Choosing a model for media selection

January 3, 2015 Tony Bates
Image: © Abhijit Kadle, Upside Learning, 2010

Which technology? Image: © Abhijit Kadle, Upside Learning, 2010

Chapter 9 of my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, aims to provide teachers and instructors with a model for making decisions about the choice and use of media. This is a particularly challenging chapter, for reasons given in the extract below.

I always advise my graduate students never to write ‘There is no previous research on this topic’, because there always is, and it turns out that the external examiner did it! Similarly, I am cautious about saying that there are hardly any usable, practical, empirically-based models for media selection – but I think it’s true. I did do what I thought was a fairly thorough review of the literature on this topic, and came up with very little that met the criteria I just set, so I’ve ended up going back to my own model(s) developed over 12 years ago. It will be interesting to see how well this holds up as I test it against contemporary technologies as I write the rest of the chapter.

However, if you do know of other models, please let me know. In the meantime, here is the introduction to the chapter

9.1 Models for media selection

Given the importance of the topic, there is relatively little literature on how to choose appropriate media or technologies for teaching. There was a flurry of not very helpful publications on this topic in the 1970s and 1980s, but relatively little since (Baytak, undated). Indeed, Koumi (1994) stated that:

there does not exist a sufficiently practicable theory for selecting media appropriate to given topics, learning tasks and target populations . . . the most common practice is not to use a model at all. In which case, it is no wonder that allocation of media has been controlled more by practical economic and human/political factors than by pedagogic considerations (p. 56).

Mackenzie (2002) comments in a similar vein:

When I am discussing the current state of technology with teachers around the country, it becomes clear that they feel bound by their access to technology, regardless of their situation. If a teacher has a television-computer setup, then that is what he or she will use in the classroom. On the other hand, if there is an LCD projector hooked up to a teacher demonstration station in a fully equipped lab, he or she will be more apt to use that set up. Teachers have always made the best of whatever they’ve got at hand, but it’s what we have to work with. Teachers make due.

A review of more recent publications on media selection suggests that despite the rapid developments in media and technology over the last 20 years, my ACTIONS model (Bates, 1995) is still one of the major models being applied, although with further amendments and additions (see for instance, Baytak, undated; Lambert and Williams, 1999; Koumi, 2006). Indeed, I myself modified the ACTIONS model, which was developed for distance education, to the SECTIONS model to cover the use of media in campus-based as well as distance education (Bates and Poole, 2003).

Patsula (2002) developed a model called CASCOIME which includes some of the criteria in the Bates models, but also adds additional and valuable criteria such as socio-political suitability, cultural friendliness, and openness/flexibility, to take into account international perspectives. Zaied (2007) conducted an empirical study to test what criteria for media selection were considered important by faculty, IT specialists and students, and identified seven criteria. Four of these matched or were similar to Bates’ criteria. The other three were student satisfaction, student self-motivation and professional development, which are more like conditions for success and are not really easy to identify before making a decision.

Koumi has come closest to to developing a model of media selection (2006) but his focus is more on design, although I recognise that design issues are critical for media selection. Koumi (2015) more recently has developed a model for deciding on the best mix and use of video and print to guide the design of xMOOCs, based on Krathwold’s (2002) classification of learning outcomes combined with an analysis of the pedagogical affordances of video and print.

It is not surprising that there are not many models for media selection. The models developed in the 1970s and 1980s took a very reductionist, behaviourist approach to media selection, resulting in often several pages of algorithms, which are completely impractical to apply, given the realities of teaching, and yet still included no recognition of the unique affordances of different media. More importantly, technology is subject to rapid change, there are competing views on appropriate pedagogical approaches to teaching, and the context of learning varies so much. Finding a practical, manageable model founded on research and experience has proved to be challenging.

At the same time, every teacher and instructor (and increasingly learners) need to make decisions in this area, often on a daily basis. For these reasons, then, I will continue to use the Bates’ SECTIONS model, with some modifications to take account of recent technology developments, as the model is based on research, has stood the test of time, and has been found to be practical. SECTIONS stands for:

  • S tudents
  • E ase of use
  • C ost
  • T eaching functions, including pedagogical affordances of media
  • I nteraction
  • O rganizational issues
  • N etworking and Novelty
  • S peed and security

The criteria are listed roughly in order of importance, with the most important first. I will discuss each of these criteria in the following sections, and will then suggest how best to apply the model.

Over to you

I’ve had such great feedback so far on other parts of the book that I’m anticipating some very helpful comments on this topic, before I get too far into it. In particular:

  1. Are there other models for decision-making on this topic that I’ve missed AND should use instead of the SECTIONS model, especially if they are more recent?
  2. Are there other criteria that you would add or replace in the SECTIONS model? (I will be discussing multimedia design issues later in the chapter, but outside the SECTIONS model.) Don’t worry if another criterion ruins the acronym! I’ll just invent another one (with acknowledgement – it will then become the Bates and… model.).
  3. Is this just going down the wrong track? Does it make sense to provide any model for making decisions about what media or technology to use? Will every case be different? (As my spouse explained when I complained about the lack of alternative models: ‘Either you’ve missed them – or it’s not possible to do.’)


I will be discussing how an analysis of student needs should be the first consideration in choosing media – and what student factors should drive the decision.

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