The Media Effects Debate Reviewed: Motivation, Context, and the Learner

A finger touching a screen with icons of different media surrounding the finger

My paper for the course on Perspectives on ITDE with Dr. Judith 
Converso provides a comprehensive overview of the current state of the Media Effects debate. It offers a balanced perspective on the various arguments that have been put forth and I hope provides you with a well-informed view on the topic. Enjoy!

The Media Effects Debate Reviewed

Clark’s “mere vehicles” stance invites instructional technology and distance education (ITDE) scholars to imagine that education is a vehicle and media is in the vehicle. According to Clark (2012), “media is a vehicle” rather than a means to an end for learning, and “content effects achievement” for the learner is what really matters in the use of technology (p. 2). In addition, Smaldino et al. (2015) suggest that when choosing a medium, instructors need to be aware of the instructional setting, learner characteristics, and the capabilities of the selected medium. Ultimately, the learner will use the media in meaningful ways, creating individualized learning paths that finally maximize their learning potential and motivation (Bates, 2019).

Media Effects Debate

A great deal of research shows how the media can affect learning (Kozma, 1994). The debate between Clark and Kozma and other scholars about how the media affects learning revolves around whether the media is purely a tool for delivering information to learners or if it can affect learning. Although they agree that the number of studies done is not enough, it is crucial to note that Kozma concurs with Clark (1994) that there is no significant proof “in the last 70 years of published and unpublished research that the media” generates an increase in learning (p. 25).

However, Clark (2012) argues that teaching methods have a more significant influence on learners’ learning than media. Clark (2012) explains that media augments physical and social learning environments in a classroom. Kozma (1991) counters that both the medium and the method play an essential role in the design of instruction. Additionally, Clark (1994) disagrees with Kozma’s stance on learning with media and how it builds up to other areas of learning with media such as motivation, the visual processing of information, and memory and meaning (Kozma, 2012).

Furthermore, Camillieri (2021) explains that Jack Koumi explained the absence of a “statistically significant difference between groups in another way” (p. 69). Koumi argued that the lack of empirical support for specific media was due to learner variability and media production quality (Camillieri, 2021). Koumi argued that learning gains might be obscured or confounded by “learning styles or attitudes” (Koumi, 1994, as cited in Camillieri, 2021). Kozma accused Clark of dividing method and medium unnecessarily (Camillieri, 2021). Clark retorted that “no single media attribute has a distinctive cognitive effect” and presented instances of how various media might achieve the same effect (Clark 1994, as cited in Camillieri, 2021, p 69).

Koumi and Kozma agreed that future studies should focus on interactions between content and media to enhance the learner’s learning and experience (Camillieri, 2021, p. 69). Jonassen et al. (1994) argue that ITDE scholars and educators “should shift the debate and the practice of instructional design from instruction- and media-centered to a learner-centered conception of learning” (p. 31). Essentially, Jonassen et al. (1994) challenge that the media effects debate should place a greater emphasis on the “characteristics and attributes of the media used to convey knowledge” and less on the “attributes of the human learner involved in learning and, ultimately,” the learners’ knowledge building using a medium (p. 31).

Jonassen et al. (1994) explain that instead of “media attributes vs. instructional methods,” the debate should examine the role of the media in helping, not controlling, the learning process (p. 31). Jonassen et al. (1994) state that “learning is distributed between the media, the learner, and the context” (p. 32). Clark focused on instructional methods, whereas Kozma concentrated on context. Jonassen et al. (1994) argue that both are wrong and should focus on the learner.
Specifically, Bates (2019) states that “media requires an active act of creating material” or the ability to transmit the content, “as well as a learner who receives and understands communication, as well as tools that carry the medium” (p. 223). The technology or medium cannot “generate meaning” on its own; it requires the involvement of a human (an instructor) to be engaged (Bates, 2019, p. 222).

Media Effects Motivation

One of the most critical ways the media affects learning is by using motivational techniques (Simonson, 2014). Clark (2000) notes in an address to Nova Southeastern ITDE department faculty and learners that further research would need to be conducted on the relationship between motivation and the media. So, while the medium itself is not a motivating factor, the media can still be used to motivate learners to want to learn. In essence, the right kind of media can inspire people to learn and help them see the value in learning. 

