Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Technology in the Classroom: Why the Medium is the Message, and other ‘McLuhanisms’

For a while there has been ongoing debate in education about whether putting digital technology in classrooms helps students learn better or more quickly.  (This debate has been happening in my home city of St. Paul, MN over the last year since local schools placed iPads in the classroom.)  As schools experiment on kids with the latest digital devices, will teachers and parents be able to witness how new media affect student learning?

Yes, results are in.  Last month (September 2015), the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international organization of policy researchers) released the first international assessment of digital learning.  The bottom line, to the surprise of many, is that digital technologies have contributed “no noticeable improvement” to student learning (at least as measured by international literacy tests on math, science, and reading, which come from the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA).  According to the assessment,
  • Students who frequently use computers get worse results.
  • Students who moderately use computers have “somewhat better learning outcomes” than students who rarely use computers.
(The full report on this assessment can be viewed here.)

According to OECD education director Andreas Schleicher, these results look “disappointing” because they “show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in information and communication technology (ICT) for education.”  (In fact, schools in countries with better results have lower levels of computer use.)

It appears that information-processing technologies haven’t helped students process information. Why not?

Although a tempting question, it may be misleading, because just about any type of learning requires some kind of technology: books are technologies for reading; pencils and papers are technologies for writing; numerals and calculators are technologies for mathematics.  The real question is what kinds of technologies work best for which types of learning.

We’re in interesting times, because learning experiences today offer wide varieties of technologies, old and new.  Should we use books or iPads, paper or laptops?  Really, the answer depends on what we’re trying to learn.


Marshall McLuhan
(Image from The Official Site for the Estate of Marshall McLuhan)

Different technologies are better (or worse) for different types of learning.
Media scholar Marshall McLuhan pointed this out in his book Understanding Media, where he wrote a famous aphorism:

the medium is the message.”

What McLuhan meant was that technologies and media do more than communicate information: technologies and media shape how our minds process information.

(Personally, I prefer Neil Postman’s reworking of McLuhan’s saying:

the medium is the metaphor.”

Technologies and media are metaphors for thought itself, because different media support different types of thinking.  See the previous post for an intro to Postman’s ideas, which make up a field called Media Ecology.)

For example, in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan wrote about a striking difference between old media like books and newspapers vs. new media like computers.  A crucial difference between old print media vs. new screen media is what he called “light-on” vs. “light-through”: is the light reflected off a page, or is the light coming directly at you through a screen?

(Image from Amazon)

Why would reflected light versus direct light make any difference?  (McLuhan's explanation in The Gutenberg Galaxy is a bit convoluted, however correct, so I'll give a more straightforward answer here.)  When print media like books reflect light, they’re easier to focus on for a long period of time—the light doesn’t tire your eyes.  Screen media like laptops emit direct light, so staring at them can lead to digital eye strain.

This difference—reflected light vs. direct light—is a reason why books are better for teaching deep reading and concentration (e.g., reading comprehension, reflective thought or contemplation, committing ideas to long-term memory).  Screen media, in contrast, tend to exercise scanning and multitasking, which make them better for visual and spatial learning (e.g., studying maps and patterns, simulating driving/navigation skills, illustrating scientific ideas).

In short, different information technologies extend different parts of your mind: print media edify skills like basic literacy, while screen media train skills like pattern visualization.  (For other differences, see Screen vs. Print Part I, II, and III.)  

So perhaps digital technology has contributed “no noticeable improvement” to education because students aren't learning the right lessons with the right technologies.  Schools that want to teach literacy with iPads probably won't succeed (excepting cases like digital literacy).  But iPads certainly can help kids learn skills associated with spatial orientation, navigation, and visualization (e.g., reading maps, understanding geography, illustrating concepts in physics).  These are the nuances that policy makers in education need to consider.


  1. I interpret your conclusion this way: "Use the technologies that are most effective for enhancing each given kind of learning." I agree. However, I think the connotation of your intro paragraph is unfair: "As schools experiment on kids with the latest digital devices, will teachers and parents be able to witness how new media affect student learning?" Experimenting ON kids makes it sound like the rush to use digital tech in the classroom is an effort to turn children into lab rats. But education has always been experimental (all the way back to Socrates), and those experiments have always been a source of contention (again, back to Socrates). So perhaps we can talk about it as "experimenting WITH kids."

    Though I agree with your conclusion, I still support bringing technology like iPads to school districts like St Paul for the simple reason that city kids need to have experiences of these technologies to make it in the world; their suburban counterparts are (probably) more affluent and (probably) have more access to such technologies at home.

    As for me, I like teaching plain old writing: the hard thinking that goes with organizing thoughts and supporting them with compelling argumentation. I'm happy to do it in whatever medium students will tolerate, including iPads and clay tablets.


  2. I like this guy. ^^ As long as the kids are writing, huzzah.
    As far as tech goes, what if they're using voice recognition to write a paper? Is it the same thing? (Assuming they edit the horrible computer interpretations and add punctuation to make it look like an actual paper.)
    I'm curious what grade he teaches. I loved my writing teachers and think they did a great job, but I also read a ton growing up, which might have helped with my own writing. Are kids reading on screens (and hence not reading as long/much)?

  3. If all the students have iPads, it is much easier for the teacher to deliver class assignments, no more standing for hours at the copy machine to get the worksheets out. It's also much easier to assign a chapter in a book and send that chapter to all of the students. No more difficult to read handwriting. I'm not sure that the students will be more fascinated by math problems on the iPad or by the history of the American Revolution read from an iPad. If I were in back in school I doubt I'd spend more time doing homework but probably I would be curious about discovering how many extracuricular things there were to discover on the iPad. It's greatest use might be for the discovery of what's not being taught in the classroom. Good or bad.

  4. Christopher touches on several observations I have made in classes where each child was required to have a laptop (this is an experimental path it in some countries). The laptop or tablet must be implemented as a learning tool just like a book, a calculator, paper and pencil, etc. Placing the focus on the tool over-emphasizes the technology. The interactive technologies were used to do interactive exercises or work in small groups. During group reading, however, we put the laptops away and used handouts and books. The conclusion that the OECD makes really was not as surprising to colleagues as media trumped it to be.