The Great Media Debate: Is It Still Relevant?

A person using a tablet to take a photo of books.
Please note: This blog post is a course related assessment for the Master of Arts in Learning and Technology program at Royal Roads University.

For Activity 7, we formed a team as Christy Boyce, Brandon Carson, Andrea Livingstone, David Livingstone and Michael Murray. We were tasked with reading about the ‘great media debate’ in the field of learning and technology through reading the claims of Clark (1994) and Kozma (1994) as they debate whether or not media influence learning. Our second task was to find four articles that were in stark contrast to either Clark or Kozma’s views in the media debate.

Our four articles are:

8 Ways Technology Will Revolutionise Teaching in the Next Decade

Low-cost VR Transforms the Healthcare Classroom

Can Virtual Reality Replace a Cadaver?

EdSurge: Schools and Colleges Try Virtual Reality Science Labs. But Can VR Replace a Cadaver?

The Role of Technology in the Education of the Future

There are two articles that are prime examples at the centre of the “Media Debate”: Kozma’s (1994) “Will Media Influence Learning? Reframing the Debate” and Clark’s (1994) response, “Media Will Never Influence Learning.” The two authors are seeing right past each other, and failing to recognize the basis of each other’s premises. The reason is a confusion of language, and a failure to recognize the real significance of the affordances of the learning technologies they are debating about.

It is possible that the year of the debate could be of some significance. In 1994, Tim Berners-Lee had just invented the World Wide Web, and published the very first website. The existence of the “information superhighway” was just entering public consciousness. There was still much doubt about whether it would deliver on its promises, or if it was just hype. Not having yet experienced the fundamental impact that technology would come to have on education, it is possible that Clark was skeptical about its purported advantages.

Clark rightly points out that there are “no learning benefits” intrinsic in media. As Clark (1983, 1985a) had aptly described earlier, media are “mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition” (as cited in Clark 1994, p. 1). In support of his assertion, Clark notes that the claim has remained uncontested for several decades, listing numerous studies that have confirmed as much, such as Mielke (1968), Schramm (1977), Levie & Dickie (1973) and Clark & Salomon (1986).

Differentiation between learning method, learning tools, and media is necessary for this debate. Photo credit Pixabay user Wokandapix CC0

Despite the successes noted in the studies cited by Kozma, Clark’s distinction still stands. To clarify, the aspects that contributed to the positive learning outcomes, in either of the two examples presented by Kozma, were not the media themselves, through which the tools were delivered, but what Clark (1994) referred as the “Instructional Method” (p. 2). As Clark rightly points out, the method, or the learning strategy delivered by the media, should not be confused with the media itself.

Curiously, however, Clark also fails to recognize the underlying affordance in the technology. In his critique of Kozma, Clark (1994) lists the two learning examples, but suggests that the studies were faulty, instead of recognizing how they could be used to reinforce his own point. It would appear that Clark believed that to suggest the cases were successful would imply that Kozma would have somehow substantiated that media have an “influence” on learning. Rather, the two cases listed by Kozma were clear examples of the successful use of new media to deliver what Clark called “instructional methods.” The only consideration missing in Kozma’s case would be to accept Clark’s challenge that if either case was replaceable, then they would have to be demonstrated to be more cost-effective.

Clearly, both Clark and Kozma were confounded by the ambiguity of the language in use, and therefore to recognize their points of agreement. The “influence” of media was not the matter in question. Our team believes that both have failed to recognize is that the examples they were referring to were learning aids. Clark has proposed a media assessment criteria which he calls “replaceability,” which is a test to determine whether or not any particular media “attribute” can be replicated by some other medium. If it can, then it demonstrates that the quality is not inherent to the media, but to the “Instructional Method.” At that point, it is a matter of choosing the least “expensive” option.

Clark would certainly be challenged to apply that same test to Kozma’s examples. How else could an “Instructional Method” present game-like interactivity without the use of software. And even if it could, would it be as cost-efficient in being delivered to large numbers of students at great distances? In neither case here are we referring to the intrinsic qualities of the “media.” That effective mechanism, in Kozma’s examples, is the learning game or strategy that is the basis of the tools mentioned. In effect, either tool could be considered a learning aid.

The abacus, an example of an effective learning aid. Photo credit to Pixabay user fotoblend (CC0)

Clark was caught up in the limitations of his own definition of an “Instructional Method,” which he described as “mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition” (cited in 1994, p. 1). However, an instructional method can be used to aid a student in understanding a subject, where oral or written description can be lengthy or difficult to communicate. Learning aids are ancient, and have always been used to assist in learning. The most fundamental example is an analogy, such as Aesop’s Fables, which could succinctly communicate moral lessons through the use of tales as examples. Another ancient example is the abacus. It helps provide a visual representation to more easily conceive mental conceptions such as relationships in numbers. The examples that Kozma provided also used visual analogies to assist students in understanding concepts like Newtonian physics.

