Wednesday, 26 November 2014

if the medium is the message... what does that say about online learning?

I wanted to follow up on last week's post has the internet traded wisdom for knowledge? Marshall McLuhan's assertion that the medium is the message is something I have always found intriguing but have difficulty understanding. A quote from the Marshall McLuhan website explains that the medium is the message in the way that it controls, shapes, and impacts the pace of the message. By doing so it affects how the message is read or interpreted and thus has an effect on the message itself. So when Carr asks the question whether Google is making us stupid he is clearly applying McLuhan's analysis of mass media: the internet is impacting the message by encouraging us to be distracted and superficial.

A McLuhanian analysis of educational technologies does suggest that there are some trade-offs as McLuhan asserted for any new technology (Bates 2011, Morrison 2014). As a result of reading Carr and thinking about McLuhan (I have to be honest: I have read about his work but have never read his work) I wonder if my embrace of using educational technologies needs to be tempered? If the internet is a distracting technology as Carr suggests, what does this do to educators' desire for their students to deeply learn? Is providing online texts with hyperlinks enabling the connection of different sources of knowledge enabling deep learning or is it distracting students from learning? I know that question will annoy a lot of people and it is odd coming from me because I am a proponent of using digital tools for education. I like having access to the vast educational literature by simply querying Google Scholar, Wikipedia, or if I am deep into an investigation, the myriad of library databases available through my university. In addition, I believe that there is value in integrating knowledge: finding and investigating the connections that exist among the academic disciplines. To some degree it might be argued that the internet/Google is breaking down the academic silos that have existed in academia for so very long.

However, I still come back to Carr's implied question: is connectivity worth it if in exchange we give up deep reflective analysis? Newstock (2013) argues for this deeper approach to learning. We need to design learning environments/experiences for our students that enable their deep consideration of our current understanding of our world. Perhaps this is simply a problem of the tension that exists between breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding. Deep understanding requires considered focus on a very narrow topic. Yet breadth allows one to scan the horizon for connections to that knowledge.

On the surface this sounds like an argument for the merits of truly blended learning. Blended learning that does not trade in-class learning for online learning but rather completely blended learning where both focus and integration are encouraged: both breadth and depth of learning are enabled.

But we still have the problem of the distracting internet - that can still cause problems for considered thinking about which connections are meaningful and which are simply.... a distraction. And if Carr's review of the neurobiology is correct (Carr 2010) then the internet is rewiring our brains for shallow thinking.


Bates, T. (2011). Marshall McLuhan and his relevance to teaching with technology. online learning and distance education resources, July 20.

Carr, N. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? Atlantic, 302(1), 56–63.

Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (p. 276). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Morrison, D. (2014).What Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Global Village’ Tells Us About Education Technology in 2014.  online learning insights, June 9.

Newstok, S. L. (2013). A plea for “close learning”. Liberal Education, 99(4), 16–19.

Monday, 17 November 2014

has the internet traded wisdom for knowledge?

I remember this article when it came out. It still makes for interesting reading and I find that some of his concerns about reading habits and thinking resonate with my own experiences of reading. Carr likened surfing the internet to shallow thought with minds being stretched thin over the connections of the network. It inhibits deep thinking and instead promotes superficial skimming of text while being bombarded with suggestions for where else to focus your attention. He suggests that this is in the best interests of advertisers and data miners for commerce. Deep thoughtful consideration does not promote concentration on how to best spend your salary. Somehow the medium is the message in Marshall McLuhan's terms. The medium/the internet is changing the way we think looking for connections rather than consideration of the text at hand. Rather than carefully considering what has been written, rather than carefully considering the meaning laden within the text we would rather look for how it is connected to other knowledge - we wish to see how far the network can spread.

I found it an ironic experience to be reading Carr's article online at the Atlantic website. Exactly what he describes in his article was happening to me. While reading his article about how reading on the internet is a distracted activity, there were advertisements and suggestions for connected reading popping up in the midst of his article. I suspect that Carr would have laughed or cried at that.

Carr does acknowledge that with new technologies (printing press, writing, the computer) come new capabilities that improve human interaction and knowledge. He acknowledges this despite his scepticism about how Google is changing how we think. I wonder if one of the blessings of the internet is the integration of knowledge. But does it come at the cost of deep understanding of the knowledge? Have we gained integration of knowledge at the expense of wisdom?


Carr, N. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? Atlantic, 302(1), 56–63. Retrieved from

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

evidence that learning is better in smaller classes

So this is something that most of us intuitively know: class size impacts learning. Yet, I have never been able to find a peer-reviewed paper that explicitly states that better student learning outcomes occur with smaller classes. I finally found a review that does a meta-analysis of a number of published studies and comes to the conclusion that small class size produces a demonstrably better learning environment for our students (Cuseo 2007).

