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Sage on the Screen by Fill Ferster (Preface + Table of Contents)

Table of Contents

  1. Traditional media
  2. Interactive media
  3. Hyper media
  4. Cloud media
  5. Immersive media
  6. Making sense of media for learning


Since the days of Thomas Edison, educators have been trying to use media as a solution to the offset high cost of education. As a child of the 1960s, the hackneyed classroom movies and filmstrips were certainly a welcome relief to the tedium of the typical classroom day, but it’s not clear to me that the knowledge gained was worth the time and expense. The fantasy of leveraging a fixed production cost to reach an unlimited number of consumers is an enticing economic proposition, and it has been repeatedly tried as each new media format has emerged-- radio, television, DVD, and most recently, Internet-based efforts such as the Khan Academy, MOOCs, the immersive learning environments of Second Life, and augmented reality tools.

Even when the technology that available to instructors was limited strictly to reading and writing, there was debate as to whether it should be used. Socrates thought students should not be taught to write, because he believed that writing would diminish their wisdom: “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.” [1]

The Sage on the Screen explores the historical, theoretical, and practical perspectives of using media to teach, by exploring a century of people’s efforts to leverage media that has been wildly successful in entertainment, but less so in education. Thomas Edison predicted in 1913, that “Books will soon be obsolete in our schools,” but we still see more textbooks than movies in the classroom 100 years later than any other form of instructional media.

The overall goal of Sage on the Screen is to explore how various media forms were created, how inter-related these forms were, and what impact they had in education. It is a follow-up to my 2014 book, Teaching Machines: Learning from the intersection of education and technology, which examined the ways teachers have used technology of all kinds to automate their instruction, focused chiefly on mechanical and computerized delivery vehicles.

I explore each media form by offering compelling stories about the people who promoted their use, revealing their motives and hopes at changing education using technology. These efforts will be critically evaluated and common threads extracted so we can learn from over a century of work, in the hope of understanding what was effective and what was not. The focus covers the full range of learning environments, from K-20 through non-institutionally based learning.

The title of this book is a play on the old characterization of the classroom lecturer as the sage on the stage, as opposed to the more constructivist stance of being a guide on the side. The phrase was first used in 1939 in an obscure journal article on ancient pottery found in North Carolina by the archeologist Joe Caldwell saying, “I prefer to be the ‘guide on the side,’ as opposed to the ‘sage on the stage.’ I want my students to know that I am on their side, and I will do whatever I can to help them to learn.” [2] More recently, the educator Allison King has employed it as a rallying cry to introduce more constructivist pedagogy into K-12 classroom teaching.[3]

There is tremendous interest in using media in education, particularly at the college level, because the cost of education has risen beyond affordability for many people. The advent of MOOCs, where star academics make online video lectures available to thousands of students at little or no cost, has caused much attention from the mass media and popular writers including David Brooks and Thomas Friedman.

A look back at the long history of using media in education should prove both compelling and instructional for a reader interested in modern education. This book will explore a broad number of efforts, provide some overarching commentary that such a look can provide, offer some insight into current and future uses of this potentially valuable instructional technology, and present them within an interesting story about people trying to make a difference in education.

Different forms of educational media were influenced by different preceding events and lines of thought, so the narrative does not strictly follow the chronology. The discussion sometimes digresses from the primary chronology to examine these precursors, then returning to the current topic to integrate its impact on the current narrative. A summary of the impact of the genre is discussed at the end of each chapter, with some commentary as to what was and was not successful, and what factors became influences for future projects.

The recounting of the history will be as objective as is possible, but I will make a conscious effort to provide my personal perspective as an educator, designer, and technologist, and make it clear when that voice is used. I have an odd combination of pessimism about previous efforts, coupled with respect for what technology can bring to society when thoughtfully introduced, and hope to impart both perspectives.

How this book is organized

Traditional media looks at the development of media forms such as the motion picture, radio, and television. Roget’s original insight on how we perceive motion laid the groundwork for Muybridge’s quest to capture the motion of horses galloping, which inspired Thomas Edison to successfully develop the first commercially successful motion picture. The motion picture did not revolutionize education the way Thomas Edison had predicted, but it has been popular respite for harried classroom teacher for nearly a century. The broadcast nature of radio and television divorced media from requiring a physical presence in order to be consumed. The ability to produce a lesson once, and distribute it to thousands of students multiple times tugs at educators’ wishes to reduce the cost of traditional classroom instruction.

Interactive Media explores how the addition of rudimentary interactivity helped free the linear traditional media forms of television by adding the ability to play the media from any point, not just start at the beginning and stop at the end. A number of short-lived innovations, such as videodiscs, opened that pathway to more effective uses of instructional media, especially when coupled with a personal computer guiding that random accessibility.

Hyper Media examines how the ideas hinted in Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article in the Atlantic Monthly inspired Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson, and Bill Atkinson to develop systems that could navigate a learner through abstract information spaces. Apple’s HyperCard made it easy to develop media that took full advantage of the new forms of interactive media becoming available: videodisc, CD-ROM, digital video, and ushered in compelling new forms of educational media.

Cloud Media looks at the effect the Internet as a media delivery vehicle for educational media. The inexpensive and accessible nature of the Internet beckons to that same notion of scale that motion pictures instigated and later drove radio in television decades earlier. Because it is computer driven and on-demand, it has the potential to include many of the features afforded by the less flexible earlier interactive and hypermedia solutions. Cloud media can be as simple as recorded classroom lectures available online, to the emergent MOOCs that are getting so much attention lately.

Immersive Media investigates the more recent use of technologies that immerse the learner into realistic multimedia environments, known as virtual reality; and the emerging technologies of augmented reality. Educators used virtual reality environments, such as Second Life, to create virtual “worlds” that students can explore, interact, and collaborate with one another. Augmented reality tools allow 3D media to interact with what a learner “sees” in the real world through camera in a smart phone, tablet, or special goggles.

Making Sense of Media for Learning sums up the earlier chapters on individual media forms and attempts to draw parallels from them. It would be difficult to point to any one and proclaim success, but there are clearly lessons to be learned from these earlier efforts- some good, and others not so much. These should prove instructive for both people developing and using these new forms of instructional media.


I wish to thank the following people for their help in the research and production for this project: Malcolm Baird, C. Victor Bunderson, Greg Britton, John Bunch, Richard Clark, Dan Doernberg, Yitna Ferdyiwek, Margot Ferster, Susan Ferster, Roger Geyer, Marilyn Gilbert, Peter Gray, Ted Hasselbring, Dov Jacobson, Wendy Keeney-Kennicutt, Robert Kozma, Don McLean, Drew Minock, Bob Mohl, Ruth Perlin, John Ramo, Mark Schubin, Trevor Smith, Kathy Wilson, Aaron Walsh, Kristina Hooper-Woolsey, and the amazing staff of the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia.

Bill Ferster

Middleburg, Virginia

February, 2016

[1] Plato. (1952). Plato’s Phaedrus: Translated with an introduction and commentary by R. Hackforth. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 157.

[2] Caldwell, J., & Waring, A. (1939). Some Chatham County pottery types and their sequence. Southeastern Archaeological Conference Newsletter 1(5-6).

[3] King, A. (1993). From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side. College Teaching 41(1), pp. 30-35.

DMU Timestamp: September 28, 2016 13:52

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