Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Medium is a Mess

Why compare dissimilar subjects?
Are you tired of the now age-old question “is digital learning as effective as classroom learning?” I know I am. First of all, not only does the question assume an inherent instructional superiority for in-class instruction, but it is clear that classroom learning also has its own gamut of issues which may or may not limit effectiveness. In a nutshell, the two simply can’t be compared as such. Think about comparing oranges to orange juice. The two have the same contents, but are delivered and consumed in very different ways. Conducting studies where two groups (one in-class and the other online) are delivered the same content are somewhat baseless and too difficult to control.

The studies are baseless because nearly any experienced instructional designer can tell you that if you are simply taking content and putting it online, then you are doing a poor job as an educator. There is so much more to online learning than turning it into digital content. Essentially, the two courses should invariably appear quite dissimilar as they are delivered via different mediums. Sure, the basic facts of the content stay the same, but the way it hits the audience is, and should be, very different. Content lends itself differently to different mediums, and this needs to be recognized.

The studies also lack control because there are so many factors that simply cannot be adequately pegged down. Examples include individual effectiveness of the lecturer vs. effectiveness of an instructional design/designer. The lecturer has the power of adaptability as things happen in real-time, whereas the instructional designer has the power of one-to-one (one person, one computer) interactivity (the lecturer is often limited to a one-to-many type of interaction). Depending on context, the pedagogical approaches of online and classroom courses almost need to be vastly different. Other examples of uncontrollable factors include the students themselves, and their predetermined conceptions of digital learning, as well as their predisposition to self-motivated learning.

The medium is the messenger
As new technologies develop, it would seem that mediums are beginning to merge. What was once, print, video, audio, phone, internet, and computer, has become a mélange of mediums. For example, a handheld organizer is now capable of viewing books, listening to music, watching video, surfing the Web, and so much more. Not only that, but different platforms can send data to and synchronize with other platforms, enabling cross-medium and sharing opportunities. In some ways, the common conception of the medium has become a mess.

Contrary to the beaten-to-death idea of Marshall MacLuhan, the medium is not the message (1967), or at the very least, the medium is no longer capable of “being” the message. Rather, I would argue that the medium is the messenger. It is merely a conduit for content. The message can be developed long before the medium is ever chosen. This idea is only reinforced by an instructional approach known as the Structured Content Development Model.

Structured content development model
In the Structured Content Development Model, presentation is kept entirely separate from content. The medium itself is, in a way, an afterthought. With new single sourcing technologies, a course can export from one single pool of content to several different mediums at once with the click of a button. However, some insight into the delivery medium(s) is in fact needed in foresight. For example, if an online course uses video, one would not want to (and could not) export that to a paper-based format.

Therefore, the medium that one chooses to deliver the content is merely a vehicle to reach the intended audience. Some mediums allow for richer content than others. Does this change the message for the learner? No, the message can still be delivered intact. The instructional designer simply has to find a way of matching the message (the owner of the vehicle) with the medium (the vehicle). Even the fastest and strongest racing car needs an experienced handler to get it from point A to point B. Remember, that it is the driver that the car delivers to the destination, not the other way around.

The medium is essential to delivering the message
Please do not get me wrong, the medium of delivery is inextricably wound with, and integral to, a course. However, the message contained therein is created long before delivery ever occurs. The Structured Content Development Model has a tremendous front-end effort that requires knowledge and insight into desired and unforeseen delivery mediums.

Basically, the technology behind the medium nowadays is transcending the outlined boundaries imposed upon them from days of yore. We need to rethink what a medium is, especially given the recent trends of utilizing mixed-media and blended learning. Yes, it is important to tag, mark-up, and build your content according to the medium it will be eventually delivered to. Yes, it is important to develop assets and widgets that are appropriate to the medium. No, you do not have to scrap your content if a client decides they want a course delivered through a Learning Management System (LMS) instead of the paper-based course they had originally anticipated.