To Read or Not to Read — Are We Overusing Multimedia in Our Classrooms?

Despite the efforts by institutions, administration, and teachers in providing differential support and instructions, students are becoming less and less engaged in schools.

As an educator with an interest in student engagement, I have found myself reading Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) from a completely different lens.

The Medium is the Metaphor

Postman opens the discussion in his book with ‘The Medium is the Metaphor’. A metaphor, like language “makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a few orientations for thought, for expression, for sensibility”.

Hence the screen, as a medium, orients one’s thinking in a specific direction; in fact, it is a shift in paradigm and in the way of thinking. Each medium has a specific way of discourse; it encourages certain uses of intellect and demands a certain kind of content.

For example, the printing press requires a prolonged exertion of the mind and the body for one to become a good reader. With an electronic medium, on the other hand, most minds can grasp the message without any mental strain. The audience exposed to the print-medium is noticeably different than those audiences exposed to the electronic-medium.

“The decline of a print-based epistemology and accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute.”

Today, silliness is very cool; this is reflective within and moreover, indicative of our television shows.

The Screen as Curriculum

Postman calls the screen a curriculum; he defines curriculum as:

“a specially constructed information system whose purpose is to influence, teach, train or cultivate the mind and character of youth”

With the capturing images of television, and its respective entertaining approach, the TV curriculum has become a monopoly over every school curriculum. This is emphasized where Postman says “it damn near obliterates it [school curriculum]”.

Perhaps individuals are less engaged in a classroom setting because they have adapted a learning style that matches the “teaching” style of the electronic medium. If a teacher is not an electronic instructor exhibiting multiple images a minute with background music, then he/she is not matching or living up to the required learning style of the student.

Provide students with computers and most will sit for hours displaying no signs of displeasure or boredom. Present those very students with books or other non-screen related activity, and disengagement in many forms will ensue.

The Race to Digital

Recently, I have seen a trend in Islamic schools in shifting their pedagogies from a print-medium to an electronic medium. Granted, this is a practice adopted by the public school systems to engage students, however research is showing that students are becoming more and more restless as they are becoming increasingly exposed to the electronic media.

Allah, the Exalted, selected the clause “read, in the name of your Lord” to be the very first human encounter with Islam.

  • Is the word ‘read’ symbolic for any means of education?
  • Is there a significant difference between the print-medium over other mediums?
  • Can we weigh the skills a student acquires with the exposure to and interaction with electronic-medium against the skills acquired through print-medium?

I am not calling for the eradication of the electronic-medium, but I am offering a cautionary warning when using such media extensively in our schools.

I look forward to your thoughts on the extent to which the overuse of media forms are prevalent in your classrooms and the impact and implications of them. Please share your comments below.

Asma Ahmed

About Asma Ahmed

Asma Ahmadi is an instructor at Western University at the preservice Teacher Education Program, as well as a PhD candidate in Critical Policy, Equity and Leadership Studies. Asma is part of a team of researchers exploring the works of Principals in Ontario, sponsored by the Ministry of Education of Ontario. Asma is a certified teacher and a certified principal in Ontario with over 10 years of experience working in classrooms, and held the position of part time principal of Alfurqan Kitchener School in Kitchener, Ontario. In the past two years she has been working as an Education Consultant for Islamic Schools and Islamic School Leaders. Asma has recently been interviewed by the National Post on her contribution to the book Discipline, Devotion, and Dissent: Jewish, Catholic, and Islamic Schooling in Canada. A regular attendee at conferences, she has presented on principals' work; equity and inclusiveness; the purpose of Islamic schools and supporting minority students.
Click here to read more posts by Asma.


  1. You raise provocative questions that deserve our attention. Who and what is really driving what we do in our classrooms and why? The challenge for Muslim educators does not just lie with how our students are being re-wired to crave sound bites and visual stimulation but how WE as the educators have also fallen into the same malaise.

    • salam alaikum,
      Thank you for your response Daaiyah. The re-wiring, as you eloquently refer to, is definitely not exclusive to the students but also to the educator. I always like to juxtapose our generation with our grandparents generation. Even though their generation did not have the multi-media that we currently enjoy, their understandings of life is much deeper than ours. I find myself constantly coming to this conclusion with every conversation I have with my retired father.

