In 1996, Bill Gates, the then-richest person in the world, wrote an influential essay in which he coined a pithy phrase while predicting a major trend in the brave new world of internet commerce. Surveying the fortunes of the wide variety of industries that the television age had spawned, Gates predicted that the “long-term winners” of the internet revolution would be those who, like their broadcasting predecessors, “used the medium to deliver information and entertainment.”
The phrase he used to encapsulate this thought: “Content is king.”
Gates located the broad commercial opportunity in the production and distribution of high-quality content for the consumption of the public. People would queue up patiently, money in hand, for the opportunity to buy and view good content. They would reward better content more, and the internet would be nothing more than a super-efficient “marketplace for content.”
But that was 25 years ago. Gates is no longer the richest man in the world, and content simply isn’t king. Content is — from my perspective — cheap. There are brands that show me content every minute of the day, and the only thing they seek in exchange is the information I might provide by clicking on an ad. Similarly, when you read an article, you can often do so for a low cost or for free. Halfway through the article, you might even be ready to stop reading because content is so plentiful — to the point of utter ubiquity. I believe the only thing in short supply is our time, so we have redefined content quality in terms of brevity these days. Content has to be shorter than the average person’s attention span. Otherwise, it gets no attention.
It turns out that an even older and even pithier phrase by Marshall McLuhan had it right all along. “The medium,” he had said, years before Gates’ revelation, “is the message.” This tells me that the way the content gets packaged and delivered determines the success of the communication process more than the content itself. It needs to be expressed in a way that’s relevant to the individual recipient, and it should provoke thought and action.
In other words, it’s the context that is, if not the king, then at least the king-maker.
McLuhan also differentiated between “hot” media, which allows for passive intake by recipients, and “cool” media, which requires active participation. What I believe dethroned “content as king” was the utter “hotness” of all online content. In my experience, many of us stare at images flickering across our screens, senses numbed but unable to look away. From my perspective, many of us are incapable of retrieving from memory online content that doesn’t grip us or force us to pause and think.
But what does all this mean for education technology in the post-pandemic world?
Simply this: You might have the world’s very best educational content at your disposal, but if you’re about to disseminate it online, be aware that you’ll be competing for attention. Your average recipient will likely have multiple tabs open simultaneously, of which your content will occupy exactly one, while the rest could be leading to social media websites, news outlets and more.
As a result, I believe capturing your audience’s attention all boils down to how your content is to be delivered: by “hot,” passive methods like a slide deck or videos, or by “cool” mechanisms that adapt to the consumer’s input; progressively draw viewers into the material; force them to think hard and interact with the material; convert them from viewers into collaborators; and drown out all noise.
Education — outside a classroom — involves developing problem-solving capabilities in a specific context. This can only be learned by solving realistic and contextual problems oneself. For many people, watching someone describe how to solve a problem is something that can never compete with watching a funny video of what a cat did with a ball of wool.
Don’t get me wrong: Good quality content is, at the end of the day, indispensable. But it’s the context in which the content is couched that determines whether recipients will comprehend the message, recall it and apply it correctly when needed. It’s only when that happens that the content of education will truly be top dog again.
Long live the king.