FM Reviews
First Monday

FM Reviews

Beverly Abbey.
Instructional and Cognitive Impacts of Web-Based Education.
Hershey, Pa.: Idea Group Publishing, 2000.
paper, 270 p., ISBN 1-878-28959-4, US$64.95.
Idea Group: http://www.idea-group.com/

Beverly Abbey. Instructional and Cognitive Impacts of Web-Based Education.

Beverly Abbey states in her preface that "This book represents a compendium of current international thought and issues on assessing, designing and delivering instruction via the Web" (p. i). While the majority of the contributors are based in the U.S., there are also contributions from the Netherlands, Australia and Norway.

The issues that the collection considers range from aspects of Web site design, such as navigation, to the pedagogical consequences of Web-based courses which place more responsibility on the learner. In the first chapter, Bastiaens and Martens of the Open University of the Netherlands examine the increasing tendency for university distance education to be integrated with the professional context of the student, lending the academic studies practical relevance.

They propose many arguments, both educational and economic, in favour of distance training. One of the major educational advantages is that "demand-driven" education is much more tailored to the needs of the student than traditional "supply-led" education. The use of ICT also emphasizes independent study. Bastiaens and Martens offer a series of guidelines for the use of Embedded Support Devices which attempt to overcome some of the disadvantages of distance learning, by making the materials more supportive. These guidelines can be of great benefit in the production of course materials for distance learning programmes.

This topic is taken up in Chapter II, where Berg, Collins and Dougherty of the University of Maryland provide design guidelines for Web-based courses, and they share the emphasis on students taking responsibility for their own learning. They point out the importance of structuring the content in a form which is attractive and usable by exploiting the features of the Web and moving away from the traditional linear approach to course design. However, this short chapter comprises general guidelines rather than specific techniques, and lacks the experience-based detail of Chapter I.

In Chapter IV, Bonk, Cummings, Hara, Fischler and Lee from Indiana University posit a continuum of levels of Web integration in a course, which will help educators to find a level that they are able to work with to begin to incorporate the Web in their programmes. The continuum ranges from simply using the Web to market a course to offering a range of courses entirely on the Web. For each level, the authors provide instructional design guidelines; an interactive demonstration of the levels is available at http://php.indiana.edu/~cjbonk.

Similarly, in Chapter VIII, Lowther, Jones and Plants from the University of Memphis identify various levels of use of the Web in education, with each level requiring a particular skill set on the part of the teacher and the student. They provide a summary of the information literacy skills and the technology skills that are required at each level, and use this as a basis for their suggested elements of pre-service teacher training.

Useful as these guidelines are, the most interesting chapters are those which draw on various psychological theories of learning to derive principles for Web site design. A key task for educators is to present information in ways that our students can understand and absorb efficiently, and while the World Wide Web is an excellent medium for disseminating information, it has not yet been proven as a means of promoting the acquisition of knowledge, especially where a critical understanding is required.

"Too often, Web sites are developed for instructional uses without the aid of sound instructional design principles. Content is presented as static, verbal information pages linked to other information pages that may or may not include obvious or intuitive navigational cues for making the cognitive connections necessary for knowledge construction. That is, critical information is delivered in a potentially rich learning environment but the format of the presentation confuses or 'loses' the novice learner" (Rogers, Chapter XIV, p. 217).

Research into the cognitive processes that take place as we interact with material on the Web is at an early stage, but it is clear that these processes are different from those involved in reading a traditionally structured text. It is therefore essential that we design our educational Web sites with these differences in mind.

Berry from the University of Pittsburgh, in Chapter III, focuses on the cognitive effects of Web page design, producing an interesting synthesis of research from various disciplines. He points out that most early research "addressed the perceptual aspects of how users viewed and interacted with data on the screen" (p. 41), and that "little attention has been given to the cognitive effects of screen design and even less to the educational implication of such design" (p. 42).

