The Medium is the Message: Are We Designing With the Medium In Mind?

Lately, I’ve started thinking more and more about building course materials as a much larger “production”. Perhaps it’s my own background in film & video production that makes me long for the blockbuster distance course. Harkening back to the 1970’s when Televised Distance Education was in it’s hey-day, we were seeing substantial efforts to take the medium of narrow-cast television and produce a pedagogically sound distance courses that took full advantage of a televised format. Today, as written about by a wide range of educational technologists and instructional designers, we tend to limit the online medium we work in by using the LMS (Learning Management Systems). These systems lack the ability to integrate with all the qualities, capabilities and characteristics of the online medium that our audiences have come to understand. Too often we see a template driven readings list crammed onto html web pages in an attempt to deliver a print-based course over the web. Or worse, we see a face-to-face course that has been captured via lecture capture and then “canned” to deliver hours of taped lecture on-demand. Neither of these options take the medium used to deliver the content into account in the design of the course. In fact, they ignore the social core of the internet as a medium and narrow the seemingly infinite access of information to a few pages of curriculum. By doing so I’d suggest that we are forcing learners to expend cognitive load on deciphering these unfamiliar readings of the medium which they must comprehend before they can make cognitive connections with the curriculum.

Televised Distance Education

In contrast, when satellite television began beaming educational programing to regional colleges we did not see television screens of scrolling text. Nor did we see hours of lecture being pumped from the classroom into the TV antenna. On the contrary, at the height of the television age, as we moved into the early ’80’s, we probably saw some of the largest efforts ever seen in terms of production value in distance delivered education. Televised classes, at the time, required a full studio staff including camera operators, lighting technicians, audio engineers, switchers, floor directors, producers and more. Beyond the roles of the production staff during the broadcast there were tape editors, graphics designers, and set carpenters all employed to create, within the medium of television, distance delivered courses via satellite. Unlike many of the live-streamed or lecture captured courses we see today, either still utilizing the narrowcast networks or more frequently now available in on-demand formats online, the televised courses of the late ’70’s and early ’80’s integrated the instructional design of the curriculum seamlessly with the message of the medium. Each course had it’s own format, look, feel, and style. The use of the televised medium was something that was leveraged to outperform the correspondence style alternative of a printed course guide. This was a monumental leap forward for distance education delivery systems. As Marshall McLuhan’s suggests in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964),

“a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself.”

Unitel - Continuing Education 1 Feb 1972. U of S Archives A-4779. Pictured are (l. to r.): H. R. Baker, G. Herzberg, J. W. T. Spinks, B. W. Currie.

Unitel – Continuing Education 1 Feb 1972. U of S Archives A-4779.
Pictured are (l. to r.): H. R. Baker, G. Herzberg, J. W. T. Spinks, B. W. Currie.

The University of Saskatchewan has had a proud history with distance education and televised classes more specifically through the Department of Audio Visual Services (DAVS) which later became the Department of Media and Technology (DMT) and then Educational Media Access and Production (eMAP). Each course considered the medium of television as a key component in the instructional design. Familiar television program formats were followed to enhance the message through the medium. For example political studies courses may have included a political debate component to the program episode similar to that of it’s contemporary programs such as CNN’s Crossfire.

In this way, the design of the course was driven by the medium and therefore having followed certain conventions understood by the audience were better able to communicate the content or message. Again, by leveraging the audiences preconceived understanding of the medium itself, these courses were able to capitalize on how students “read” the messages through the delivery design. The language of television was well understood by it’s audience by this time just as the the language of the internet is understood by students today. Just as the audience had expectations of production quality, program formats, and shooting styles for the televised medium, so to do our students have expectations of their online experiences. By not following contemporary conventions of web design, graphic design, and by ignoring the social web we not only fail to leverage the strengths of the medium, but we place barriers in the path of a student’s ability to learn by not speaking the language of the medium understood by our audience.

The DAVS staff at the University of Saskatchewan knew their medium well. They were trained professionals who were given the freedom to experiment, model, and enjoy making their medium part of the message. Network Television was also transitioning at the time in terms of program formats as well. The Second City stage show, for example, took the sketch comedy concept in new directions by creating their own mock television network SCTV. The medium of television at the time was changing and being explored in dynamic ways.

