The medium is not the message

What’s the difference between someone standing in front of a live audience reading aloud a pre-prepared paper, a video or audio recording of the reading and the paper itself?  That was one of the questions asked during the stimulating Q&A session that followed Andrew Feenberg’s opening keynote at our 2008 JISC CETIS conference, and one that I feel is important to our conceptualising of online and offline teaching and learning.

There’s generally assumed to be some kind of difference between traditional f2f T&L and other approaches, and often an unstated but apparent assumption that f2f is superior.  We discuss the use of educational technology (and other less technologically advanced approaches such as correspondence courses) in terms of them being enablers, opening up opportunities to those who might otherwise be denied access to educational opportunities through personal circumstances, geographic location, disability, etc.  Yet there often appears to be an underlying assumption that these are somehow second best solutions, the ideal still being that medieval phenomenon of seekers of knowledge travelling to where academics congregate to sit at their feet and become ‘educated’ by osmosis.

Andrew answered the question that opens this post by suggesting that the live delivery of the paper can be distinguished from the other forms in terms of retrievability and repeatability.  The artifact forms of the lecture (video, audio, printed page) are texts which can be retrieved and re-experienced, while the reading itself is a unique performance that, although repeatable, is transient and irrecoverable in its original form.  A performance’s only permanence is in its audience’s memory, and as our own conference showed, such memories can differ drastically from participant to participant.  Obviously all texts are subject to interpretation and challenge, but working from a shared basis is surely a better way to start discussion and debate.

Several participants suggested that the value of the f2f lecture is that it is a group activity and that there is interaction between the performer (lecturer) and audience (students), even if it is limited to occasional nods of understanding, blank looks or patently evident boredom, as well as occasional opportunities for Q&A sessions during or after lectures.  Such sessions are, however, notable for their rarity, and what value is a nod of understanding if it’s really a nod at a misunderstanding?  One participant even suggested that ‘physical proximity validates our presence’ within a field, a suggestion with which I wildly disagree: that might well be – in fact, self-evidently is – the feeling of someone keen to participate and be heard, and confident in f2f environments, but what about the people who are more confident in online contexts, who feel unable or unwilling to participate actively in f2f contact but are very willing to do so virtually?  I’d suggest that it is actually mental engagement which ‘validates our presence’, whether that is f2f or online, actively or by passively lurking – and it’s perfectly possible to lurk in a f2f context.

Andrew suggested that what we consider ‘a[n academic] course’ is really the interaction between teacher and learner, not the learning materials themselves in whatever format they are presented, an argument I find extremely compelling.  The emphasis on the medium by which information is communicated can obscure the importance of that information, the message it is ultimately intended to deliver.  As learning technologists and interoperability experts, I guess we at CETIS could be more guilty than many of focusing on the medium: is it a SCORM package, is it ‘good’ QTI, can my tool open your Content Packages?  And while these are all undoubtedly important issues for the practicalities of teaching and learning, do we really want to limit the ways in which we assess students, for example, to those that are facilitated by the standards and technologies we use?