© Open University 2013

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


  1. From Lalita Rajasingham

    Dear Tony

    Aha moments! Excellent and timely. I must say, having been in this game of research and practice in the use of ICTs in education for the last 27 years, and before that in radio/television journalism, I am appalled and fed up of reading current research and practices that purport to be ‘new and innovative’. Your BBC/Mooc metaphor is a brilliant case in point.

    What is new I guess is that we now move from passive to interactive media which calls for innovations in ID and development of staff and students capacity to understand and use digital/online/ virtual media effectively. Where’s Marshall McLuhan’ dictum (1962) the Medium is the Massage (now, Message)??

    Perhaps the thing that, for me is unethical and plain ignorant is the a-historical approach to research today. Humbly speaking, the researchers today need to READ history of research that applies to their domains. All we are doing is to encourage our students to be a-historical and remain ignorant, and believe that what happens today with ICT is the reality of discovery! You are truly a scholar and myth-breaker.

    Keep up the good works.



    • Thank you for this, Lalita. In fact, your point is well taken. I should have pointed out that I was also heavily influenced by researchers who had gone before me, who either came to similar ‘aha’ moments before me, or published similar findings at around the same time.

      In fact, you have prompted me to write another post, called, ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’, which will discuss some of the leading early researchers in educational technology, and why they were important to me, and still remain relevant to online learning. This will come when I’ve finished the aha moments.

  2. […] 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 second of seven posts that discuss why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. (The first was: Media are different.) […]

  3. Tony
    As you know, I strongly agree with your aha that each medium has its distinctive affordances and constraints. We need to understand these distinctions and hence exploit them by choosing different treatments of the topic for different media – and even addressing different teaching functions and learning tasks.
    So yes, Clarke was wrong to infer the equipotentiality of media through research that naively compared like with like (ensuring that that all factors, including learning tasks and treatments, were kept strictly equal and only the media being compared were different).
    But ironically, I believe that there is indeed a lot of overlap between what can be taught with different media and how it can be taught – a lot of equipotentiality – and this fact also contributed to finding no significant differences in media comparison studies. For example comparing printed material with video, there must be many (but not all) topics, teaching functions, learning tasks and treatments for which print and video do indeed have equal potential. Hence, if print is compared with video for this (large) part of a particular syllabus, the learning from video will be no better or worse than from print. This factor has been largely neglected in media comparison research. So, for argument’s sake, if researchers have opted for topics, teaching function, learning tasks and treatments for which print and video are indeed equipotential, then of course they would find equipotentiality. Researchers had little theory about which topics, functions and tasks would benefit most from video, nor whether a different treatment should be used to get the best out of each medium. Hence, they were unlikely to choose learning tasks and treatments that would differentiate between the media.
    So yes, the lack of knowledge of the different affordances of different media contributed to the “no significant difference” phenomenon, but the phenomenon was probably also due to the overlap in their affordances.

    Sorry, I have rambled on. I came across your blog while browsing the Internet for research on learning affordances to strengthen a paper I’m writing on learning affordances of different kinds of print/video composites.

    • Thanks, Jack, for an excellent comment, and it’s great to hear from you.

      I should of course have included your book: Designing Video and Multimedia for Open and Flexible Learning, published by Routledge, which is a standard text book in this field. I apologize for the oversight.

      You are also correct in observing that there is a great deal of ‘equipotentiality’ across media for instruction, which is why I developed the ACTIONS model (access, costs, teaching functions – where the affordances or equipotentiality operate – interaction, organization and speed) because there are other factors influencing media selection as well as the teaching factors.

      The big lesson I learned from working with professionals such as yourself at the BBC/OU is the importance of a team approach to multimedia design, since it’s difficult if not impossible for one person to have all the skills of subject expert, educator and media producer. One of the key roles I see for media producers is to promote the potential affordances of a particular medium, as it’s unlikely that a subject expert in particular will have thought about these, and as you will have experienced, this leads to the subject matter expert often going through their own ‘aha’ moment when they realise the teaching potential of the medium. However, the SME has to be at least open to rethinking their teaching strategy for this to happen.

      Best regards


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