FM Reviews
First Monday

FM Reviews

Fawzi Albalooshi (editor).
Virtual Education: Cases in Learning and Teaching Technologies.
Hershey, Pa.: IRM Press, 2003.
paper, 314 p., ISBN 1-931-77739-X , US$59.95.
Idea Group: http://www.idea-group.com/

Fawzi Albalooshi (editor). Virtual Education.

This book is a series of contributions by different authors on the theme of virtual learning and teaching. It is divided into five sections:.

  • virtual education: an overview of the field, a case of a Web-based computer information systems degree, a quality assurance system, and a virtual advisor;
  • E-Collaboration: motivation in sharing documents, a description of EFTweb, a discussion of group support systems, and e-business modelling;
  • Web-based learning and teaching: a discussion of skills students begin with them, strategies for improving communication, a discussion of the field in the Philippines;
  • Effective e-learning: a discussion of the field, an evaluation system for multimedia software, performance assessment, and awareness of cognitive styles in designing environments;
  • Teaching cases: an e-government application, use of literature in analysing unstructured systems, and a corporate case study.

The book is described by the publisher as "A collection of the latest research findings in the field of virtual education ... carried out by researchers around the globe". The book struggles to meet this description. Global aspirations are evident but the contributions come almost entirely from the developed world — the U.S., several countries in Europe, Australia. The rest of the world is represented by a contribution each from Bahrain and the Philippines. As for the content the book, it is very patchy, moving in a seemingly unconnected way in fits and starts from subject to subject. Several of the contributions have little to do with virtual education. The teaching cases, for instance, are not specifically for virtual environments but are material available for adaptation to any medium, and none has any discussion about how they might be adapted for online use. The chapter on e-business modelling, while fascinating in its own right, makes no mention of an educational dimension. Some of the contributions, such as one on a framework for development of an accredited Web-based computer information systems degree, describe what they hope to do rather than how it has worked. The overall impression is of a book thrown together in a hurry with whatever material was available at the time.

This is not to detract from the quality of some of the chapters. The piece on creating a virtual advisor raises interesting issues about adaptation of organisational theory, the use of software programming to reflect human situations, and about student expectations. The chapter on group support systems and the influence of normative behaviour provides a workmanlike literature review and a perceptive discussion of the way people behave in online groups. The Victoria University of Technology provides a useful discussion of the standard of ICT literacy among beginning students and the (sometimes perverse) effects of schemes designed to bring them up to scratch. The two discussions on the effectiveness of online learning, and on cognitive styles and design of e-learning environments provide much food for thought.

Thus there are good parts to this book. But the overall feel is of a job not done. There is better value for money to be had elsewhere. — Rob Parsons End of Review

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Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins (editors).
From Barbie® to Mortal Combat: Gender and Computer Games.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001, c. 1998.
cloth, 360 p., ISBN 0-262-03258-9, US$60.00/UK£38.95.
MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu

Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins (editors). From Barbie to Mortal Combat.

The subject of girls and computer games is an emotive one — for years it’s been speculated that the continued predominance of men in the IT industry is reinforced by a computer games life cycle. Boys play computer games and eventually become skilled and confident computer users at a crucial age which influences their career options. They go on to design new games that match their interests and encourage more boys to follow in their footsteps. Adolescent boys are the main target for games developers. The genres and scenarios they depict reinforce gender stereotypes, either through violent and war-glorifying images, or an endless obsession with male dominated sports. There still seems very little to offer to girls (or boys for that matter ) who don’t feel they can engage with this violence. So, when I settled down with this book, with its snappy title and great cover, the prospect of discovering more about this enigma filled me with excited anticipation.

The book is divided up in to three sections. As the first line of the acknowledgements says, the book "arose out of a one day symposium on gender and computer games sponsored by Women’s Studies at MIT" and it draws both on feminist theoretical understanding as well as empirical evidence from games developers themselves.

The first set of chapters called the "The Girls’ Games Movement" reports on research that look at how boys and girls perceive games, what interests them and what criteria they use when they are invited to create new games themselves. While they don’t suggest these things are innate or biologically determined, many of the authors have clearly found gender differences in what girls and boys like in games.

The second section included interviews with women working in the games industry either in mainstream production such as SEGA or independent companies specifically developing games for girls (e.g. Purple Moon). It is a fascinating account of their lives and career paths. Like many women who work in new media or computing, they had followed unusual routes into their current jobs, from theatre, performance art, and other areas. I enjoyed reading the interview with Nancie Martin’s (executive producer of 'Barbie® Fashion Designer') which in part a dfiscussion of the history of feminism at Mattel!

