Web-based Learning and Teaching Technologies: Opportunities and Challenges
reviewed by Andrew Topper - 2002
Title: Web-based Learning and Teaching Technologies: Opportunities and Challenges
Author(s): Anil Aggarwal (ed.)
Publisher: Idea Group Publishing, Hershey
ISBN: 1878289608, Pages: 372 pages , Year: 2000
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Some people are claiming that the Internet will fundamentally change education at all levels. The concept of anytime, anywhere learning – or e-learning – is catching on at institutions of higher learning across the world. The virtual university, a term coined to reflect the movement towards college teaching and learning that occurs on the World Wide Web, is pushing everyone engaged in higher education to consider the impact this new medium might have on all forms of education. Every day, more colleges and universities are placing their undergraduate and graduate courses online in hopes of taking advantage of the opportunities available through the new medium. Some colleges are even offering complete advanced degrees through courses taken totally online.
As a faculty member in a school of education, I am engaged in the difficult work of figuring out how the Internet can support my teaching and my students’ learning. Like other faculty members, I feel pressure at my university to adopt and use the web as a medium for teaching and learning. But as an educator, I find myself asking some fundamental questions about teaching and learning that is mediated through computers and telecommunications.
The web surely provides opportunities for institutions of higher learning to broaden their offerings, and it may in fact ultimately transform undergraduate and graduate education in the future. But there are some key questions that should be answered before this new medium can be used with confidence. These questions include: To what extent, and in what ways, can the web support post-secondary teaching and learning? How will students who currently participate in face-to-face courses fare in online courses? How will our teaching practices be supported with the web? What kind of modifications should we make to our teaching approach in lieu of the opportunities afforded by the web? How can we help students who take a class online achieve the same, or similar, levels of learning as those in our face-to-face classes? What criteria should we use to evaluate or assess students who take online courses?
It is with these questions in hand that I reviewed the book, Web-based learning and teaching technologies: Opportunities and challenges edited by Anil Aggarwal. This book is a composite of the experiences of faculty members from around the world who are experimenting with web-based teaching and learning. The editor describes the book as one that "discusses the issues and the technology, and how this technology can be used in developing courses." The focus of this book is principally as a resource for university and college faculty members who are considering, or being asked to consider, using the web as a teaching and learning tool. It contains valuable experiences, guidelines and suggestions, and covers many of the key issues in adopting and using the web in higher education. It is meant to be a second-generation analysis of web-based teaching and learning, but it falls short in this area. While it is successful as a resource for those faculty members who are seriously considering using the web as a teaching tool, it fails to provide the necessary level of analysis, insight, or coverage of the pedagogical issues that should undergird such considerations. In short, this book is more about "how to" develop and teach courses online and less about "why" doing so might be helpful to students or instructors.
The book is organized into four sections: an overview of web-based learning, tools that support web-based teaching and learning, online environments and case studies. The introductory section provides background information and a context for thinking about e-learning in college and university settings. While one might expect to find a full review of the literature on distance education in this section, the chapters included do not provide such a critical review, other than a shallow one in chapter 2. The section on web-based tools covers a smattering of issues, including software selection, asynchronous communication tools, and audio/video streaming.
The online environments section deals more with assessment, faculty development and collaboration issues. The case studies are perhaps the most useful chapters in this book, because they provide clear and descriptive examples of how the web is being used in higher education and address the practical issues associated with these uses.
While most of the chapters do not include a strong theoretical or research base, its authors see this as an issue for future books. Given the young age of the web and the small number of institutions that have extensive experience using it for teaching and learning, this is not an unreasonable assumption by the editor. This book, according to the editor, is designed to "address the trends, opportunities, and problems facing colleges and universities in effective utilization and management of web-based learning and teaching technologies." As such, it delivers on the editor's promise. But there are lots of issues this text leaves uncovered and some of these may be especially relevant to those in academia (like myself) who are wondering how using this new medium might help or hinder our students’ learning. In addition, there is extensive literature on the use of distance education and the internet in higher education that could have been examined in this text, but was not.
Overall, the chapters reflect the disparate experiences of the authors and do not provide a complete, consistent, or coherent picture of the higher education e-learning landscape. While there are snippets of useful information and commentary in this book, it lacks a rigorous rationale for using the web as a tool for higher learning as well as the kind of thoughtful analysis of the impact of the web on teaching and learning.
This book does include some descriptive research, principally the seven case studies that constitute the last section of the book, that is somewhat helpful in building a simple case for use of the web in higher education. But there is little attention to theoretical issues, except for chapters 6 and 9, and as a result the text lacks the deep, thoughtful perspective one might expect from academics engaged in this kind of work. It is as if having the web available to use is sufficient reason for using it in higher education. Determining how the web supports teaching and learning is left to someone else.
As a result, this text is mostly an introduction to web-based teaching and learning, providing broad coverage of some important topics, including tools for communication and collaboration, assessment, and ideas for promoting faculty adoption. This book might be helpful for faculty members who want to know how the web can be used to support teaching and learning but are not worried about the impact it might have on their students.
The three major drawbacks to this book are: (1) it does not seriously consider the existing literature on distance education; (2) it fails to address adequately the issue of why using the web might be helpful to students and faculty members; and (3) it does not provide a rich, deep, or theoretical perspective to support using the web for college or university instruction. This book, therefore, is primarily for "early adopters" or "enthusiasts" of the web and not for those who might be unconvinced or skeptical of the benefits of using the web for teaching and learning.