When Medium Meets Message: Professional Development for the 21st Century

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

At some point in the process of change, the talk becomes the walk and the medium is the message. In education, we’re finally getting there.

For the longest time, the vast majority of conferences on the latest Internet technologies have been held in face-to-face or onground venues in large cities. Teachers have only one way to participate, and that is to travel to the conference site. There, as they have for the past twenty years or more, they gather in auditoriums and listen to experts on leading edge technologies and strategies for using them in blended or online classrooms. Ironically, the experts, who gush about the latest social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, use notebooks, PowerPoint, and handouts in their lectures, and the participants, by and large, take notes as they have for the last century and a half.

No one thinks it strange that information about the latest online media is presented in a medium that Socrates would have found familiar. The disconnect between medium and message makes sense when the gap between innovation and practice is wide and the majority in the audience are on one side and presenters, on the other.

But as teachers become increasingly tech savvy and routinely use the latest web-based interactive technologies, the gap shrinks and the old medium suddenly seems out of place, an anachronism, a rock stuck in a fast moving stream. For example, in some of the latest onground conferences, real-time back channel discussions in blogs and tweets are often more dynamic, flowing around the speaker and taking the content far beyond the plodding onstage lecture. More importantly, these parallel forums are also interactive and accessible to e-rubberneckers around the world.

One of the earliest professional development conferences to walk the talk on technology in education is the International Online Conference (formerly the Illinois Online Conference). It’s completely virtual. Audience and presenters participate online, synchronously and asynchronously, from the comfort of their home or office. In an eblast on April 11, the organizers announced the theme for 2011, “Going Mobile in Higher Ed.” As usual, it “will be held entirely over the Internet,” and this year it will “focus exclusively on mobile technologies” such as “smartphones, tablets, e-books, and other devices” in learning and teaching.

But the real surprise is that IOC 2011, which begins on April 27, will also be accessible via mobile technologies! In other words, the conference about going mobile will also be mobile, bringing message in alignment with medium.

Is this balance between message and means important? Couldn’t the conference be delivered just as effectively onground or via non-mobile technology?

For answers, we could look at other forms of media and message alignment in efforts to incorporate technology in education. For example, in the recently published “Certification in Distance Learning for Online Instructors: Exploration of the Creation of an Organic Model for a Research-Based State Institution” (in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, spring 2011), Lee Graham and Lisa Thomas describe a program to certify teachers for online teaching. Aside from the fact that it takes a teacher-centric approach and is based on the understanding that “faculty . . . are accustomed to academic freedom and autonomy” and are “accomplished faculty members in educational institutions, rather than products in a manufacturing facility,” the program is exemplary because it is delivered online. This is a departure from many similar efforts in colleges around the country where participants are required to attend onground workshops.

This alignment of message and medium provides an opportunity for modeling, and Graham and Thomas report that “faculty members creating new courses were influenced by the design of the certification course, and worked to emulate the aspects of the course that they found most effective in their new designs.”

As human beings, we learn best when the medium and the message work together. Thus, if the message is “Going Mobile in Higher Ed” or teacher-based course design, perhaps the best medium is the technology itself.

2 Responses

  1. I just came from a career school conference where one of the tracks was about online teaching and learning. There is still resistance in this particular sector to online education-this was the second year the topic was presented. More people were open to it this time around, which tells me that we are making inroads, although it is a slow process.

    Many think that online learning is about webinars, which I suppose is a step in the right direction because at least people are using technology. It’s a little frustrating, but reading this journal keeps me motivated to continue to encourage my colleagues to explore the medium. Thanks, Jim!

  2. Hi, Jan.

    As educators, we rely on conferences and publications for the latest information about learning and teaching. Traditionally, conferences have been onground and publications, in hardcopy. But this is rapidly changing because organizers and publishers are realizing that their content can be delivered virtually, too.

    There are still issues of “ownership” and “profit,” but I believe these will eventually be resolved and the vast majority of conferences and journals will go completely online for maximum accessibility to all. -Jim S

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