  2. Assalaamu alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh,
    I personally feel like we do over use multimedia, but the home is overwhelmed with it, so that the children will surely be bored at school. What then? A multimedia free zone? I would like that.

    • salam alaikum,
      Thank you for your response Sr. Wardah.
      Perhaps that is the issue that the home and real life is so flooded with screen acvities that educators in school have to keep up.
      I don’t call for the eradication of multi-media but it is important to have a balance. However, I am against kids under the age of 4 or 5 to use multi-media, I think they should be introduced to literacy via reading exclusively at a young age. I suggest this excerpt if you would like to delve into this topic further:
      http://seattlemamadoc.seattlechildrens.org/what-does-tv-do-to-my-kids-brain/
      JazakiAllahu Khairan,
      Asma

  3. Assalamoalikum!
    Excellent! Programming? Is it? You said it right, I have also read about the negative influence of “media” on kids. In this context, we would like to know or ask ourselves like you pointed out: How many hours are the kids al together spedning on digital stuff? And then from those hours how many hours they still spend while learning at schools. I have also discussed this with a peer, and she pointed out the concept of “pedagogic love”. As muslim “moallims” we all should have it by deafault. But, I am not so sure of “pedagogic love” in these hightech times. Do we love our students? Do they love us? if it’s not happneing then why is it not happening? I am sure “media” has a role. In this ITEP program too, I would have liked to meet my ustad and may be kisss his hinds out of respect, but i can’t ……….as it is online……

    • salam alaikum,
      Thank you for your response Br. Mubashir. I am also fond of learning in a face-to-face environment, there is something fresh and deep about being in the presence of one’s mualim. I would also argue that learning behind the screen is very different than being present with your educator in the same room. Do you think that may entail the pedagogic love that you refer to?
      w’salam,
      asma

      • despite the difficulties of our current situation as teachers struggling against an entire cutlure that is based on quick-hits, quick fixes, and easy access to information, our role remains that of the loving Muallim and this is in fact the solution. At the end of the day, love is the greatest motivator, the greatest source of joy, and can actually compete very well and outdo the attraction of all types of media and their messages. If we can become the most important role model, the guide, and the true mentor to our students, we will become THE medium they seek out. It is a short-cut to a very good result. But it is not easy to do; it is a path full of personal work, striving, and heartache. But it is, in my opinion, the only way. It is the Sunnah.

  4. Assalam alaykum all,
    “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”
    as some comments mention, what can we do if the home is steeped in TV and video games? either we continue to strive against this re-wiring, attempting to force students to function and engage in non-electronic ways, or we can try to reach them with an Islamic message, through the mediums (media) they are used to and find easiest to engage with.
    As a teacher, i find this super frustrating. I wish that we would have better collaboration with Parents of our students, so that their home environments support, rather than undo, the work we are trying to accomplish.
    I feel that certain messages just cannot be expressed by the electronic medium. As Postman says, the medium is the message – it affects the message, it limits the message, it sometimes defines the message.
    Quran is, as its name insists, a RECITATION. it has to be recited by the human being, in the end; it has to be contemplated by the human being, in the end; it has to be memorized by the human being in the end. We cannot change this and it cannot be done by an electronic intermediary.
    The same is true, i think, for many other formats we are now using to express Islamic messages – whether it be the big conference/convention, or the cool seminar – the medium is influencing how people respond to and interact with the message and sometimes, because it demands so little in terms of effort and preparation on the part of the recipient, it gives an impression of the message being less worthy of striving, effort, and veneration. The recipient becomes a consumer of “ilm” – putting very little of their own energy into acquiring it.
    I am not sure this is the best way to go about educating ourselves…
    thanks for raising this topic.

    • salam alaikum,
      Thank you for your articulate response. I appreciate your connection of Quran to the word ‘reading’ and ‘recitation’. This is a clear indication of the importance of reading versus watching. We have become a society of auditory and visual learners perhaps due to the medium.
      w’salam,
      Asma

  5. Wonderful topic, awesome responses. So, what did the word, IQRA mean as the action verb, read? That’s one question i will pose here. The other is, Are schools as they have been, preparing out students for the world they are inheriting?

