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Media and Learning Debate

2006-10-28  harkove

Media and Learning: A Review of the Debate

Ramona R. Materi, BA, MPA
Ingenia Training
Copyright Ingenia Training and Consulting International 2000-2001

 The media and learning debate in distance education has carried on for several decades. It is an important discussion, since educational institutions and private companies spend millions of dollars on technology annually. They need to know if they can gain learning benefits from employing a specific medium to deliver instruction.

This paper reviews the work of Richard Clark and Robert Kozma, who take opposite positions in the debate. It then examines the work of Jack Koumi, and predicts how Clark and Kozma might react to his argument that some researchers promote a "false equipotentiality" of technologies.

"It All Depends on Teachers": The Theories of Richard Clark

Clark lays out his basic position in Reconsidering Research on Learning from Media (1983). After reviewing research studies from 1912 to the early 1980s, he concludes that instructional designers gain no learning benefits from employing a specific medium to deliver instruction. Any performance or time saving gains researchers observe, he says, are the result of uncontrolled instructional methods or novelty.

Clark uses an analogy of a delivery truck to explain his position. Instructional media, he says, "…are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition" (p 445).

What then, influences learning? In Clark’s view, media, and the systems of symbols used with them provide "operational vehicles for methods that reflect the cognitive processes necessary to perform a given learning task" (p. 454). To achieve success, the designer must find a way to translate cognitive process features into a symbol system the learner can understand¾ for example, the moves necessary to play chess¾ then deliver this information through a media delivery "vehicle". If the designer does a good job of this cognitive translation, the student will learn, regardless of the symbol system or medium used. The benefits of so-called "attributes of media (television’s ability to "zoom in" for example) can easily be replicated in a different way in another medium, with the same beneficial effects.

Clark dismisses studies that show the media can have an influence on student learning. First, he questions their design; were they comparing apples with apples? Clark maintains that when examining the effects of media, only the media can differ. "All other aspects, including subject matter content and method of instruction must be identical" (p 448).

Second, Clark believes that teacher and student effort play an important role in improved results. Teachers, presented with a novel technology, spend increased time on instructional design and so develop more effective presentations that take less time to complete. In turn, students make greater efforts and spend more time with these novel media. With everyone more interested and working harder, results naturally get better.

Clark concludes by arguing against further media comparison research, noting that the evidence of increased learning is simply not there.

"Media and Method are Inseparable": Robert Kozma’s Reply

In 1991, Robert Kozma responded to Clark in his article Learning with Media. Kozma believes that Clark’s view of media as "delivery trucks" creates an "unnecessary schism between medium and method." (p 205) He proposes an alternate theory of learning; the "learner strategically manages the available cognitive resources by extracting information from the environment and integrating it with information already stored in memory" (p.179).

From Kozma’s perspective, media have an important role in learning. Different technologies can process or operate on the available symbol systems. For example, students can search for information in a different way with a videodisk than they can with broadcast video. Media can provide certain representations or model cognitive operations that are salient to a learning task, often ones that learners cannot or do not perform for themselves.

Media, then, are an integral part of the instructional design process. Kozma compares text, audio and video media and outlines their strengths and weaknesses as learning tools. Some students will learn a task regardless of the delivery device. For others, though, Kozma believes that a careful use of media will enable learners to take advantage of its strengths to construct knowledge. In contrast to Clark, he calls for continued media comparison studies.

"Let’s Get Practical": Jack Koumi

Jack Koumi (1994) also enters the media and learning debate, with a perspective that largely supports Kozma’s. He argues that researchers (like Clark) promulgate the "false impression of …equipotentiality between media." (p. 41)

Koumi begins by attacking the basis of Clark’s argument, that seventy years of research studies show no media effect. These studies are flawed, he says, because of a practical problem. "…(T)here has rarely been any control of production quality between the media being compared and …most experiments take no account of the professional competence of the production team." (p. 42). Koumi asserts that with limited experience, time and budgets, it is no wonder that poorly produced audio-visual materials produce the same learning results as a printed text.

Koumi also takes issue with Clark’s notion that media studies should compare "like with like" and compare the two media with the exact same content. In his view, such studies ignore the unique capabilities of each medium. Is it fair to say, for example, to race a car and an airplane along a road and then say that one is as fast as the other? (Or in Koumi’s more graphic example, cut off the legs of a horse to see if it can run as fast as a man?)

In addition, many studies take no account of the learning style of students, nor the purpose for which they are using the medium. As well, Koumi argues that they fail to incorporate the attitudes of students towards different media. For example, students may take televised programs lightly and so fail to put the effort required to learn as effectively as they could. So, Koumi says, let us move away from studies that compare media and try instead to develop and refine criteria for employing media to best effect.

If asked to comment on Koumi’s thesis of "false equipotentiality", Kozma would likely offer his support. Like Koumi, he believes in the unique qualities of various media and asserts that instructional designers must carefully design their content to take full advantage of them. Methods can not be transferred from one medium to another¾ if designers change the medium, they must completely change their method.

Clark, however, would likely refute Koumi’s argument. He would maintain that once again, a researcher has "confounded" the discussion. A later article (Clark 1994) repeats his claim that media attributes are not casual in learning¾ what they are is casual in the cost effectiveness of learning. Media is not an integral part of method and media do indeed have equipotentiality. Clark maintains that all methods can be delivered by a variety of media and media attributes. What designers must choose is the least expensive and the speediest.


The media and learning debate will likely carry on; whatever the study, proponents in either camp will likely find fault with it. With the proliferation of educational technologies in the past 20 years, however, researchers would do well to worry less about comparisons of media and instead focus their attention on making the best use of each.


Clark, R.E. (Winter 1983). Reconsidering Research on Learning from Media. Review of Educational Research, 53(4), 445-459.

Clark, R.E. (1994). Media will Never Influence Learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 21-29.

Kozma, R. (1991). Learning with Media. Review of Educational Research, 61(2), 179-211.

Kozma, R. (1994). A Reply: Media and Methods. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(3), 11-14.

Koumi, J. (1994). Media Comparison and Deployment: A Practitioner’s View. British Journal of Educational Technology, 25(1), 41-57.




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