Educational Media Research Paper

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Since Thorndike (1912) recommended pictures as a labor saving device for teachers, educational media have been the focus of research in many disciplines. Media such as computers and television are perceived widely as important because they provide essential communication links allowing the exchange of educational and other information between diverse and geographically separated groups and individuals.

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Depending on the discipline conducting investigations, media have been defined from points of view that include journalistic, communication, philosophical, historical, economic, sociological, and psychological perspectives. The result is a mountain of studies exploring the influence of media on outcomes such as knowledge acquisition, political opinion, social learning, access to information, values, attitudes, business development, perceptions of reality, economic development, socialization processes, and learning in settings such as communities, schools, homes, and work. Most of this research has progressed without the unifying aid of theory development. The central focus of most studies is a concern with the impact of media on the learning and motivation of individuals, groups, and societies. The emphasis in this review will be on educational uses of media from the perspective of social-psychological research.

1. Three Social-Psychological Definitions Of Educational Media

European, North American, and Asian social-psychological researchers tend to define media in one of three ways. First is the ‘media as vehicles’ definition where two or more information storage and delivery devices are examined for their capacity to provide different learning benefits and efficient access by learners to knowledge and instruction. The goal in many of these studies is to find the media or mix of media that provide the greatest learning benefit for different learners and curricula. Examples of media that fit this definition are books, cinema, television, radio, newspapers, and computers when used for teaching and learning. Two types of studies are often conducted. Comparison studies examine the relative learning and cost benefits of two or more alternative media (see for example, summaries and meta-analyses of these studies by the Kuliks and their co-workers (Kulik and Kulik 1991) to determine which medium or mix of media contributed more learning benefit. In most instances, the results of meta-analytic studies indicated that computer-based instruction resulted in learning benefits of approximately one-half a standard deviation over traditional media with a variety of curricula and learners. Other studies in this area question the relative efficiencies of different educational uses of media (for example, Levin 1983) and their contribution to instructional design (efficiency is often defined as the cost of different media for learner access to instruction in time, money, mental, or physical effort), time required to reach a preset learning criterion, and ease of use. The results of Levin’s studies suggest that media can be very costefficient for educational purposes when the numbers of students to be served are quite large and geographically separated.

1.1 Media As Vehicles Plus Teaching Methods

A second approach can be found in the integrated ‘media as vehicles plus teaching method’ studies. Here media are defined not only as vehicles but also by the instructional methods or strategies they permit to teach specific curriculum content to specific learners. Most North American and European researchers with this view believe that it is not possible or beneficial to separate the delivery and instructional content functions of media (see Kozma 1994). A familiar ‘media plus method’ example is the use of the ‘interactivity’ between media and learner possible in computer-based instructional programs. This definition encompasses the capacity of some media to permit many real-time, interactive instructional ‘transactions’ (for example, a learner might respond to computer provided questions followed by corrective or elaborative feedback from the computer about the learner’s responses). Typical research in the ‘media and method’ approach examines the learning benefits of developed instructional media programs such as Sesame Street or the Jasper Woodbury science program (Kozma 1994). An offshoot of this approach is exemplified by ‘media attributes’ studies. Researchers in this area study the capabilities of different media to provide a model for some of the mental processes required for learning. For example, Salomon (1979 1994) described studies that examined the capacity of cinema and television to ‘zoom’ from a wide field into a more narrow or specific view of a complex picture. After a zooming treatment where learners who had initial difficulty noticing parts of paintings significantly increased not only the number of details they reported but also increased the number of alternative views about the purpose of the artist. Salomon reasoned that his subjects had learned not only to notice more aspects and interpretations of paintings, but also had learned the perceptual and mental process of ‘zooming’ from this attribute or symbolic mode of real-time visual media.

