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Theories on the Impact of Instructional Media


Theories on the Impact of Instructional Media

Stephanie Stone

University of West Georgia

Theories on the Impact of Instructional Media


Instructional media are the elements that comprise the implementation of instruction. These tools

and physical materials are used as aids to increase student understanding and achievement. The pieces of

instructional media used in todays classrooms vary greatly from the ones that were relied on by educators

just twenty years ago. Chalkboards have given way to white boards, overhead projectors have been

replaced by LCDs, dittos and handouts have been substituted for online dropboxes and discussion boards,

and lectures have given way to video conferencing. There is no question that technology has made giant

strides over the past few decades and the fact that these innovations are now being routinely used in

classrooms seems like a natural progression of events. The true question is does instructional media

really impact student success. Did the chalkboards and textbooks used by teachers fifty years ago play an

integral role in student learning? Do the online learning modules and interactive lessons todays educators

are using have a direct impact on achievement? These questions arent in their infancy; in fact, this very

question about the medias influence on learning has been asked for years. In the 1960s, Canadian

philosopher, Marshall MCluhan asserted that the medium is the message and that the effect of the

media is supremely more important than the content it delivers (McCluhan, 1964, p. 1). Little did

McCluhan know that these words would spark one of the most influencial and on-going debates in

educational philosophy. Decades after McCluhans assertion, Richard E. Clark and Richard Kozma

areflected on the role instructional media plays in student learning and achievement; the two educational

psychologists came up with vastly different answers. More than thirty years later, the Clark-Kozma

debate is still being explored by educational professionals and in todays media-driven, highly

technologically astute society, the findings of Clark and Kozma have the ability to drastically impact how

teachers teach and students learn.

Theories on the Impact of Instructional Media

Theories on the Impact of Instructional Media

In 1983, Richard E. Clark published his article Reconsidering Research on Learning from

Media in the Review of Educational Research. At this time, computers were just beginning to be utilized

in formal education settings, Microsoft Word was first released, and 8.2 percent of the American

population owned a home computer (Kominski, 1998, p.3-5). Even though this technology was relatively

new, many other types of instructional media had been used in education for years. Many advocated for

integrating the new computer technology further into educating students. Clark wrote his article in

response to those supporting the use of computers in the classroom and concluded, much to the dismay of

techies, that media, new or old, does not influence learning; it only adds to the cost of education. The

most recognized analogy used in his piece is his delivery truck comparison. Clark states that classroom

media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence achievement any more than the

truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition (Clark, 1983, p.2). He argues that the

strategies and methods utilized by the instructor by play a much more integral role in real-time learning

than does the media utilized. Clark ascertains that technology and/or instructional media is no match for

a good teacher. The medium isnt nearly as important as the method, and a teacher can be just as effective

without the use of any extraneous media. Clarks philosophy is rooted in the idea that technology cant

ensure learning (Melon, 1999, p.1).

Richard Kozma reviewed Clarks arguments, and in 1991, designed a claim of his own. In the

eight years since Clark published his piece, the world of technology had exploded and by the early 90s

forty-six percent of students were using computers at school and/or at home. The World Wide Web made

its debut, and the Internet became available to the world. Kozma vehemently disagreed with Clarks

assertions about the impact of media, and suggested that media does have the ability to influence learners

because it enables reciprocal interaction between the content and the learner. Media excites the learner in

a way that a human being cant. Kozma didnt devalue the notion that teachers are important; in contrast,
Theories on the Impact of Instructional Media

his theory lies in the premise that if good teachers use effective tools, learning can be taken to a much

higher level. Kozmas perspective is if media are a means of communication, facilitating the expression

and exchange of ideas between individuals (Westera, 2015, p.20) then it should play a pivotal role in


While there is no clear cut answer to the questions being asked, Kozmas findings are supported

by two prominent theories on cognitive abilities. In 1988, educational psychologist John Sweller proposed

the Cognitive Load Theory. Sweller suggested that all learners have a working memory load that is a

capacity for what can be retained at one time for later recall. His theory is based on the idea that the

working memory load of learners can be reduced when information is presented in the correct form

(visual / spatial, auditory), and this increases the understanding of the information and the retention for

later application. Sweller would undoubtedly have sided with Kozmas theory on the influence media has

on a learner. The use of media in the classroom allows instructors to refine how information is

transmitted. Some information lends itself to verbal presentation such as reading a book out loud, but,

according to Sweller, some information lends itself to a spatial or visual presentation in order to be fully

understood. A prime example Sweller gives is teaching the concept of shapes. If students see a picture of

a square, they are more likely to understand the concept of the four equal sides than if a teacher simply

explains that a square is made up of four lines that intersect with two right angles. Media plays a huge

role in the teachers ability to present information spatially. In the past educational media were

nonelectric educational aids, such as papyrus paper, quill pens, and the blackboard and chalk (Westera,

2015, p.19). Most classrooms today are equipped with LCD projectors, many students have laptops or

iPads, and teachers are consistently relying on visual software to hone in and refine students

understanding of a concept. Regardless of the media being used, they all are directly linked with human


A similar supporting theory of cognition came about in 2001 and was presented by Richard

Mayer, professor of Psychology. Mayer, like Sweller, confirmed that the brain stores new information in
Theories on the Impact of Instructional Media

the working memory and that there is a definite capacity to how much information can be stored there.

