The medium is the message?

This is the fifth post in a series on selecting and using technology for teaching and learning. The first four were Models for selecting and using technology: 1. the challenge, 2. Models for selecting and using technology: 2. A (very) brief history of educational technology, 3. Models for selecting and using technology: 3. Broadcast or communicative? and 4. Models for selecting and using technology: 4. Synchronous or asynchronous?

In the last post, I looked at the dimension of synchronous and asynchronous technologies, and compared those characteristics with the dimension of broadcast and asynchronous. In this post I will look at another critical dimension of communications technologies: whether we are discussing media or technology.


This is going to be a much more challenging and controversial post, because philosophers and scientists have argued about the nature of media and technologies over a very long period, starting with Socrates musing on the inadequacy of writing for representing knowledge. So this post is semiotics redux (for which you should be thankful).

One reason that the distinction is challenging is because in everyday language use, we tend to use these two terms interchangeably. For instance, television is often referred to as both a medium and a technology. Is the Internet a medium or a technology? And does it matter?

I will argue that there are differences, and it does matter to distinguish between media and technology, especially if we are looking for guidelines on when and how to use media or technologies. There is a danger in looking too much at the raw technology, and not enough at the personal, social and cultural contexts in which we use technology, particularly in education. We shall also see that media and technology are not on a single dimension like broadcast or communicative, but represent different ways altogether of thinking about the choice and use of technology in teaching and learning.


There are many definitions of technology (see Wikipedia for a good discussion of this). Essentially definitions of technology range from the basic notion of tools, to systems which employ or exploit technologies. Thus ‘technology refers to tools and machines that may be used to solve real-world problems’ is a simple definition; ‘the current state of humanity’s knowledge of how to combine resources to produce desired products, to solve problems, fulfill needs, or satisfy wants’ is a more complex and grandiose definition (and has a smugness about it that I think is undeserved – technology often does the opposite of satisfy wants, for instance.).

In terms of educational technology I think we have to consider a broad definition of technology. The technology of the Internet involves more than just a collection of tools, but a system that combines computers, telecommunications, software and rules and procedures or protocols. However, I baulk at the very broad definition of the ‘current state of humanity’s knowledge’.  Once a definition begins to encompass many different aspects of life it becomes unwieldy and ambiguous.

I tend to think of technology in education as things or tools used to support teaching and learning. Thus computers, software programs such as a learning management system, or a transmission or communications network, are all technologies. A printed book is a technology. Technology often includes a combination of tools with particular technical links that enable them to work as a technology system, such as the telephone network or the Internet.

However, for me, technologies or even technological systems do not of themselves communicate or create meaning. They just sit there until commanded to do something or until they are activated or until a person starts to interact with the technology. At this point, we start to move into media.


Media (plural of medium) is another word that has many definitions and I will argue that it has two distinct meanings relevant for teaching and learning, both of which are different from definitions of technology.

The word ‘medium’ comes from the Latin, meaning in the middle (a median) and also that which intermediates or interprets. Media require an active act of creation of content and/or communication, and someone who receives and understands the communication, as well as the technologies that carry the medium.

In this sense, we can consider text, graphics, audio and video as media, in that they intermediate ideas and images that convey meaning. Each of these is always an interpretation of reality, and again usually involves some form of human intervention, such as writing (for text), drawing or design for graphics, talking, scripting or recording for audio and video. Note that there are two types of intervention in media: by the ‘creator’ who constructs information, and by the ‘receiver’, who must also interpret it.

Computing can also be considered a medium in this context. I use the term computing, not computers, since although computing uses computers, computing involves some kind of intervention, construction and interpretation. Computing as a medium would include animations, online social networking, using a search engine, or designing and using simulations. Thus Google uses a search engine as its primary technology, but I classify it as a medium, since it needs content and content providers, and an end user who defines the parameters of the search, as well as computer algorithms to assist the search.

Thus while media use technology to communicate or interpret meaning, the creation, communication and interpretation of meaning are added features that turn a technology into a medium.

Thus in terms of representing knowledge we can think of the following educational media:

  • Text
  • Graphics
  • Audio
  • Video
  • Computing

The second meaning of media is broader and refers to the industries or significant areas of human activity that are organized around particular technologies, for instance film and movies, television, publishing, and the Internet. Within these different media are particular ways of representing, organizing and communicating knowledge.

Thus for instance within television there are different formats, such as news, documentaries, game shows, action programs, while in publishing there are novels, newspapers, comics,  biographies, etc. Sometimes the formats overlap but even then there are symbol systems within a medium that distinguish it from other media. For instance in movies there are cuts, fades, close-ups, and other techniques that are markedly different from those in other media. These symbol systems are not neutral or arbitrary but are used to influence our interpretation of reality. All these features of media bring with them their own conventions and assist or change the way meaning is extracted or interpreted.

In education we could think of classroom teaching as a medium. Technology or tools are used (e.g. chalk and blackboards, or Powerpoint and a projector) but the key component is the intervention of the teacher and the interaction with the learners in real time and in a fixed time and place. We can also then think of online teaching as a different medium, with computers, the Internet (in the sense of the communication network) and a learning management system as core technologies, but it is the interaction between teachers, learners and online resources within the unique context of the Internet that are the essential component of online learning.

