The medium is not the message

When McLuhan wrote ‘the medium is the message’ he was referring to the potential for any new technology (the medium) to change the way we perceive what is being communicated (the message). A simple example would be the change from oral to written cultures meaning messages were received through eyes not ears. We can see this happening in language teaching but not necessarily always in a good way. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve used a variety of different technologies such as language labs, tape recorders, video recorders and of course, in the last 20 years, digital online resources. As each new technology was introduced, there was enthusiastic uptake from some practitioners but the technology changed the way we viewed aspects of practice. For example, recordings of a variety of English accents on tape and video enabled a wider range of pronunciations to form models for learning but enabled teachers to question received pronunciation and then native speaker models of language.

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

The coursebook industry responded to video technology and the early Internet with a plethora of physical and digital resources to accompany coursebooks, which gave rise to the Dogme movement (Thornbury, 2010) and a call to resist the complexification of language learning and get back to basics. Students learn best when they and not the technology are the focus of lessons. Dogme aimed to put the learner back into learning and create genuine purposeful interaction in the classroom.

I also remember the advent of Second Life and its touted potential to create 3D virtual worlds where learners could interact with native speakers and develop a sense of place that was different from the interactive chat rooms and discussion lists then available (Tusing, J. & Berge, 2010). Online gaming was also promoted as a way to interact with native speakers and increase fluency. Neither of these have become mainstream for language learning although undoubtedly there are some users who can master the technology and gain confidence in their use of a very specific aspect of the language. The most recent technology is virtual and augmented reality and the Metaverse, with claims for their use in language learning which seem to be similar to those claimed for Second Life.

The problem with all of these technological innovations is that in fact the medium is not the message. These tools are useless unless they are deployed in ways that are appropriate to the content of a lesson. Some time ago I reviewed a paper submitted to a journal which used virtual reality (VR) to teach what it called academic writing. This turned out to be an outmoded approach to constructing paragraphs using topic sentences (See Alexander, 2019, for a critique of this approach to paragraph construction). It was clear that the authors of the paper were more interested in trying out the technology than actually teaching writing. Typed texts were displayed and the user had to highlight topic sentences. The affordances of the technology were limited for this kind of activity, which could have been done more effectively on a whiteboard or even an overhead projector. No clear rationale was given for VR as a more effective way of teaching this particular content.

I’m not a Luddite and I believe technology can create affordances for learning, as we have seen during the recent pandemic. But the designers and users of the technology need to have a clear understanding of the knowledge base of EAP: how texts are structured to create meaning for listeners/readers and how disciplines use texts to exchange ideas and build knowledge in their fields. They also need pedagogical awareness of the ways that learning conversations happen in classroom communities of practice. There has to be a clear rationale for using a particular technology instead of other means of delivering content together with an understanding of its strengths and constraints.

Alexander, O. (2019) The contribution of Halliday to EAP writing instruction: A personal journey. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, Vol 41

McLuhan, M., and McLuhan, E. 1988. The Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Thornbury, Scott (2010) D is for Dogme | An A-Z of ELT ( Tusing, J. & Berge, Z.L. (2010) Second Life for distance language learning: a framework for native/non-native speaker interactions in a virtual world. i-manager’s Journal of Educational Technology, 7/3, pp 13 – 20.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

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