A Litmus Test for Educational Technology


Even a cursory glance at the education press will shock (if not stun) the reader with the immense glut of high-tech proposals pointed in the direction of the classroom. Take your pick: the virtual classroom, distance learning, xMOOC, cMOOC, learning analytics, the flipped classroom, project-based learning, competency-based curricula, blended learning, eBooks, the LMS, social networking…. They all take a technological swipe at fixing some real or perceived problem with the way we educate each other.

Educational technologists are all too often cautiously taciturn when it comes to offering critiques or early warning signs of new technologies. Perhaps this is because they are customarily like expectant fathers, the very “last to know.” If you are lucky you might stumble onto a paper or blog post by a hoary-haired observer of the educational landscape who recounts a technology that promised some needed transformation but nevertheless fell woefully short. There are many in the annals of educational reform. Anybody remember the MORU? Anybody using television in the classroom?

Still, those working in the trenches of educational content creation and delivery have a nagging problem to address. Is there no simple test that can be applied to technologies to help fix a bearing on where they are headed? The task is not a simple one given the breadth of the scale. After all, the 2000-seat lecture theater and the pencil are both examples of educational technologies.

Thankfully one place to look is among the media theorists. Media are, by definition, things that extend us. Tools and prosthetic devices that enhance or amplify some ability or faculty are media. In this sense both the lecture and the pencil are media.

Media theorists Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman both wrestled with the problem of analyzing media. Marshall and Eric McLuhan fashioned the Tetrads of Media Effects for this purpose while Postman, who saw himself as a media ecologist, chose a set of six questions to flush out the qualities and effects of technologies. It is to Postman that we direct this post with the hope that it provides an example of how we might clarify the characteristics and effects of educational media. The interested reader will no doubt want to apply the Tetrad too since both approaches bring their own insights.

The first three questions that Postman raises help to clarify the inherent nature of a technology. The tone of the questions is somewhat sociological in tenor, possibly because Postman, like McLuhan, saw media as acting on and transforming environments and culture. Following Postman then, the first three question are (feel free to insert your favorite educational technology here):


Question 1: What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?


Question 2: Whose problem is it? (Who benefits from it and who pays for it? They are often different parties.)


Question 3: Suppose we solve this problem and solve it decisively, what new problems might be created because we have solved the problem?


You might find it almost impossible to resist the temptation to insert xMOOC in the above as the technology of interest, but if you prefer a warm-up in the “rear view mirror” try PowerPoint instead.

The last three questions are designed to provide focus on the preceding reflections. They are intended to be independent of political ideology and agenda.


Question 4: Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?


Question 5: What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies and what is being gained and lost by such changes? (Think of the use and meaning of the word debate relative to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 as compared to those of the last election.)


Question 6: What sort of people and institutions acquire special economic and political power because of technological change? (Exploitation of a technology always results in a realignment of economic and political power.)


Although not properly qualifying as a seventh question Postman urges us to keep a tight grip on this one:


“Am I using the technology or is it using me?”



Hayton, Darin, “The MORU as Precursor to the MOOC

Marshall McLuhan Biography (Wikipedia)

McLuhan’s Tetrad of Media Effects (Wikipedia)

Neil Postman Biography (Wikipedia)

Six Questions for Understanding Media (YouTube; see above)

Daniel, Sir John,  “Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility

Weston, Mark, E., “How Education Fails Technology (And What to Do About It)

The Curvilinear Classroom – Is Linearity Optional?

