Educational Technology & Society 2(4) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

The Relevance of Media as Artifact: Technology Situated in Context

Andrew Agostino
Doctoral Candidate in Educational Technology
Concordia University
Montreal, Canada


The debate about whether or not media influence learning has been non-relenting for the last decade. According to one researcher, media are mere vehicles, which deliver instruction, but have no direct authority or relevance on cognitive processes. Over the years, media research has been unable to provide convincing evidence to support causal links between the media and student achievement. What effects have been reported in the literature could be attributed to a conceptual confounding of media and method constructs. As such, all media studies should cease. Accordingly, proponents of media research have been quick to respond to this challenge but in most cases, these protests have been met with potent rebuttal and the debate has forged on. It is argued that it is time to put an end to this controversy. What is needed is a paradigm shift from cognitive theory and traditional research designs to situated cognition theory and designs that explore media as artifacts situated in context and described as indivisible fragments of the interaction between agent and environment.

Keywords: Media relevance, Media research, Situated cognition, Legitimate peripheral practice, Cognitive apprenticeship models, Constructivist models

The Relevance of Media as Artifact

What is the relevance of embedding and diffusing technology in education? Media will never influence learning (Clark, 1994). This jarring statement rattles the very foundations of educational technology, and poses a perplexing challenge for media specialists who believe that a variety of media should be seamlessly woven into the educational fabric. Unfortunately, Clark's position has been difficult to debunk and the debate has continued for a decade.

Essentially, Clark (1983, 1985a, 1994) explains that over the last thirty years, research has failed to provide convincing evidence that the media directly influence learning. What effects are reported in the literature, the author assigns to a confounding of media and instructional method. He speculates that if media studies were conducted under rigorous controls, the method and not the media would prove consequential. The method or the way information is shaped is both necessary and sufficient for cognitive support and student achievement but often ignored or submersed within other factors in media studies. The argument follows a simple test of substitution. In cases where research reports a causal link between media and learning outcomes, Clark asks whether another medium or different media attributes could be substituted for the treatment and produce similar results? If the answer is yes (as it is in almost all cases), then the researcher can only attribute the results to some mutual variable existing in both studies. Clark hypothesizes that this variable is the instructional design and not the delivery technology and as such, poignantly concludes that the 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" (1983, p. 445). Accordingly, the relative merits of employing media in education are only economic factors associated with access and speed of delivery rather than pedagogical or cognitive benefits. Clark states that no single theory exists that associates media variables to learning, and unless we can come up with a novel theory, expensive and time-consuming research on media should cease. Is Clark's position valid?

Clark's discourse has ignited a variety of responses from proponents of media research. However, attempts to answer his challenge have not been formidable. For instance, Petkovich and Tennyson (1984) proclaim that Clark's conclusions are unfounded. They state that many of the studies rooted in Clark's assertions are examples of weak research designs without the proper controls to actually test whether or not media do indeed affect learning. These primitive classroom studies were often conducted "with media" and not "on media". There is a difference here. The former employed various technologies as stimulus presentation; that is, the study may have actually been initiated to determine the benefits of various classroom management techniques, but also included film, video or computers. For example, research launched to measure learning effects when comparing three different modes of teaching a particular instructional unit: (a) using film, (b) using television, or (c) using traditional lecture. These were gross comparisons studies, which obviously yielded no clear media effects (Mielke, 1968). The latter were investigations whose locus of interest was to test the relative merits of particular media attributes. These inquiries dealt with the pedagogical potentialities of the different media and attempted to discover ways in which a particular medium could be used in order to enhance learning, or at least, attempted to determine what aspects of particular medium could trigger cognitive processes and structure changes to promote student achievement (Coldevine, 1976, Salomon, 1979). Surprisingly, these early studies reported that specific media attributes could possibly elicit or activate in some learners mental schemas relative to learning accomplishment (Pavio, 1971). These researchers advanced the notion that all messages are processed by the media and coded in some symbolic representation. The formal features of the various technologies (i.e., zooms, three dimensional images, branching etc.) could actually be instrumental in developing cognitive skills and be considered motivational factors in learning.