Media of course depend on technology, but technology is only one element of media. Thus we can think of the Internet as merely a technological system, or as a medium that contains unique formats and symbol systems that help convey meaning and knowledge. These formats, symbol systems and unique characteristics (e.g. the 140 character limit in Twitter) are deliberately created and need to be interpreted by both creators and end users. Furthermore, at least with the Internet, people can be at the same time both creators and interpreters of knowledge.

Over time, media have become more complex, with newer media (e.g. television) incorporating some of the components of earlier media (e.g. audio) as well as adding another medium (video). Digital media and the Internet increasingly are incorporating and integrating all previous media, such as text, audio, and video, and adding new media components, such as animation, simulation, and interactivity. When digital media incorporate many of these components they become ‘rich media’. Thus one major advantage of the Internet is that it encompasses all the representational media of text, graphics, audio, video and computing – as we saw also with the characteristics of broadcast/communicative and synchronous/asynchronous.

Lastly, there is a strong organizational context to media. Industries are often organized around specific media, and hence media use and interpretation is influenced by strong cultural or organizational values. For instance, broadcasters often have a different set of professional criteria and ways of assessing ‘quality’ in an educational broadcast from those of educators. This also applies to computer professionals and educators.

Implications for education

If we are interested in selecting appropriate technologies for teaching and learning, we should not just look at the technical features of a technology, nor even the wider technology system in which it is located, nor even only the educational beliefs we bring as a classroom teacher.  We also need to examine the unique features of different media, in terms of their formats, symbols systems, and cultural values.

The concept of media is much ‘softer’ and ‘richer’ than that of ‘technology’, more open to interpretation and harder to define, but it is a useful concept, allowing the inclusion of face-to-face communication as a medium, and recognizing the fact that technology on its own does not lead to the transfer of meaning, except perhaps to other computers.

Over time, as new technologies are developed, and coalesce into media systems, old formats and approaches are carried over from older to newer media. For instance early movies followed quite closely the format and structure of the music hall and theatre, and took several decades to establish their own unique characteristics.

This of course is what we do with technology in education. We try either to incorporate new technology into old formats, as with clickers and lecture capture, or we try to create the classroom in virtual space, as we do with learning management systems. What we are still developing but not yet clearly recognizing are formats, symbols systems and organizational structures that exploit the unique characteristics of the Internet as a medium. It is difficult to see these unique characteristics clearly at this point in time, but some developments that are beginning to show some signs of exploiting the uniqueness of the Internet are e-portfolios, mobile learning,  and self-managed learning in social groups.

In this context, it is easier to understand why it is a mistake to think of computers replacing humans in the education process, at least until computers have much greater facility to recognize, understand and apply semantics, value systems, and organizational factors. But at the same time it is equally a mistake to rely only on symbol systems, cultural values and organizational structures of classroom teaching as the means of judging the effectiveness or appropriateness of the Internet as an educational medium. This makes the task of media and technology selection infinitely more complex, which is one reason it has proved impossible to develop simple algorithms or decision trees for effective decision making in this area. Nevertheless, there are some guidelines that can be used for helping learning and teaching within an Internet-dependent society, and we will explore these in further postings.


1. Do you find the distinction between media and technology helpful?

2. Do you think that knowledge becomes something different when represented by different media? For instance, does an animation of a mathematical function represent something different from a written or printed equation of the same function? Which is more ‘real’?

3. What in your view makes the Internet unique from a teaching perspective, or is it just old wine in new bottles?

4. Text has publishers and newspaper corporations, audio has radio stations, and video has both television companies and YouTube. Is there a comparable organization for the Internet or is it not really a medium in the sense of publishing, radio or television?

I hope you have the answers to these questions, because I sure don’t, so I’d love to hear your views on these or any other issues arising from this reflection on the nature of the Internet and its relevance for teaching and learning.

However, I do promise in the next few posts to get more practical in terms of media and technology selection. Think of this as the artillery barrage before the tanks go in. I just need to know if I’m on target.


Where to begin? There are many different possible references on this topic. Here are just a few of my favourites:

Bates, A. (2011) Marshall McLuhan and his relevance to teaching with technology, e-learning and distance education resources, July 20 (for a list of McLuhan references as well as a discussion of his relevance)

Guhlin, M. (2011) Education Experiment Ends, Around the Corner –, September 22

LinkedIn: Media and Learning Discussion Group

Salomon, G. (1979) Interaction of Media, Cognition and Learning San Francisco: Jossey Bass








  1. The distinction media – technology is a useful one. If media is “that which intermediates or interpretets” isnot the list of media missing “human media”?

    • Hi
      Yes. I agree that humans are media, especially in teaching. However, I made the distinction of face-to-face as a medium of teaching, separate from online, as each has its own quite distinct ‘affordance’, advantages and disadvantages.

      Many thanks for the comment – muh appreciated

  2. Tony
    You said
    “However, I do promise in the next few posts to get more practical in terms of media and technology selection.”

    Did I miss the post? As I am currently discussing with a group of teracher trainers educational technology – media / technology etc. we look forward to ‘the next few posts’

    • Ah, you’re a hard taskmaster!

      No, you haven’t missed anything. I went away for three weeks holiday, and I still intend to to add additional posts on this topic.

      However, I begin to facilitate a MOOC from 17-23 October and will also be travelling to Norway, so the next post (on the SECTIONS model and its relevance) may not get done until I get back. I will do my best, though, if I can, to post something this coming week!

      Thanks for keeping me on task and I appreciate your interest


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