    I think things evolve and we are wired differently as a result of the world we live in. I went for Hajj in 1978 and went again in 2005 and i hear that lately there is a GPS available for Hajj goers. The experience in 1978 was very different from the 2005.

    In the case of IQRA and the case of Hajj is it not more important that we understand and engage in these activities and less important what the medium or circumstances within which we live, exist, and interact are?

    I suspect that today’s schools are not yet preparing students for the world they will inherit and that we need to look at what students need to know and be able to do. More than likely the list is not the same list as the one I needed when I was in elementary school in the 60s.

    Just food for thought in a really engaging topic, thanks for writing it Asma.

    • in answer to your question: is it not more important that we engage in these activities and less important what [the] medium or circumstances [are]?
      I think that this is the real question we are trying to figure out: Neil Postman (and Asma), as well as some commenters, are saying that the medium IS important and affects the result – the way we do things affects what we end up donig and its effect on us. I think that Islam is very much about process and the WAY we ought to go about doing things.
      I understand that in a time when people are not even doing much of anything related to religion, we should just be thankful if they are doing something at all and not worry too much about how they are doing it.
      But on the other hand – there are limits to this…and furthermore, as educators, we are in a position to speak on behalf of the “how.” That is to say, in many cases, we as Muslims cannot and should not comment on or try to correct the HOW of the actions of people around us – eg. An Ustadha of mine taught us: if a girl comes to the masjid to pray, and she has on nailpolish, you should never tell her that she needs to take it off (technically and fiqh-wise, her wudu does not count if she is wearing nailpolish). Rather, you should kiss her feet for even being there in the masjid, when she could be anywhere else. The same goes, these days, for hijab and the many ways that modern young women wear it, and for boys’ attire in the masjid, and for the behaviour of young men and women at Islamic events such as conferences, where open mixing is the norm. Rather than tackle this issue, many daaiyas are saying: at least they are here. We need to be thankful for their mere presence and not scare them away by trying to teach them about the proper means and ways of presenting themselves in public.

      Okay, so that is for some situations. But as teachers, we are given the right by our students/their parents/society to TEACH, to talk about the ways and means of doing this well and right in this life….
      I think that when we ignore the way things are done, we can lose a lot.
      A friend was travelling in Morocco, and commented on the abundance of copies of Quran, but the dearth in readers of Quran. The number of copies that sit on bookshelves in homes and are rarely if ever touched, let alone read with awe and veneration (sadly true of all of the Ummah, not just Morocco of course).
      He said: if there were only one copy of Quran in this whole city, imagine how people would come and gather to see and read from it, and to hear it read. Their level of awe and veneration would go up so much…they would come with love and longing…
      Just as the TV changed things, according to Neil Postman, so too did the printing press (and Postman does talk about this). For Europe and Christendom, it was the Protestant movement that initiated the mass printing of Bibles, with the message to the people: take it in your hands, and read it for yourself. That was meant to be a liberating message, but it also lowered the degree of awe and veneration…such that now copies of the Bible can be left sitting in drawers of bedside tables in hotel rooms where who knows what kind of sins go on, for the sake of spreading the word – but how much is it really doing that? What is the trade-off of making something so available that in fact it is no longer sought out? The concern is that when things become too easy, we no longer appreciate them.
      Likewise, for Muslims, mass-printing of copies of the Quran has not necessarily been a great thing. In fact, the mass printing of copies of the Quran was promoted in North Africa by none other than the French colonials. They also insisted that Quranic recitation be made over the radio. The result is that through its being available in these very pedestrian formats, people have less awe for it. They turn off the radio in the middle of a verse, they talk over it, they leave a dusty copy of the Quran on a dashboard, never to be touched…We need to think about how the medium does affect our interaction with the Message. Sometimes a small action done with great reverence is worth a lot more than a whole bunch of deeds done with little awe and wonder at the Greatness of God.

