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.