He suggests that in order to move information from short term working memory to long-term memory for

later application, learners need information to be presented both through images and words. Through his

extensive research, Mayer concluded that the spoken word alone does not promote learning. When

students are presented with visual images that coincide with verbal cues, learning is maximized. Todays

instructional media fulfills this need for visualization that helps extend learning. Incorporating video

clips into the learning experience, having students make their own movies, and creating presentations that

show their mastery of content all coincide with Mayers theory. It would seem that Mayers cognitive

theory of multimedia learning all but debunks Clarks argument that the teacher is the sole vehicle for

learning. If images and text can create a better learning experience, why is the teacher even needed?

Mayer does offer up one important caveat - personal, relevant examples in conjunction with images

increases the potential for learning even more. Instructional media, though advanced, does not have the

same abilities as a teacher when it comes to tapping into, and activating prior knowledge and experiences.

Maybe Clark and Kozma were both right.

Thus, the debate continues, and with the continuation of the conversation, technology and media

have evolved and play a much more central role in the lives of modern society. Todays classrooms are

comprised of Digital Natives, students that have no knowledge of a world without the Internet,

computers, or social media. Despite the modern reliance on technology, there is still no clear cut answer

as to who was right: Clark or Kozma. Since the world isnt likely to devolve, isnt the better option to

ascertain how were each of them correct? No one is going to undervalue the effectiveness of a great

teacher. The teacher is the vehicle that delivers students to a level of mastery. It goes without saying

that the teacher is the single greatest contributing factor to student success. On that point, Clark was

correct. But what if Kozma had it right too? Media excites, and engages students and once they are

excited and engaged, they are motivated to become active learners. Robert Reiser, professor at Florida

State University, puts it succinctly when he refers back to Clarks truck analogy and asserts that the
Theories on the Impact of Instructional Media

successful delivery of frozen foods requires the use of a vehicle with refrigeration (Reiser, 1994, p. 45).

Refrigeration makes conditions more conducive to prompt delivery of fresh goods. Its not absolutely

essential, but it sure does make arriving at the goal more likely. This is the role media plays in todays

classrooms. Good teachers can effectively teach without media, but why would they when the use of

instructional media increases the likelihood that students will reach their end goal and maximize their

potential. Students in classrooms today are going to be expected to master the media they face out in the

real world; teachers are doing a disservice if they dont expose them to these differing forms of media and

teach them how to think critically about their effectiveness, and credibility. The key is to use the

medium with purpose. Integrating instructional media into learning without a clear, practical objective

may prove a detriment to student success. In her article titled Technology and the Great Pendulum of

Education, Constance Mellon sums up the arguments of both Clark and Kozma: For technology-based

learning to be effective, teachers must select materials that help meet carefully defined instructional

objectives and integrate them into learning experiences that motivate and excite learners. The most

productive learning environment embraces the ideas of both Kozma and Clark.
Theories on the Impact of Instructional Media


Blayney, P., Kalyuga, S., & Sweller, J. (2015). Using Cognitive Load Theory to Tailor Instruction

to Levels of Accounting Students' Expertise. Journal Of Educational Technology &

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Clark, R. E. (1994). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research &

Development, 42(2), 21.

Kominski, R. M. (1988, March). Computer Use in the United States 1983. Retrieved October 18,

2015, from

Kominski, R. M. (1993, April). Computer Use in the United States 1991. Retrieved October 18,

2015, from

Kozma, R. B. (1994). Will media influence learning? Reframing the debate. Educational

Technology Research & Development,42(2), 7.

Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia learning. Retrieved October 19, 2015, from

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Retrieved October 19, 2015,


Mellon, C. A. (1999). Technology and the great pendulum of education. Journal Of Research On

Computing In Education, 32(1), 28.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. In On the Horizon (5th ed., Vol. 9).

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Reiser, R. A. (1994). Clark's invitation to the dance: An instructional designer's

response. Educational Technology Research & Development, 42(2), 45.

Theories on the Impact of Instructional Media


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