      • salam alaikum,
        I agree with your main idea. It is not which medium one utilizes to educate themselves, at the end of the day it is not how one educates themselves, it is are we educated and therefore transformed with the knowledge we acquire.
        Thank you again for your elaborate response.
        w’salam,
        asma

  6. Your article shades light into what I have been observing. Lately I have been sharing with my peers that children have become computerized. They will only act upon what they are instructed to do so. For example, I post a message on the board each morning for my students to read in order that they follow what is in the message. After seeing that most of them are not following with what was prescribed for them to do, I remind the students to read the message on the board. Thereafter, several students respond with “I read the board!” Then I find myself telling them that they need to act upon the message and not just read it. It is as if they have become robots and we must program. After reading your article it is making sense to me why children behave this way.

    • salam alaikum Amina,
      It is wonderful to have a forum to discuss things like this. I am sure many parents and educators are noticing such a pattern. It is important to know what is sparking such a shift and assessing the implications, both positive and negative.
      w’salam,
      asma

  7. Assalamu Alaikum Asma,
    You are correct and it does kind of make more and more sense –maybe not logically to those of us thinking the way we were taught. It reminds me of the experience i had a Chicago Public School teacher (yes, 16 years) before becoming an Islamic school principal and then teacher educator. So, it was LONG ago–and i witnessed Atari and Nintendo. I realized as the kids started to get addicted to it that they needed a volume switch in my classroom. I needed to sing, dance, and flash lights. Yes, it was quite an adjustment. I enjoyed those days immensely but all the same there was a radical change taking hold. Today, kids read in a different way. They learn from a reverse of the way i was taught. In fact, in my college classroom I am beginning to explore the flipped classroom. It makes a lot of sense to me but —it is different.
    Seema

    • assalam alaykum
      two questions to the comments above:
      1) what is a flipped classroom
      2) what is the world that our students will inherit? do we have any guarantee that these ways of operating, this ‘operating system’ of iphones and i-everything will continue? it might, after all, collapse. And is it not our responsibility to give the widest set of skills – and the most basic – that will enable them to meet all challenges (eg. the absence of their favorite electronic devices) and make all posssible choices (ie. deciding to live a life free of those things, should they deem that their path to happiness).
      Have a look at this amazing video on the idea of getting off the grid and living simply. I think it raises a lot of good points for teachers to consider: http://www.thehijrahsociety.org/life-is-easy/

    • salam alaikum sr. Seema,

      Thank you for your response. I looked up the flipped classroom that you mentioned and although it is a flipped paradigm from how my parents were raised, now it has become the norm. I am a firm believer of reading, as long as reading is a crucial element of every student’s life, then perhaps we can mitigate the negative implications of the digital medium.

    • salam alaikum sr. Seema,

      Thank you for your response. I looked up the flipped classroom that you mentioned and although it is a flipped paradigm from how my parents were raised, now it has become the norm. I am a firm believer of reading, as long as reading is a crucial element of every student’s life, then perhaps we can mitigate the negative implications of the digital medium.

    • salam alaikum,
      Thank you for the links above. I grew up with reverence for teachers and knowledge. Your links reminded me of how my father raised us.
      Thank you.

  8. assalam alaykum all,
    i think this is a great conversation and this issue really does need to be examined; yes, at the end of the day, the barakah is there in just doing something – but if we can do it beautifully, lovingly, with awe and wonder, and in ways that are organic and natural to the human rhythms and body and heart rhythms, and above all, closer to the Sunnah, then we must strive for the latter.
    Two great resources i wanted to share in this regard: http://www.albalagh.net/general/journalism.shtml
    and since someone talked about Hajj, then and now:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yp-FPQ9Eyrs
    There are ways to do things beautifully and one of them is to preserve the pristineness, the purity and simplicity, of an experience….but no matter what, alhamdulilah, the barakah does remain.

  9. the way kids are today, it makes it very hard to meet their standards for what they find acceptable in terms of learning formats. I feel like it really needs to be a topic we discuss in our muslim homes, more. We need to get parents talking about this.
    http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/08/23/f-children-technology.html
    It is interesting to note that the elite intellectual class are those who actually restrict their children’s use of internet and technology the most:
    Obamas: http://mashable.com/2012/09/07/obama-kids-no-tech/
    Gateses: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,253360,00.html

