Higher Education, Technology

The Media Ecology Lens

When I first moved into administrative roles in higher education, one of my mentors gave me the following advice, “don’t lose sight of your discipline.”  Last weekend, I managed to follow that advice and attend the annual conference of my discipline, media ecology. A subset (or perhaps a metaset) of the field of communication, media ecology helps me think deeply about the many forces shaping and re-shaping higher education.

For the uninitiated, media ecology grew out of Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the “medium is the message.” (See Understanding Media, 1964). From this simple turn of phrase springs a complex set of questions and scholarship that touches on every aspect of how we understand and act in the world. In my doctoral studies at New York University, Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom explicated McLuhan’s observation in reference to adulthood, education, language, politics, the sacred and the profane. From cave painting to television screens, to the binary codes that now dominate our lives, media ecologists are obsessed with how shifts in dominant media of communication shape our realities.

As provost, this obsession can be very helpful.  I regularly receive messages from various companies trying to sell me the next great gadget for student success. Since I am responsible for university outcomes (read, retention and graduation rates), I am inclined to consider these pitches, at least for a minute or two. While there may be some promising ideas in the many commercials in my inbox, I always start with the question, what kind educational environment will this gadget create?

Take, for example, the notion of student engagement.  For as long as I have been in higher education, faculty have endeavored to develop strategies that might engage  students in conversation in the classroom.  The very idea that we want conversation suggests that we are imagining an educational environment that is small enough to facilitate a robust dialogue (rather than simple questions and answers).  It also suggests that education is something other than content delivery.  Through this lens of the conversation, faculty are content experts, but their role is to draw out ideas and responses from students, ostensibly to clarify and refine understandings of the topic at hand, and ideally to discover new insights through that dialogue. 

What I have described is a seminar, ideally located in a room with a large table for students to sit around, or at least chairs that can move into circles. This kind of learning environment relies on small class sizes to allow for an authentic back and forth from all participants.  We seem to measure much of what we do against that imagined context. Yet, most of us only get to teach a small seminar now and then. The rest of the time, we are in medium sized classes (30-40 students) or even large lectures (100 or so students).  In these settings, conversations tend to shift to questions and answers, with little back and forth, not because we don’t want it, but because that is what can be accommodated with this number of students. The setting re-enforces the Q&A vs. conversation message, by putting students in rows, or if we’re lucky, moveable chairs or clusters of tables, all facing the professor.  

In this more usual environment, we then try to find paths to engagement.  We hold the ideal of the seminar in our heads and try to replicate it in some way. Each attempt has implications for the role of the professor and the goals of the course. Each attempt is different from a conversation.

Some faculty combine lectures with breakout sessions.  They introduce a topic and the move students into small groups so they converse with each other, and then they are brought back together to report out. This approach can be very effective, and it requires no expensive technology (something that is nice for my budget woes).  There are dangers of course, students stray from the topic and choose to see this as time to talk about other things. But, when discussion topics are well-structured and there is some sense of obligation to dig into the ideas (points for participation, for example), this approach can move passive listeners to active learners.

I favor this approach, but I must acknowledge that it isn’t as discovery-oriented as the seminar because the questions must all be crafted in advance.  Professors will have done their best to simulate discovery in the smaller groups and the sharing can lead to productive clarifications and imaginative ideas, but it is one step removed from the back and forth of conversation.  This approach must be more scripted.

In larger classes, some faculty are trying to employ technological solutions.  One such solution is the clicker or “student response system.” The clicker is a popular tool in large classes, letting faculty conduct mini quizzes and polls throughout the class in order to check understanding of topics and potentially develop strategies to clarify misconceptions. The most sophisticated versions of this tool allows for all kinds of data analysis on each student (attendance, right or wrong answers, skipped answers/lack of participation) and so on.  When managing a larger group of students, the clicker can push students to listen more actively, shaking them out of daydreams and confusion. Clickers can even help students who don’t usually raise their hands find a way to participate in a non-threatening way.  It isn’t a bad solution to combatting passivity and boredom in the classroom, and it can foster more inclusive participation.  However, it is in no way an environment about creating learning together. This class is about mastery of content/concepts.

Looking at these three scenarios, it is pretty clear to me that classrooms and class sizes are primary determinants of student engagement strategies. With each adjustment to the size and space, we see a change in the definition of the relationship between students and faculty, and we see a change in the overall goals of the course.  That doesn’t mean that only seminars are good learning environments. Each of these approaches has value. Indeed, sometimes students need the experience of the more structured learning environments before they can be successful participants in a seminar. But it is important to consider each size and pedagogy as part of a portfolio of learning environments at a university, always looking for the right balance of experiences.

So, what of media ecology? Well, we media ecologists tend to move from macro to micro and back to macro perspectives with great fluidity.  We might look at the structure of education in terms of interlocking systems (public, private, elite, accessible, etc.), and focus our attention to socio-political context of higher education is driving the metrics of evaluation of our successes.  We might look at physical environments and class size, as I have here, and focus our attention on the intersection of pedagogy and economics.  Or we might drill down to the impact of a particular technology (clickers) on a learning environment, examining the outcomes in terms of the conceptions of education implied.  Each of these approaches sets the boundaries of our analysis in a new place, but the common thread is this: we know that environments have implications, they are not neutral.

As the person charged with overseeing the academic programs of my university, this is the most important thing to know; environments are not neutral.  This lens shapes my decisions about technology investments, to be sure, but of much greater importance, it forces me to look at the interconnection between space, time, class sizes, schedules, and conceptions of education.  Media ecology demands that we think about the interconnections between these things, and not fall for the promises of a one-size-fits-all solution.

Most of all, media ecology reminds me to always ask two important questions in every situation in which I might want to try a new educational strategy: 1. What problem am I trying to solve? and 2. What are the potential unintended consequences of that solution? These are the questions that can keep this whole higher education enterprise honest.