100% Team Clark: Media will never directly influence learning

Trying to tell a group of educators who are studying educational technology that media does not influence learning is almost guaranteed to bring out the pitchforks. If media has no influence, then what is the point of our entire degree?

The weird thing is, after reading arguments on both sides of the Clark vs. Kozma debate, I’m 100% Team Clark. Media has no influence.

The Clark vs. Kozma debate

The Clark vs. Kozma debate is a rather infamous debate about media use in educational settings, and its impact on learning. The debate dates back to the 1980s (a time when technology was quite different than it is today!), but still remains relevant.

Clark’s argument is that media does not directly influence learning. As a result of using a certain type of media, students will not learn more, better, or faster. His argument is supported by research, which has continuously found no significant difference between different media or mediums. At the core of Clark’s argument is the idea that “if learning occurs as a result of exposure to any media, the learning is caused by the instructional method embedded in the media presentation,” and not by the media presentation itself. He draws a hard line between the method and the medium, differentiating the two.

Kozma, on the other hand, argues with a more future-focused approach, saying that “perhaps the appropriate question is not do but will media influence learning.” Perhaps we just haven’t yet made the relationship between media and learning, but it’s still out there waiting to be found. Kozma also argues that “Clark’s separation of media from method creates an unnecessary and undesirable schism between the two.” He argues it is necessary to understand how learners interact with and learn from media, and how it differs from other forms of media (i.e video vs. text).

My basis for choosing Clark

As much as I’d love to be able to argue that media is a magical maker of learning, and as nice as some of Kozma’s ideas sound, I have a really hard time arguing with “no significant difference.” Study after study after study, even as technology has improved, has found no significant difference when an instructional method was delivered via media vs. non-media.

Even Kozma’s examples didn’t help win me over, but actually supported Clark’s argument. As Clark pointed out, both the ThinkerTools and Jasper projects were not evaluated in comparison to non-media deliveries using the same instructional methods. The ThinkerTools projects seems to be an inquiry-based method of instruction delivered using technology; when you compare the results of the project to traditional instruction, there is no way of determining whether differences in learning are due to the inquiry-based method, or due to the technology. Similarly, in the Jasper project, the experimental group “received guidance in solving problems as they related to the problem context,” while the control group simply received instruction in solving word problems. Again, how can we say any differences between the two groups are due to media when the teaching and instruction itself was different?

While the tech-loving part of me wants to side with Kozma and believe that maybe we just haven’t found the relationship between media and learning yet, the logical part of me keeps equating this future-based argument with the Oak Island Treasure Hunt. Legend has it that there is treasure buried on Oak Island, and beginning in the 19th century, numerous people have attempted to find the treasure, to no avail. Continuing to search for a treasure when there’s no proof that any exists seems like a waste; continuing to search for a link between media and learning, when there is no indication that one exists, may also be a waste.

The likely reason Clark won me over

A large part of the reason I’m Team Clark is due to the fact that his arguments line up well with one of my biggest pet peeves in educational technology- our inclination to become overly fascinated with tools.

I see people getting excited about technology all the time.

“If we put our schedule of events in an app, surely students will show up!”

“Asking our students to submit a video of a tour stop using this fancy platform will result in them delivering better campus tours!”

“Let’s create an online version of the workshop!”


We have unrealistic visions of what technology and media can accomplish. We allow technology (and technology companies) to convince us that their products will help us to achieve learning outcomes without asking too many questions. And then we forget about pedagogy and best practice and all the other teaching tactics that we know.

This is where I can see the most value in Clark’s argument. In a world that often seems to have forgotten how to think critically when it comes to media and technology, Clark is cautioning us to do exactly that. Instead of finding a tech tool that can do something interesting, and then trying to find a use for it in our classrooms, he’s asking us to identify the problems that we have, and then look for applicable solutions, media-related or not. He’s asking us to think about whether media has a positive or negative effect on cost, on efficiency, on access. He’s asking us to think.

Media still has a use in the classroom

I think people get up-in-arms about Clark because they perceive him as being anti-technology, but I don’t see it that way at all. Clark’s argument is that the use of media itself doesn’t improve learning; that’s not the same thing as arguing that media is useless and should never be used in a classroom. Media and technology can most certainly be beneficial in a classroom; it can provide access and opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be available, due to cost, location, expertise, and a number of other factors. Teaching surgeons using virtual reality, for example, allows medical students to learn without the need for cadavers or human patients, and with reduced risk. In this situation, media is obviously beneficial.

More and more, as technology advances and media becomes more mature, media allows us to do things in teaching that we wouldn’t have dreamed of being able to do 20 years ago. We can take students to far away places using virtual reality, we can personalize learning, we can quickly pull up a video to show a demonstration of a concept. Media continues to allow us to incorporate instructional methods into our teaching that may have been costly, labour-intensive, or simply impossible several years ago. Media is undoubtedly important in the 21st century classroom.

But it’s still the method that is the most important, not the media itself.

The question of motivation

One of the questions I had throughout reading Clark’s argument was that of the role of motivation. The more interested and engaged students are, the more likely they are to learn. And it often seems like students are more interested when we are using media and technology. This was one of the big considerations we had when designing our online pre-arrival program; all of our activities had to teach some sort of lesson and achieve an outcome, but they also had to be engaging enough to convince students to continue on with the optional program.

When it comes right down to it though, students generally aren’t motivated or interested in a specific form of educational technology; they get excited because we have introduced something new and different. It’s the new and different that creates the excitement. Clark basically says as much when he writes about how motivation is attributed to “learner’s beliefs and expectations about their reactions to external events- not to external events alone.” Students might get excited when a teacher introduces Kahoot or Mentimeter in the classroom, but if every lesson was delivered using that technology, we’d see the excitement fade real fast.

My present-day example

While reading Clark’s argument, I kept trying to come up with examples from my own use of media in teaching to prove him wrong. I was unsuccessful, and only succeeded in cementing my agreement.

I have used Kahoot, a quiz-style game-based app, in the past to help students learn about campus resources. I have also created and used a paper-based version of Taboo to help students learn about campus resources. While I wasn’t conducting a study or even any sort of test between these two scenarios, I have no reason to believe that Kahoot was more effective than Taboo.

I also kept thinking about my online pre-arrival program. The entire program is media- and technology-based. What was the point of spending all those hours developing videos and interactive scenarios if media doesn’t influence learning? But the point was exactly what I’ve been arguing this entire post; since we were delivering the program online, using media the way that we did was the only way to deliver content using the methods we were interested in using. We didn’t use media because we thought the media itself would lead to greater achievement of learning outcomes. We used media because it was the only way we had, via our online platform, to deliver content using a scenario-based approach. It’s the scenario-based approach that led to effective learning, not the Storyline software itself.


I’m a believer in evidence-based practice, so when “no significant difference” comes up again and again in media-based research, I have to believe that there is, in fact, no significant difference. Media is not the saviour of education- but it still has a large and important role to play.

Featured image by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

Nicole Crozier

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