  10. Assalam alaykum all,
    I feel we need to resist the pull of technology and edutainment.
    Just like a teacher needs to have a teaching philosophy, she also needs to have a position on where she would like to take her students and what she wants to equip them to be; where is the time and room for contemplation (tafakkur), silence, and reflection in the fast paced digital world? selective use of multimedia can be good, simply to bring CULTURE back into 3LM. we have tried to separate culture from Islam and this is a mistake. having some multimedia such as songs, etc can be a way to bring culture back into the lesson, which enriches and enhances the experience for learners.
    But using too much technology can also reduce attention span, reduce patience span! And we need to be cultivating, not reducing, patience as Muslims. Using technology can also be a very individualistic experience, which reduces the feeling of having to share or teaching your classmate – as was the norm in the one-room classroom for example. Furthermore, it can create mental laziness and the expectation of constant stimulation (see http://naturalpapa.com/men/arousal-addiction-and-the-demise-of-guys/).
    If we want to make our classrooms exciting, but not pander to the model and pattern of videogames and facebook (short tidbits of useless informaiton from here there and everywhere), we have to be brave.
    The Message of Islam (and our teaching of Ilm is part of this larger message) started out as “strange” and has again become “strange” – we should not try to make it normal when the normal is the problem.
    We can offer true, real, engaging experiences that are powerful enough to be competition for the virtual realities of our students:
    a) the powerful experience of having a real Muslim role model who is a friend, mentor, and life-changer (don’t be afraid to use yourself (by having enough light to do so) to be a magnet that pulls people to Islam and the good life, including your students) To do this, we need to have a HUGE level of Ibadeh, in order to have enough light to attract those who are hungry for this light deep down
    b) experiences that are from real life – going out into nature, doing charity work, etc.
    c) moral and character education: http://www.facultyshack.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=70:soulful-teaching-40-ways-to-nurture-spirit-in-the-classroom&catid=18:passing-notes&Itemid=21

    d) spiritual experiences. there are many ways to bring this into the classroom – eg. in the English classroom, spend a unit studying poetry about love. Relate that in the end to love for God. Spend a unit studying poetry about the Prophet sal Allahu alayhi wasalam and have students write their own; then have a Mawlid, where students read their poetry, the Islamic studies teacher comes and gives a talk, everyone is dressed up nicely, and you sing a few songs. This has a massive impact and it is totally in keeping with the curriculum outcomes.

    InshaAllah we have to use the tools we have to not succumb to the traps being set for our children by forces that may not have their best interests at heart. wAllahu A’alam…
    i know it might sound extreme, that last sentence, but let us do this kind of a diagnosis to dtermine whether this technology issue is really a serious one:
    take any child in your classroom and ask:
    a) does he have a relationship with a guide/mentor who is helping him develop in his deen and to whom he can go if he is in trouble/crisis?
    b) does he get chances to be out in nature and admire and interact with Allah’s creation which He put here as a Sign for us to reflect on? Does he have such chances at least once a week? Does he have a chance at least once a month to do charity/volunteer work that is a service to others? OR does he do chores in the home to develop that sense of service and responsibility?
    c) does he get some kind of tarbiyah (moral upbringing) or does he seem to have a good sense of this?
    d) does he get spiritual experiences on a weekly basis? does he attend a thikr circle? does he do daily dhikr at home? does his family do a weekly thikr/prayer sitting? does he read Quran on a daily basis?

    if the answers are not resounding YESes, we have work to do.
    because probably if you ask: does he get weekly/daily time with the TV/Internet, the answer will be YES.

    so we need to identify the gaps and fill them in inshaAllah.

    I would love to know what everyone else thinks about this. PS: how many of us start our class day with the Fatiha?
    PPS: if they can happily do yoga in the classroom, can we not do 10 minutes of dhikr in a Muslim school classroom? just google “yoga in the classroom” and see what comes up.
    May Allah enable us all to be the upbringers of a pious generation ! ameen.

  11. salam
    how about we put together a list of good multimedia resoruces and how we have used them/how they might be used (what lessons/curriculum outcomes they relate to) and share this.
    is there a way we could set this up on this website? that might help us sort the wheat from the chaff.
    it also might be nice to have examples of how to pair this media with traditional stuff. eg. how to use a song/part of a film as the “hook” in the lesson, and then transition quickly to the written version of that piece of media (often the source, eg the lyrics or a book upon which the film is based).
    thanks.

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