Here the debate demonstrates what seems to often be the case — the new media technologies are perceived to be content delivery tools. In other words, computers can deliver visual and audio content, and at a distance. So a computer can display video, play audio, or display reading material, and can even provide access to extensive libraries of such content. However, the most crucial affordance of the modern computer is its ability to serve software, which is what makes it unique. All traditional media, including film, audio and books, represent one-way interaction. The phone is the exception but it is incapable of including visuals. In essence, that is the true affordance of computers, along with the fact that visual and auditory material can be programmed to interact and respond from inputs from the end-user.

It is these affordances that Clark and Kozma appear to have failed to recognize. What computers afford us is grand new possibilities, to create learning aids, but ones with a level of sophistication far beyond anything that we have known in history. The two cases presented by Kozma are inspiring examples; however, they are not examples of media. They are both examples of the great positive potential of how interactive media can be used to enhance learning.

8 Ways Technology Will Revolutionise Teaching in the Next Decade

Regardless of merits of either side of the Great Media Debate, the reality is that new media technology has fundamentally transformed education. It’s not just hype. New learning technologies are here to stay. There is some value, however, in the caution expressed by the Luddites, to temper what has been a recurring cyber-utopianism, which has tended to overvalue the potential of certain technologies for transforming education, thus helping us avoid what has often resulted in wasteful extravagance. In light of these considerations, it is interesting to review a recent article titled, “8 ways technology will revolutionize teaching in the next decade” (2018) and reflect on how it may help us understand the significance of the media debate, and how we can learn to more soberly adopt technologies that can contribute to real benefit.

The Red Bull (2018) article lists several examples of technologies that are already revolutionizing education, or promise to. They represent the combined value of Kozma and Clark’s respective arguments, where it can be shown that media can be used to deliver unique “instructional methods,” but which can be demonstrated to have a positive effect. Important examples they list are a more personalized experience, by tailoring learning to the pace and skill level of pupils; the convenience of Cloud-based education; modeling and simulation to help students visualize topics of study; 3D printing for rendering practical lessons; and virtual field trips. As is typical, some of these technologies have yet to demonstrate their economic or educational value. But, the points of Kozma’s and Clark’s debate can help us remember that we need to isolate where the value exists, and make sound decisions and restrict our enthusiasm to those aspects of the technology which promise real value. The last point says it all, “Great educators are here to stay, with some help” (Smith, 2018, n.p.).

Low-cost VR Transforms the Healthcare Classroom

Furthering our position, we offer some articles that consider the use of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality as learning tools. Paddick’s article claims that VR is being used to show physicians the experience of a patient with chest pains and their journey from the ambulance to the emergency room to the operating room. The author states that VR creates a “…more visual way for doctors to understand what it is like to be a patient” (Paddick, 2016, para. 1). VR training allows the physicians to become a patient in an immersive, high-stress scenario. This demonstrates the use of VR as a learning tool beyond the capabilities of other technology. Paddick claims that VR is being used to train clinicians in “…understanding the effects things such as communication, compassion, teamwork, equipment, and workspace have on clinical performance and the quality of experience a patient receives” (Paddick, 2016, para. 2). We agree that the shift in perspective to become the patient and being cared for, instead of thinking as a physician about the patient and determining their care, may allow for improved observation of teamwork, communication, or equipment interactions.

Paddick adds that new cardboard headsets make VR more scalable and economically accessible (2016). One of Clark’s considerations for choosing a technological ‘vehicle’ to deliver education is the cost (1994). Clark suggests that the lowest cost option capable of delivering the same education should be chosen (1994). Paddick does not mention the cost of filming the scenario and ‘knitting’ the digital film together for VR training, however, in this stage of VR development, these may be considerable.

Google cardboard VR headset. Image from Pixabay user WikimediaImages CC0

Paddick claims that it is possible to teach the humanistic skills of compassion and empathy more interactively and effectively with VR (2016). Immersive, contextual social and emotional learning seem applicable to this learning design. Other options for achieving this type of learning without using VR may include mock-up simulations with actors; however, this would likely be high-cost with low numbers of learners reached. Paddick suggests that VR is being used to identify human factors and humanistic behavior happening in the clinical environment.

We agree that the emergency room is a fast-paced environment and VR could allow a unique perspective for the physicians to reflect upon their treatment as a ‘patient’. In regular training, physician debrief and reflection is not always possible or part of the learning design.

Can Virtual Reality Replace a Cadaver?