AllThingsD Early Adopters ran a quote in their Voices section from an article at PCPro that reads like a page right out of Marshall McLuhan. Echoing McLuhan’s return of acoustic space and the role of the mosaic in everyday life, Dr Rosie Flewitt of the Open University comments on how the modern learner might be shifting from sequential linearity toward a simultaneous gestalt:

“E-learning experts argue that withholding computers at a young age could actually deprive children of modern communications skills. ‘One area of literacy that’s changing is the order in which things are presented – it isn’t linear, it’s organised spatially, and often some meaning is carried in the design, layout, images, sounds, movement, subtle changes in colour in a game – it’s all part of what literacy is in today’s world,’ says Flewitt. ‘These are fundamental changes to operational literacy, the biggest since the printing press.‘ ”

Naturally some question is left as to whether this effect is limited to young children as a group or if one can detect a tendency toward acoustic involvement among younger participants in college classrooms and corporate training centers. The main point, however, is that linearity might already be optional in the classroom, where new and different styles of presentation and involvement might be called for in order to better reach the audience.

To contrast Dr Flewitt’s comment on linear versus spatial literacy, consider this synopsis of McLuhan’s acoustic space by Library and Archives Canada:

“The key characteristic of acoustic space is that it engages multiple senses at the same time. It does not demand that objects be dissected to be understood; rather, the multiple parts co-exist simultaneously. To understand acoustic space, you must perceive all of it, not focus on one part. In other words, acoustic space demands that you apprehend figure and ground simultaneously, that the senses work together. McLuhan believed that oral cultures existed in acoustic space since their primary mode of communicating was speech.”

In this interview with Nina Sutton, Mcluhan explains the rise and dominance of visual space from the phonetic alphabet forward: McLuhan on Acoustic Space.

As a sidebar it is interesting to note that McLuhan eventually dropped the use of the term Global Village from his work preferring the term Global Theatre instead. Apparently Global Village goes back to the advent of radio while the notion of the Global Theatre is more a part of Sputnik, television and modern global communications.


AllThingsD: Early Adopters

PCPro: How Much Tech Can Children Take?

Library and Archives Canada: Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhanPlayboy Magazine (©1969, 1994) by Playboy. Download here in PDF: (mcluhan-playboy).


PowerPoint Overload – Two Pounds of Sausage in a One Pound Bag

tufte_pp_coverIn an article that reads surprisingly like a case study from a course on McLuhans’ Laws of Media, T. X. Hammes writes in the Armed Forces Journal on the pernicious effects of pushing PowerPoint too far in the presentation culture of the Pentagon. Apparently keenly aware of the implicit bias of media, Hammes observes:

“Every year, the services spend millions of dollars teaching our people how to think. We invest in everything from war colleges to noncommissioned officer schools. Our senior schools in particular expose our leaders to broad issues and historical insights in an attempt to expose the complex and interactive nature of many of the decisions they will make.

Unfortunately, as soon as they graduate, our people return to a world driven by a tool that is the antithesis of thinking: PowerPoint. Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them. While this may seem to be a sweeping generalization, I think a brief examination of the impact of PowerPoint will support this statement.”

Others have voiced concern over the nature and limitations of this tool and its ilk. Edward Tufte for example penned the monograph “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within” in an attempt to illustrate the common problems with the medium and offer suggestions on how to rectify them. Designers, illustrators and even cognitive scientists join the chorus in an effort to stem the plague of needlessly ineffective slide shows.

PowerPoint and its cousins have their genetic roots in presentation packages designed for selling, which is why PowerPoint still has a strong tendency to reduce everything it touches to a sales pitch. Hammes lights on this when he mentions how language and communication are bent to that of the Ad Man:

“Let’s start by examining the impact on staff work. Rather than the intellectually demanding work of condensing a complex issue to two pages of clear text, the staff instead works to create 20 to 60 slides. Time is wasted on which pictures to put on the slides, how to build complex illustrations and what bullets should be included. I have even heard conversations about what font to use and what colors. Most damaging is the reduction of complex issues to bullet points. Obviously, bullets are not the same as complete sentences, which require developing coherent thoughts. Instead of forcing officers to learn the art of summarizing complex issues into coherent arguments, staff work now places a premium on slide building. Slide-ology has become an art in itself, while thinking is often relegated to producing bullets.”