Today, budgets have limited the narrowcast productions to a staff of around 3 or 4 employees and a handful of student camera operators. The studio is dressed with the same wicker shelves, plastic fig tree and lectern for every class. Gone too is the idea that the medium of television itself had something to offer in the instructional design. It is no longer financially viable to produce this type of satellite television on such a grand scale and as changing television formats (reality TV, etc) and production values go up, it becomes difficult to model course material on the contemporary language of television.

Today’s Medium

Today the medium of choice for distance delivered education seems obvious. Our growing online presence is beginning to seamlessly blend with our physical identities and the time we spend online blends with our offline activities. Whether we identify it individually or not we have heard the medium’s message; we speak the language of the internet. So how do we begin to leverage the medium to better serve our students at a distance? How do we design curriculum to fit the models already understood by our audiences. To begin with I’d suggest an analysis of what “program formats” already exist. Much like the televised program formats were adapted to suit curriculum delivery in the 70’s, our courses today could try and follow some models prescribed by what exists now. For example the Social Network sites like Facebook or hi5, Curated News sites like Reddit or Digg, Personal Blogs and even dating platforms all present unique features and functions to help deliver the message. What are these site formats providing in terms of the message? How are these formats helping to deliver the content? If we could use these formats to construct pieces of a course using the language that our audience already speaks we could leverage the message of the medium to better deliver the content. The real advantage here as compared to the television days is that part of the literacy we understand about the internet is the concept of “surfing”. Although “channel surfing” became an understood part of watching TV once the remote control became a standard option, the internet age has all but perfected the concept of “surfing” from one site format to the next. The advantage for designers is that this too can be leveraged so that the entire course need not be a Facebook style interaction, but the course could be made up of many formats depending on the content and activities the students are to undertake. Beyond that today’s medium does not require us to mimic a program like CNN Crossfire, instead we can use the actual formats as they are. We can use Facebook and Reddit and Blogs as they exist to deliver the content through our medium. As I wrote in a previous post (The Digital Classroom is a Sham) we need to stop creating single spaces for “classroom” activities on the net. These online classes should not be designed as shoe boxes full of images, articles and assessments. Instead they should be a connected web of activities that make use of whatever contemporary formats (websites) that make sense to use. Developing these curated webs of content from contemporary sources and formats allows the medium to help deliver the message.

In the recent few years we’ve seen MOOCs taking a lead role in breaking the mold for online courses. And although there is much debate over MOOCs in general, one has to agree that the dollars spent by institutions such as the U of A to produce courses like Dino 101 have opened some very tired eyes as to the possibility of online courses that go beyond the correspondence style reading lists we so often see. But is it necessary to spend tens of thousands of dollars on  a production like Dino 101 or a Network Television show? Today’s technology and DIY movements allow us to produce high quality video and other media content that can easily be shared, embedded and linked to within your curated web course. Armed with little more than a smartphone camera and free editing software you can publish your media on the highest rated “network” in the world, YouTube, and be seen in any home with internet access. The real challenge is the literacy of the SME’s and instructors to produce their program pieces and curate others into a cohesive web of navigable content. It’s understanding the message of the medium well enough to know when to use it and how it will help deliver the message. Without the aid of a full time television studio staff, once again, it’s up to digital literacy training within our institutions to develop those skills within our instructors and curriculum developers.

Here are a few words from Marshall McLuhan that you may find are pretty relevant today despite being recorded decades ago.



CAUCE Webinar: Quality Standards for Distance Education

I’ve been asked to speak on a panel on the topic of Quality Standards for Distance Education for a CAUCE Webinar Series, Valuing Continuing Education: Programs, Promotion and Processes.  I’ll be discussing some of the templates that have been developed by the ID team I work with at CCDE, U of S as well as some of the new considerations for what quality means to today’s students when looking at the web learning environments available.

Join us if you can.

Quality Standards for Distance Delivery

Description:  The session will focus on quality standards for the delivery of distance education courses. It will address: course design and delivery, rubrics for measuring quality in design and delivery, development models, intellectual property, faculty support and buy-in, other aspects of standards related to distance delivery.

Date:  November 18, 2014

Time: 1:00 – 2:30 P.M. EDT

Presented by Natalie Giesbrecht, Manager, Distance Education, Open Learning and Educational Support , University of Guelph, Lynette Phyfe, Interim Director/Instructional Designer, Distance and Online Education, University of Manitoba and Jordan Epp, Instructional Designer, Distance, Off-Campus and Certificate Programs, Centre for Continuing & Distance Education, University of Saskatchewan.

Register here