The e-Learning Reader
reviewed by Neil Selwyn - January 24, 2014
Education and digital technology can be a confusingly diverse and disjointed area of academic study. In an everyday sense, e-Learning is usually taken as a blanket term for any learning that involves the use of information technologies. Yet within the field of educational technology the term has come to refer specifically to research and practice concerned with online learning (predominantlyalthough not exclusivelyin post-compulsory settings). E-Learning researchers are therefore interested in virtual environments, online communities and other digital networks. As such, key concerns in this field tend to relate to how online learning might be best planned and arranged from the point of view of instructional design, as well as understanding the distinct nature of online teaching and pedagogy. E-Learning research often focuses on how interaction takes place between disembodied remote learners and tutors, and ultimately attempts to tackle the thorny question of whether (and if so, how) learning actually takes place in online settings.
On the face of it, then, this collection of 47 previously published pieces of writing addresses all these concerns. The book is organized sensibly into five distinct sections covering the perspectives of experiential learning and play, developmental learning, instructional design, cognitive learning tools and social interaction. In addition to this breadth of subject matter, the book should also be praised for attempting to make links between the forward-looking enthusiasms of e-Learning researchers and practitioners and the more substantial concerns arising from the past 100 or so years of education theory. Indeed, the historical scope of the collection is impressivemoving from a Jean Rousseau excerpt from 1762 through to some of the e-learning gurus of the present. Indeed, the book contains original writings from an Education 101 list of sources, including Freire, Bourdieu, Bandura, Gagne, Illich, Dewey, Piaget and Bruner. There are also some classic technology essaysnot least Vannevar Bushs ever-inspiring As We May Think, set alongside some left-field educational choices (such as A.S. Neill writing on the Summerhill School experiment). This is a welcome turn for an area of educational research that is often criticized for being willfully ignorant of its own history and the wider theoretical precedents to its current concerns.
At first glance, then, this should be an obvious book to recommend to anyone looking to immerse themselves in e-Learning as a substantial field of practice and study. Yet, while its basic planning and approach might be laudable, the actual execution of this book leaves a lot to be desired. In particular, readers may well be left feeling that this collection of writing lacks both a sense of consistency and, perhaps more seriously, a sense of careful curation. On this first point is the fact that the books 47 excepts vary wildly in form, with some sources maddeningly truncated and presented out of their original context. Thus we have 29 lines from an original 23 page essay by Yerkes and Dodson on stimulus response. Similarly, two and a half pages of brief notes on The World-Wide Computer offer scant insight into Tim Berners-Lees work in inventing the worldwide web. There were very good reasons that Paulo Freire when alive did not want his writing segmented into partial excerpts, or taken out of the context of South America. Here, however, Freires ideas lose much of their sense and power. Conversely, far less significant contributions appear to be given excessive space. The editing of this book may well leave readers feeling frustrated. All too often, this is a book that feels hurried by its a brief attention spanthe equivalent of flicking through television channels rather than coming to grips thoroughly with a subject.
Secondly with regards to the matter of curation, the books succession of excerpts are presented with little over-arching commentary or attempt from the editors at sense making. We are now in an age when readers can easily gather together these sources for themselves from the internet. As such, any dead-tree edition reader with a $70 price tag surely has to strive to be much more than the sum of its parts. At the very least, a book such as this should be aiming to support readers in making connections and developing their understanding. Yet besides from an introductory 12½ pages, and brief introductions to the books five sections, there is little here in the way of editorial synthesis, critique or commentary. It would have been useful, for example, for the editors to have spent more time placing the different works in context and developing a clear narrative or argument between each chapter. In this day and age, a book such as this needs to be more than a scattershot presentation of recycled material.
That said, there are some interesting lessons to take on board about the field of e-Learning having read this book. For example, one is reminded very quickly that much of the study of e-Learning is actually the study of learning. One is also struck by the obvious (but easily forgotten) point that there is actually little that is fundamentally new about new technologies. Indeed, there is clearly much that educational technologists need to retain from the pre-digital era of scholarship on education and learning. For example, this book certainly highlights the influence of writers such as Ivan Illich on recent calls for apparently radical e-Learning disruptions to higher education. This book therefore reminds us of what can be learned from taking a long view of current educational concerns.
These latter points notwithstanding, it is certainly debatable whether there is enough here to merit purchasing the book. I would be reluctant to promise that non-specialist readers of this book will finish it with a particularly richer understanding of e-Learning. I am also not convinced that expert e-Learning practitioners will be turning to this volume as a key text in the field. Personally, I would recommend anyone who is curious about e-Learning to use the books contents page as a handy starting point for their own online explorations into the foundations of the topic. After all, one of the main benefits of digital technologies such as the internet is their ability to support self-directed learning. You perhaps do not need to invest in a 368 page e-Learning reader to tell you that.