Kozma conducted a literature review to refute Clark’s stance on learning with media. Kozma (2012) notes how it built up to other areas of learning with media such as motivation, the visual processing of information, and memory and meaning. Drawing from several studies Kozma found:
That the perceptions students have about the medium and the purposes they have for viewing influenced the amount of effort that they put into the processing of the message and, consequently the depth of their understanding of the message. (Clark, 2012, p. 118)
Most learners when attempting to learn something are more motivated if there are stakes in the process of learning. Not only does motivation play a major role in learning with media also, how the media plays a role in the mental processing of information visually first. Kozma (2012) describes a 1984 study by Bagget that audio than visual where the worst-performing group was those the auditory that the ones who were visual than audio. Further, Kozma (2012) in regard to memory believes that when a learner processes knowledge from technology such as video where at the time it was unlike the book where you could re-read information not understood and grasp some meaning. However, the video at the time was not as dynamic as it is today with video streaming services or video-on-demand applications. 

Clark’s point of view by his opponents is a bit too rigid and narrow. Communications scholar Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase,” the medium is the message” which means the topics discussed or used in the medium are the important portion in the use of the media. Additionally, selecting the appropriate medium can affect a learner’s motivation and success in the classroom (Smaldino et al., 2015). If the chosen medium is wrong, it can be distracting or discouraging, leading learners to lack motivation to learn through the selected medium. It is also important to note that different media have other effects on learning. 

So, while the medium itself is not a motivating factor, it can still be used to motivate learners to want to learn. In essence, the right kind of media can inspire people to learn and help them see the value in learning. Clark (2012) adds that questions pondered by researchers about “previously popular mediums,” such as radio in the 1940s and television in the 1960s, were the same as those asked by the Internet in 2012.

According to Clark (2012), “media comparison studies indicate that we will not uncover learning differences that can be definitely attributable to any medium of teaching” (p. 11). For example, text-based media tend to be better for learning facts, while visual media help understand concepts better (Kozma, 1994). Audio media is good for learning new vocabulary words, and interactive multimedia is suitable for engaging learners and helping them retain information (Kozma, 1994). While the movement of ideas and information drives learning, research also points to “variables” such as instructional methods as being influential in how individuals learn (Clark, 1983, p. 449). Concerning media use and learning outcomes, this suggests that learner-level processes such as behavior are essential factors in how learners approach media use.

The learner’s factors, such as psychosocial characteristics, might affect how they can use multimedia effectively (Clark & Mayer, 2016). Learners who have negative attitudes towards the media may be less likely to enjoy learning due to a lack of motivation, which leads to a lower quality of learning (Granito & Chernobilsky, 2012). Concerning media use and learning outcomes, this suggests that learner-level processes such as behavior, cognition, and emotions are essential factors in how learners approach media use (Leutner, 2014).

The Debate Continues in the 21st Century

In 2013, Sung and Mayer tested Clark’s hypothesis, finding that “media had an effect on willingness and engagement, but not on learning” (Sung & Mayer, 2013, as cited in Selhorst, 2016, p. 59). After three decades of heated debate and the considerable advancement of technologies, “no one has been able to disprove Clark’s original claim that media does not affect learning achievement” (Kozma, 1994; Means et al., 2009; Sung & Mayer, 2013; Tamim et al., 2011, as cited in Selhorst, 2016, p. 59).

Future Considerations

Essentially, Clark’s (1983) “mere vehicles” analogy states that technology is an essential component for use in education. The delivery truck represents technology. What is important is the content the instructor creates for use in a learning environment. By no means is the delivery truck more critical than the groceries inside (Clark, 1983). It is the vehicle by which the groceries reach the grocery store. Technology is the vehicle by which learners can engage with their environment, but the learners need a moderator. In the distant past, instructors thought they could
be replaced by technology in the future. As we can see, technology can by no means replace human interaction. The instructor is a critical component and is essentially a facilitator of the learner's learning experience using media and can help promote motivation for using media to learn. ITDE professionals and educators can use media to construct and teach meaning to learners.