In this article, Nazerian (2018) discusses Case Western Reserve Universities new health education campus, which is removing the use of cadavers on campus and introducing the use of the Microsoft HoloLens and the HoloAnatomy application, along with other hands-on exercises.

Although we were tasked with discovering articles with an opposing view to Clark (1994) or Kozma’s (1994) perspective of how media influences learning, critical agreements between the opinions of Nazerian (2018) and Clark (1994) also arose that were unexpected. Through an interview with a professor at Case Western Reserve Universities, Nazerian (2018) highlighted a significant reason to move from the use of cadavers to augmented reality is due in part to the difficulties of running a cadaver lab, along with the overall costs. Clark (1994) discussing the importance of selecting a media that has the capabilities of being the most cost-effective and efficient. Nazerian also discovered that identical test scores occurred between students who learned in the traditional method to using cadavers and the innovative approach of the Microsoft HoloLens, backing Clark’s (1994) stance on how different media attributes can be used and still result in similar learning achievements.

Case Western Reserve University is in the infancy stages of their approach to using simulations instead of cadavers, and it will be interesting to see what the research shows as they continue to use this method. Initial benefits to using augmented reality include a safe space to make mistakes, cost-saving measures and the possibility to create realistic scenarios with the body that a corpse could not replicate (Nazerian, 2014). While a cadaver cannot represent real-life conditions (Nazerian, 2014), it does allow the learner to experience the touch and feel of a human body, along with the process of human deterioration.

Although Case Western Reserve University’s approach is more cost-effective by removing cadavers from their site, they still will incorporate for a two-week boot camp for their students (Nazerian, 2018), where they will use the corpses as a form of experiential learning that other media is not able to replicate for the students. Through the use of augmented reality and cadavers, Case Western Reserve University is currently providing learning benefits that other media would not be able to achieve, in turn, refuting Clark’s claim that media or media attributes do not influence learning (Clark, 1994).

The Role of Technology in the Education of the Future

This article reaffirms our position that as the technology from our global village compounds into exponential growth the ability to forecast its absolute direction is not possible. What we do understand is that if our last hundred years are an indication of the impossibilities that could form into creation, then we are in for an interesting ride of continual surprises. Melding the two positions of Clark and Kozma succinctly the writer of the article states, “while experts believe that the human psychology behind learning has not changed vastly over time, the external factors affecting how we comprehend, retain and receive new material are constantly evolving”.

In Summary: The Reflection in the Virtual Mirror

Clark asks us to determine if another set of media attributes could lead to the same learning result (1994). Kozma challenges us to consider conditions under which media will influence learning (1994). Knowledge of the great media debate forces one to reconsider the true technical requirements of their educational goals. Learning designers need to decide whether spending money on technology will improve the quality of the education or if the learning design and learning tools could be optimized instead.

The great media debate asks us to consider the capabilities of our current technology. Is newer technology capable of providing vastly different processing and symbolic systems than those of Clark’s era? We would say, yes, but caution that the effectiveness of newer media depends on how it is used as a learning tool. Kozma supported that the capabilities of media enable the methods of teaching and the methods used to teach take advantage of those capabilities (1994). We would add that the attributes of media in the time of Clark and Kozma’s debate could not have supported the constructivist, experiential, situational, and emotional learning that is now possible with some of our newer communication channels, such as Virtual Reality. Kozma asks us to observe whether the media can enable or constrain symbolic systems and processing capabilities (1994). VR can support symbolic systems identical to those we observe through our own eyes. Processing speeds are our own as we observe and interact with the virtual space. VR may be the one form of communication being used to teach that sways one’s stance into Kozma’s side of the debate. The tools are getting better, the research needs to follow suit, and the conversation needs to change as a result.

Authors: Christy Boyce, Brandon Carson, Andrea Livingstone, David Livingstone, and Michael Murray


Bort, Julie (2014, August 18). No Google. No Netflix. No iPhone. This Is What Tech Was Like In 1994. Business Insider. Retrieved from:

Clark, R. E. (1994). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 21-29.

Frezzo, D. (2017, May 10). The role of technology in the education of the future. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from

Kozma, R. B. (1994). Will media influence learning: Reframing the debate. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 7-19.

Nazerian, T. (2018, July 20). Schools and colleges try virtual reality science labs. But can VR replace a cadaver? EdSurge News. Retrieved from

Paddick, R. (2016, March 4). Low cost VR transforms healthcare classroom: Doctors virtual reality training revolutionized by cardboard, smartphones and google. Educational Technology. Retreived from

Smith, John (2018, September). 8 ways technology will revolutionise teaching in the next decade. Red Bull. Retrieved from

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