Mobile McLuhan

The Medium is the Message: How McLuhan Might Have Thought of Mobile Learning

Pedagogy and Learning Comments (5)

Marshall McLuhan, the 1960s media guru from the University of Toronto, had a lot to say about the impact of new media on both learning and culture. Of course, there were no mobile phones or tablet computers at the time that McLuhan wrote, but his insights were not just about the effects of specific media of his time. McLuhan had much to say about the impact of changing media at different periods of history on the way humans perceived and acted upon the world around them. Recently I reread several of McLuhan’s books, and reflected on what he might have said about mobile technologies if he was alive today.

McLuhan’s work was not just about what he called the “electric media” but encompassed a broad sweep of history that included the development of human languages, the meaning of cave drawings, the impact of writing and the alphabet, and the immense changes induced by the invention of the printing press. In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), McLuhan talks about the profound changes that were wrought by the introduction of writing and the alphabetization of communications. Here are some intriguing quotes:

“The interiorization of the technology of the phonetic alphabet translates man from the magical world of the ear to the neutral visual world.”

“The alphabet is an aggressive and militant absorber and transformer of cultures.”

“… phonetic writing destroyed Greek society without their having the slightest notion of how it happened.”

“Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy.”

Note that McLuhan was talking about the consequences of writing as a medium, not about the content of writing. In The Medium is the Massage (1967), he writes, “Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which [humans] communicate than by the content of the communication.” This is an important point in that he contended that each new medium had consequences flowing from its use, and not from any content embedded in the new medium. In fact, McLuhan suggested in Understanding Media (1964), that content is like the meat carried by a burglar to distract the family dog while the burglar is robbing the house. A focus on content can distract us from fully seeing the impact of the new medium itself. (This doesn’t mean that the nature of content in a medium is not important, just that content in itself is not the cause of the effects of a given medium.)

McLuhan saw media as both “extensions” and “amputations” of our senses. The main effect of the introduction of a new medium, says McLuhan, is to change the “sense ratios” among our five senses, such that we are thrown off balance until we adjust to the new reality.

In the light of these quotes, it is interesting to speculate on what McLuhan might have thought about mobile communications and mobile learning. One of his most famous sayings applies here: “The new electronic interdependence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.” But, disturbingly, he also talks about how unaware we are in realizing the profound impact of a new technology. He says, “Every technology contrived and OUTERED by man has the power to numb human awareness during the period of its first interiorization.” And yet, this period of turmoil when a new medium is introduced is also an opportunity for learning. At one point McLuhan remarks that “water is unknown to a fish until it discovers air.”

How do these thoughts apply to mobile learning? As Elena Lamberti, in an introductory essay to the 2011 edition of The Gutenberg Galaxy stated, “It is true that McLuhan did anticipate future developments of information and communication technology with uncanny precision. He did not envision the production of the BlackBerry, iPod, or iPhone, but he imagined their technological effects and anticipated the environmental side effects of the digital and interactive technologies with which we now manage daily.” Let’s look at some of these side effects keeping mobile technologies in mind.

Impact of electronic networking

Mobile computing is not the beginning of computer networking, but it adds a dynamic dimension to its effects. Not only are we connected while mobile, but we change our location, an additional source of information for the network. And, because mobile devices are so ubiquitous, it is almost inevitable that someone present at a significant world event will use their mobile phone to record the event, thus acting as an information node for the rest of the world. McLuhan says that “when the globe becomes a single electronic computer, with all its languages and cultures recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture becomes irrelevant and impossible, no matter how precious.” In addition, “alphabet and print technology fostered and encouraged a fragmenting process, a process of specialism and of detachment. Electric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement.” The world, says McLuhan, has become “one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and for which there is no redemption, no erasure of early mistakes.”

Computer networking, especially email, has been available since the early 1970s. But, until the advent of mobile computing, a person had to log on to a computer in a fixed location in order to receive or send messages. At first this meant going to a computer center and using a terminal with a mainframe monolithic beast of a computer encased in a large air-conditioned room. Gradually, the size of computers has shrunk, and wireless communications have been developed, so that now we finally have true mobile computing. With mobile communications, messaging and access to information from the network is now anywhere, anytime. Mobile phones are usually always on when carried, so that an alert that a message has been received by a device requires no further procedures to be read than (at most) touching a couple of buttons. With voice-activated navigation, even that step is disappearing.

For the most part, it is the instant access to the entire world that has degraded the importance of classrooms and experts, as experts are not even able to keep up with developments in their specific field because of the daily deluge of information on all subjects. Teachers and parents are even less likely to keep up. Learners have the same problem; there is just too much information to memorize what is important “just in case” you need it. Instead, as an adult mobile learner, you acquire what you must know at the “point of need” based on the task at hand.

Networked mobile media has changed the very way we learn as well. In The Medium is the Massage McLuhan says,

“Electric circuitry profoundly involves [people] with one another. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously. As soon as information is acquired, is very rapidly replaced by still newer information. Our electrically configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block by block, step-by-step, because instant communication ensures that all factors of the environment and of experience coexist in a state of active interplay.”

