © www.earth911.com

Media

Media (plural of medium) is another word that has many definitions and I will argue that it has two distinct meanings relevant for teaching and learning, both of which are different from definitions of technology.

The word ‘medium’ comes from the Latin, meaning in the middle (a median) and also that which intermediates or interprets. Media require an active act of creation of content and/or communication, and someone who receives and understands the communication, as well as the technologies that carry the medium.

Media linked to senses and ‘meaning’.

We use our senses, such as sound and sight, to interpret media. In this sense, we can consider text, graphics, audio and video as media ‘channels’, in that they intermediate ideas and images that convey meaning. Every interaction we have with media, in this sense, is an interpretation of reality, and again usually involves some form of human intervention, such as writing (for text), drawing or design for graphics, talking, scripting or recording for audio and video. Note that there are two types of intervention in media: by the ‘creator’ who constructs information, and by the ‘receiver’, who must also interpret it.

Computing can also be considered a medium in this context. I use the term computing, not computers, since although computing uses computers, computing involves some kind of intervention, construction and interpretation. Computing as a medium would include animations, online social networking, using a search engine, or designing and using simulations. Thus Google uses a search engine as its primary technology, but I classify Google as a medium, since it needs content and content providers, and an end user who defines the parameters of the search, in addition to the technology of computer algorithms to assist the search. Thus the creation, communication and interpretation of meaning are added features that turn a technology into a medium.

Thus in terms of representing knowledge we can think of the following media for educational purposes:

  • Text
  • Graphics
  • Audio
  • Video
  • Computing

Within each of these media, there are sub-systems, such as

  • text: textbooks, novels, poems
  • graphics: diagrams, photographs, drawings, posters, graffiti
  • audio: sounds, speech
  • video: television programs, YouTube clips, ‘talking heads’
  • computing: animation, simulations, online discussion forums, virtual worlds.

Furthermore, within these sub-systems there are ways of influencing communication through the use of unique symbol systems, such as story lines and use of characters in novels, composition in photography, voice modulation to create effects in audio, cutting and editing in film and television, and the design of user interfaces or web pages in computing. The study of the relationship between these different symbol systems and the interpretation of meaning is a whole field of study in itself, called semiotics.

From an educational perspective, it is important to understand that media are not neutral or ‘objective’ in how they convey knowledge. They can be designed or used in such a way as to influence (for good or bad) the interpretation of meaning and hence our understanding. Some knowledge therefore of how media work is essential for teaching in a digital age. In particular we need to know how best to design and apply media (rather than technology) to facilitate learning.

Media as organisations

The second meaning of media is broader and refers to the industries or significant areas of human activity that are organized around particular technologies, for instance film and movies, television, publishing, and the Internet. Within these different media are particular ways of representing, organizing and communicating knowledge.

Thus for instance within television there are different formats, such as news, documentaries, game shows, action programs, while in publishing there are novels, newspapers, comics,  biographies, etc. Sometimes the formats overlap but even then there are symbol systems within a medium that distinguish it from other media. For instance in movies there are cuts, fades, close-ups, and other techniques that are markedly different from those in other media. All these features of media bring with them their own conventions and assist or change the way meaning is extracted or interpreted.

In education we could think of classroom teaching as a medium. Technology or tools are used (e.g. chalk and blackboards, or Powerpoint and a projector) but the key component is the intervention of the teacher and the interaction with the learners in real time and in a fixed time and place. We can also then think of online teaching as a different medium, with computers, the Internet (in the sense of the communication network) and a learning management system as core technologies, but it is the interaction between teachers, learners and online resources within the unique context of the Internet that are the essential component of online learning.

Media of course depend on technology, but technology is only one element of media. Thus we can think of the Internet as merely a technological system, or as a medium that contains unique formats and symbol systems that help convey meaning and knowledge. These formats, symbol systems and unique characteristics (e.g. the 140 character limit in Twitter) are deliberately created and need to be interpreted by both creators and end users. Furthermore, at least with the Internet, people can be at the same time both creators and interpreters of knowledge.

Over time, media have become more complex, with newer media (e.g. television) incorporating some of the components of earlier media (e.g. audio) as well as adding another medium (video). Digital media and the Internet increasingly are incorporating and integrating all previous media, such as text, audio, and video, and adding new media components, such as animation, simulation, and interactivity. When digital media incorporate many of these components they become ‘rich media’. Thus one major advantage of the Internet is that it encompasses all the representational media of text, graphics, audio, video and computing.

Lastly, there is a strong organizational context to media. Industries are often organized around specific media, and hence media use and interpretation is influenced by strong cultural or organizational values. For instance, Schramm (1974) found that broadcasters often have a different set of professional criteria and ways of assessing ‘quality’ in an educational broadcast from those of educators (which made my job of evaluating the programs the BBC made for the Open University very interesting). Today, this professional ‘divide’ can be seen between the differences between computer scientists and educators in terms of values and beliefs with regard to the use of technology for teaching. At its crudest, it comes down to issues of control: who is in charge of using technology for teaching? Who makes the decisions about the design of a MOOC or the use of an animation?