So what is the sweet spot for student learning? On this issue Joe Cuseo is carefully vague invoking the disparity of study methods. However, he goes out on a limb to state that his reading of the literature indicates that an enrolment of 15 students is probably as big as a class can get before student learning outcomes are adversely affected. Having stated that, he goes on to explain that this needs further study.

The major findings of Cuseo's meta-analysis are (these are the sub-headings in the first section of his paper):
  1. Large class size increases faculty reliance on the lecture method of instruction.
  2. Large classes reduce students’ level of active involvement in the learning process (and both Weimer 2013 and Ambrose et al 2010 have argued that active learning is key to improving student learning outcomes).
  3. Large class size reduces the frequency and quality of instructor interaction with and feedback to students.
  4. Large-class settings reduce students’ depth of thinking inside the classroom.
  5. Large class size limits the breadth and depth of course objectives, course assignments, and course-related learning outside the classroom.
  6. Students’ academic achievement (learning) and academic performance (grades) are lowered in courses with large class size.
  7. Students report less course satisfaction in large-sized classes.
  8. Students give lower overall ratings (evaluations) for course instruction delivered in large classes.
The problem with finding #1 is that it has been shown that didactic lectures are not really good for anything else other than information transfer (Bligh 1998). Finding #2 is a problem because there is much evidence indicating that increased student engagement and active learning positively impacts student learning outcomes (Weimer 2013, Amborse et al 2010). Granted, there are methods of active learning that can be employed with large classes to ameliorate these problems (see the resources below by Weimer 2013, Ambrose et al 2010, Bain 2004, and Bligh 1998). Finding #3 above is corroborated by another meta-analysis of the literature showing that instructor-student relationships impact student learning outcomes in a manner characterized as person-centered teaching (Cornelius-White 2007). Attending to the the relationship with their students is something that has been observed to be the practice of the best instructors (Bain 2004). Relatedly, I also wonder how the size of a class impacts the ability of an instructor to motivate their students. Christensen and Menzel (1998) found that both verbal and nonverbal immediacy behaviours of instructors impacts students' perceived learning.

So for those of us who have experienced the joy of the seminar and the pain of the lecture theater, you now have a review of the published literature that shows that seminar sized classes are the better learning environment for students.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bligh, D. A. (1998). What’s the Use of Lectures? 5th ed. Exeter: Intellect.

Christensen, L. J., & Menzel, K. E. (1998). The linear relationship between student reports of teacher immediacy behaviors and perceptions of state motivation, and of cognitive, affective, and behavioral learning. Communication Education, 47(1), 82–90.

Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113–143.

Cuseo, J. (2007). The empirical case against large class size: Adverse effects on the teaching, learning, and retention of first-year students. The Journal of Faculty Development, 21(1), 5–21. 

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, 2nd ed.. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Monday, 3 November 2014

education is not simply information storage

What a good article. Marshall Gregory criticizes the idea of knowledge being information and education being information storage. Iit makes me wonder about my discipline of biochemistry. It seems much of its educational content is information to be memorized. I have always rationalized that by considering it to be a language that must be mastered before it can be spoken or understood. I think that is still true but it does make it difficult when trying to make assessments authentic. Especially when trying to follow Eric Mazur's assertion that if an assessment is authentic, it shouldn't make a difference if that assessment is open-book or even open-internet. After all, biochemists do not limit themselves to using only what they have in their head. If they don't know something or have forgotten something, they google it or use their favorite database to research for what they need. So what are we doing in our classrooms? This is why I have been trying to use more active learning in my classrooms and asking students to learn what they need outside of class to perform as biochemists inside the class. But there does seem to be a balance. Students often don't know what they need to know - they don't know what they don't know. It is much easier to solve a problem if the information is at your fingertips (i.e. in your brain) than if you are always needing to look it up. So, there is a balance. Some information is needed to be known by us and our students to successfully perform in whichever discipline we have made our home as asserted in Michelle Miller's recent post in the Teaching Professor: we do need to help our students remember those facts necessary for them to develop expertise in their chosen discipline. I guess the point that Marshall Gregory is making in this article, and I think is echoed by Eric Mazur is that information gathering and storage should not be the goal of education. Rather the goal of education is preparing students to be thoughtful, insightful and creative with how they use what they know. But our students will only turn out that way if we model it and give them opportunities to practice being so inside of our classrooms.

Information is necessary but insufficient for the educated mind.


Gregory, M. (1987). If Education is a feast, why do we restrict the menu? A critique of pedagogical metaphors. College Teaching 35(3): 101-106.

Miller, M (2014). Helping students memorize: Tips from cognitive science. The Teaching Professor 28(9): 3.