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I Think I Finally Understand McLuhan

The EvoLLLution | I Think I Finally Understand McLuhan
When it comes to making the shift to effectively teaching in a digitally enhanced environment, the medium truly is the message.

I’ve always been fascinated by the simple elegance of Marshall McLuhan’s assertion “The medium is the message,” and I’ve found a way to use it in explaining an important concept to faculty.

The issue in question is changing your teaching technique for distance education and for lecture capture, both for distance students and on campus.

I claim McLuhan’s statement as a theory base, since using theory is an approach that appeals to many faculty. The line of conversation follows this path:

  • The medium is the message. As McLuhan said, the medium affects how people understand the message you’re trying to convey.
  • Face-to-face teaching in a classroom is actually a medium. Faculty learn to operate effectively in this medium, mostly through trial and error. Experience helps them become more effective in this medium over time.
  • Adding a microphone, camera or other electronic technology to the class changes the medium. The instructor is no longer working with the same tools, and how the class receives the message will be different because of that change. (Different medium, different message.)
  • Now the goal becomes to communicate effectively in the new medium.
  • Just as a face-to-face class should have high-quality audio and presentation visuals, a class using electronic media needs high-quality media.
  • An online class is a new medium which needs a logical, intuitive, high-quality class structure, including effective online communication.
  • Lecture capture is another new medium which requires good technique with microphones, presentation visuals and alternative ways to do whiteboard notation, since pointing a camera at a whiteboard does not produce legible visuals.

To master a new medium, the instructor needs to invest in learning the technology. Audio is the most important element, and must be clean and clear. Visuals must fit the computer screen and use fonts that are easy to read. Traditional whiteboard notation in a classroom should be done with touch-screen tablets or monitors, or using paper and pen under document cameras. As an aside, one of the big challenges is helping instructors understand that whiteboards look terrible when you point a camera at them; that approach doesn’t belong in any electronic medium.

In today’s world, students expect instructors to understand the medium they’re using to teach. They expect clear visuals, clean audio, legible written notation, clear video, meaningful class discussion and interaction, and good online class design that is not “a textbook posted online” or a “bag of content” dumped randomly into an online course shell.

The challenge for each instructor is to learn how to be effective in their medium, which means learning new techniques and new tools. Most of these skills and techniques aren’t hard to master, provided that the instructor is aware of the need to do so. Rejecting the need for that learning process can lead to bad course design, ineffective use of the medium and a terrible student experience.

McLuhan’s concise sentence tells us that students will have a different experience when learning via different media, but they can still achieve the course objectives. They will have a different experience, but one that can reach the same goal. It’s just a different journey to the same destination.

Reaching the goal using different media is fine as long as the experience is well-designed and executed with quality of media as well as content. Learning face to face, in an online course, or augmenting a face to class by using lecture capture are three distinctly different paths, but with good course design they can and should all lead to the same destination.

Students can learn and meet the class objectives regardless of which media path they travel, but it must be a high-quality path in terms of the media used.  Poor audio, tiny/fuzzy visuals or illegible writing on a whiteboard are neither effective nor acceptable. Faculty need to master the concepts of instructional design to create effective online courses. They also need to learn the tools of electronic media including microphones, cameras, touch screen monitors and tablets.

The challenge for faculty is to gain command of the new media in which they are teaching. In order to facilitate the shift away from “the sage on the stage,” it’s going to be critical to learn the medium to optimize the message.

McLuhan would be proud.

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