1.2 Media As Learning Environments

A number of European, Asian, and some North American researchers have tended to take a ‘media as learning context’ approach to educational media inquiry. In this definition, media are viewed as contexts where education occurs, much like research on schools or homes as settings for educational experiences. Examples of this approach were described in an edited series by De Corte et al. (1992). The learning context focus investigates the ways that ‘learning with media’ in an educational context (as contrasted with ‘learning from media’ in the media as vehicles and methods approach) results in transformed learning environments and more durable learning-to-learn strategies for students. In these studies, the units of analysis are both the learner and the educational system. When new electronic media are added to educational settings ‘Most everything has changed—curriculum, activity, engagement in learning, instruction, social interaction, teacher’s roles, (and) modes of student evaluation … that far transcended the mere introduction of computers’ (Salomon 1992, p. 259, emphasis in original). The primary concern of learning context studies is to determine ways that educational media can modify and improve instructional settings. A more recent example of this work can be found in various studies reported by Kiesler and Kraut (see a summary of alternative views in Kiesler and Kraut 1999) on the negative social and psychological consequences of increased Internet use in distance, media-based education, and communication.

2. Disputes About Methodological Issues

Educational media research has suffered from methodological disputes at least since the 1960s when Lumsdaine (1963) cautioned researchers about problems in the design of educational media studies. He claimed that the design of studies up to that date had confounded the effects of medium with the separate learning effects of the content and instructional strategies contained in media presentations. Salomon and Clark (1977) summarized the methodological concerns of Lumsdaine and others by distinguishing between research with media and research on media. Research with media employed newer media to study the effects of new (vs. old) teaching methods and curriculum reforms. An example would be the use of television to study the learning benefits of altering the length of educational presentations. Learning benefits found in these studies were sometimes mistakenly attributed to the medium. Research on media examined the unique contributions of various media to learning of different curriculum elements by different groups of learners.

2.1 Recent Methodological Disputes

Clark (1994) has argued that all studies that find learning or motivational benefits from media are flawed methodologically. He suggested that all learning benefits attributed to media are actually due to the uncontrolled and confounded effects of different instructional methods and information content in different treatments. He also claimed that all learning benefits attributed to any one medium or media attribute would also be found to be available from other media or attributes of media and therefore the benefits of media are economic (some media cost less than others to deliver the same instruction with similar learning benefits). He summarized his argument by suggesting that media do not influence learning any more than the truck that delivers food to a market influences the nutrition of its customers. Kozma (1994) and others have disagreed with Clark and other methodological critics of media studies. He argues for the medium plus method approach and suggests that Clark’s ‘separation of media from method creates an unnecessary and undesirable schism between the two … (because) … a medium’s capabilities enable methods and the methods that take advantage of these capabilities of media are going to influence learning—methods must be confounded with media’ (Kozma 1994, p. 16). A number of other media plus method and media as context researchers have agreed with Kozma (see a number of papers on this topic in Clark 1994).

3. Future Directions For Educational Media Research

A variety of new directions seem to develop constantly in educational media research. Most of these directions are focused on new electronic media or novel computer software that is adapted to educational uses. Saettler’s (1968) history of educational media inquiry suggested that this has been a pattern for the past century. Each new medium attracts a group of new researchers to tend to ignore the lessons of past media studies and ask redundant questions. However, productive new areas are developing.

At least three novel or rediscovered research areas are developing as this research paper is being written. Vigorous research is being carried out in cognitive load theory, in economic studies of media, and in national surveys of educational media use in schools and universities.

3.1 Cognitive Load Theory And Educational Media Design

One group of theory-oriented researchers, stimulated by studies in Australia on cognitive load by Sweller et al. (1998), are examining ways to design educational media presentations so that cognitive overload is avoided. Sweller and his co-workers have developed a method of measuring the amount of cognitive load imposed and mental effort required by an instructional presentation. They have also identified a number of learning problems caused by common educational media design strategies and ways to overcome these problems. One example is the split attention effect. When learner attention is split between different sensory modes or media, Sweller hypothesizes that working memory is often overloaded. Studies by Mousavi et al. (1995) and Mayer (1997) have claimed that presenting novel and difficult concepts to learners in integrated auditory and visual symbolic modes overcomes the split attention effect and results in more learning than information presented in either mode alone for high visual ability and low prior knowledge learners. The theoretical explanation advanced for these findings is that integrated visual and auditory information is more efficiently processed in working memory. The added benefit of integrated auditory explanation and visual depiction of concepts and processes is presumably caused by auditory and visual sensory memory ‘buffers’ that specialize in storing information that exceeds the limits of working memory. This activity is hypothesized to extend the representational duration of information to be learned so that elaboration processes have more time to operate and transfer information to long term memory. It is likely that this area will receive much more attention from media researchers since it fits nicely with the current interest in ‘multi-media instruction’ (see a review and summary by Hedberg et al. 1993). This approach is also one of the features of a new theory of instructional design for teaching complex knowledge.