Kozma (1991) provides many examples of research on varied media, books, television, computers, and multimedia distinguished by cognitively relevant characteristics of their technologies and symbol structures. Kozma concludes that while some learners learn regardless of the delivery device being used, others can benefit from specific media attributes to help construct knowledge. Moreover, Kozma suggests that Clark creates an unnecessary schism between medium and method.

Unfortunately, trying to break down Clark's argument in this fashion only furthers the debate. Clark's rebuttal is simple. Questions dealing with motivational factors and attitudes have little to do with media effects. In fact, Clark endorses the work of Salomon (1984), which attributes motivation to learner's beliefs and not to external media factors. Students' preconceptions about the ease or difficulty of a certain medium affect the amount of mental effort invested in a particular learning task (Krendl, 1986, Cennamo, 1993), but these studies say little about how the media influence learning. As far as the criticism that the literature he cited was not valid, Clark chuckles at the fact that the lack of evidence supporting causality between media and learning is even more indefinable in experimental designs. Clark is also unshaken by Kozma's criticism emphasizing that it is not he who has created an unnecessary schism between media and method but rather his critics who have conceptually confounded the two constructs. "If any learning occurs as a result to exposure to any media, the learning is caused by the instructional method embedded in the media presentation" (p. 26).

Following this reasoning, Clark's position seems unassailable and it appears that the debate will never be resolved. What remains is the harsh reality that under the shadow of this paradigm, Clark is correct; media will never influence learning. Nevertheless, Clark's (1977) earlier writings spoke of a different reality. Here, Clark suggested that examples from psychological analyses conducted on television and aggression (Fuchs & Lyle, 1972) and of course, recent studies (Zucherman & Zucherman, 1985, Tulloch, 1995) were able to identify noticeable media effects on behavior and that more than likely, it was educational media researchers who had failed to uncover "the yet unexplored potentialities of the media and ways of converting them for educational purposes" (p. 101). Clark goes further calling for research designs that would allow investigators to look at the interactions of media tasks in real life settings. Moreover, these studies should be conducted within a complex environment for the purpose of studying the effects, not the effectiveness of media. Perhaps, Clark unknowingly was talking about a needed paradigm shift; perhaps he was talking about a novel theory (as he later suggested), a new way of understanding learning and the role that media play in education. Perhaps, he was unwittingly ushering in the advent of situated cognition theory.

A Brief Look at Situated Cognition Theory

Situated cognition studies are beginning to challenge traditional notions about teaching and learning. Many researchers now believe that it is not possible to separate 'what we know' from 'how we know'. They posit that knowledge and learning, for that matter, are fundamentally situated within the activity from which they are developed (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989).

Recent ethnographic research suggests that thinking can be described as an interaction between an agent and a physical and social situation. Consequently, learning can be categorized as a participatory process mediated by different perspectives among co-participants. Rogoff & Gardner (1984); Suchman (1987); and Lave (1988) in a series of classic investigations observed ordinary people engaged in everyday problem solving. Rogoff & Gardner examined the relationship between young mothers and their infants. Suchman observed operators trying to repair malfunctioning photocopying machines and Lave studied craft apprenticeship among Vai and Gola tailors in Liberia, and grocery shopping among American adults. Subsequently, observations of individuals practising in a collaborative, physical world potent with meaning and context lead these researchers to postulate that cognition is codependent and interrelated within a community of practice. Knowledge acquisition is really a question of 'enculturation' (Lave, 1997). As such, it is futile, if not impossible, to study human knowledge by disemboweling it from the authentic physical and social world where it is manifested. Such eviscerated analyses tend to be artificial, sterile notions destroying the natural phenomena of interest, which should be the mutual accommodation between an agent and the environment. Knowledge does not solely reside in the mind of an individual. It is distributed and shared among co-participants in authentic situations (Bereiter, 1991). In other words, it is not so much the agent that should be the primary focus of investigation but rather the practice in which the agent is immersed and the relationship between the agent, the technology, and the situation which allows for activity, and which is clearly linked to the emergent properties of a meaning-rich context (Lemke, 1997).