ITDE scholars draw similarities to their own paradigm, incorporating new learning paradigms that are missing and facilitating meaningful learning experiences in a design-focused way with technology (Shulman, 1986). Schrum et al. (2007) explain that:
The missing paradigm refers to a blind spot with respect to content that now characterizes most research on teaching… [educators] miss are questions about the content of the lessons taught, the questions asked, and the explanations offered. (Shulman, 1986, pp. 7- 8, as cited in Schrum et al., 2007).
The missing paradigm is a research question that needs to be explored further in research about media effects on learning. The content of teaching and learning that is, what it means to learn, about what is learned, critically, about what the content is, and what the learners gained from the use of technology in the lesson needs to be added to future research. It is crucial to select appropriate media using models such as ASSURE and Technology Integration Matrix (TIM) that are appropriate for the learning activity that helps instructors achieve their learning goals and objectives.

The medium chosen by an instructor can be a potent tool to facilitate learning at a higher level than traditional means. Learning is the end goal, so the media is how learners get to the other side of knowledge, which is an achievement. It can be challenging for ITDE scholars to accept Clark’s position that they are merely information instruments. It can be challenging to see the media as an instrument, considering that we have so integrated it into our lives and even come to rely on it for our gratification.

ITDE scholars must understand Clark’s point of view because the media is simply a vehicle for transferring information but also it seems to be driving the scholarly discourse forward even many years later. It is important to remember that the media selected is not a means to an end but rather a vehicle for learning. Simonson (2014) agrees with Clark that “[he] is probably right” as “[Clark] doesn’t make false claims nor does he make statements based on beliefs instead of research” (Simonson, 2014). Most would agree that ITDE scholars should “continuously revisit [Clark’s] position if the field is going to grow as a profession” (Simonson, 2014, 2:38).


Bates, A. W. (2015). Teaching in the digital era is a challenge.
Camillieri, S. (2021). The influence of instructional media on achievement: A timeless debate. Distance Learning, 18 (3), 67-70.
Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning (4th Ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
Clark, R. E. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research, 53(4), 445-459.
Clark, R. E. (1991). When researchers swim upstream: Reflections on an unpopular argument about learning from media. Educational Technology, 31(2), 34-40.
Clark, R. E. (1994). The media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 21-29.
Clark, R. E. (2012). The media are "mere vehicles." In R. E. Clark, C. Schlosser, and M. Simonson (Eds.), Learning from the media: Arguments, analysis, and evidence (2nd ed., pp. 1–11). Information Age Publishing.
Clark, R.E. (2000). Clark presents keynote speech to ITDE [Video].
Kozma, R.B. (1991). Learning with media. Review of Educational Research, 61(2), 179-212
Kozma, R. B. (2012). Robert Kozma's counterpoint theory of "learning with media." In R. E. Clark, C. Schlosser, and M. Simonson (Eds.), Learning from the media: Arguments, analysis, and evidence (2nd ed., pp. 103–145). Information Age Publishing.
Leutner, D. (2014). Motivation and emotion as mediators in multimedia learning. Learning and Instruction, 29, 174–175.
McLuhan, M. (2003). Understanding media: The extensions of man: Critical edition. (W. Terrence Gordon, Ed.). Gingko Press. (Original work published 1964.)
Schrum, L., Thompson, A., Maddux, C., Sprague, D., Bull, G., & Bell, L. (2007). Research on the effectiveness of technology in schools: The roles of pedagogy and content Contemporary Issues in Technology and Instructor Education, 7(1), 456-460.
Selhorst, M. (2016). "Mere vehicles:" A white paper. Distance Learning, 13(3), 57-60. Shulman, L. (1986). Those who understand knowledge growth in teaching. Educational
Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.
Simonson, M. (2014). Simonson discusses Richard Clark’s "Mere Vehicles" statement [Video].
Smaldino, S. E., Lowther, D. L., Russell, J. D., & Mims, C. (2015). Instructional technology and media for learning (11th ed.). Pearson Prentice Hall


Popular posts from this blog

Definitions and History of Distance Education

MOOCs and Online Learning During COVID-19: Tips for Staying Motivated While Learning Online

Navigating Those Dissertation Seas... An Update