3.2 New Research On The Economics And Efficiencies Of Educational Media

Recently, some of the media-as-vehicle researchers have attempted to encourage studies that examine the ‘cognitive efficiency’ of instructional presentations that use newer electronic media (see Cobb 1997) at a variety of levels (national, regional, small group, individual) and outcomes (for example, cost per unit of achievement or speed of learning a set of concepts). Cobb suggests that some media and symbolic modes lead to quicker and/or less demanding learning and performance outcomes than other media or symbolic modes for some people. So we have a question with at least two interactive independent variables: the media or representational mode used for presenting an instructional method (for instance, an example presented in either pictorial or verbal modes) and the individual or group differences that would predispose learners to process the method easier and/or faster during learning (for instance, high visual but low verbal ability learners will likely learn faster from pictures than from narrative descriptions of examples). The cost of learning is, after all, one of the most important issues for those concerned with the application of research to solving practical problems.

Cobb illustrates research in cognitive efficiencies by inventing a situation where we want to teach someone to recognize the song of a specific species of bird. He describes different media/modes of presenting bird songs to learners including audio recordings and musical notation. He asks ‘How many hours are needed to learn a bird song with a recording vs. with sheet music?’(Cobb 1997, p. 26). He suggests that we show learners the musical notation for the song or play an audio recording of the song. If enough time is allowed for learners and if their motivation is adequate to support their persistence in difficult treatments such as the musical notation of the bird song, then all treatments should eventually produce learning. Yet few media specialists would consider teaching bird songs with musical notation to a majority of learners with adequate hearing and auditory discrimination ability. Is it possible however, that the two modes have different efficiency characteristics for different learners? While the example requires a stretch of the imagination, consider learners who have musical training and auditory discrimination problems. It seems plausible to assume that this small subset of learners might be able to recognize bird songs more efficiently with musical notation than with audio recordings. The work of Levin and co-workers (for example, Levin et al. 1987) has been useful for conceptualizing the various analysis protocols for costbenefit and cost-effectiveness assessment of media for learning and performance. Levin’s (1983) ‘replacement method’ of determining costs is a very conservative estimate of the economic gains from using media in a school or home setting. Additional work needs to be done in this area to facilitate the measurement of efficiency benefits during learning (for example, speed of learning, lowering the mental effort required to learn).

3.3 National Surveys Of Educational Media Use In Schools

A number of governments currently are interested in surveying educational media use in schools and universities. The reason for this interest is, in part, a belief that preparing students for future work and social responsibilities requires skill and knowledge about media. In addition, there is considerable national and international interest in using the World Wide Web and computer-based teaching. Examples of educational surveys in the US have been described by Becker (1999) who has reported statistics on computer use in American schools since 1993 to support national policy decisions on educational media use and research. Among the findings of these surveys is that Internet connections in North American schools have increased from 35 percent in 1993 to over 90 percent in 1999. Becker and his co-workers are curious about the relationship between Internet use and educational philosophy. They have suggested that teachers who have a more constructivist approach (for example, a belief that students construct their own knowledge) use the Internet more in the their teaching than teachers with a traditional instructivist philosophy (for example, that students must be ‘taught’ knowledge). These studies reflect the educational media as context approach to research.


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  7. Kozma R 1994 Will media influence learning: Reframing the debate. Educational Technology Research and Development 42(3): 1–19
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  11. Lumsdaine A 1963 Instruments and media of instruction. In: Gagne E (ed.) Handbook of Research on Teaching. Rand McNally, Chicago
  12. Mayer R 1997 Multimedia learning: Are we asking the right questions? Educational Psychologist 32(1): 1–19
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  14. Saettler P A 1968 A History of Instructional Technology. McGraw Hill, New York
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