Learning the Laws of Media

There has been much discussion of Thomas Friedman’s recent book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century. Will Richardson connects this flatness to education:

Like him or not, I have to say that I’ve been getting a bit of an education from Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, and I’m finding more and more connections between the global leveling he describes and the classroom.

…We edubloggers talk and write about this a lot, this idea that the tools of the Read/Write Web necessarily change the relationships and construction of the classroom. When audience moves from one teacher to many readers, when assessment moves measuring correctness to measuring usefulness, when we ask for long lasting contribution of ideas instead of short-lived answers to narrow questions, it requires us to rethink our roles as teachers and to redefine our curricula. Remember, we don’t own the content any longer. Our students teach us the tools. They are already connecting and collaborating. To hold on to the vertical classroom is to risk irrelevance…soon.

A common adage amongst learning professionals is that, “it’s not about the technology, it’s about learning”. While we may hope that this is true, we live in societies based on technologies, and Marshall McLuhan is consistently proven correct with his Laws of Media:

every new medium:

1. extends a human property (the car extends the foot);

2. obsolesces the previous medium by turning it into a sport or an form of art (the automobile turns horses and carriages into sports);

3. retrieves a much older medium that was obsolesced before (the automobile brings back the shining armour of the chevalier);

4. flips or reverses its properties into the opposite effect when pushed to its limits (the automobile, when there are too many of them, create traffic jams, that is total paralysis)

Every new technology has these four effects on all of us, including learning technologies. This means that much of our work is about technology. If you don’t understand the effects of the technologies that we use, how can you understand their pedagogical implications? Take the learning management system, which has been with us for about a decade. The LMS:

  1. extends the instructor’s voice beyond the walls of the institution;
  2. obsolesces the classroom (but small, face-to-face executive classes are on the rise);
  3. the LMS retrieves the correspondence model;
  4. it has flipped into a costly administrative tool that does not meet the needs of inter-connected learners using other more effective technologies to communicate.

In looking at the newer social networking technologies (blogs, wikis, eportfolios) we could say that they:

  1. extend the learner’s voice;
  2. obsolesce the course as the unit of education;
  3. retrieve the Oxford-Cambridge collegial education model ;
  4. could reverse into a meaningless “echo-chamber” (Wikepedia definition of “echo chamber: Metaphorically, the term echo chamber can refer to any situation in which information or ideas are amplified by transmission inside an enclosed space.)
    Like it or not, technology is changing the learning landscape. We cannot adopt one technology and ignore another, or we risk becoming irrelevant. Learning professionals have to understand the technologies that drive our media. The best way to understand these technologies is to use them and watch how others use them. For instance, don’t discount the use of Instant Messaging for education just because all the kids are using it for non-educational purposes. Try to tap into it instead.

    We live in a time when new information and communication technologies are constantly being developed. My advice is to get used to it, and remember that “The medium is the message”.

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