Learning: The Medium Is The Message
In Probe: Learning Environments and the Ecology of Learning I explored some possibilities for exploring an ecology of learning. Another lens that is often used as a metaphor for learning is new media. Through this lens we embrace ideas about learning through connectivity, networks, digital communication systems, and a wide range of other new media technologies. In a similar manner to an ecology of learning, a new media learning environment invites us to probe and explore some of the underlying assumptions about education. The phrase "the medium is the message" refers to McLuhan's probe into the pervasive nature of new media environments on our sensibilities and provides a useful point of departure...
A Learning Environment Is An Invisible SurroundMcLuhan's probe the medium is the message focuses our attention on the possibility that:
...it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association. Indeed, it is only too typical that the content of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.
- Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man
An education system is obviously a kind of medium and following along with McLuhan's line of thinking it is therefore a way to shape and control the scale and form of human association and action. The content, or the specifics of curriculum, instruction and evaluation, can serve to blind us from the character of education. It is entirely possible that education as a medium has a range of effects and influences on us that can be hard to detect. These influences shape our perception, sensibilities and cultural development. This leads us to consider the notion that the content of a medium is not the message.
One of McLuhan's concerns is that, "we have confused reason with literacy, and rationalism with a single technology (i.e. - typography)." The remedy for this focuses on developing our powers of discernment:
And it is only on those terms, standing aside from any structure or medium, that its principles and lines of force can be discerned. For any medium has the power of imposing its own assumptions on the unwary.
- Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man
Discernment, then, is a core capability in learning about the effects of media on our thoughts, actions and behaviour. It allows us to reveal effects of a medium that may have been hidden, and then to adjust our awareness so that we are not subsumed by it. An education system is a medium that is strongly biased by literacy and typography. This is a strong influence in the lives of students over the course of several years. In other words it is possible that education breeds a typographic sensibility in people at the expense of other forms of perception and meaning making:
It is in our I.Q. testing that we have produced the greatest flood of misbegotten standards. Unaware of our typographic cultural bias, our testers assume that uniform and continuous habits are a sign of intelligence, thus eliminating the ear man and tactile man.
- Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man
Today, we could easily replace "I.Q. testing" in the above quote with "standardized testing" and without any significant change in the validity of McLuhan's grievance. One of the most important challenges in understanding the effects of education is to stand outside of it and explore the long-term effects on the ways in which people are conditioned to think, perceive and live. This is not an issue that can be revealed by exploring the specific kinds of expertise and information promoted in education. If we embrace the possibility that the medium is the message, then we also embrace the possibility that the effects of education on the lives of people are separate and distinct from curriculum, instruction, and standardized testing.
Unfortunately, technophiles seem to promote new media as if it were a gateway to new visionary innovations. While it is certainly possible to design different kinds of activities by utilizing new media, the use of new media is simply not enough to promote a method or approach as innovative. New technologies often retrieve, intensify and accelerate old ideas. While they may give off the appearance of being new, they are often merely extensions of old patterns of behaviour.
This problem, to my thinking, has been one of the most prominent issues in education. New technologies are often introduced into education and therefore different patterns of interaction are introduced. This creates a sensation of something new when in fact it is often merely an entrenchment of past practice. This realization tends to come quite slowly, and sometimes not at all. Worse, the introduction of new media can in fact inhibit people: "Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them prisons without walls for their human users."
The New Media Learning EnvironmentA few important influences in my own work with learning environments include:
- Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man and the relationship between what a learning environment might be and the probe that the medium is the message.
- Derrick de Kerckhove. Both The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality and Connected intelligence: The Arrival of the Web Society provide insight into the effects of new technologies and implications for learning.
- Neil Postman: Technopoly : The Surrender of Culture to Technology "Abetted by a form of education that in itself has been emptied of any coherent world-view, Technopoly deprives us of the social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical, or spiritual basis for knowing what is beyond belief."
- Michael Heim: The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality "Our love affair with computers, computer graphics, and computer networks runs deeper than aesthetic fascination and deeper than the play of sense. We are searching for a home for the mind and heart."
Using new media as a metaphor for a learning environment creates some important problems. The first and most obvious is that we are using dead things as a means to shape the learning environment of living things. This kind of problem can be seen, for example, in an idea like network. A digital network is a remarkably different thing from a natural (biological) network, however, we often see methods and approaches to education adopting the language of digital networks. The idea of a connection in the digital world does not naturally lead to the meaningful formation of an association or relationship. We connect to inanimate things in the digital world. Regardless of the "interactivity" surrounding digital objects they remain lifeless and inadequate as a metaphor for education.
None of this is to say that new media cannot be part of a system that enhances learning. However, it is all too easy to subscribe to new media metaphors within the confines of an existing and much more encompassing system. In other words, new media technology can be subsumed and controlled by a larger more influential system. In the case of education, it is clear that people are all too often the object of design instead of the source of design.
Opening Our Senses To The Character Of The MediumThe word "interactivity" is often closely associated with digital media. Interaction points toward some kind of exchange or connection being made across users of new media. Within the confines of new media design, ideas about interactivity are closely aligned with ideas about digital networks. In some cases, this kind of interactivity can produce a sense of isolation. E-learning provides a clear example of a new media technology that retrieves old ideas about curriculum, instruction and standardized testing and gives them a new facade.
If we move our ideas about interactivity, and therefore interaction design, outside the confines of digital technology we begin to see a more vibrant range of associations and relationships. For example, an ecology of learning invites us to explore the relationships of living things to the physical environment. Interactivity as viewed through the lens of ecology is a significantly different perspective from interactivity as viewed through the lens of digital networks.
What new media seems to invite us to consider is how to free up communication. How to make it more open and versatile. It leads us to consider that knowledge is in fact in constant motion just as our thoughts and experiences are. The sheer quantity of information available via new media invites the possibility that we need to find ways to adapt our intellectual abilities to more effectively explore the new mindscape. These ideas also seem to imply that education as the promotion of static forms of knowledge and closed-communication systems are inadequate. However, this is not really new, or something we somehow discovered through the advent of digital networks. Knowledge has never been static, except in our conception of it.
If new media learning environments can be fostered to help people increase their power of discernment in McLuhan's terms then we may be able to offer some relief from its limitations. This kind of learning environment, however, is really fuelled by the power of human perception, not the technology as an end unto itself.