Roadside assistance

Technology supported learning has long been a contested terrain, and there are at least two views about its effects. The first, a long established claim, is that all technology is neutral, and that 'media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction, but do not influence student achievement, any more than the van that delivers our groceries can cause change in nutrition'. This view, first propounded by Richard Clark (1994) was widely accepted, warning as it did of the dangers of failing to differentiate between methods and media. As a result of Clark's position, many researchers decided not to study differences between students whose learning was supported by technology and those who had none, because it was considered a waste of time.

Clark's view was strongly opposed by the likes of Robert Kozma (1994) who countered that media can never be neutral, and that it would be foolish to stop research into the differences that might exist. Kozma's argument was an echo of the work of Marshall McLuhan who was famously quoted as saying 'We shape our tools and thereafter, our tools shape us.'  Kozma considered that media and method were intimately linked and continued to call for more research into the effects of media and technology on learning. The question remains - what exactly does influence learning, and which side of the argument should we believe? Are some media better than others at supporting learning, or are they, as Clark argues, all completely neutral?

We can examine a long history of almost 70 years of studies into the differences between learning with, and without technology. Again there are two views here about the effects of media and technology on learning.  There is an argument that there is no significant difference (Merisotas and Phipps, 1999) and there are those who hold that there actually is a significant difference (both examples are collated on this website run by Thomas Russell). Recent work on the affordances of technology and other media factors by the likes of Koumi (1994) have cast doubt on Clark's position. Hastings and Tracey (2005) also challenge Clark's view by suggesting that new technologies such as networked computers can and do affect learning in a number of ways. They call for a reframing of the debate to ask not if, but how media influence learning.  So are we to conclude that the 'media is neutral' theory has been overhauled by new and richly interactive technologies? Was Clark's original argument framed against technology that has now advanced sufficiently to render his views obsolete? It certainly appears as though Richard Clark's delivery van has broken down... but what do you think?


Clark, R.E. (1994). Media will Never Influence Learning. Educational Technology Research and Development,42(2), 21-29.
Hastings, N. B. and Tracey, M. W. (2005) Does media affect learning? Where are we now? TechTrends, 49(2), 28-30.
Koumi, J. (1994). Media Comparison and Deployment: A Practitioner’s View. British Journal of Educational Technology, 25(1), 41-57.
Kozma, R. (1994). A Reply: Media and Methods. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(3), 11-14.
Merisotas, J. P. and Phipps, R. A. (1999) What's the difference? Outcomes of distance v. traditional classroom-based learning. Change. 31 (3): 13-17.

Image by Museum Wales

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Roadside assistance by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Nick Sharratt said…
Surely it's obvious that the medium -can- have an impact. One only has to imagine extreme cases: trying to learn a complex topic via morse code only or via highly immersive rich multi-media for instance. The former would be like "learning through a keyhole" in comparison, much more difficult to see the big picture and requiring much more effort (and skill?) on the part of the learner.

But, when comparing similarly rich media which "gets out of the way", there's probably much less difference, unless the media itself forms part of the learning experience (simulations perhaps).

I think my concern would be that if educators spend too long agonising over the "perfect" media to employ, they risk spending less time on planning the actual learning. This is why I think the ideal situation is for some degree of separation of roles, with "learning technologists" doing the ground work to ensure good solid media choices are presented to educators with clear guidance as to which is most appropriate for different pegagogy.
Felix said…
What do I think?

I think that it's not an either/o dualism.

In some respects, in some contexts, the available technologies change (and have always changed) learning processes utterly, beyond al recognition. In some other respects and contexs, they have no impact whatsoever. In many respects and contexts between, there are effects ranging from subtle to spectacular on one axis, superficial to profound on another.

We all (don't we?) conduct continuous action research to monitor our own practice andthe influences upon it. Available (or, equally important, unavailable) technologies reveal themselves to be operational influences upon every educational practice I encounter, but across the whole spectra above.

Perhaps the real problem is inappropriate use of metaphors. That van delivering the vegetables may not, in comparison (for example) with the horse drawn cart which preceeded it, change their nutritional value. It does, however, simultaneously increase both the range of vegetables available to me (therefore, too, at least my potentional nhutritional range) and my carbon footprint. It also fundamentally alters the economics of ntrition supply, demand, production and consumption.
martin king said…

I think that both these views suffer their own attention blindness and that the elephant we are all missing is in between.

A stereoscopic view would be that technology & use\effect are symbiotic - each shapes the other.

Excuse the poor use and twisting of Maslow's Hammer but

Without awareness then technology is wasted "if all you see are nails then every tool becomes a hammer".

Without technology then there is no potential "if all you have is a hammer then all you can do is treat everything as a nail"

The challenge is getting both awareness and technology together.

IT is hardware, software and perhaps most importantly - Wetware

Simon Ensor said…
Stones have stories, caves have potential, places become
marked with history. I admit to not sitting on a fence. I feel, In writing, I am not neutral.

#Runes may be just dull etchings to you but where I am coming from (I invite you to imagine) they can be so much more...

Hmm, this niche has affordance for dialogue.

Culture is not an object to be captured, it is a relationship to be negotiated.

How does one separate a culture from its tools?
Ove Christensen said…
It's obvious not an either-or and because it's so obvious the problem might be wrongly put.
Whatever artifact one interacts with has bearings on that interaction. Medie, technology, buildings, tools and so on are agents in the interaction.
It is impossible to control, determine, design etc learning. Most of the learning is taking place in the doings of the students with or without the intentions of the educator.
That might be so that you can make the students pass the tests with whatever tools you're allowing for in your classroom - but the tools will be influential in the overall learning.
If you only have a hammer you tend to look at all your problems as nails.
I guess my point of view is that multitude in approaches require that educators are open to the use many different tools in students problem solving. If you believe in collaborative PBL and believe that PLNs are important as a feasible learning strategy in 21th cent. there is no way around also introducing, allowing for digital tools - Digital literacy requires a comprehensive understanding of tools and how they play a role in the way you understand a problem and solve a problem.

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