The main factors of importance that Berry identifies are "those which relate to the physical design of the message and presentation, and those which are derived from how the learner interacts with the pages or site" (p. 45).

Research in text presentation and density supports the suggestion "that text should be presented on Web pages in short chunks and should be edited to simplify content" (p. 46). However, Berry fails to consider the pedagogical consequences of presenting edited and simplified materials, which obviously has a negative impact on the quantity and quality of learning. Similarly, the suggestion that "users may not even read text, but rather skim it" (p. 46) seems to imply that Web-based materials are unlikely to convey detailed content effectively.

The degree of visual complexity that is desirable is still a matter for debate, with some research claiming that the more complex an instructional visual is, the more effectively it will facilitate learning, while others contend that information overload impedes processing. Berry, citing Norman (1983) sensibly cautions that "The potential of information overload due to the combination of browsing forms of interaction and complex visualization may result in imperfect or incomplete processing by students, particularly those who have not developed an adequate mental map or structure of the knowledge being presented" (p. 49).

The learner factors that Berry discusses include the "browser mentality" which means that students do not take time to read carefully and reflect upon the content, as they are impatient to click on the next link. Although Berry does not make the connection explicitly, this tendency may be curbed by materials designers imposing a more linear organization, thus reducing the number of navigational options facing the student. As Berry points out, a key design criterion is to use a simple and consistent design in order to reduce the cognitive demands of navigating the Web site, and maximize the processing of the target material.

In Chapter VI, Leflore of North Carolina A&T takes up the point that "learning can be enhanced if attention is given to how the material to be learned is presented and how students are required to interact with and interpret the material. Learning theories can be used to provide sound guidelines for designing a variety of presentation modes and student activities online" (p. 102).

She provides an insightful overview of the ways in which Gestalt theory, cognitive theory and constructivism can contribute to the more effective design of Web pages. Visual design should be informed by a consideration of the Laws of Perception, including figure-ground contrast, simplicity, proximity, similarity, symmetry and closure. Cognitive theory indicates the use of cognitive mapping, concept attainment activities and the use of motivational graphics, animations and sounds. A Constructivist perspective requires that "students be given active and engaging tasks that require more than minimal intellectual involvement" (p. 103).

The overview of these various theoretical perspectives provides concrete guidelines to help the Web designer who is not a specialist in the psychology of learning to produce pages consonant with the findings of research in that discipline. For each of the psychological theories, Leflore gives a set of guidelines with examples including screenshots to illustrate the principles and help the non-specialist to implement the guidelines in practice.

In Chapter X, Miller and Miller from Texas A&M University-Commerce add depth to the background in learning theories, showing how the shift from objectivist to constructivist epistemological perspectives in recent years has influenced instructional practices and use of Web technology. Indeed the description they give of the Constructivist paradigm is mirrored by the associative, nonlinear and hierarchical structure of the Web. "From the Constructivist perspective, the goal of learning is the construction of meaningful knowledge (i.e., understanding). The added value that the Web offers is a structure that permits expression of learners' evolving comprehension" (p. 164).

A Constructivist approach requires an understanding of how learners create meaning, so that learning environments can be designed to promote the construction of knowledge. The task for designers of Web-based instruction is to integrate Constructivist theoretical assumptions and their instructional implications with the unique structural features of the Web that facilitate the construction of knowledge. Learning can be further enhanced by the use of media to create realistic problem-solving situations, and by collaboration through synchronous and asynchronous communication technologies.

In Chapter XV, Smith-Gratto from North Carolina A&T provides another overview of Constructivism, but also makes a case for combining the Constructivist approach with a stimulus-feedback-response paradigm of programmed instruction as developed by B.F. Skinner (1968). The rationale for this is that Constructivist methods alone may be inadequate in cases where students lack the resources and background knowledge to create meaning from new information. It therefore seems logical to use programmed instruction to provide a foundation on which constructivism can build.