Historically, the situationists’ philosophy is deeply grounded in the work of Dewey, Vygotsky, and Gibson all of whom to some extent approached the study of cognition from an ecological perspective. Of course, a complete analysis of their contributions is beyond the scope of this work. It suffices, however, to identify some general propositions that clearly create the infrastructure for a theory of situated cognition.

John Dewey was an American philosopher and educator whose work has had a tremendous impact on progressive education as a whole. Dewey abandoned authoritarian approaches to teaching and embraced a more democratic method of education. His theory of knowledge characterized as instrumentalist and related to pragmatism advanced the idea that in order to study learning, one must consider the context in the social world where learning occurs. He defined education as a nurturing, cultivating process where mature members of a social group accommodate newer members through specific, social interaction. The environment or "medium" sets up those ambient factors that encourage or hamper the development of human beings (Dewey, 1916). The environment can be characterized as much more than what surrounds an individual; Dewey includes anything in the environment that denotes a specific continuity that initiates an individual’s participation in a social activity. For example, to a filmmaker a camera would be an intimate part of the environment or "medium" because it sets up the conditions for filmmaking and allows for the activity to take place. Consequently, the environment encompasses all of those things that significantly shape activity. Dewey goes further to characterize the social environment as encompassing all those other human participants who are associated with the individual and whose expectations, demands, endorsement or condemnation of action frame the social situation. After all, no one can be engaged in an activity without taking into account the connection with the activity of others. This connection is fundamental to the understanding of the social environment because an individual’s actions will always be interrelated in meaningful ways to all others within the social medium. It would be difficult, for instance, to imagine the purpose of producing a film or any other activity, for that matter, in total isolation, that is, void of motivation, actors, co-participants and eventual audience. The activity would be meaningless even to the producer. However, the social environment cannot, according to Dewey, implant into the individual modes of actions directly, but rather it sets up the conditions, which animate visible methods of proceeding and allow the individual membership in a community. Once membership is established, the individual becomes cognizant of the emotional attitudes, beliefs, tools, goals of the group and pretty much begins to share the same supply of knowledge that the group possesses. Accordingly, this shared experience forms an emotional tendency to motivate individual behavior in such a way that it creates purposeful activity evoking certain meaningful outcomes. Prawat (1995) refers to this shared experience as ‘idea-based, social constructivism’, learners are engaged in discourse communities where they can come up with and apply functional ideas.

Vygotsky (1978) states, "Every function of the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals." (p. 57). Again, there is an emphasis here that the environment plays a constitutive role in the development of the individual. Vygotsky was also noted for originating the concept that cognitive growth is restricted within a ‘zone of proximal development’. For instance, the zone is somewhere in between what the individual can accomplish with the help of mature members of a community and what can be accomplished alone. Vygotsky determined that the range of skills that are advanced within a social group greatly exceed what can be attained as an individual. Changes in social situations directly trigger the development of human personality. Like Dewey, the social activity, the interaction of co-participants in authentic situations, the media used, all lead to cognitive growth. Vygotsky’s theory is an attempt to explain consciousness as the end product of socialization. First and foremost, we learn within a community of practice; eventually, these skills are internalized within the individual.

Gibson’s work on perception also forms a theoretical reservoir for situated cognition theory. His theory of ‘information pickup’ suggests that perception is entirely dependent upon an interaction between an agent and the environment. Gibson proposes that the environment consists of affordances, that is, properties that supply necessary cues for perception (water, vegetation, terrain). Moreover, the ambient array includes invariants (shadows, texture, color etc.), which play a crucial role in perception. Based on Gestalt theories, Gibson emphasizes the significance of stimuli organization and relationship to the environment. He criticizes earlier theories that do not take into account that perception is an active process. He makes the point that people perceive through the eyes, but those eyes are in a head, which is attached to a body that has locomotion. As such, the agent moves across an environment and picks up information through situated action that the environment affords. These affordances are necessary to perceive because they offer possibility for benefit or injury. For example, water may provide relief from thirst; the possibility to bathe etc., but it may also afford the possibility for drowning. Like Dewey before him, water (in this situation) is an intimate part of the environment and must be perceived. Accordingly, affordances also offer constraints and limit the individual in a variety of ways. Even if the environment is purposely altered, the individual remains somehow tied to the situation (Gibson, 1979). Hence, Gibson’s thesis also proposes that we cannot study an individual outside of the environment. The agent and situation are complementary to each other.

