“The Medium is the Message”: An Instructional Design Perspective

mobile learning instructional design

Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan famously argued that “the medium is the message.” According to McLuhan, we focus too much of our efforts trying to dissect the content presented in a medium without considering the effect that the medium itself will have on that content. Content and mediums have a symbiotic relationship, and one shouldn’t be examined without consideration of the other. (I’m pretty sure I got this right, but Woody Allen can correct me if I’m wrong.)

This may sound like the musings of a recovering academic, but McLuhan’s insights into modern media have important implications for instructional design. The heart of this argument is distilled and applied to an instructional design context in Brenda EndersManager’s Guide to Mobile Learning. Throughout her book, Enders emphasizes to her audience that mobile learning isn’t simply taking content made for one medium and cramming it into another medium. That is, managers shouldn’t expect their instructional designers to take pre-existing content from one form of training and slap it into another form of training that can be accessed through the learners’ phones.

mobile learning instructional design

I see this all the time. People want to take the PowerPoint presentations that their trainers use, dump them into a SCORM, and call it an online class. Their intentions are pure: they want to democratize access to their content by putting the same content they use for their live training online. But, as Enders rightly points out, “Mobile learning is not about a new form factor for delivering content.” The way you convey content matters and affects the learners’ experiences.

For example, PowerPoints do not leverage the advantages of using a cell phone or a tablet to access a mobile learning course because they were not intended to be used in that way. PowerPoint assumes a linear dissemination of information from a speaker to a wide audience at one set time. The speaker controls the flow and ordering of the information. That information is not personalized for each individual member of the audience; it is intended to be broad, and individual audience member’s questions can be addressed at the end of the presentation.

See the problem here? In my experience, the majority of companies want their learners to be able to access their content asynchronously, or on their own time without consideration of other people’s schedules. Many companies also want their learners to be able to access the content in whatever order most interests the learner (and for good reason: this is a basic tenant of adult education theory.) PowerPoint is simply not built to address either of these concerns. It was built as a tool to help a speaker address a wide audience at a given time in a linear format. So while companies may want to present their online learners with the same content they present in their live training, it’s important for them to realize that simply putting those PowerPoints online or into a SCORM isn’t going to help their learners master the content.

So if you’re not feeling up to tackling academic media studies theories from the 1960s, I’d recommend checking out Enders’ Manager’s Guide to Mobile Learning for practical advice about picking the right medium for delivering your content.


Interested in learning more about creating and implementing mobile learning strategies? Join us for our March webinar, “Mobile Learning: A Practical Strategy.” The webinar will feature Brenda Enders and held on March 28 from 11:30-12:30pm CT.  Register today!

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