In PowerPoint language is reduced to a staccato burst of one-liners. Complete sentences are not at home in the medium. Language and rhetoric are reduced to a fractured mosaic of bullets, images and partial thoughts that serve as placeholders for information and ideas. The inherent bandwidth limitation of the medium is fine for sales presentations but falls flat when content and depth are required. Users struggle, perhaps unknowingly, to compensate for the inherent bias of the medium:

“Our personnel clearly understand the lack of clarity and depth inherent in the half-formed thoughts of the bullet format. In an apparent effort to overcome the obvious deficiency of bullets, some briefers put entire paragraphs on each briefing slide. (Of course, they still include the bullet point in front of each paragraph.) Some briefs consist of a series of slides with paragraphs on them. In short, people are attempting to provide the audience with complete, coherent thoughts while adhering to the PowerPoint format. While writing full paragraphs does force the briefer to think through his position more clearly, this effort is doomed to failure.”

Compounding the problem, (post-literate) reading speeds and the need to digest detailed and complex data fly in the face of the easy sales pitch proffered by the slide deck:

“People need time to think about, even perhaps reread, material about complex issues. Instead, they are under pressure to finish reading the slides before the boss apparently does. Compounding the problem, the briefer often reads these slides aloud while the audience is trying to read the other information on the slide. Since most people read at least twice as fast as most people can talk, he is wasting half of his listeners’ time and simultaneously reducing comprehension of the material. The alternative, letting the audience read the slide themselves, is also ineffective. Instead of reading for comprehension, everyone races through the slide to be sure they are finished before the senior person at the brief. Thus even presenting full paragraphs on each slide cannot overcome the fundamental weakness of PowerPoint as a tool for presenting complex issues.”

Hammes notes other signs of users’ struggle against the flow of the medium in mentioning the “quad chart” and slides crammed with so much information they cannot be processed by the viewer’s visual system, let alone addressed by the speaker. This is simply a low-bandwidth medium with rigid boundaries.

An Example Quad Chart
An Example Quad Chart

“The next major impact of slide-ology has been the pernicious growth in the amount of information portrayed on each slide. A friend with multiple tours in the Pentagon said a good rule of thumb in preparing a brief is to assume one slide per minute of briefing. Surprisingly, it seems to be true. Yet, even before the onslaught of the dreaded quad chart, I saw slides with up to 90 pieces of information. Presumably, some thought went into the bullets, charts, pictures and emblems portrayed on that slide, yet the vast majority of the information was completely wasted. The briefer never spoke about most of the information, and the slide was on screen for a little more than a minute. While this slide was an aberration, charts with 20 items of information portrayed in complex graphics are all too common. This gives the audience an average of three seconds to see and absorb each item of information. As if this weren’t sufficient to block the transfer of information, some PowerPoint Ranger invented quad charts. For those unfamiliar with a quad chart, it is simply a Power Point slide divided into four equal quadrants and then a full slide is placed in each quadrant. If the briefer clicks on any of the four slides, it can become a full-sized slide. Why this is a good idea escapes me.”

Hammes further notes that PowerPoint, like every technology, creates or alters the environment of the user. Interestingly, Hammes cites the effect PowerPoint has on time and events:

“PowerPoint has clearly decreased the quality of the information provided to the decision-maker, but the damage doesn’t end there. It has also changed the culture of decision-making. In my experience, pre-PowerPoint staffs prepared two to four decision papers a day because that’s as many as most bosses would accept. These would be prepared and sent home with the decision-maker and each staff member that would participate in the subsequent discussion. Because of the tempo, most decision-makers did not take on more than three or four a day simply because of the requirement to read, absorb, think about and then be prepared to discuss the issue the following day. As an added benefit for most important decisions, they ‘slept on it.’

PowerPoint has changed that. Key decision-makers’ days are now broken down into one-hour and even 30-minute segments that are allocated for briefs. Of particular concern, many of these briefs are decision briefs. Thus senior decision-makers are making more decisions with less preparation and less time for thought. Why we press for quick decisions when those decisions will take weeks or even months to simply work their way through the bureaucracy at the top puzzles me.”