Greeno (1994) explores Gibson’s affordances and points out that cognitive processes are really interactions between an agent and another system. However, in any analysis of interaction, one must consider those conditions which can be ascribed to the agent, and those conditions which can be ascribed to the environment. In this sense, it is clear that an environment that both expands and limits situational possibility sustains cognitive activity. Alternatively, abilities are qualities that are characteristic of the agent but can be clarified only in relational terms. Greeno gives the example of a sentence whose meaning is relational to situations, that is, the situation in which the sentence is spoken and the ‘meaning-creating’ situation brought about by speaking the sentence. Activity can also be scrutinized by the analysis of interaction as calibrated by the concept of ‘attunement to constraints’. Here, the author gives the example of steering a car. The driver is attuned to the constraints of the direction of the car moving forward and the force applied to the wheel in order to steer the auto in a certain direction. This ecological perspective focuses on the relational behavior of the agent with systems in the environment and is consistent with Gibson’s view, which proposes that affordances are preconditions for activity.

Finally, Lemke (1997) echoes the all-important-notion that eco-social system models cannot be explored through the analysis of primary components (i.e., people, media, objects etc.) but rather by studying processes and practices. Components such as people, technology, personal identities etc. are really only properties of a situation, which is part of a larger community. They cannot be severed from the situational activity as they can only be considered constructions of continuity along developmental trajectories of activity. Therefore, they must be defined within their participation in a situation, which shapes and creates meaning. While it may be impossible to provide authentic situations within an educational setting, it is feasible to generate cognitive apprenticeship models.

Cognitive Apprenticeship Models & the Relevance Of Media

Many proponents of situation cognition theory have suggested cognitive apprenticeship models as alternatives to impotent teaching methods, which produce inert knowledge and currently permeate much of the educational system. Cognitive apprenticeships are the academic and theoretical offspring of real world counterparts – that is, apprenticeship practices observed in ethnographic research. According to Lave & Wenger (1990), apprenticeships begin with the notion that all learning and knowledge, for that matter, is defined relative to context. Learning occurs in a participatory environment, within communities of practice and cannot be scrutinized as a self-contained structure. An apprentice gains access to a community’s knowledge base by increased participation in productive activities. This participation deals with the actual tasks performed by practitioners, rather than abstraction of that performance. Under attenuated conditions, the learner is involved in what the authors call, ‘legitimate peripheral participation’. Branching from Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’, this concept sees the newcomer as absorbing (learning) and as being absorbed by a community of practice. At first, the apprentice’s participation may be limited to observation of the master’s performance and finished products. The apprentice augments partaking in the activity by assuming, at first, simple or subtasks. The master calibrates the newcomer’s performance by offering support, which will be eventually eliminated as the learner becomes more adept. This support offers a bridge between present and future task components that may be too difficult for the apprentice to undertake alone (Rogoff & Gardner, 1984). Moreover, throughout this process, the novice employs any essential tool that is necessary or congenital to the situational task. Any technology employed by a community in an on-going practice is consequential not only because it allows for task manipulation and completion but also because it emerges from that group as integral part of their heritage. For example, lighting equipment is an essential aspect of filmmaking since it allows negatives to be exposed to light under controlled conditions; as such, the development of lighting equipment has historical roots and is intrinsic to the negotiated meaning arrived at by the filmmaking community over a period of time. The same can be said of any technology including print, which through time has been digitally processed and altered by the use of word processors and visual displays. While the apprentice becomes aware of this meaning, the artifact is eventually made invisible by the practice situation. This notion deals with the often-misunderstood term, ‘transparency’. Lave & Wenger (1990) offer an analogy here that is of some use. A window in a room allows the viewer to see a variety things and happenings in the outside world while the window itself remains fairly invisible; that is the viewer does not reflect on the object of the window. On the other hand, the salient features of the window as compared to a solid wall ensure the window’s visibility. The authors explain, "Invisibility of mediating technologies is necessary for allowing focus on, and thus supporting visibility of, the subject matter. Conversely, visibility of the significance of the technology is necessary for allowing for its unproblematic – invisible – use" (p. 103). For example, when writing using a word processor, the user is not consciously thinking about the technology that is being employed unless the computer fails. The interchange between visibility and invisibility of mediating technologies is an important factor in the analysis of learning in practice and media studies. Cognitive apprenticeship models persistently incorporate media tools as inherent to their social context. On the other hand, isolation of technology will inevitably lead to idolization of artifacts and will make task completion problematical because tool usage will not be self-explanatory as it is when it is tied to context. Much of today's cerebral love making with the machine is a direct result of this situation.

