20/100: Medium is the Message: The Case for Educational Change

No one pays any attention to McLuhan's classic statement - the Medium is the Message - when it comes to distance learning.

Call it Online Learning, Blended Learning, Open Learning or whatever you like, the fact that it is learning repackaged in the absence of face-to-face, which most educators understand best. It is learning not just in distance, but in absence. And, like McLuhan discussed in his thesis, distance learning is often dismissed as the distant cousin of 'real' learning, poor men's alternative for education. Most universities do distance learning with this approach, a tiny portfolio item often devoid of resources and ideas; it is only done as it is politically correct.

I shall invoke McLuhan's thesis one more time. He was talking about how every new medium comes with its supporters and detractors, people who celebrate its coming and people who deride it as an assault on civility. This happened for TV, and this is indeed happening for the Internet now. For all the hoopla around Citizen Journalism, there are always some Andrew Keens complaining about the shallowness and amateurishness. McLuhan's thesis was that this debate, which must invariably happen, was always about the content, not the medium. So, when we are complaining about blogs, we are complaining about what people are writing, not the medium itself. But the medium, if we call the blog a medium (which is indeed more appropriate than thinking about them as a genre - as Jill Walker Rettberg contends in her excellent book), is different from its content and it affects the users of the medium irreversibly. So, it is not what I write on this blog, but the practices of the blog and its very existence change my engagement with the outer world, turns me from a passive consumer of the news to an active commentator, may be with Warholesque 15 people fan club. Hence, the medium is indeed the message; its own, content-independent, effects on changing habits of the users, consumers and producers of content, needs to be taken into account.

This is more or less accepted wisdom now. McLuhan is oft cited. The idea of a medium changes everything is manifested by the Internet, but more so by Mobile phones. Suddenly, you feel distraught if you have left the mobile phone at home - it is almost as if you left your home keys in the bar last night! I grew up in the pre-mobile age, and never saw a phone till I started working. That seems distant history now.

Now, my habit of train journey seemed to have changed after the advent of mobile phones. My 15 minute daily conversation with my sister in India would not have happened without mobile phones and voice-over-IP communication. I have changed as a result. And, therefore, the key concepts - journey (which may be long or short, but disruptions in mobile communication is unacceptable, as it still happens as the train passes through tunnels in the Brighton-London route), etiquette (notices in the train tells me to keep my voice low and conversations to a minimum), entertainment (notice the white earphones everywhere), presence (as Kenneth Gergen talks about 'Absent Presence) et al - have all changed. And, therefore, the design of services must change: The train companies now think of on-board Internet and silent compartments.

While this is common sense, this does not apply to education. For some reason, distance learning is still not real learning. The programmes that exist, even online, are often textbook-based, follow a linear structure. They are face-to-face sessions somehow adapted into the new technology space. What is not evident to the designer of the programme that the consumers, the students in this case, have irreversibly changed.

A case in point is University of Liverpool's Online MBA programme. This is one of the more popular programmes by an UK university, delivered, rather strangely, out of Paris by Laureate Education, one of the world's largest For Profit Education companies. The programme uses online learning technologies, but really centers around students reading one article a week and doing various coursework around that. There are bells and whistles, indeed; there are big name tutors, glitzy marketing, well planned course material and all that. But the model isn't a vast improvement from what it would have been if Gutenberg was designing a learning programme.

Why is it so difficult for Laureate to get it right? They certainly have the resources. But cognitive barriers are usually more difficult to overcome than material ones. So, it isn't about the resources, but the fact that higher education's business models are usually out of step with the new media landscape. I keep going back to Clayton Christensen on this one: Value Chain business model remains at the core of education. The students, uneducated, are input, and the graduates, ready to conquer the world, are the output: Education sits in the middle as the value additive mechanism. However, in the current media context, student is as much the consumer as the producer of knowledge. The learning happens as much as in private and public domains as in the shared domain, as much from each other as from the professor. Instead of value additive, the Higher Ed's value now is curatorial, almost like a librarian or a Museum director who connects. The business model of education has therefore moved on from value chain to user networks, more like a telecom company, where every new user enhances the value of the network in return. This is something which universities don't get at all.

The problem is - technology always wins. So will it be in this case. If Educators don't adjust to the possibilities of emergent media, a new education will emerge. It is already happening, and it is not incorrect to define the education timespace in BG (Before Google) and AG (After Google) terms. Just that, universities still don't get it, and try to peddle old world distance learning programmes based on an out of date model. It is about time someone shakes it up.


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