I guess McLuhan was right…(9751 weekly response #13)

02 Dec

My undergraduate degree–completed almost twenty years ago now (sigh…)–was in Film and Communications at McGill. To be honest, “Film and Communications” was actually an “area of study” under the umbrella of the English Department. So, instead of reading and writing essays on, say, “Restoration & 18th Century Literature” or “Literary Theory for Post-Modernists” (I made that up; I have no idea of that could be a course), I studied everything from the history of communications (yay-Gutenberg!) to the history of film (Battleship Potemkin, anyone?) Understandably, Mr. McLuhan‘s name surfaced from time to time–along with his famous statement: “The medium is the message.”

A second pair of eyes (and a  third, and fourth...) is always useful...

A second pair of eyes (and a third, and fourth…) is always useful…

I’ve always thought I pretty much understood “[t]he medium is the message”. Which was why it came to mind last week when I received critical feedback from colleagues on my evaluating websites learning tool. Many of the comments had to do with the “video” tutorial I created (as opposed to the “website”):

  • video was long: could be a struggle to hold young users’ attention
  • images/screenshots on video hard to see/too small
  • font choices/colour scheme on video, washed out/hard to see
  • too much information on “slides”; overwhelming

My colleagues were certainly justified: these were all areas in which I had concerns as well. And when I started thinking about it, these issues were generally the result of trying to move content from one medium into another. For example, the length of the video was driven by the amount information presented on the website. This was done because the video tutorial was a stand-alone; it wasn’t there to support the website, it was there as an alternative way to access the information presented on the website. Therefore, it ended up being about 10 minutes long. Additionally, something like colour issues with fonts illustrates the fact that what may look good on the website, doesn’t necessarily translate in the video version. In trying to match colours and styles as closely as possible–to create a sense of continuity between the two–I didn’t consider how each presents individually.

Another example that was mentioned, was that by bolding the text in certain areas, which I did to highlight important information (a standard feature of print non-fiction), I confused my colleague as she thought the bold illustrated a hyperlink. She’s right of course: bolded text in an online environment has come to signify a link. So again, we have to be aware that the features and norms of one medium may not signify the same things in another. (Of course, some of the issues such as screen shots which were too small, or over crowded slides were based on inexperience or bad judgement…oops.)

So my colleagues comments really drove home the fact that you simply can’t move information from one medium into another without considering how the information is formatted, how it’s being accessed, and the user’s expectations or needs, i.e. short attention spans!

What does it hold...

What does it hold?

Anyway, all of this got me thinking that I should maybe reread some McLuhan–maybe his work might offer some new/different insight into what we’ve been looking at this term. After all, McLuhan spoke a lot about the technology, and information, and the impact on society, so it seemed quite apropos.

Admittedly, I find reading McLuhan pretty dense, but I think I’ve now realized that I really didn’t have a good grasp on “[t]he medium is the message”…However, I think what I (now) understand is actually a lot more significant in terms of its impact on distance learning. As I now understand it (or at least think I do!), is that the impact of the way in which we, as in a society, change and react to a medium, is actually “the message”. McLuhan explains “…it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan, p. 9). So, it’s not the individual message transmitted via the technology (like how to evaluate websites, answering a reference questions via Twitter, or participating in a museum tour in Second Life) but how we as a society have changed our patterns and relationships based on the fact that we can do these things.

But now that I’ve gone this far with my thinking I get kinda stuck. It’s kinda like there’s too much “stuff” for me to pull together at this point, to make connections between, so that I can make some kind of clear and coherent comment…this is prime time for a discussion with colleagues.

So, I guess I’m not quite sure what the message is when it comes to distance learning–whether it be for students, librarians or teachers. And that may be in part because we simply don’t know yet: the part it has to play, its impact, on our society has yet to completely unfold. Maybe it has something to do with an evolution of education, of new literacies, or new languages, of the way in which our brains actually process information.
I really can’t say.

But I’ll certainly stayed tuned in to see what happens…

Cheers for now!

McLuhan, M. (1994). Understanding media: The extensions of man. L. H. Lapham (Ed.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Posted by on December 2, 2012 in 9751 stuff...


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