Hammes does not miss the effect the indiscriminate use of the tool has on understanding and thought processes (“We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” – McLuhan):

“Unfortunately, by using PowerPoint inappropriately, we have created a thought process centered on bullets and complex charts. This has a number of impacts. First, it reduces clarity since a bullet is essentially an outline for a sentence and a series of bullets outline a paragraph. They fail to provide the details essential to understanding the ideas being expressed. While this helps immensely with compromise, since the readers can create their own narrative paragraphs from the bullets, it creates problems when people discover what they agreed to is not what they thought they had agreed to. Worse, it creates a belief that complex issues can, and should, be reduced to bullets. It has reached the point where some decision-makers actually refuse to read a two-page briefing paper and instead insist PowerPoint be used.”

In closing Hammes concedes that there are appropriate uses for PowerPoint but these tend to be presentations that are closer to its origin: “primarily, information briefs rather than decision briefs.” As depth and complexity increase, the appropriateness of PowerPoint falls away. As Hammes says, “There is a reason students cannot submit a thesis in PowerPoint format.”

And Then Our Tools Shape Us…

The Brain's Homunculus

I think it was from Marshall McLuhan that I first heard:

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Now, for the first time, neurological evidence is demonstrating that this is literally true. Data published in the June 23rd issue of Current Biology shows that when we use a tool, even for a short time, it actually modifies the brain’s body schema. That is, the brain enhances the area of its map of our body associated with the tool. As reported in Science Daily:

“‘Since the origin of the concept of body schema, the idea of its functional plasticity has always been taken for granted, even if no direct evidence has been provided until now,’ said Alessandro Farnè of INSERM and the Université Claude Bernard Lyon. ‘Our series of experiments provides the first, definitive demonstration that this century-old intuition is true.'”

A report by the British Psychological Society describes the experiment:

“After several minutes using the grasping tool, the participants subsequent reaching movements with their hand were slower to start and stop, making them longer-lasting overall, compared with before the tool use – as if their own arm was now perceived as longer. Moreover, when the participants were subsequently blindfolded and asked to point to where they’d just been touched by the researchers, on the tip of the middle finger and on the elbow, the places the participants pointed to were further apart, compared with before tool use, again suggesting that they now perceived their arm to be longer.”

Interestingly the feedback loop from man-to-tool and back again is observed. From Science Daily:

“After using a mechanical grabber that extended their reach, people behaved as though their arm really was longer, they found. What’s more, study participants perceived touches delivered on the elbow and middle fingertip of their arm as if they were farther apart after their use of the grabbing tool.

People still went on using their arm successfully following after tool use, but they managed tasks differently. That is, they grasped or pointed to object correctly, but they did not move their hand as quickly and overall took longer to complete the tasks.”

The authors of the study go on to say:

“We believe this ability of our body representation to functionally adapt to incorporate tools is the fundamental basis of skillful tool use. Once the tool is incorporated in the body schema, it can be maneuvered and controlled as if it were a body part itself.”

Further information on this study can be found here:

Cardinali, L., Frassinetti, F., Brozzoli, C., Urquizar, C., Roy, A., & Farnè, A. (2009). Tool-use induces morphological updating of the body schema. Current Biology, 19 (12) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.05.009

The End of the University as We Know It


The University is doomed. At least from some accounts. Recent articles and blog posts claim that both educational consumers and producers have deep concerns over the state of its health and projected longevity. For example:

What seems clear from all this discussion is that life in electronic world has shifted the ways in which we learn, teach, work and relate to one another, and these ways are not reflected in the mainstream educational institutions that presently exist.

Naturally the roles played by the University are varied. David Wiley at “Hacking Education” by Union Square Ventures offered five basic components of a college or University:

  1. Content provisioning
  2. Research – conducted, archived, disseminated
  3. Help provided to a student with a question on content
  4. Social life
  5. Issuing credentials

Note these might just as well be extended to the high school or the entire K-12 educational system as most points overlap secondary and college systems. A point of departure among students and critics (often unspoken) is that most or all of these essential services can be gotten from outside formal schools. Once upon a time there was a notion that schools centralized scarce information and formed a focus or concentration of knowledge that modern learners no longer regard as necessary or true. To a modern learner the “information is out there” all around us. What they need are tools and techniques for harnessing, interpreting and applying ubiquitous information.

