Monday, June 18, 2007

The media equivalency debate

One of the topics that instructional and training novices don't know, don't understand, or don't transfer, is the concept that quality instruction isn't media-dependent. Or is it? [1]

The debate first started in earnest with a debate between Clark and Kozmo in the 1980's. Clark argued that studies had repeatedly demonstrated, that when all other factors were held constant, media didn't effect instructional effectiveness. Kozmo responded that all other factors are rarely held constant, and that certain media may be better for certain aspects of instructional development. (Yes, that was a gross generalization. If you're interested in the specifics, well go read their papers!)

While I completely understand Clark's arguments, and have tried hard to share that understanding with others, I definitely lean more toward Kozmo's perspective. For example, at present a video demonstration can't be embedded in paper; yes, a series of still images could be rapidly flipped to present a moving image, and with the advent of e-paper it is only a matter of time before video can be embedded in paper, but, right now if an instructional designer determines that a visual demonstration would be instructionally beneficial then paper isn't a realistic media option.

So why am I bringing this up? Well, I'm struggling with this topic while working on my dissertation. Specifically, I'm proposing a financial analysis of open source versus proprietary learning management systems (LMSs). One of the reasons I wanted to do a financial comparison is because a quality financial comparison should include instructional effectiveness criteria. The problem is - an LMS by itself - has no more or less instructional effectiveness than any other type of media. And yet ... dramatic pause ... just as there are differences between paper and television as media, there are differences between individual LMSs as media. One LMS may (and in my own anecdotal experience did) have a more user friendly forum system than another LMS; and such a difference may effect, among other factors, (a) usage - which in turn effects instructional effectiveness, (b) time on task - which in turn effects instructional effectiveness, and (c) focus - which ... say it with me ... - in turn effects instructional effectiveness.

Where does this leave me for my dissertation? Well, I'm trying to balance my own driving need to account for instructional effectiveness with my need to actually complete my dissertation. So, I'm presently going to do a one question likert survey of instructors and students at my study's higher education institutions asking specifically whether they perceive their institution's LMS as being beneficial, detrimental, or neither beneficial or detrimental to instruction and learning. Clearly this doesn't assess actual instructional effectiveness (if you don't know what I'm talking about, you should check out Kirkpatrick's Four Levels of Evaluations model), but I am hoping that, at the very least, it will start to gage such factors as perceptions of usage, time on task, and focus as related to specific LMSs. Ultimately, I expect this one question to highlight if a LMS is particularly beneficial or detrimental in these areas.

Where does this leave you? Well, Wiley's constraint theory of instruction sums it up. A large part of instructional design is dealing with constraints. For example, if you are given a specific instructional topic but no media requirements, then the constraint of the topic should drive the instructional design which will likely impose constraints that lead to a media selection. Did I just loose you? Well, let's go back to the visual demonstration example. If your topic is 'soldering for novices', a good visual demonstration is much easier to design and develop than an instructionally comparable set of static images and a textual description. The visual demonstration could be done live, or in a video, or even in an animation, and it could be done in person, or on a television, or on a computer, but at this point, the constraint 'demonstration' removes paper as a medium - at least for this portion of the instruction. Alternatively, if you are given the topic 'soldering for novices' and the media 'paper', then your initial design constraints will obviously drive your decision to not use video. But these constraints shouldn't ultimately change your unit's instructional effectiveness, but it will require quality images and textual descriptions of the soldering process.

[1] As is true with a lot of terminology in our field, many terms can refer to the same concept. Needless to say, this can cause some confusion. For the most part, I refer to the concept that is discussed in this entry as technology. But since this argument is often referred to as the media debate, it only made sense to use the word media for this entry.

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