The final section "Rethinking the Girls’ Games Movement" offers more theoretical ideas about how things might progress — criticising the constructivist approach of developers like Purple Moon (who suggest that girls inhabit different cultural spaces), and revisiting postmodernist ideas of gender as a performance. Girls are seen as naturally inclined towards "caring and connectedness" by many educators and games developers. However, the popular game Phoenix Quest turns out to have been written by a man, begging the question how far gender identity and desires are created by adults rather than children themselves. The conclusion by Justine Cassell is perhaps the most optimistic: "I’d like to design computer games that are as attractive to girls who love Nintendo as they are to girls who can’t stand it".

The book was originally published in 1998, so a lot of the research felt like it might be out of date. It centered around the launch of the Barbie® software series in the late 1990s. I was left wondering what today’s young women — who have grown up with PCs in schools and exposed to a wider range of educational software in their early years — would think. Sadly the Sims arrived too late to be included in this book, a phenomenon which seems in the last couple of years to have bridged the gap between Barbie® and Mortal Combat and opened up a less gender-polarised future for computer games.

Although thought provoking and rich with research findings, the book didn’t answer the question that I find the most intriguing. Why do girls go off computing in such a big way in their teens and what can be done to change this? Some of the authors and games designers in the book seem to think that new types of 'pink' games might make a difference. But it seems to me that the goal of getting more women into IT is a complex process and the problem only made more acute by producing highly gender-stereotyped games. For another view of this problem, read Jane Margolis’ and Allan Fisher’s book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002).

Despite these reservations I found reading the book was inspiring, affirming that there are many women out there trying to address the problem including independent game developers who are busy creating alternatives for girls who want to play games but aren't into guns, driving or golf. — Clem Herman End of Review

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James E. Katz and Ronald E. Rice.
Social Consequences of Internet Use: Access, Involvement, and Interaction.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.
cloth, 486 p., ISBN 0-262-11269-8, US$60.00/UK£38.95.
MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu

James E. Katz and Ronald E. Rice. Social Consequences of Internet Use.

Researching the "Digital Divide" and other larger scale aspects of the impacts of the Internet on society is a daunting task that is key for informing policy creation, design, and other activities intended to steer this expanding technology. Yet readers may find that some of the work emerging from this field of study, put simply, does not make a convincing argument — or appears to reflect a strong author bias.

Most readers will not find this to be the case with Katz and Rice’s The Social Consequences of Internet Use. The authors conducted extensive phone surveys from 1995 to 2000, gathering a battery of data across a broad spectrum of questions, allowing for a controlled and very detailed analysis of their subject. They use this data to create a coherent picture of the changing role of the Internet in Americans’ lives.

Katz and Rice also extend their analysis to include the results of other key researchers in the field. As a survey of the current state of this literature, this volume is an excellent resource. Readers who have had exposure to other research results in this area will find the integration of the authors’ own work into the context of the larger literature to be a mixture of both familiar and surprising new findings.

Key trends in the data are presented in many tables, and more detailed numbers can be found in the appendices. In fact, although the book is well structured and written, the sheer volume of numbers presented can at times be overwhelming. However, thoughtful organization allows readers to focus in on those sections of data and analyses that are of particular interest, and the addition of case studies that extend and illustrate the survey findings helps integrate the larger picture of the authors’ work. For example, when discussing social identity on the Internet, the authors describe a case regarding "authentic identity in Internet professional groups."

Katz and Rice have a stated intention not to study the commercial dimension of the Internet, rather focusing on the three key areas that form the primary organization of the book: "Access," "Civic and Community Involvement," and "Social Interaction and Expression." In their discussion of results within each of these areas, the authors maintain that the Internet is neither a utopian or distopian technology; they view "the Internet as part of Syntopia, a together place that allows people to pursue their interests but that is also a continuity with other aspects of their lives, including their technology of communication ... ".

It would not be doing this work justice to attempt to summarize the results here, but there were two points that stood out as being particularly interesting. In the "Access" category, Katz and Rice describe the phenomena of "Internet dropouts" (individuals who have stopped using the Internet) and detail some of the reasons why these people return to life without this technology. In the "Civic and Community Involvement" section, they use their survey results to detail an argument that the Internet has not reduced social capitol, as some members of the distopian camp maintain. Overall, the authors emphasize "the positive aspects of the Internet to balance the intensely negative scholarly and journalistic criticisms of how the Internet is affecting U.S. society," while at the same time working from the foundation of their findings and refraining from reaching into the "Superlative Praise" category.

Following the timeline through the results of the authors paints to an interesting picture of the changing adoption and usage patterns of the Internet. Although predictions of how these trends may extend into the future are absent, after finishing the volume, readers may find themselves wondering what the next edition of the authors’ work will hold. This reviewer, for one, will be looking forward to it. — Jacob Burghardt End of Review

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Biz Stone.
Blogging: Genius Strategies for Instant Web Content.
Indianapolis, Ind.: New Riders, 2002.
paper, 336 p., ISBN 0-735-71299-9, US$29.99.
New Riders: http://www.newriders.com

Biz Stone. Blogging: Genius Strategies for Instant Web Content.