The affordances of media

Graphs can represent, in a different way, the same concepts as written descriptions or formulae. Understanding the same thing in different ways generally leads to deeper understanding.  Image: © Open University 2013

Different media have different educational effects or affordances. If you just transfer the same teaching to a different medium, you fail to exploit the unique characteristics of that medium. Put more positively, you can do different and often better teaching by adapting it to the medium. That way students will learn more deeply and effectively. To illustrate this, let’s look at an example from early on in my career as a researcher in educational media.

In 1969, I was appointed as a research officer at the Open University in the United Kingdom. At this point the university had just received its royal charter. I was the 20th member of staff appointed. My job was simple: to research into the pilot programs being offered by the National Extension College, which was delivering low cost non-credit distance education programs in partnership with the BBC. (So you think MOOCs are new? The NEC was offering them over 40 years ago). The NEC was ‘modelling’ the kind of integrated multimedia courses, consisting of a mix of print and broadcast radio and TV, that were to be offered by the Open University when it started.

We sent out questionnairesby mail on a weekly basis to students taking the NEC courses. The questionnaire contained both pre-coded responses, and the opportunity for open-ended comments, and asked students for their responses to the print and broadcast components of the courses. We were looking for what worked and what didn’t work in designing multimedia distance education courses.

When I started analyzing the questionnaires, I was struck particularly by the ‘open-ended’ comments in response to the television and radio broadcasts. Responses to the printed components tended to be ‘cool': rational, calm, critical, constructive. The responses to the broadcasts were the opposite: ‘hot’, emotional, strongly supportive or strongly critical or even hostile, and rarely critically constructive. Something was going on here.

Since the OU was going to spend 20% of its annual budget on the broadcasts from the BBC, I persuaded the university to appoint me as a lecturer to research into the effectiveness of the television and radio programs, which I did for a period of nearly 20 years.

The initial discovery that different media affected students differently came very quickly, but it took longer to discover in what ways media are different, and even longer why, but here are some of the discoveries I and my colleagues in the Audio-Visual Media Research Group at the OU made (Bates, 1985):

  • the BBC producers (all of whom had a degree in the subject area in which they were making programs) thought about knowledge differently from the academics with whom they were working. In particular, they tended to think more visually and more concretely about the subject matter. Thus they tended to make programs that showed concrete examples of concepts or principles in the texts, applications of principles, or how academic concepts worked in real life. Academic learning is about abstraction and higher order levels of thinking. However, abstract concepts are better understood if they can be related to concrete or empirical experiences, from which, indeed, abstract concepts are often drawn. The television programs enabled learners to move backwards and forwards between the abstract and the concrete. Where this was well designed, it really helped a large number of students – but not all.
  • students responded very differently to the TV programs in particular. Some loved them, some hated them, and few were indifferent. The ones that hated them wanted the programs to be didactic and repeat or reinforce what was in the printed texts. Interestingly though the TV-haters tended to get lower grades or even fail in the final course exam. The ones that loved the TV programs tended to get higher grades. They were able to see how the programs illustrated the principles in the texts, and the programs ‘stretched’ these students to think more widely or critically about the topics in the course. The exception was math, where borderline students found the TV programs most helpful
  • the BBC producers rarely used talking heads or TV lectures. With radio and later audio-cassettes, some producers and academics integrated the audio with texts, for instance in mathematics, using a radio program and later audio-cassettes to talk the students through equations or formulae in the printed text (similar to Khan Academy lectures on TV)
  • using television and radio to develop higher level learning is a skill that can be taught. In the initial foundation (first year) social science course (D100), many of the programs were made in a typical BBC documentary style. Although the programs were accompanied by extensive broadcast notes that attempted to link the broadcasts to the academic texts, many students struggled with these programs. When the course was remade five years later a distinguished academic (Stuart Hall) was used as an ‘anchor’ for all the programs. The first few programs were somewhat like lectures, but in each program Stuart Hall introduced more and more visual clips and helped students analyze each clip. By the end of the course the programs were almost entirely in the documentary format. Students rated the remade programs much higher and used examples from the TV programs much more in their assignments and exams for the remade course.

Why are these findings significant?

At the time (and for many years afterwards) researchers such as Richard Clark (1983) argued that ‘proper’, scientific research showed no significant difference between the use of different media. In particular, there were no differences between classroom teaching and other media such as television or radio or satellite. Even today, we are getting similar findings regarding online learning (e.g. Means et al., 2010).

However, this is because  the research methodology that is used by researchers for such comparative studies requires the two conditions being compared to be the same, except for the medium being used (called matched comparisons, or sometimes quasi-experimental studies). Typically, for the comparison to be scientifically rigorous, if you gave lectures in class, then you had to compare lectures on television. If you used another television format, such as a documentary, you were not comparing like with like. Since the classroom was used as the base, for comparison,  you had to strip out all the affordances of television – what it could do better than a lecture – in order to compare it.  Indeed Clark argued that when differences in learning were found between the two conditions, the differences were a result of using a different pedagogy in the non-classroom medium.

