Is the medium the message of educational technology?

[Posted on the UOIT Technology & Curriculum blog.]

Only a tiny fraction of what you communicate is sent through the words that you use, according to the research of Albert Mehrabian and others. Much of your message is sent through your tone of voice, your rate of speech, your facial expressions, your body posture and position, and even your choice of communication medium. Many of these signals you send unconsciously, but you are aware of some and even deliberately select a few. At times, these nonverbal signals contradict your intended message despite your best efforts. You attempt to send one message with your chosen words and selected signals, but the feedback from your target audience indicates they have heard something different. Have you experienced this?

Media choices

The rapid development of new media and tools has dramatically increased the range of options for communicating. They are overwhelming at times, and the pace of change doesn’t appear to be slowing. Sometimes the choice is obvious. I’m unlikely to write “Happy Birthday” to my Mom, who is retired, on LinkedIn. Even if the message reached her (it wouldn’t, but imagine for a minute), she would think it strange and then get back to reading the latest article on the next fintech revolution. On the other hand, sometimes the choice is more difficult. Should I break up via text message? Yes or no? Both sides agree that the medium becomes an important part of my message and may erase the words that I write. As Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “the medium is the message.”

Learning as communication

Among other things, the process of teaching and learning requires communication. Much attention is paid to the words spoken, particularly in higher education in the event known as the lecture. And yet, if communications theorists such as Mehrabian and McLuhan are correct, much more focus should be given to the unintended messages received through other signals. Educators like John White and John Gardner are exploring the signals such as body language, facial expressions, and gestures. However, the teacher’s choice and use of educational technology is also a signal.

Pervasive effects

The medium is the message or at least part of the message. McLuhan’s writing is notoriously difficult to parse. Nonetheless, the typographical error that provided the title, The Medium is the Massage, gives a glimpse into his thinking:

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered (McLuhan, 1967, p. 26).

The effects are not necessarily obvious or immediate, but they will be profound and far-reaching. Like an iceberg, the hidden message of educational technology may be the most hazardous.

Your message is?

Some of the message of the choice and use of technology may be easy to discern. Devices that are costly to acquire send a signal that learning requires wads of cash. Apps that are used to prepare content for students to acquire send a signal that teaching is to be passively received. Digital media created by engaged students send a signal that learning is collaborative and engaging. However, the effects of educational technology often require careful reflection and analysis. The lens of McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects can be used to look carefully at any tool, including recently the use of tablets in visual storytelling. Even still, such analysis is lacking because it may not be until long after the technology is in use that its effects will be noticed. The paradox of digital educational technology is that it operates and changes far faster than our ability to understand the message that the medium sends. What is your message?

Suggested reading

Marshall McLuhan and the Medium in Education.

What Marshall McLuhan’s “Global Village” Tells Us About Education Technology in 2014.

The Laws of Media – A Conceptual Tool for Understanding Media.


McEwen, R., Zbitnew, A., & Chatsick, J. (2016). Through the lens of a tetrad: Visual storytelling on tablets. Educational technology & society, 19(1), 100–112.

McLuhan, M., & Fiore, Q. (1967). The medium is the massage: an inventory of effects. New York: Random House.

Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal communication. Aldine Publishing Company.

White, J., & Gardner, J. (2013). The classroom X-factor: The power of body language and non-verbal communication in teaching. Taylor & Francis.

Photo credit: (CC BY-SA 2.0) Bill Gates talks “free education” by on flickr