Tangled Webs

   A Medium with a Message
Issue 3.10
Oct 17, 1998

It's Edutational!

I make my living with computers and the Internet, and I want to talk about the impact that computers and the Internet will have on education. Now, if I am to be true to my profession, I should extol the virtues of the Internet and explain how edutainment CD-ROMs will usher in a new age in which all children will enjoy learning and look forward to school. Unfortunately, I no longer believe any of that. In fact, I am increasingly convinced that the opposite is true.

I'm not trying to sound like an alarmist, a Luddite or a pedagogue, but we need to understand the nature of a communications medium before we start believing it will somehow solve our problems for us. As far back in history as you care to look, the introduction of new media has changed the way people think. Socrates and many of his contemporaries insisted that philosophy only be taught via the Socratic method. They, quite correctly, believed that learning by reading encouraged a more superficial understanding of the subject.

The changes caused by television are clearer only because they are more recent and have been more rapid. Television has changed the way we discuss politics, the way we dress, what is considered acceptable behavior, our standards of beauty, what goals we consider important in our lives, and greatly reduced out attention spans. Quite simply, it has changed the way we think.

It is worth keeping in mind that all of the utopian praise now being heaped upon the Internet and multimedia was originally said about Television. TV was to bring Shakespeare and symphonies into every home, it was to allow citizens to make more informed choices about their government and know more about the world as a whole. The pundits predicted that it would break down the barriers between nations and result in a common language and a flowering of universal tolerance and understanding.

It hasn't quite turned out that way.

Who's in Control?

The problem is that despite the best of intentions, the nature of a medium itself determines what gets said using it. Messages ill-suited to the medium will not be successful. Lengthy and complex arguments, or even simple rational discourse, does not play well on TV, so we rarely see it there. No amount of effort can transform television into something it is not.

Multimedia is similar to television in its unsuitability to complex thought or lengthy argument. Through hyperlinks, the reader jumps from one subject to the next, rarely finishing more than a few paragraphs on a single topic. It's quite similar to TV channel surfing in this regard. Again, it's not that one cannot present complex ideas using multimedia, it's that such ideas will lose out to those better suited to the medium.

There are hundreds of edutainment CD-ROMs that chant the mantra of "makes learning fun," but the success of these products depends not on their educational value, but on their entertainment value. Such software is reviewed, not in terms of what a child learns by playing it, but by how much children enjoy it. Subjects or aspects of a subject that are not entertaining, lose out to those that are. The most successful edutainment titles are those that are entertaining enough to keep the kids playing the game and have just enough trivia thrown in to convince the parents that the child is learning something.

That's Edutainment!

Of course, CD-ROMs and multimedia do have plenty of worthwhile applications. The same hyperlinking that works against complex argument makes multimedia reference works like encyclopedias and dictionaries far superior to their printed counterparts. And edutainment games can certainly stimulate interest in a subject that a child can later decide to learn about.

However, we've hit the point where these games are considered educational in and of themselves. They are no more educational than playing Trivial Pursuit. We've forgotten that the whole point of introducing entertainment into education was to motivate children to learn. We now seem to be adopting the absurdity that education should be as entertaining as possible. Edutainment does not motivate children to learn the subject. It motivates them to play games; games that are designed to mimic the activities associated with learning. If children are learning anything, they are learning to how to just go through the motions.

Edutainment is changing the way we think about education. At one time, we decided what children should learn and how best to teach those subjects to them. That process is being replaced by determining what children most enjoy and then trying to teach them something using that format. What and how we teach is largely being determined by the media we use. The medium has become the message.

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© Copyright 1998, Tim Romero, t3@vanguardjp.com
This article fist appeared in the October 15, 1988 edition of The Japan Times.
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