Blog abbreviates "weblog" and in its simplest form is an easy method of publishing a diary online without skills in HTML, FTP or other means. Typically a blog contains narrative, opinion and links.

Originally blogging facilities were provided by companies offering an online service and user updates required only a Web browser. Now blogging software can be downloaded and installed on a Web server, blurring the distinction between blogs and other interactive Web sites.

Stone rightly relates blogging to Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision of a Web where the scientist users were both readers and authors, using a combined browser/editor. Released into a wider world there was a different model: Many browsed and a few authored. Since then Web authorship has slowly broadened, and blogging is part of that process.

A 2003 survey — http://www.perseus.com/blogsurvey/ — indicated that over four million blogs have been created. But one quarter were abandoned after the first day, and two thirds have not been updated in the last two months.

The boundary between CMS and blog is becoming blurred. Stone mentions providers of blog software and hosting which have also become CMS vendors. There’s a chapter on Group Blogs, which are rather like online message boards that existed before the Web. On a Web site run by a Content Management System (CMS), the box entitled 'News' can be called a blog, indeed Stone shows how a blogging module can be used in a CMS.

The book is a practical introduction to blogging, aimed at non-Webmasters who would like to start blogging. I recommend this book for that audience. To Webmasters some chapters will be familiar territory, though there is much material specific to blogging. Stone countenances the use of <FONT> tags, but he devotes more space to CSS stylesheets.

This is a practical book — it does not say much, apart from the first chapter, about blogging as a sociological phenomenon. Nor does it focus on blogging as part of the history of the Web, though the later chapters show how the boundaries between blogging and other types of Web site are blurring. — John McKeown End of Review

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Martin Weller.
Delivering learning on the Net: The why, what and how of online education.
New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2002.
paper, 191 p., ISBN 0-749-43675-1, UK£16.99.
RoutledgeFalmer: http://www.routledgefalmer.com/

Martin Weller. Delivering learning on the Net.

While the quantity of online learning courses and the range of subjects available continues to grow, the quality of such courses varies tremendously. Those of us engaged in online learning have heard horror stories and have seen examples of online courses which are simply a set of lecturer’s notes made available on the Internet. Some of us have also been lucky enough to work on far more fulfilling courses. Weller’s book looks at the provision of learning using the Internet and takes as an example a U.K. Open University course delivered since 2000. The course, "You, Your PC and the Internet", is the largest for-credit online course in Europe and was limited to 12,000 students in the first full year of presentation. Dr Weller chaired the course and was responsible for its development.

Each chapter of the book is structured with an introduction, lessons for implementation, a summary and a conclusion and thus it mirrors the modular design of many distance learning courses. And in addition to being a comprehensive review of some of the current technologies and the pedagogy of online teaching and learning it is very much a "how to" book with sections on new working methods, assessment and scaling up courses to accommodate large cohorts. It also deals with some of the e-learning myths including the threat to campus-based universities and the threat to standards in education and it considers some of the motivations behind adopting the Internet as a delivery mechanism.

There is recognition that "one size doesn’t fit all" in a design matrix exploring a didactic vs. constructivist approach and a high-tech vs. low-tech approach. This framework yields useful conclusions about how to develop online courses with regard to the intended audience, the scale of the presentation and the likely production and delivery costs.

Fred Lockwood edits this series and I think it’s important to highlight what his foreword correctly states. This book isn’t aimed at "techies" — it’s aimed squarely at educators and discussion about pedagogy and learning outcomes, plagiarism and award board issues outweigh the discussion about technologies and how they might be implemented. Weller also looks at organizational issues; team working, using the technology within the organization and wider changes the organization might need to make to accommodate a move to online delivery.

A book covering this topic in as much detail and with as much authority runs the risk of becoming convoluted and impenetrable but Weller’s writing style is a model of clarity. After reading a couple of chapters I was surprised at the simplicity with which complex arguments had been presented without losing any of the core elements and at how Weller seems to have included so many of the stakeholders in the landscape he’s drawn.

This is a stimulating read which will inform those involved in learning or teaching online and also those currently working in a face-to-face teaching role. Administrators and faculty heads should also use this as a valuable tool in determining which courses should be offered online, when and how. Anyone involved in post-compulsory education in the developed world would do well to read this book. If your organization isn’t offering any online learning this will help you to understand what is soon to come, if you are already working online this is a great checklist to see whether you and the establishment have got it right. — Nigel Gibson End of Review


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