Today (July 21) is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Marshall McLuhan. Although I was not consciously aware of it at the time, McLuhan turned out to be one of the biggest influences on my thinking about the use of technology for teaching. I first read McLuhan’s ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy’,’The Medium is the Message’ and ‘Understanding Media’ in 1969, just as I was starting a new job doing research on the television and radio programs produced by the BBC for the Open University.

At the time, I was baffled by the books. McLuhan was not a scientist or a sociologist, but a professor of English literature. There seemed no empirical basis for his radical conclusions about the nature of technology and its impact on society. He also wrote in a metaphorical and poetic style that was quite at odds with my training as an empirical psychologist (although I did study Jung, and saw strong connections between McLuhan’s ideas and Jungian thinking – which made McLuhan even more unacceptable to me at the time.) All this of course preceded the Internet and the World Wide Web by 25 years or more.

The medium is the message

However, it became clear as I started to collect data on students’ responses especially to the television programs that something odd was going on. Students responded much more emotionally to the BBC/OU television programs than to the printed course modules, either hating or loving the programs. It was clear that the OU students (and most were mature adults) responded quite differentially to concrete or abstract representations of knowledge, to print and to television for study purposes.

Going back to McLuhan, in the Gutenberg Galaxy he wrote:

Print culture, ushered in by the Gutenberg press in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought about the cultural predominance of the visual over the aural/oral. [This has resulted in] the ingraining of lineal, sequential habits, but, even more important, … the visual homogenizing of experience of print culture, and the relegation of auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. […] ….. Print exists by virtue of the static separation of functions and fosters a mentality that gradually resists any but a separative and compartmentalizing or specialist outlook.’

This is a pretty good description of universities, so when television started to be used for university teaching, it came as quite a shock to both traditional academics and the Open University students. It should be noted that the BBC producers did NOT replicate the university lecture by using talking heads, but focused instead on non-linear documentaries that were meant to illustrate the academic principles and ideas in the texts, and concrete examples of abstract concepts through cases, models and animation (see Bates, 1984, for more analysis of the role of TV and radio for teaching). In other words, the medium was used quite differently from print (and in my view very appropriately), but for many of our students this was not what they considered a university education to be (but to the credit of many OU academics at the time, they were excited by the teaching possibilities of television and contributed greatly to the design of the programs).

In my research, the concept of ‘the medium is the message’ was beginning to roll out before my eyes, even though I did not connect the dots at the time. Students were learning differently from television. I find that academics still struggle to understand the potential of non-print media for higher education, because higher education has been defined by the concepts of ‘analytical precision, quantitative analysis and sequential ordering’ which McLuhan argued were the result of print-based representations of knowledge. However, other media offer different ways of representing knowledge that can be as equal or even superior to knowledge represented through print. (One medium is not necessarily better than another – they are just different, and the value of a medium will depend to some extent on the context and purposes for which it is used – to which McLuhan never gave sufficient recognition)

Hot and cool media

Another McLuhan concept I really struggled with was his classification of hot and cool media. Here I will quote the excellent Wikipedia entry on McLuhan:

Some media, like the movies, were “hot”—that is, they enhance one single sense, in this case vision, in such a manner that a person does not need to exert much effort in filling in the details of a movie image. McLuhan contrasted this with “cool” TV, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of the viewer to determine meaning, and comics, which due to their minimal presentation of visual detail require a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray. A movie is thus said by McLuhan to be “hot”, intensifying one single sense “high definition”, demanding a viewer’s attention, and a comic book to be “cool” and “low definition”, requiring much more conscious participation by the reader to extract value. “Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialogue.”

Hot media usually, but not always, provide complete involvement without considerable stimulus. For example, print occupies visual space, uses visual senses, but can immerse its reader. Hot media favour analytical precision, quantitative analysis and sequential ordering, as they are usually sequential, linear and logical. They emphasize one sense (for example, of sight or sound) over the others. For this reason, hot media also include radio, as well as film, the lecture and photography. Cool media, on the other hand, are usually, but not always, those that provide little involvement with substantial stimulus. They require more active participation on the part of the user, including the perception of abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts. Therefore, according to McLuhan cool media include television, as well as the seminar and cartoons. McLuhan describes the term “cool media” as emerging from jazz and popular music and, in this context, is used to mean “detached.” 

There are many reasons why I still struggle with McLuhan’s ideas here. First, the allocation of ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ seemed to me at the time to be the wrong way round – I was getting hot reactions to the TV programs and ‘cool’ reactions to the print material. However, this is mainly a language issue. Hot and cool for McLuhan did not represent emotion so much as cognitive engagement or mental effort (hot) or detachment or ‘mindlessness’ (cool). Even within his own definition though, the classifications seemed arbitrary. Why would a film require less cognitive engagement than TV?