The discussion about how education must or will change in light of the modern electronic environment goes back quite a few years. A casual glance at Marshall McLuhan‘s writings on education will turn up articles and interviews from over forty years ago. One such article co-authored with George Leonard for LOOK Magazine (Feb. 21, 1967) is titled “The Future of Education: The Class of 1989.” With the exception of professorial tenure, McLuhan and Leonard address the same points that current writers wrestle with:

  • Schools are preparing students for a world that no longer exists.
  • Classrooms have not changed substantially over the last century.
  • Mass education is a product of the mechanical age and the production line.
  • Education was designed to slow and control the processes of personal growth and change.
  • Students are furnished with rigid and isolated “bodies of knowledge.”
  • Competition is the chief motive force in mass education.
  • The lecture system, the “…least effective [mode] ever devised by man, served well enough in an age that demanded only a specified fragment of each human being’s whole abilities.”
  • New technologies are not as central to tomorrow’s schooling as are new roles for student and teacher.
  • There will no distinction between work and play as the student will be totally involved.
  • The main work of the future will be education.
  • The University will become an integral part of the community offering degrees of “membership” corresponding to varied levels of participation.

Given the essential and ongoing nature of education to the modern learner (or consumer) certain changes in approach can be expected:

  • The learning process must be interactive or two-way.
  • Learning styles must be taken into consideration.
  • Standardized one-size-fits-all courses are out. Same for tests and evaluations.
  • The University (read: curriculum or degree program) should not have walls.
  • Learning should be asynchronous.
  • Courses must be timely, relevant and engaging.
  • Failure is part of the learning feedback loop; not an end of the process.
  • Responsibility for learning will be shifted away from the student and towards the instructor or institution.
  • Portfolios are more important than letter grades.
  • Certifications are static and local and therefore have little lasting value.

There are several compelling reasons why we can expect consumers to prevail over the Universities and win these changes. First, students are coming to school steeped in electronic communications media and want to continue learning as they live, with full involvement. They will not accept that they have to “power down” to go to class. Educators will have to embrace new methods and techniques if they are to engage modern learners. Michael Wesch is a good example of a university teacher who accepted the challenge with his classes at Kansas State University only to write a new chapter in undergraduate pedagogy.

Secondly, education is expensive. The current average cost of a private university in the US is about $25,000.00 a year and is growing faster than inflation or medical care. Several generations of Americans have been to college since the Second World War and have grown to accept that in most cases a degree or two are essential to membership in the middle class. That said, these same middle class folks are also steeped in the most commercially oriented culture in history and are now becoming more consumer oriented concerning education. Part of this consumer oriented pressure will be in the direction of getting an education that fits their goals and lifestyles. Already we have seen the rise of non-traditional online Universities that focus on older students already in the workforce. No doubt others will rise to furnish the needs of other groups. If the Universities don’t change, students will vote with their feet (and checkbooks).

One other factor that is influencing modern students’ perception of the University is cultural, verging on mythological. Many top business/media/technology leaders like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Michael Dell  do not have college degrees. This sends a powerful, if silent, message to many. Consider the story of Rob Kalin at “Hacking Education” mentioned above:

“I graduated high school with a D minus average. …My guidance counselor said ‘drop out of high school, you’ll have an easier time getting into college if you just get a GED.’ I [decided] to graduate with this D minus and see what it does for me. I didn’t get into any accredited school . I got into a diploma program in an art school in Boston, and it was near MIT. … I used the art school to make a fake ID to go to MIT. Someone said [college is] expensive. I said no, it’s free, you just won’t get credit for it.”

“Today, no one is going to ask Rob for his college transcript. His credentials are the companies he has created.”