Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Media and Messages

Everyone (at least everyone over the age of 40) is familiar with Marshall McLuhan's famous quip "The medium is the message".  I'd like to use it as an analysis point for what's probably going to turn into a bit of a ramble.  Here goes;

With technological change moving at such a frenetic pace, McLuhan's observation has never been more true.  That's neither a good thing nor a bad thing, or it can be both.  As we all struggle to implement technology in our schools we must keep in mind that the technology itself is merely a set of tools to facilitate quality teaching and learning.  In this respect, as educators part of our responsibility is to ensure that the medium does not become the primary message.  That is, if we get too wrapped up in always implementing the newest/greatest/"coolest" thing to come around, we risk losing our focus on the real reason we do what we do, helping kids achieve success.  Every teacher I've talked to recognizes this.

On the other hand however, if we don't at least make an effort to keep abreast of developing communication technologies (whether we choose to use them or not) our messages, whatever they may be, may end up falling on deaf ears.  It has been said that as educators we have to "engage the students where they are".  Our kids are communicating with each other and the world primarily through electronic media.  If we insist on ignoring this, sticking stubbornly with "what worked in the past" (sometimes the rather distant past) then we risk our students disengaging from whatever it is we're trying to communicate.  I cringe when I periodically run across a sheet that looks exactly like what it is; a typewritten page with whiteout marks.  In this respect, the medium is at least part of the message.  Or more precisely, the outdated medium is the negation of the intended message.

Modern information technology has greatly decreased the length, and increased the number of "messages" that each of us receives in a day.  Again, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how we use the "messages" that we receive; and this is what we have to teach kids.  The same technologies that have reduced communications to tweets, memes and banners also allow the user to dig deeper and access a far broader range of knowledge than at any time in history.  In the past we taught students the differences between reading a novel and reading a science text and how to filter the salient points out of each.  We now have to ensure that students have the same abilities with modern communication devices.  They need to know how to filter the steady stream of sound bite information they receive to discern the meaningful from the inconsequential and legitimate sources of information from those with a hidden agenda (usually profit driven).

The medium may not necessarily be message, but they're closely related.  If the 140 characters of a tweet constitute the whole message, or the banner headline becomes the extent of the story, then we've wasted the medium.  But if they lead the reader to another link, or in some other way spur the reader to further thought or research, then in a way, the medium is no longer the message but has become the messenger.

(Anyone reading please respond, I'd like some help in tying these thoughts together and extending them)