Distance Learning #6 – Re-reading Marshall McLuhan, pt. 1

Posted on Dec 6, 2009

I will get back to the Analog/Digital and Sentient Metacognition of Learning hooey a little later.

I want to embark on an ambitious plan to re-read Marshall McLuhan’ s “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” (1964) with a renewed mission to better understand my philosophical dissonance with Distance Learning. It takes me about an hour to get through 5 pages of it, including tangential meanderings and then re-re-re-re-reading a few sections. I believe it will be worth it.

“We are entering the new age of education that is programmed for discovery rather than instruction. As the means of input increase, so does the need for insight or pattern recognition… One strategy of cultural response would be to raise the visual level of the TV image to enable the young student to gain access to the old visual world of the classroom and the curriculum.” (p. x, Introduction to the Second Edition, 1964)

First, I should state that the rationale here is for re-exploring the validity of the premise which propels the book: The Medium is the Message. It’s a difficult proposal to ingest, though my take on it is this: It is not what you do (the content you create or publish), but how (the milieu, the channel, the network) you communicate it that defines the philosophical relationship for what your message is about. McLuhan proposes that the content of a medium e.g. TV, radio, typography, light, etc., is not as important as the method of transmission, and that the medium itself describes the relationships and boundaries of the social context independently of the content. For example, would you feel differently about two people who sent you a birthday greeting – one by handwritten card, the other by e-card? It’s more than that, but it’s a start.

We are compelled to ask, “What are we asking our students to ‘say’ about society by participating in such things as social networking, content creation, online gaming, Internet research, and so on?”. The following was a response to a question in a class discussion group about “What (we) can learn from games and game designers? Can we make learning as fun and engaging or even addicting as game playing?” Below is my response:

My first reaction to your question is to think about a situation in which learning is an absolute necessity (let’s say, survival), and then compare that to a modern, Western situation where there is so absent an intrinsic motive for learning that a method like gaming would be necessary. As educators, are we at a point where we need to “wrap” learning in something yummy in order for kids (or adults) to consume it? It reminds me of giving my cat medicine by wrapping it in a ball of chop meat. Do we need to treat modern learners like cats, who simply cannot muster the good sense to know what’s good for them? I suppose this is not a new problem. I’d bet Caligula was a terrible student. And I don’t doubt that the mission to evoke motivation is, and has been, an infinite one.

The essential (non-fact learning) outcome of game play is the elevation of the individual – the name or alias as a rank among peers as a result of labor, persistence, and competitiveness, unencumbered by race, class, gender, or beauty (or lack of it). This “intelligence” has roots in classic American ethos, though I would say that it is also a language that is understood globally. If we want to learn from gamers something, it is this: Find a way to stimulate the desire to focus the player on self-interest at the expense of the status of others, and then reward them with high status when they succeed. I literally received this email today from SIGIVC with a link to this game for Elementary school kids. “Listen to the word, spell it out, and beat your opponent to the clock” says one of the games, and your rank will be published globally on our leader board. Sounds like fun!

To an opposite extreme, are there any games where you play by joining an existing team of your choice, and you have no name or alias? Could that team be composed of real and non-real teammates whose collective goals are to raise the standard of the lowest ranking team in the league to earn points? Doesn’t this sound absurd to modern Westerners? I hope there’s space left on the Syracuse Food Distributors for me to join, or maybe I can be a ringer on the Baldwinsville Nurturers, or the Liverpool Elder Caretakers. Not to say that this would be more fun a game to play than WoW, but just to make a point…

My recent re-reading of Marshall McLuhan has gotten me on a “message” kick lately, and I look at gaming, in its conventional form, as a way to say to students that your narcissistic obsession is a skill that we hope to employ for the benefit of labor, government, and other things valuable to the US. In contrast, the former more Feminist example might be seen as either too emasculating to be considered valuable to Western culture, or perhaps too Marxist.

I am not condemning gaming here wholesale as if there is nothing to be gained by employing them for learning purposes. But if you ask me to learn from, and thereby “borrow” from, game designers some kernel of wisdom that will positively affect my work as an ID professional, I am hard pressed to find something meaningful. Functional – absolutely yes. But before I prescribe gaming as a learning strategy, I had better know what I’m really saying by that act, and whether it is a message, or philosophy, that is consistent with what students believe today about themselves and their worldview. Because it sure isn’t the same as mine, I’ll bet. Every arcade game I used to play had a sticker on it somewhere that would say, “For amusement purposes only.” Like some smoker tapping his new warning be-spangled cigarette pack for a new “nail”, I ignored it. Dumb kid!

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