McLuhan’s Laws of Media and the PLE

During the last eight years of his life the Canadian media theorist Marshal McLuhan worked on developing and validating four “Laws of Media” He argued that every new media Enhances through new affordances, Obsoletes through improvements in form, function and cost; Retrieves older patterns of behaviour and Reverses when over stressed into older, non functional patterns.

This work was published posthumously in text in 1988 as the Laws of Media: The New Science and covered in the 2002 NFB video McLuhan’s Wake. According to McLuhan these four immutable laws effect all media and understanding them helps us to fathom both the intended and the unintended, the positive and the negative aspects of every media. McLuhan was fond of challenging readers and audiences to think of a medi that did not demonstrate all four laws or to think of the 5th law or argue why they should be reduced to only three.

Dale Hunshler (2001) overviews Mclulan’s wider theories and notes how the web itself, illustrates the four laws of Media.

In this post I extend that work by very briefly applying McLuhan’s Laws to Personal Learning Environments (PLEs).

PLE’s Enhance: The primary affordance of PLE’s is the enhancement of individual learner control, where that control extends to negotiation of subject, of media, of type of assessment and the control of time, of place and of pace of learning. Morten Paulsen wrote about these control issues in 1993 and titled them a Theory of Cooperative Freedom, I added to these (2004) the freedom to negotiate the type of relationship one wishes to form with instructor and with other learners. This enhanced freedom not only increases access to learning opportunity, but also throws responsibility for learning back to the learner- a necessary first step in creating a culture of lifelong learning

PLE’s Obsolete PLEs are customizable by individuals, support many types of learning activities, are of very low cost and thus obsolete monolithic LMS and other centralized control systems that lock both learners and teachers into walled gardens of predetermined activity, tool sets and control. PLE’s also obsolete single path educational and training media that creates lockstep activities by which learners are led to assimilate content, in lockstep fashion along predetermined pathways. Some have argued that PLEs obsolete formal learning itself, however I believe that the opening of the landscape by PLE’s creates more, rather than diminishes opportunity for guides, assessors and valuators of knowledge- tasks that define today’s and I suspect tomorrow’s formal education functionality.

PLE’s Retrieve earlier notions of learning based on play, creation, and apprenticeship where learning is situated within the context of production and everyday use. The ubiquity and multi-faceted applications of the Net for commercial, entertainment and social application demonstrate the capacity of the Net to support wide variety of past education formats – many retrieved from successful applications of pre-Net era. For example the Net supports streamed lectures (with or without Powerpoint slides), online mentoring, immersive campuses and even means to invigilate remote examinations.

PLE’s Reverse. McLuhan argued that when a media was pushed beyond its limits it reverses and begins displaying negative characteristics of previous media. On can easily imagine PLE’s being pushed beyond the limits of manageability, thus threatening user privacy and security – in fact most directors of computer services departments, would probably argue that they are already beyond effective manageability even in their nascent state. Pedagogically, reversal happens when the PLE slips into chaos where individual autonomy is celebrated to such an extent that collaborative, coordinated or synchronized activity is impossible. Thus, forcing reversal back to learning and cognition developed in pre-connectivist ideals of individualized learning.

This brief mapping of PLEs to McLuhan’s Laws of Media illustrates that PLEs constitute a new educational media. More importantly, noting the inherent adherence to McLuhan’s four laws helps us understand how best to exploit this technology and what to be on guard against as the PLE cycles through exhibition of all four Laws of Media.



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