These days the media theorist Marshall McLuhan has been all but forgotten, yet his ideas remain more important now than ever. He came up with the concept of the global village and anticipated the world wide web decades before it came into existence. He focused on the means of communication in a society, and how the prevailing medium in any given period profoundly influenced that society’s culture. While human societies started out with the spoken word, and were thus oral, we have since gone through the literate age, the print age and now, the electronic age.
If we could sum up McLuhan’s thought in a single pithy statement, it’s that the medium is the message. In other words, watching a video is an entirely different experience from reading a text, even if the ideas they contain are exactly the same. Marshall McLuhan said the following:
“It is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium”.
McLuhan’s point is that different media affect us in radically different ways. And yet in this increasingly media-saturated world we go about our lives consuming information as if all media were created equal. Today we’re going to explore this insight which we ignore at our peril. If you do something at your peril what you intend to do is dangerous or could cause you problems. And if you tell someone that they ignore something at their peril you’re warning them that they need to know something to avoid a danger or risk.
My colleague Luiz Otavio Barros recently shared a fascinating article by the linguistics professor Naomi S. Baron entitled “Why do we remember more by reading in print vs. on a screen?”. As the title suggests, reading a physical book rather than on a screen is a superior experience if we actually want to recall what we’ve read.
Baron points out that in recent years teachers have started to replace required readings on university courses with video content. She mentions a study she carried out with American and Norwegian university professors in 2019. It turns out almost a third of American professors were replacing readings with videos and 15% were replacing readings with audio, presumably using recordings like podcasts. The study revealed that videos and podcasts are perceived as more engaging than reading and that university students were in fact refusing to do assigned readings.
This came as no surprise to me because I have been increasingly reluctant to assign reading to my students. I remember the odd time I asked my Proficiency students, that is C2 level EFL students, to read articles from the New Yorker, which typically run to 8 pages, and they balked at this. If you balk at something you show that you don’t want to do it because it’s difficult or unpleasant.
So instead of extended reading, I started assigning podcasts for homework. After reading about this research I’m tempted to go back to assigning more reading. But will students, and for that matter schools and universities, balk at having to buy books when there’s so much free content online? Here are some of the reasons why reading the printed word is better than reading the same content on a screen or watching a video. Those who read printed text are more likely to be able to identify the main idea, draw inferences from the text, that is, reach conclusions that are not explicitly stated, and remember specific details. What’s more, readers of a printed text are more likely to reread important passages and annotate the text.
Finally, reading researchers have come up with the so-called “shallowing hypothesis”. Shallow is the opposite of deep, so here it refers to how digital media encourage a superficial approach to information. Apparently we associate the digital environment with a different mindset. Because we associate screens with entertainment, we don’t concentrate with the same intensity when reading on a screen or watching an educational video.
Naomi S. Baron concludes her article with the following statement:
“Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximising learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn’t assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.”
Now, I’ve realised that it’s kind of funny that I’m telling you on a podcast that the printed word, specifically printed on paper, is the superior medium for learning. The irony isn’t lost on me. That is, I realise it’s ironic. The thing is, I think that by being aware of the limitations of different media we can come up with strategies for making up for them.
My first recommendation is to pay attention to being overly casual with your information intake. Two weeks ago in my episode entitled “Navigating the content tsunami” I urged you not to mix the trivial and the transformative. If there are certain podcasts or videos that you listen to for personal or professional development, you need to consciously cultivate a different mindset to increase your chances of actually learning. Keeping a journal to reflect on what you’re learning in what’s called a commonplace book is one way. Another way is to listen or watch multiple times. This podcast is pretty short which means it’s feasible to listen to it twice.
Perhaps more importantly, make sure that digital media aren’t crowding out your reading habit, specifically your reading of physical books. If you crowd something out, you force it out of a place or situation because there’s no room left for it. Don’t try and stop watching YouTube videos and listening to podcasts, but do make sure to leave time for reading physical books too.
Now, before we go over today’s vocabulary here’s a brief message from our sponsor… that is, me!
If you’re an English teacher whose first language isn’t English you might be interested in my new membership EthosEnglishLab.
In addition to self-study materials to help you improve your English and become more creative in your teaching, there will be twice-monthly online workshops for you to gather with other like-minded teachers to have in-depth discussions about texts we’ve read and podcasts we’ve listened to.
I hosted my first workshop yesterday and it was inspiring. We had participants from Brazil, Spain, Italy, Poland, Serbia, Hungary and Iran. I’ll be hosting two more free events in June before the membership is officially launched on the first of July. By subscribing to my newsletter you’ll be informed of these free events and about the membership.
To conclude, let’s look at this week’s vocabulary.
all but: almost completely
Britain’s coal industry has all but disappeared.
prevailing: existing at a particular time and place or the most common and influential
The prevailing attitude among European nations was that the First World War would be short-lived.
pithy: describes a statement or comment that is brief, clear, concise and forcefully expressive. His pithy remarks during the meeting impressed the board.
ignore something at your peril: This phrase is used to warn someone that if you choose to disregard something, you might face consequences or danger.
Ignore the signs of engine trouble at your peril.
the odd time: Refers to something that happens only occasionally.
While I usually stick to fiction, the odd time I’ll pick up a non-fiction book to broaden my horizons.
run to: This phrasal verb means reach a particular amount.
The damages awarded by the court could run to one billion pounds.
balk at something: To hesitate or be unwilling to accept an idea or undertaking.
Given his fear of heights, he balked at the idea of going skydiving with his friends.
draw inferences from something: reach a conclusion based on the information or evidence provided.
From the data gathered, we can draw inferences about how the economy might perform next year.
shallow: describes something lacking depth, often used metaphorically to indicate superficiality. They had a shallow understanding of the political situation.
Something isn’t lost on you: Means that you understand or appreciate something, often something subtle.
Here I am, a podcaster telling my listeners to stop listening to podcasts. The irony of the situation isn’t lost on me.
crowd something out: To push or force something out, often due to lack of space or competition for resources.
Exotic species can crowd out native plants and disrupt biodiversity.