Instead of linear knowledge, networked mobile communications results in a complex swirl of information that is always changing, or at least threatening to change. “The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. No detachment or frame is possible,” argues McLuhan. This must, in turn, have a profound impact on culture and human relationships, as well as concepts such as “time” and “space.”

Reactions to change

In spite of the profound implications of a major change in the dominant media, our initial reaction to the pressure of such changes is to try to accommodate the new technology by using it in the same old ways with which we are familiar. McLuhan says that “society prefers somnambulism to awareness.” In another famous quote, he reinforced this message: “We look at the present through a rearview mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

We see this coping strategy in the initial uses of any new medium such as mobile communications. The first versions of both eLearning and mLearning were attempts to use classroom procedures and metaphors to teach with the new technologies. These attempts included “virtual classrooms,” “gradebooks” and “class organizers,” “online quizzes and tests,” and “learning management systems.” Only in the past couple of years has eLearning expanded its horizon to include networked social media, and the initial attempts at mobile learning were based on providing lectures, readings, assignments, and multiple-choice tests. But, as I documented in my book, The Mobile Learning Edge (2010), there are many new “affordances” of mobile learning that we are only now beginning to explore. These include the use of mobile devices for just-in-time information retrieval, as research tools to facilitate collecting and transmitting data, as augmented reality applications for learning more about environments, as applications for the self-tracking and recording of almost any behavior, and as platforms for displaying collaborative learning applications used by virtual teams.

The full potential of mobile communications for learning will not be realized until we stop producing learning apps or mobile websites that simple repackage classroom materials to be read or played with on a smaller screen. McLuhan warned of this when he wrote,

“Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old. These are difficult times because we are witnessing a clash of cataclysmic proportions between two great technologies. We approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses to the old. This clash naturally occurs in transitional periods.”

What is needed is a new approach to mobile learning that uses the unique characteristics of the medium to teach in whole new ways; ways which fit with the personalized needs of employees and students. A new theory of learning and design processes are called for in order to have mobile learning realize its potential. For example, McLuhan observed that “one of the principal intellectual developments of the past century or so has been the supplanting of linear perspective by a multi-locational mode of perception.” Tracking the locations of multiple mobile learners is already easily done, but very few educational apps currently take advantage of this capability in terms of using it for learning.

Changes in education and training

McLuhan certainly foresaw the problems that education and training institutions were going to have when confronted with networked social and mobile media.

“It is a matter of the greatest urgency that our educational institutions realize that we now have civil war among these environments created by media other than the printed word. The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival with the immensely persuasive ‘outside’ world created by new informational media. Education must shift from instruction, from imposing of stencils, to discovery – to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms.”

Even in the 1960s, McLuhan understood that young people were growing up with a different worldview and fresh patterns of thinking. With the shift from print media to digital media, such a change was inevitable.

“The young student today grows up in an electrically configured world. It is a world not of wheels but of circuits, not of fragments but of integral patterns. The student today lives mythically and in-depth. At school, however, he encounters a situation organized by means of classified information. The subjects are unrelated. They are visually conceived in terms of a blueprint. The student can find no possible means of involvement for himself, nor can he discover how the educational scene relates to the ‘mythic’ world of electronically processed data and experience that he takes for granted.”

The very use of mobile technologies changes the way we think and learn. Those of us who think and write about mobile learning face a daunting task – the reconceptualization of both “learning theory” and “instructional design” – if we are to help those who are struggling with how to train people using mobile technologies. We need to map out not only how mobile learning works as a new set of extensions of our senses, but also what we lose in the move to mobile.

At Float Mobile Learning, we have started to tackle this “wicked problem” in our writing and in our online conversations. We hope you can join in from wherever you’re located in the world.

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Gary Woodill is a senior analyst with Float, as well as CEO of i5 Research. He Gary Woodill is a senior analyst for Float Mobile Learning. Gary conducts research and market analyses, as well as assessments and forecasting for emerging technologies. Gary is the co-editor of "Mastering Mobile Learning," author of “The Mobile Learning Edge,” and the co-author of “Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds.” He also presents at conferences and is the author of numerous articles and research reports on emerging learning technologies. Gary holds a doctor of education degree from the University of Toronto.

» Pedagogy and Learning » Mobile McLuhan
On August 20, 2012
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5 Responses to Mobile McLuhan

  1. Rick Wilson says:

    Reconceptualization? Forget what you believe about how to “cause” learning. Today there is a new culture of learning. It is arising as a movement spirited on by digital disruption and social media. Learning value is precipitous. As the velocity and volume of digital media increases so does the speed of and need for knowledge. It’s no longer knowledge stocking, but knowledge flowing. It’s not transfer, but creation. It’s less explicit and more tacit. It’s not push, but pull. I see a new experience: “mob learning” (crowd learning without any rules or root rationale). It is a really “wicked problem”. Thanks, Gary.

  2. Aakash says:

    Information, the word ebbs. Its truly this new mobile capacity to learn that has allowed society to grow exponentially.

  3. […] these three problems as being central to success in their business. But, as communications guru Marshall McLuhan once explained, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into […]

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