The transmission tower at Alexandra Palace London, from where the BBC broadcast the first Open University television programs

This is the third post in a series on selecting and using technology for teaching and learning.

The first two were Models for selecting and using technology: 1. the challenge, and Models for selecting and using technology: 2. A (very) brief history of educational technology.

Why categorize technologies?

In Models for selecting and using technology: 2. A (very) brief history of educational technology, I stated that in drawing up a simple list of technologies that have been used in education, we find that there are different categories of technology. For instance, is computer-mediated communication a sub-category of the Internet, or is it a category on its own, as although it now uses the Internet, it actually existed before the Internet (at least in its current state)? Television is delivered using a variety of technology: satellite, cable, DVDs, terrestrial broadcasting. Is it the technology used to deliver that matters in education, or the general characteristic of ‘television’ (or video) that matters, irrespective of the delivery method? I also argued that the invention of the Internet changed everything; it was a true paradigm shift for educational technology. However, what are the reasons for thinking that the Internet is a paradigm shift? What are the characteristics of the Internet that made it so different from what went before?

I will be arguing that we need to understand the characteristics or affordances of each technology that affect its usefulness for education. Understanding these characteristics will help clarify our thinking of the possible benefits or weaknesses of each technology. This will also allow us to see where technologies have common or different features.

There is a wide range of characteristics that we could look at, but I will focus in this and subsequent posts on the five that I think are particularly important for education:

  • broadcast (one-way) or communicative (two way) technologies
  • synchronous or asynchronous technologies
  • transient or permanent
  • single or rich media
  • media or tools.

We shall see that these characteristics are more dimensional than discrete states, and technologies will fit at different points on these dimensions, depending on the way the technology is designed or used.

Broadcast or communicative technologies

A major structural distinction is between technologies that are primarily one-way or ‘broadcast’, and those that are primarily multi-way or ‘communicative’, allowing for two way communication, or equal ‘power’ of communication between multiple end users.

Television, radio and print for example are primarily broadcast or one-way technologies, as end users or ‘recipients’ cannot change the ‘message’ (although they may interpret it differently or choose to ignore it). Note that it does not matter really what delivery technology (terrestrial broadcast, satellite, cable, DVD) is used for television, it remains a ‘broadcast’ or one-way technology. Some Internet technologies are also primarily one way. For instance, an institutional web site is primarily a one-way technology.

One advantage of broadcast technologies is that they ensure a common standard of learning materials for all students. This is particularly important in countries where teachers are poorly qualified or of variable quality. Also one-way broadcast technologies allow for the organization to control and manage the information that is being transmitted, allowing for quality control. One disadvantage is that additional resources are needed to provide interaction with teachers or other learners.

The telephone, video-conferencing and e-mail are examples of communicative technologies, in that all users can communicate and interact with each other, and in theory at least have equal power in technology terms. The educational significance of communicative technologies is that they allow for interaction between learners and teachers, and perhaps even more significantly, between a learner and other learners, without the participants needing to be present in the same place.

Web sites can vary on where they are placed on this dimension, depending on their design. For instance, an airline web site, while under the full control of the company, has interactive features that allow you to find flights, book flights, reserve seats, and hence, while you may not be able to ‘communicate’ or change the site, you can at least interact with it and to some extent personalize it. However, you cannot change the page showing the choice of flights. This is why I prefer to talk about dimensions. An airline web site that allows end user interaction is less of a broadcast technology, as is a student portal where they can perhaps choose or add features to create a more personal learning environment. However it is not a ‘pure’ communicative technology either. The power is not equal between the airline and the customer, because the airline controls the site.

I see a learning management system as primarily a broadcast or one-way technology, although it has features such as discussion forums and computer marked assignments that allow for some forms of multi-way communication. However, it could be argued that the communication functions in an LMS requires additional technologies, such as a discussion forum, that just happen to be plugged in to or embedded within the LMS, which is primarily a database with a cool interface. We shall see that in practice we often have to combine technologies if we want the full range of functions required in education, and this adds cost and complexity.

It should be noted too that some web 2.0 tools (e.g. YouTube and blogs) are also more of a broadcast than a communicative technology, whereas social media are mainly communicative technologies with some broadcast features (e.g. the Wall, or permanent personal information on a Facebook page). A wiki is clearly more of a ‘communicative’ technology. Again though it needs to be emphasized that intentional intervention by teachers, designers or users of a technology can influence where on the dimension some technologies will be, although there comes a point where the characteristic is so strong that it is difficult to change significantly without introducing other technologies.

It can be seen that ‘power’ is an important aspect of this dimension. What ‘power’ does the end-user or student have in controlling a particular technology? If we look at this from an historical perspective, we have seen a great expansion of technologies in recent years that give increasing power to the end user. The move towards more communicative technologies and away from broadcast technologies then has profound implications for education (as for society at large).

Note that we can also apply this analysis to non-technological means of communication, such as classroom teaching. Lectures have broadcast characteristics, whereas a small seminar group has communicative characteristics. The power dimension again is important here. It also raises an interesting question. When designing distance education, should we be replicating the power dimensions of classroom teaching, or should we be seeking to change this balance? Is the power balance inherent in distance education (or classroom teaching) or is it a design decision?


Choose some technologies from the list in Models for selecting and using technology: 2. A (very) brief history of educational technology. Draw a straight horizontal line for each of these technologies, with broadcast on the left end and communicative on the right end.

1. Decide where, from your experience, each technology should be placed on this line. Write down why.

2. Which technologies were easy to categorize and which difficult?

3. How useful is this characteristic in making decisions about which technology to use in education?

If you want to share your responses with me and other readers, thus turning this post from a broadcast to a communication, please do so!

Next post

Synchronous or asynchronous technologies.


  1. To be completely useful, there should be a second dimension added to the basis, which might be best described as “on demand”. YouTube is positioned most closely to the broadcast origin in the single dimensional basis, yet meets the time based or “on demand” needs of learners even more than face to face interactions or technologies that virtualize face to face interactions.

    From a design perspective, swapping a broadcast strategy for a communicative strategy reduces cost of delivery and provides better or at least easier analytics.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here