The media debate

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1 Definition

The great "media debate" has been started by Richard Clark and Robert Kozma in the early nineties and it was anticipated by McLuhan (1964) statements that "medium is the message" and "media are extension of man".

2 Clark's arguments

“ "[...] media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition"” (Clark 83: 445) or more subtly that “ there is strong evidence that many very different media attributes accomplish the same learning goal” and therefore: “ It there is no single media attribute that serves a unique cognitive effect for some learning task, then the attributes must be proxies for some other variables that are instrumental in learning gains” (Clark 1994:22).

Clark does negate media effects in a simple way but links the debate to cost-effectiveness: “ Of course it is important for instructional designers to know that there are a variety of treatments that will produce a desired learning goal. However, the utility of this knowledge is largely economic. The designer can and must choose the less expensive and most cognitively efficient way to represent and deliver instruction. It cannot be argued that any given medium or attribute must be present in order for learning to occur, only that certain media and attributes are more efficient for certain learners, learning goals and task.” (Clark 1994:22).

Clark insists on the replacability test: and “ Whenever you have found a medium or set of media attributes which you believe will cause learning for some learners on a given task, ask yourself if another (similar) set of attributes would lead to the same learning result” and conversely “ If you suspect that there may be an alternative set or mix of media that would give similar results, ask yourself what is causing these similar results. ” (Clark 1994:28).

Media attributes (symbol systems) only available in some media can only be sufficient conditions for learning, i.e. they provide “ operational vehicles for methods that reflect the cognitive processes necessary to successfully perform a given task”.

3 Kozma's arguments

Do media influence learning? Perhaps it is time to rephrase the question: How, do media affect learning? Perhaps it is time to go beyond our concern with "proving" that media "cause" learning so that we can begin to explore the question in more complex ways. Perhaps we should ask, what are the actual and potential relationships between media and learning? Can we describe and understand those relationships? And can we create a strong and compelling influence of media on learning through improved theories, research, and instructional designs? (Kozma, 1994).


Kozma's argument is that certain media “ possess particular characteristics that make them both more and less suitable for the accomplishment of certain kinds of learning tasks.” (Kozma, 1994) and he refers to Salomon who argued that “ media can be analyzed in terms of their "cognitively relevant" capabilities - i.e., in terms of those characteristics that affect the ways in which individuals represent and process information.”.

These capabilities relate to three aspects of each medium:

  1. Technology: the physical, mechanical, or electronic capabilities that determine a medium's function.
  2. Symbol system(s): sets of symbolic expressions by which information is communicated according to specific rules and conventions: spoken language, printed text, pictures, numbers, graphs, and musical scores exemplify symbol systems.
  3. processing capabilities: a medium's abilities to operate on symbol systems in specified ways-for example, by displaying, receiving, storing, retrieving, organizing, transforming, or evaluating whatever information is available through a particular symbol system.

Each medium can be defined by a set of attributes that define its function, in particular how it allows representations and how it supports the learner to construct and to operate on mental representations. In other words, the assumption is that learning with media is a complementary process within which a learner and a medium interact to expand or refine the learner's mental model of a particular phenomenon.

Therefore Kozma (1994) concludes “ If we move from "Do media influence learning?" to "In what ways can we use the capabilities of media to influence learning for particular students, tasks, and situations?" we will both advance the development of our field and contribute to the improvement of teaching and learning.”

4 The debate goes on

DSchneider believes that:

  • Media do have different affordances and therefore media do belong to instructional method. In other words, one can argue that given classes of media are part of a pedagogic strategy and removing these would alter the strategy.
  • Cognition is not only in the head, it sometimes needs tools or other people (this is a situationist / distributed cognition argument)
  • However, we do agree with Clark that most instructional design models could be implemented with a variety of media.

We believe that technology (including media) is not innocent and that the choice of tools do in practise have a deep impact on teaching and learning. This does not really counter Clark's arguments of course, because he insists that tools are vehicles of instructional method and must be chosen carefully according to precise instructional goals. However, in the world of everyday practise Kozma seems to right: A lot of people do more or less randomly choose a tool (e.g. a LMS) and will be driven by its affordances and that certainly does have an effect on learning.

See also:

5 Links

6 References

  • Clark, Richard E. (1991) When Researchers Swim Upstream:Reflections on an Unpopular Argument About Learning From Media, Educational Technology (34-40).
  • Diederen, Julia, (2005) Design and Evaluation of Digital Activating Learning Materials for Food Chemistry Education, Thesis Wageningen University, The Netherlands, 2005. ISBN 90-8504-271-2 PDF
  • Kozma, Robert B. (1991). "Learning with Media," Review of Educational Research 61 (Summer 1991): 179-211. PDF
  • Kozma, Robert B. (1994), The Influence of Media on Learning: The Debate Continues, School Library Media Research, Volume 22, Number 4, Summer 1994. HTML print version
  • Koumi, J. (1994). Media Comparison and Deployment: A Practitioner's View. British Journal of Educational Technology, 25(1), 41-57.
  • McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Salomon, Gavriel (1997). Interaction of Media, Cognition, and Learning, San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1979.