The various chapters on the impact of learning theories in the design of Web-based educational materials complement each other well, and collectively provide a useful insight into the psychological processes that underpin learning. The collection also touches on many other aspects of the design of educational Web sites; its main strength is in the wide variety of perspectives that it presents, and although each of the sixteen chapters is necessarily brief, together they constitute a timely overview of current research. - Peter Beech. End of Review

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Laku Chidambaram and Ilze Zigurs (editors).
Our Virtual World: The Transformation of Work, Play and Life via Technology.
Hershey, Pa.: Idea Group Publishing, 2001.
paper, 250 p., ISBN 1-878-28992-6, US$74.95.
Idea Group: http://www.idea-group.com/

Laku Chidambaram and Ilze Zigurs (editors). Our Virtual World: The Transformation of Work, Play and Life via Technology.

This is a book of large ambitions. It seeks to cover the impact of new technology on 'work, play and life' - so not a lot is left out. The fourteen papers within it are meant to be accessible to anyone. They take as their focus that many of our interactions with other people are now being undertaken in virtual environments rather than face-to-face, and the need this creates for new rules for our interpersonal dealings. The declared purpose is not just to inform us about the issues this development raises but also to make suggestions for ensuring that the transformation is benign rather than otherwise.

Inevitably with such a broad scope and a range of contributors the overall quality is uneven. Given the theme of the book there are two surprising gaps in its coverage: both pornography and computer games have had a huge impact on the contemporary nature of human sociability yet neither rates more than a passing mention. What we are given tends to be rather drier than the editors claim. Some of the chapters don't range beyond bland surveys of particular areas which inevitably will rapidly go out of date, although there are some interesting case studies of online group working and virtual communities. The best chapters take a more analytical approach and try to work out some key principles and suggestions for how to make a sense of virtual interactions in different spheres. Thus some sensible recommendations are made about online teamwork - don't neglect the importance of socialising activities to building effective teams, make sure the technology for online interactions allows for this, and make use of mentors. A paper on the use of the Web by businesses interestingly suggests that in the area at least the Web is not being used chaotically but strategically, as a new medium in which to progress their relationship-building strategies: although no doubt true of the best, it does seem that there are many companies whose Web pages can only be explained by a lack of strategic thought.

Turning to the topic of play, we are told a lot about the world of online poker schools, which was news to me at least. The best paper in this section looks at how the easy availability of opportunities to play, in its widest sense, has a subversive potential for a renewed struggle between workers and employers over control of work time. Employers might tend to see such diversionary activity as a threat to profits if not strictly controlled but they are advised to look as well for the positive benefits in relieving stress and fostering creativity.

The chapter which for me made the most significant contribution comes in the 'life' section, where Jennifer Petersen contests the received wisdom that the Internet has the potential to enhance popular democracy. She sees no evidence of this happening. What the Net is doing, though, is enabling individuals to find more people of common origins or interests and to strengthen their sense of group identity. What is less certain is that it also provides a forum for these groups to articulate their concerns to society in general and to decision-makers. If it doesn't then the outcome will be to enhance social divisions rather than to transform democracy. This seems a plausible and thought-provoking suggestion. Otherwise in this section we are apprised of some of the criteria for successful online community-building, such as a compelling and credible shared purpose and easy-to-use technology, and of common problems like information overload and the difficulty of maintaining commitment and active participation.

Overall this is a worthy but not especially important book. If you are interested in the political possibilities of the Internet read the Petersen paper. Otherwise give it a glance if you come across it, but there's no need to part with your cash. - Ian Chowcat End of Review

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Doron Swade.
The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer.
New York: Viking Penguin, 2001.
cloth, 342 p., ISBN 0-670-91020-1, US$24.95.
Penguin Putnam: http://www.penguinputnam.com/

Doron Swade. The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer.

This is a well-written, solidly researched book by someone immersed in his subject. Swade deals equally well with general historical context and technical description, and pulls no punches when explaining intricate machine operations. He conveys well the ambience of 19th-century Britain with its hierarchies, rivalries, old boys' networks and snobberies, as well as its enthusiasm for all things scientific and technological.