The critical point is that different media can be used to assist learners to learn in different ways and achieve different outcomes. In a sense, researchers such as Clark were right: the teaching methods matter, but different media can more easily support different ways of teaching than others. In our example, a documentary TV program aims at developing the skills of analysis and the application or recognition of theoretical constructs, whereas a classroom lecture is more focused on getting students to understand and correctly recall the theoretical constructs. Thus requiring the television program to be judged by the same assessment methods as for the classroom lecture unfairly measures the potential value of the TV program. In this example, it may be better to use both methods: didactic teaching to teach understanding, then a documentary approach to apply that understanding. (Note that a television program could do both, but the classroom lecture could not.)

Perhaps even more important is the idea that many media are better than one. This allows learners with different preferences for learning to be accommodated, and to allow subject matter to be taught in different ways through different media, thus leading to deeper understanding or a wider range of skills in using content. On the other hand, this increases costs.

How do these findings apply to online learning?

Online learning can incorporate a range of different media: text, graphics, audio, video, animation, simulations. We need to understand better the affordances of each medium within the Internet, and use them differently but in an integrated way so as to develop deeper knowledge, and a wider range of learning outcomes and skills. The use of different media also allows for more individualization and personalization of the learning, better suiting learners with different learning styles and needs. Most of all, we should stop trying merely to move classroom teaching to other media such as MOOCs, and start designing online learning so its full potential can be exploited.

Implications for education

If we are interested in selecting appropriate technologies for teaching and learning, we should not just look at the technical features of a technology, nor even the wider technology system in which it is located, nor even the educational beliefs we bring as a classroom teacher.  We also need to examine the unique features of different media, in terms of their formats, symbols systems, and cultural values. These unique features are increasingly referred to as the affordances of media or technology.

The concept of media is much ‘softer’ and ‘richer’ than that of ‘technology’, more open to interpretation and harder to define, but it is a useful concept, in that it can also incorporate the inclusion of face-to-face communication as a medium, and in that it recognises the fact that technology on its own does not lead to the transfer of meaning.

Over time, as new technologies are developed, and are incorporated into media systems, old formats and approaches are carried over from older to newer media. For instance early movies followed quite closely the format and structure of the music hall and theatre, and took several decades to establish their own unique characteristics.

This of course is what we do with technology in education. We try either to incorporate new technology into old formats, as with clickers and lecture capture, or we try to create the classroom in virtual space, as we do with learning management systems. What we are still developing but not yet clearly recognizing are formats, symbols systems and organizational structures that exploit the unique characteristics of the Internet as a medium. It is difficult to see these unique characteristics clearly at this point in time. However, e-portfolios, mobile learning, open educational resources such as animations or simulations, and self-managed learning in large, online social groups are all examples of ways in which we are gradually developing the unique ‘affordances’ of the Internet.

Given the need to create and interpret meaning when using media, trying to use computers to replace or substitute for humans in the education process is likely to be a major mistake, at least until computers have much greater facility to recognize, understand and apply semantics, value systems, and organizational factors, which are all important factors in ‘reading’ different media. But at the same time it is equally a mistake to rely only on the symbol systems, cultural values and organizational structures of classroom teaching as the means of judging the effectiveness or appropriateness of the Internet as an educational medium.

On the other hand, picking horses for courses – the right medium for the job – or adapting teaching to exploit fully the affordances of different media, requires a much better understanding of the strengths and limitations of different media for teaching purposes. However, given the widely different contextual factors influencing learning, the task of media and technology selection becomes infinitely complex. This is why it has proved impossible to develop simple algorithms or decision trees for effective decision making in this area. Nevertheless, there are some guidelines that can be used for identifying the best use of different media within an Internet-dependent society. To develop such guidelines we need to explore in particular the unique educational affordances of text, audio, video and computing, which is the next task of this chapter.

Over to you

I should have given you enough meat to chew on in this excerpt. So let me have your comments. In particular:

1. Do you find the distinction between media and technology helpful? If so, how would you classify the following (either medium or technology):

  • newspaper
  • printing press
  • television program
  • Netflix
  • classroom
  • MOOC
  • discussion forum

2. Do you think that knowledge becomes something different when represented by different media? For instance, does an animation of a mathematical function represent something different from a written or printed equation of the same function? Which is the most ‘mathematical': the formula or the animation?

3. What in your view makes the Internet unique from a teaching perspective, or is it just old wine in new bottles?

4. Text has publishers and newspaper corporations, audio has radio stations, and video has both television companies and YouTube. Is there a comparable organization for the Internet or is it not really a medium in the sense of publishing, radio or television?

5. Is it possible to define the affordances of a particular medium or technology? Won’t the affordances depend on the context in which the medium is used? If so, does this make the concept of affordances meaningless in education, given the various contexts in which media and technology could be used?

Previous Article
Choosing design models for a digital age
Choosing design models for a digital age

Oh, dear, it appears that I missed out in posting the conclusion to my...

Next Article
A short history of educational technology
A short history of educational technology

The first section of my chapter on ‘Understanding Technology in Education’...