Figure 9. Is slow motion a unique characteristic of video? Image: Poring mercury into liquid nitrogen: University of Nottingham Image:
Figure 8.1.1 Is slow motion a unique characteristic of video and film?
Image: Pouring mercury into liquid nitrogen: University of Nottingham
Click on image to see video

8.1.1 Identifying the pedagogical differences between media

In the last chapter, I identified three core dimensions of media and technology along which any technology can be placed. In the next two chapters, I will discuss a method for deciding which media to use when teaching. In this chapter I will focus primarily on the pedagogical differences between media. In the following chapter I will provide a model or set of criteria to use when making decisions about media and technology for teaching.

8.1.2 First steps

Embedded within any decision about the use of technology in education and training will be assumptions about the learning process.¬†We have already seen earlier in this book how different epistemological positions and theories of learning affect the design of teaching, and these influences will also determine a teacher’s or an instructor’s choice of appropriate media. Thus,¬†the first step is to decide what and how you want to teach.

This has been covered in depth through Chapters 2-5, but in summary, there are five critical questions that need to be asked about teaching and learning in order to select and use appropriate media/technologies:

  • what is my underlying epistemological position about knowledge and teaching?
  • what are the desired learning outcomes from the teaching?
  • what teaching methods¬†will be employed to facilitate the learning outcomes?
  • what are the unique educational characteristics of each medium/technology, and how well do these match the learning and teaching requirements?
  • what resources are available?

This chapter focuses on the fourth of these questions, but they are best not asked sequentially, but in a cyclical or iterative manner, as media affordances may suggest alternative teaching methods or even the possibility of learning outcomes that had not been initially considered. When the unique pedagogical characteristics of different media are considered, this may lead to some changes in what content will be covered and what skills will be developed. Therefore, at this stage, decisions on content and learning outcomes should still be tentative.

8.1.3 Identifying the unique educational characteristics of a medium

Different media have¬†different potential or ‘affordances’ for different types of learning. One of the¬†arts of teaching is often finding the best match between media and desired learning outcomes. Before exploring this relationship, I will give a¬†brief summary of the substantial amount of excellent past research on this topic¬†(see, for instance, Trenaman, 1967; Olson and Bruner, 1974; Schramm, 1977; Salomon, 1979, 1981; Clark, 1983; Bates, 1984; Koumi, 2006; Berk, 2009; Mayer, 2020).

This research has indicated that there are three core elements that need to be considered when deciding what media to use:

  • content;
  • content structure;
  • skills.

Olson and Bruner (1974) claim that learning involves two distinct aspects: acquiring knowledge of facts, principles, ideas, concepts, events, relationships, rules and laws; and using or working on that knowledge to develop skills. Again, this is not necessarily a sequential process. Identifying skills then working back to identify the concepts and principles needed to underpin the skills may be another valid way of working. In reality, learning content and skills development will often be integrated in any learning process. Nevertheless, when deciding on media use, it is useful to make a distinction between content and skills. The representation of content

Media differ in the extent to which they can represent different kinds of content, because they vary in the symbol systems (text, sound, still pictures, moving images, etc.) that they use to encode information (Salomon, 1979). We saw in the previous chapter that different media are capable of combining different symbol systems.¬†Differences between media in the way they combine symbol systems influence the way in which different media represent content. Thus there is a difference between a direct experience, a written description, a televised recording, and a computer simulation of the same scientific experiment. Different symbol systems are being used, conveying different kinds of information about the same experiment. For instance, our concept of heat can be derived from touch, mathematical symbols (800 celsius), words (random movement of particles), animation, or observance of experiments. Our ‘knowledge’ of heat is as a result not static, but developmental. A large part of learning requires the mental integration of content acquired through different media and symbol systems. For this reason, deeper understanding of a concept or an idea is often the result of the¬†integration of content derived from a variety of media sources (Mayer, 2020).

Media also differ in their ability to handle concrete or abstract knowledge. Abstract knowledge is handled primarily through language. While all media can handle language, either in written or spoken form, media vary in their ability to represent concrete knowledge. For instance, television can show concrete examples of abstract concepts, the video showing the concrete ‚Äėevent‚Äô, and the sound track analyzing the event in abstract terms. Well-designed media can help learners move from the concrete to the abstract and back again, once more leading to deeper understanding. Content structure

Media also differ in the way they structure content. Books, the telephone, radio, podcasts and face-to-face teaching all tend to present content linearly or sequentially. While these media can represent parallel activities (for example, in print, different chapters may deal with events that occur simultaneously but from different perspectives) such activities still have to be presented sequentially. Computers and television are more able to present or simulate the inter-relationship of multiple variables simultaneously occurring. Virtual reality is an exceptionally powerful example of this. Computers can also handle branching or alternative routes through information, but usually within closely defined limits.

Subject matter varies a great deal in the way in which information needs to be structured. Subject areas (for example, natural sciences, history) structure content in particular ways determined by the internal logic of the subject discipline. This structure may be very tight or logical, requiring particular sequences or relationships between different concepts, or very open or loose, requiring learners to deal with highly complex material in an open-ended or intuitive way.

If media then vary both in the way they present information symbolically and in the way they handle the structures required within different subject areas, media which best match the required mode of presentation and the dominant structure of the subject matter need to be selected. Consequently, different subject areas will require a different balance of media. This means that subject experts should be deeply involved in decisions about the choice and use of media, to ensure that the chosen media appropriately match the presentational and structural requirements of the subject matter. The development of skills

Media¬†also differ in the extent to which they can help develop different skills. Skills can range from intellectual to psychomotor to affective (emotions, feelings). Koumi (2015) has used Krathwohl’s (2002) revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Objectives (1956) to assign affordances of text and video to learning objectives using Krathwold’s classification of learning objectives.