Nevertheless, McLuhan was on to something here, although it requires a considerable reworking of what he actually wrote. I think there is a distinction to be made between the way different media require the use of different senses. For instance, print is entirely visual, radio is entirely auditory, television and film combine both vision and sound. What McLuhan was discussing though was as much about what he perceived to be the cognitive quality of different media as about the way they draw on the senses, and here is where I really differ with McLuhan’s views. Any medium can be designed so that it requires high or low levels of cognitive engagement. I would argue that film can and these days usually does require more cognitive engagement than television, although this is often frequently reversed, depending on the film or TV program. In other words, McLuhan was guilty of over-generalization, and at the end of the day, I still find his distinction between hot and cool media really flawed and confusing.

McLuhan and the Internet

Many argue (and I would agree) that McLuhan’s main legacy is his anticipation of the Internet and its impact on culture and society 25 years in advance of its invention. In particular, people have latched on to his use of the term ‘global village’ (although others attribute the original coining of the term to his colleague at the University of Toronto, Harold Innis):

McLuhan wrote that the visual, individualistic print culture would soon be brought to an end by what he called “electronic interdependence”: when electronic media replace visual culture with aural/oral culture. In this new age, humankind will move from individualism and fragmentation to a collective identity, with a “tribal base. (Wikipedia)

Again, though, it is easy to misinterpret what McLuhan was actually saying (a common complaint of McLuhan was that critics were constantly misrepresenting him). For McLuhan, a global village was not necessarily a good thing:

…as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. (Gutenberg Galaxy, p.32)

This certainly fits with my fears about the potential dangers of Facebook and Google.


It’s a long time since I last read McLuhan. He’s one of those authors often quoted but rarely read in the original these days. As a result, I’ll probably go to the library and try to re-read him again. However, at this stage, although I am now much more aware of his influence on my thinking than I gave credit for 25 years ago, I still have strong reservations about the value of his writing.

It is easy to be entranced by the scope and range of his ideas, by his often vivid choice of phrase, and by the often deliberate obfuscation and lack of linearity in his writing. McLuhan was for me more artist than sage, more wrong than right, especially in his later years (when it has been argued he suffered from a brain tumor). But he certainly was an original thinker who raised questions about the relationship between media and culture, and the world is certainly richer as a result of his thinking.



There is further discussion of this topic on LinkedIn: Media and Learning


  1. Hi Tony, Great post on the eve of McLuhen’s 100th anniversary. Hope all is well with you….look me up next time you’re in T.O.! Cheers, R.

  2. Dear Tony, as a McLuhan scholar who is also well versed in online education (the only kind I do now) and educational media in general, I appreciate your comments on McLuhan’s relevance for educators. But, you are incorrect in your statement that McLuhan isn’t much read anymore. He is read (and taught) more than ever, and in this centenary year of his birth there are something like 200 conferences, lectures, exhibitions and other events celebrating his increasing relevance and influence. Please have a look at my McLuhan Galaxy blog. May I publish part of this article of yours, with a link back to your blog for the rest? I am working on a book on McLuhan as Educationist and here is something I wrote that is relevant. Thanks…….Alex Kuskis

    Marshall McLuhan’s ideas on education and learning were proposed in lectures and writings, mainly during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Harshly critical of the “place-based, book-paced” (Levinson, 1989) educational practices of the time, McLuhan offered a compelling vision of learning to replace lectures with active student participation, interaction and involvement, engaging learners in discovery learning, rather than pre-packaged teacher and textbook-delivered content to be regurgitated on tests. His vision of “classrooms without walls” included a transition from hardware to software, redefinition of teacher roles, elimination of subjects, reform of assessment, and the use of instructional media, not just books. The curriculum would focus on media literacy and include the training of perception through figure/ground analysis and the inclusion of arts education. Noting the trend toward “learning a living”, the constant upgrading of knowledge and skills by professional workers, he anticipated today’s emphasis on lifelong learning and workplace training. If McLuhan’s writings and lectures on media anticipate the Internet, social media and global consciousness, his work on education and learning anticipates today’s use of instructional media, online, collaborative and experiential learning, constructivism, as well-as lifelong learning and other current trends in education. He noted in 1967 that: “The little red schoolhouse is already well on its way toward becoming the little round schoolhouse”, foreshadowing the arrival of the most powerful learning platform yet devised – the Internet. Traditional classrooms and the global village would give way to a global “classroom without walls”.

  3. Great post, Tony. I also think it’s time I went over some of the old books buried somewhere that I had bought for a seminar given by Marshall McLuhan. I was in my early teens, but I was bored and managed to sneak out of school and join the seminar. Marshall was idolized by his students although he was very mean. He used to take his students’ words’ apart. I never understood why he was so impatient and aggressive with his students. It seemed that he wanted them to react to his cutting words, but no one ever did.

  4. Hi, just read your post. Thanks for that. It’s three years old (ancient in Internet years) but still a good read, especially about McLuhan getting things right and confused. One of the greatest take always is his thoughtfulness about technology, which leads me to wonder why some many schools are quickly integrating tech learning without much consideration of the potential downsides.




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