Co-written by Priscilla, Adam, & Audrey
Although the Message is the Massage was written in 1967 its message about technology and communication theory are still applicable to the technologies of today. We can imagine the author is now turning in his grave. McLuhan’s theory is that the medium is just as, if not more, valuable than the content. Compared to the technologies McLuhan mentions, the internet is a vastly more powerful medium than anything that existed before because it connects us globally more than any other medium. “The new electronic interdependence creates the world in the image of a global village” (McLuhan & Fiore, p 67). McLuhan’s book as a medium itself, a combination of both written text and purposeful visual design, is not unlike the Web of today. Different forms of media — text, video, photography, and design communicating content in tandem. While some of the text in the book takes a paranoid tone, paired with the visual imagery gives it a sense of humor, and thereby changes the lens through which the message is communicated.
In the field of web design, clients try to use the internet to “do the work of the old” or to do the work of print. We’ve seen that with newspapers and their demise. The same happens as well in online education. It’s not enough to build a website. “If you build it, they will come” does not always apply. You can design the most beautiful website with the most amazing copy, but it won’t bring people there. The medium that carries your message is what matters and expands your reach. So, my first questions to a client are typically “who is your audience is and what are you asking them to do”? The internet can be your medium, but you have to consider how you will reach your audience, depending who and where they are. A website alone doesn’t carry the message, but say, in combination with social media, it may. Whatever you chose to bear the message affects the perception of that message. So when considering your audience (e.g. A Teenager’s View on Social Media), you have to consider your message and design with that in mind.
Unpredictability of Disruptive Innovation
In addition to a disruptive innovation being considered inferior from the outset, it brings with it a sense of uncertainty. Disruptive innovation often calls for a redesign of the existing system, the traditional, the way things have always been done. It could be considered disconcerting to attempt a new design when “we cannot know, ahead of time, the full, systematic effects of a design implementation,” (p. 12) making new innovation a partial liability along with a potential for change. Christensen argues that business models are meant “to solve one class of problem very well” (p.20), which makes their evolution at the onset of a disruptive innovation a difficult one. Disruptive technologies bring an uncertainty to higher education of how they will reshape education, the traditional function of institutions, the role of faculty, and learning outcomes. Accountability has become a growing trend in education, both K-12 and postsecondary. For change to take place, there is a need for predictable outcomes which designing with disruptive technology cannot account for, which likely makes educational leaders nervous.
The Wicked Problem of Higher Education
Nelson and Stolterman introduced the idea of tame and wicked problems where tame problems are easier defined concerns while wicked problems are complex problems without a clear solution. The issue of redesigning or reinventing (re-envisioning?) higher education is that it is a wicked problem as opposed to a tame one with easy answers and procedures. The wicked problem of higher education raises more questions such as What is the purpose of higher education? What can be considered a well-rounded education? What does it mean to be an educated person? What is learning? Unfortunately, in the attempt to simplify a larger problem, “energy and resources are misdirected, resulting in solutions that not only are ineffective, but also create more difficulty because the approach used is an intervention that is, by necessity, inappropriately conceptualized” (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012, p. 17). The lack of direction in higher education reform can be traced back to a focus on the wrong problem. However, focusing on the wicked problems is no easier as it cultivates more questions than it answers and more problems than it solves.
When a community of practice encounters a tame or technical problem, a solution can be created from the shared repertoire and mutual engagement of the community. For example a few people might meet to work on a solution and draw on existing jargon to help institutionalize the solution. But, when a community of practice encounters an adaptive or wicked problem there is high likelihood that the community will have to change in someway to meet the challenge. Members of the community will have to use imagination to conceptualize a solution, negotiate amongst themselves, and alter their participation (either by bringing in a non-participant, increasing or decreasing their participation, or becoming a non-participant) as they address the wicked or adaptive problem. These changes may only affect one community or it may impact the entire constellation of communities. Either way, a wicked problem will likely require the community to change in order to be able to survive.
New Paradigms of Learning
The world of education has a new set of rules. “Now all the world’s a sage,” (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967, p. 14), due to the rapid rate of information dissemination and access to information due to technology, the teacher is not the center of the classroom. This is a shift from the traditional form of the “sage on the stage,” the professor firmly fixed at the head of the classroom controlling all activity. Learning is no longer passed down from a knowledgeable central figure filling the minds of students. With the world as a sage, learning becomes communal and lends itself to the emergence of communities of practice as “our new environment compels commitment and participation” (McLuhan & Fiore, p 24). Within the changing classroom, a new call for instruction is in order as well. “Mere instruction will not suffice” (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967, p. 18) resulting in a shift from traditional lecture-based education and paving a way for learning as a process of discovery. Students can no longer be what McLuhan & Fiore refer to as the detached observer but unified and involved. According to Wenger, this is accomplished through shared practice. For it is “in the process of sustaining a practice, we become invested in what we do as well as in each other and our shared history” (p. 89).
All photos by Audrey Romano