Comprehension is likely to be the minimal level of intellectual learning outcome for most education courses. Some researchers (for example, Marton and Säljö, 1976) make a distinction between surface and deep comprehension. At the highest level of skills comes the application of what one has comprehended to new situations. Here it becomes necessary to develop skills of analysis, evaluation, and problem solving.

Thus a first step is to identify learning objectives or outcomes, in terms of both content and skills, while being aware that the use of some media may result in new possibilities in terms of learning outcomes.

8.1.4 Pedagogical affordances Рor unique media characteristics?

‘Affordances’ is a term originally developed by the psychologist James Gibson (1977) to describe the perceived possibilities of an object in relation to its environment (for example,¬†a door knob suggests to a user that it should be turned¬†or pulled, while a flat plate on a door suggests that it should be pushed.). The term has been appropriated by¬†a number of fields, including instructional design and human-machine interaction.

Thus the pedagogical affordances of a medium relate to the possibilities of using that medium for specific teaching purposes. It should be noted that an affordance depends on the subjective interpretation of the user (in this case a teacher or instructor), and it is often possible to use a medium in ways that are not unique to that medium. For instance video can be used for recording and delivering a lecture. In that sense there is a similarity in at least one affordance for a lecture and a video. Also students may choose not to use a medium in the way intended by the instructor. For instance, Bates and Gallagher (1977) found that some social science students objected to documentary-style television programs requiring application of knowledge or analysis rather than presentation of concepts.

Others (such as myself) have used the term ‘unique characteristics’ of a medium rather than affordances, since ‘unique characteristics’¬†suggest that there are¬†particular uses of a¬†medium that are less easily replicated by other media, and hence act as a better discriminator in selecting and using media. For instance, using video to demonstrate in slow motion a mechanical process is much more difficult (but not impossible) to replicate in other media. In what follows, my focus is more on unique or particular rather than general affordances of each medium, although the subjective and flexible nature of media interpretation makes it difficult to come to any hard and fast conclusions.

I will now attempt in the next sections to identify some of the unique pedagogical characteristics of the following media:

  • text;
  • audio;
  • video;
  • computing;
  • social media
  • emerging technologies, in particular, virtual/augmented reality, serious games and artificial intelligence.

Technically, face-to-face teaching should also be considered a medium, but I will look specifically at the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching in Chapter 11, where I discuss different modes of delivery.

8.1.5 Purpose of the exercise

Before starting on the analysis of different media, it is important to understand my goals in this chapter. I am NOT trying to provide a definitive list of the unique pedagogical characteristics of each medium. Because context is so important and because the science is not strong enough to identify unequivocally such characteristics, I am suggesting in the following sections a way of thinking about the pedagogical affordances of different media. To do this, I will identify what I think are the most important pedagogical characteristics of each medium.

However, individual readers may well come to different conclusions, depending particularly on the subject area in which they are working. The important point is for teachers and instructors to think about what each medium could contribute educationally within their subject area, and that requires a strong understanding of both the needs of their students and the nature of their subject area, as well as the key pedagogical features of each medium.

8.1.6 A shaggy dog story about media affordances

Listen to the podcast below for an illustration of the differences between media.

Podcast 8.1 Click play on the above podcast (41 seconds).


Bates, A. (1984) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables

Bates, A. and Gallagher, M. (1977) Improving the Effectiveness of Open University Television Case-Studies and Documentaries Milton Keynes: The Open University, I.E.T. Papers on Broadcasting, No. 77 (out of print – copies available from tony.bates@ubc.ca)

Berk, R.A. (2009) Multimedia teaching with video clips: TV, movies, YouTube and mtvU in the college classroom, International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, Vol. 91, No. 5

Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company

Clark, R. (1983) Reconsidering research on learning from media Review of Educational Research, Vol. 53. No. 4

Gibson, J.J.  (1979) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Koumi, J. (2006) Designing video and multimedia for open and flexible learning. London: Routledge.

Koumi, J. (2015) Learning outcomes afforded by self-assessed, segmented video-print combinations Cogent Education, Vol. 2, No.1

Krathwohl, D.R. (2002) A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview¬†in¬†Theory into Practice, Vol. 41, No. 4,¬† College of Education, The Ohio State University.¬†

Marton, F. and Säljö, R. (1997) Approaches to learning, in Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N. (eds.) The experience of learning: Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press

Mayer, R. E. (2020) Multimedia learning (3rd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press

Olson, D. and Bruner, J. (1974) ‘Learning through experience and learning through media’, in Olson, D. (ed.) Media and Symbols: the Forms of Expression Chicago: University of Chicago Press (out of print)

Salomon, G. (1979) Interaction of Media, Cognition and Learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Salomon, G. (1981) Communication and Education Beverly Hills CA/London: Sage (out of print)

Schramm, W. (1977) Big Media, Little Media Beverly Hills CA/London: Sage

Trenaman, J. (1967) Communication and Comprehension London: Longmans

Activity 8.1 Thinking about the pedagogical differences between media

  1. Examine one of your lessons or courses.
    • Can you think of content that would best be presented through video or audio rather than through talking or text? What content is still better offered through talking or a textbook? What are your reasons? Are they pedagogical or for other reasons?
    • can you think of a skill that you are teaching that could be better developed by students through the use of media that you are not currently using?
    • can you think of new learning outcomes that you could achieve through the use of media?

There is no feedback from me on this activity, but the following chapter may help.


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Teaching in a Digital Age: Third Edition - General Copyright © 2022 by Anthony William (Tony) Bates is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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