Marshall McLuhan as Educationist, Part 6: Shift Happens



This is an excerpt from a copyright article of the same title published by me, Alex Kuskis, in (2011) Explorations in Media Ecology, 10(3&4), pp. 313-333. This is Part 6 and additional excerpts from this essay will be published in future postings.

5. Shift of Educational Emphasis from Hardware to Software

By hardware McLuhan meant things like buildings, campuses, classrooms, books. By software he meant the “soft side” of education: pedagogy, curricula and content, not just in books, but also on TV, film, computers and other media. He wrote that: “The present educational arrangements are … hardware, inherited from earlier centuries….You live unconsciously in a new environment of electric ‘software’ or information” (McLuhan, 1968, pp. 51-52). One possible reason for the survival of the lecture is that schools and campuses are equipped with lecture halls and classrooms are outfitted with lecterns and blackboards. These legacy spatial arrangements are not mere containers, but are “constitutive”, influencing and shaping what goes on within them. McLuhan anticipated and encouraged moving away from education being limited by such legacy hardware systems  toward the incorporation of TV, films and other media, along with a reform of curriculum.

6. A Redefinition of Teacher Roles

McLuhan thought that teachers (and some parents to an extent) still lived mentally in a nineteenth century world; they were: “… still civilized people who belong to the old visual culture”, that is, the print culture of books, newspapers  and magazines (McLuhan, 1972, p. 525). That print culture assigned teachers to  roles as transmitters of knowledge through classroom instruction (“chalk-and-talk”), lectures, demonstrations, textbook reading assignments, assigned homework, and examinations in a teacher-centred, as opposed to learner-centred system. Teacher’s roles needed to be redefined because of the new electronic media environment; today this redefinition of teachers is sometimes described as a shift from being a “sage on stage” to a “guide on the side”: guiding, leading & supporting learners, but not didactically pushing content or teaching to the test. Teachers would guide students with a discovery learning/collaborative project approach: “… teacher can go from team to team, giving direct help… as needed, focusing his or her attention on the aptitudes & difficulties of individuals, & performing the teacher’s essential function of charting the course of student’s explorations” (City as Classroom Teacher’s Guide, 1977b).

7. Elimination of Subjects and/or Interdisciplinarity

McLuhan endorsed interdisciplinarity at the university level especially, the incorporation and juxtaposition of knowledge from multiple disciplines. He argued that the taxonimization of knowledge into separate subjects and separate academic departments resulted in organizational silos which inhibited new knowledge emergence. He wrote: Specialization won’t work any more as a means of learning. The only technique today for obtaining depth is by interrelating knowledge …. When a man attempts to study anything, he crosses the boundaries of that field almost as soon as he begins to look at it” (McLuhan, 1966).

8. The Use of Instructional Media, Not Just Books

The book-dominated educational world must also embrace TV, films, records, audio tapes, video, and other media, collectively known as instructional media. “In the future basic skills will no longer be taught in classrooms. They can be taught by gramophone records or by tape records or video tape playback machines. When video tape becomes available to the ordinary household as it will shortly, there will be a revolution in education” (McLuhan, 1966, p. 38). The instructional technologies McLuhan mentions have mostly changed now, but he would have advocated the use of today’s new digital media, rejecting “the old sterile system where education begins and ends in a book” (McLuhan, 1969a). He also predicted the Internet and its use as a learning platform: “A worldwide network of computers will make all of mankind’s factual knowledge available to students everywhere in a matter of minutes or seconds” (McLuhan & Leonard, 1967, p. 24). That he would have insisted upon the Internet’s use in education is clear from his insistence that: “education must always concentrate its resources at the point of major information intake.” (McLuhan, 1955)

9. Reform of Assessment

Marshall McLuhan insisted that school grading, based on competition, is useless: “… our whole system of grading is useless in the schools…. if you live in a community where the information levels are very high – [from electronic media] – then the idea that you should use your school system as a means of eliminating half or three quarters of the community from higher education is ludicrous” (McLuhan, 1966, p. 39).


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