Media as Artifacts Embedded in the Environment

Looking at the media and their effect on learning from a situated cognition perspective alters the debate and propels the researcher to design studies which will be diametrically different from past research. In this light, the media can be described and attain relevance as artifacts embedded and diffused within a context, a community and a practice and an essential part of that environment. Media, in this sense, are significant not only because they allow for task completion, but also because they become fundamental in the learning practice. When the media are considered environmental artifacts, they provide affordances (expand or limit learning possibilities) in unique ways between the agent and the environment. It is the essence of these interactions that needs to be the focus of future media studies. For instance, what occurs cognitively and socially when learners interact with a particular medium, rather than, what effect does this particular medium attribute have on passive learners? Salomon, Perkins, & Globerson, (1991) coined the term 'cognitive residue' a reference to a byproduct effect of learners interacting with media. Kozma (1994) talks about reframing the debate. He suggests that future studies attempt to understand the media's relationship to learning rather than its effects on learning. For instance, we must consider the interaction between cognitive processes and the characteristics of the external environment that incorporated the media. He provides two examples of cognitive apprenticeship models where the media has been woven seamlessly into a learning situation, Thinker Tools (White, 1993), and the Jasper Woodbury Series (Cognition & Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1990, 1993). Kozma declares that it is time that we stop thinking about the surface features of technologies and attempt to discern their underlying structures which interact with cognitive and social processes. He reasons that learning with media can be thought of as "a complementary process within which representations are constructed and procedures performed, sometimes by the learner and sometimes by the medium" (p. 11).

Jonassen, Campbell & Daidson (1994), also believe that the time has come to stop debating the wrong issues. Research should be based on the role of the learner working within a collaborative and meaning-rich context and not on the effects of mediated instruction. Learning is dependent on the environmental situation. Therefore, the learner is affected by the practice, technology and experiences gained within a context. This is how knowledge is constructed. In this scenario, the media play a supporting rather than controlling role. Again, like Greeno, these authors believe that knowledge is distributed between learners, community, activity, and the tools (media) they use in order to accomplish their tasks. They refer to the media as phenomenological vehicles, mostly ephemeral in nature, which provide mediated experiences for the learner (these experiences will become even more complete with future development of virtual realities).


The fact that media exist as artifacts within an environment and are manipulated within a context does not mean that they are simple vehicles delivering content 'groceries'. The media are neither neutral, nor bias free. In fact, media are constructions, laden with symbols and often transmitting their own messages (McLuhan, 1966). These messages clearly affect the user as indicated by psychological analyses. Unfortunately, reductionistic studies, which attempt to identify media attributes in order to show causal links to learning, have been ineffectual. For over thirty years, this type of research has failed to advance knowledge about the relevance of media in education, and from this perspective, Clark is totally justified. However, there is no longer the need to continue the debate. What is needed is the will to move forward and to try to develop research designs, which will explore distributed cognition models in order to better understand media/agent interaction. The fact is that learning and education occur under complex, social conditions. These conditions are rudimentary, messy and fuzzy, and do not easily lend themselves to traditional, experimental designs. As such, the media only exist as artifacts holding historic and negotiated significance within a particular context. Constructivist approaches to cognition and naturalistic, qualitative analysis may be better suited for the study of complex, social and machine interaction.

This paper advanced the notion that a paradigm shift might be needed away from traditional, cognitive approaches and research methods toward a new theory of learning and broader research models. Situated cognition theory has shed new light on the way people learn and the way they interact with the environment and accordingly, with the artifacts of that environment, the media.


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