In a previous post, I listed the seven ‘aha’ moments that have been the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology. This is the first of seven posts that discusses why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning.
What was the discovery?
Different media have different educational effects or affordances. If you just transfer the same teaching to a different mediium, you fail to exploit the unique characteristics of that medium. Put more positively, you can do different and often better teaching by adapting it to the medium. That way students will learn more deeply and effectively.
How did this discovery come about?
Aha moments do not come out of thin air. A number of things come together until something in particular triggers it.
The first one, media are different, came very early, within 12 months of starting my career as a researcher into educational technologies. In 1969, I was appointed as a research officer at the Open University in the United Kingdom. At this point the university had just received its royal charter. I was the 20th member of staff appointed. My job was simple: to research into the pilot of the OU being currently offered by the National Extension College, which was offering low cost non-credit distance education programs in partnership with the BBC. ( So you think MOOCs are new?! The NEC was offering them over 40 years ago).
We sent out by mail questionnaires on a weekly basis to students taking these courses. The questionnaire contained both pre-coded responses, and the opportunity for open-ended comments, and asked students for their responses to the print and broadcast components of the courses. We were looking for what worked and what didn’t work in designing multimedia distance education courses.
When I started analyzing the questionnaires, I was struck particularly by the ‘open-ended’ comments in response to the television and radio broadcasts. Responses to the printed components tended to be ‘cool’: rational, calm, critical, constructive. The responses to the broadcasts were the opposite: emotional, strongly supportive or strongly critical or even hostile, and rarely critically constructive. Something was going on here.
Since the OU was going to spend 20% of ita annual budget on the broadcasts from the BBC, I persuaded the university to appoint me as a lecturer to research into the effectiveness of the television and radio programs, which I did for a period of nearly 20 years.
The initial discovery that media were different came very quickly, but it took longer to discover in what ways media are different, and even longer why. I have written more extensively about this elsewhere, but here are some of the interesting discoveries I and my colleagues in the Audio-Visual Media Research Group at the OU made:
- the BBC producers (all of whom had a degree in the subject area in which they were making programs) thought about knowledge differently from the academics with whom they were working. In particular, they tended to think more visually and more concretely about the subject matter. Thus they tended to make programs that showed concrete examples of concepts or principles in the texts, applications of principles, or how academic concepts worked in real life.
- the BBC producers rarely used talking heads or TV lectures. With radio and later audio-cassettes, some producers and academics integrated the audio with texts, for instance in mathematics, talking students through equations or formulae in the printed text (similar to Khan Academy lectures on TV)
- students responded very differently to the TV programs in particular. Some loved them, some hated them, and few were indifferent. The ones that hated them wanted the programs to be didactic and repeat or reinforce what was in the printed texts. They tended to get lower grades or even fail in the final course exam. The ones that loved them tende to get higher grades. They were able to see how the programs illustrated the principles in the texts, and the programs tended to ‘stretch’ students to think more widely or critically about the topics in the course. The exception was math, where borderline students found the TV programs most helpful
- using television and radio to develop higher level learning is a skill that can be taught. In the foundation social science course (D100), many of the programs were made in a typical BBC documentary style. Although the programs were accompanied by extensive broadcast notes that attempted to link the broadcasts to the academic texts, many students struggled with these programs. When the course was remade five years later a distinguished academic (Stuart Hall) was used as an ‘anchor’ for all the programs. The first few programs were somewhat like lectures, but in each program Stuart Hall introduced more and more visual clips and helped students analyze each clip . By the end of the course the programs were almost entirely in the documentary format. Students rated the remade program much higher and used examples from the TV programs much more in their assignments and exams for the remade course.
Why are these findings significant?
At the time (and for many years afterwards) researchers such as Richard Clark (1983) argued that the research showed no significant different between the use of different media. In particular, there were no differences between classroom teaching and other media such as television or radio or satellite or the Internet. Even today, we are getting similar findings regarding online learning (e.g. Means et al. 2010)
However, this is because the research methodology that is used by researchers for such comparative studies requires the two conditions being compared to be the same, except for the medium being used. Therefore a classroom lecture had to be compared to a television lecture. Indeed Clark argued that any differences were due to pedagogical differences in the media use. Since the classroom was used as the base, you had to strip out all the affordances of television – what it could do better than a lecture – in order to compare it.
The critical point is that different media can be used to assist learners to learn in different ways and achieve different outcomes. In a sense, researchers such as Clark were right: the teaching methods matter, but different media can more easily support different ways of teaching than others.
Perhaps even more important is the idea that many media are better than one. This allows learners with different preferences for learning to be accommodated, and to allow subject matter to be taught in different ways through different media, thus leading to deeper understanding or a wider range of skills in using content.
How does this apply to online learning?
Online learning can incorporate a range of different media: text, graphics, audio, video, animation, simulations. We need to understand better their affordances, and use them differentially so as to develop deeper knowledge, and a wider range of learning outcomes and skills.
The use of different media also allows for more individualization and personalization of the learning, better suiting learners with different learning styles and needs.
Most of all, we should stop trying merely to move classroom teaching to other media such as MOOCs, and start designing online learning so its full potential can be exploited.
References and further reading
Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables (out of print – try a good library)
Bates, A. (2012) Pedagogical roles for video in online learning, Online Learning and Distance Education Resources
Clark, R. (1983) ‘Reconsidering research on learning from media’ Review of Educational Research, Vol. 53, pp. 445-459
Kozma, R. (1994) ‘Will Media Influence Learning? Reframing the Debate’, Educational Technology Research and Development, Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 7-19
Means, B. et al. (2009) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies Washington, DC: US Department of Education (http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf)
Russell, T. L. (1999) The No Significant Difference Phenomenon Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University, Office of Instructional Telecommunication