The book has a three-part structure. Parts I and II are devoted to Babbage's lifelong work on his calculating and computing machines, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine respectively. In Part III, 'A Modern Sequel', Swade gives a detailed account of his own involvement in a six-year project at the Science Museum in London, to build a working version of Difference Engine No. 2 in time for the bicentenary of Babbage's birth, 26 December 1991. Swade, in his role as the Museum's Curator of Computing, had overall responsibility for the project, and he presents the ups and downs entertainingly, in the form of a quest paralleling Babbage's own, with a similar mixture of volatile political climate, funding setbacks and time-consuming dead ends. He writes of carefully timed press releases to keep the media on the simmer, cliffhanging deadlines, endless patience with machine jams during the build, and the dogged determination and enthusiasm on the part of the small team of dedicated individuals involved. Does Swade over-dramatise the six-year process to keep his reader turning the pages? I'm inclined to think not - there truly were some heart-stopping moments and long-drawn-out frustrations.

The history of science (and technology) has undergone something of a transformation in recent years: the trend is now not to judge scientists with the benefit of hindsight, but rather to imagine ourselves back into their situation. We have therefore dispensed with the old two-track model which divided the successful 'scientist as hero' from the unsuccessful 'crack-brained eccentric' (e.g. Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace); instead, we have adopted the 'scientist as fallible human being in an imperfect world' scenario. Swade certainly takes this latter approach, and the 'warts and all' detail makes for fascinating reading. We learn about Babbage's complex personality and the adverse influence this had on his progress: he seems to have had a knack for 'queering his own pitch' through a pathological absence of tact and diplomacy, and an inability to foresee the consequences of his actions. An early example of this was his decision to stray into theological territory while a high-flying student at Cambridge with the thesis 'that God was a material agent' - a grave error of judgment for any Victorian scientist. As a result he was accused of blasphemy and 'sent down' without the expected honours degree. But Babbage also had a charming side to his personality. He was a popular dinner guest, and a talented demonstrator of his own inventions. One visitor to Babbage's home, the scientist Lyon Playfair, lost all sense of time: he had visited for breakfast, and had a lunch appointment at one; looking at his watch thinking it must be nearly time for him to leave, he found that it was four in the afternoon!

During the course of the book we begin to understand why Babbage never succeeded in building a complete machine. For one thing, he was something of a lone figure who tended to alienate people rather than draw them to him; while he did occasionally collaborate with others, most famously (if somewhat briefly and controversially) with Ada Lovelace, and employed one or two people to work for him, on the whole he was working alone on a colossal task - indeed, on several overlapping colossal tasks that ended only with his death. The Science Museum project, on the other hand, succeeded, through a combination of teamwork, patience, diplomacy, negotiating skills, compromise, risk-taking and thick-skinnedness. Swade's account demonstrates how anyone who wishes to achieve a vision has to operate within the real world of politics (of all kinds), limited budgets and public relations. And where the Science Museum benefited from its status as a respected national institution, Babbage was an eccentric individual who quickly made himself unpopular with the purse-string-holders and other people-who-matter of his own day.

Because of the relevance of Babbage's work to nautical calculations, it is easy to slip back even further in time, to John Harrison's lifelong struggle in the 18th century to construct an accurate clock for navigational purposes, as chronicled by Dava Sobel in Longitude (New York: Walker, 1995). Indeed, it is clear that Swade and his publishers are deliberately playing on the Sobel connection: the book jackets are similar in design, as are the typefaces and the creamy-coloured paper. Like Sobel, Swade selects a telling epigraph to head each chapter; for example the Astronomer Royal George Biddell Airy's considered opinion on Babbage and his machine: "I think it likely that he lives in a sort of dream as to its utility" (Chapter 2), "It will not slice a pineapple" from Babbage himself (Chapter 6), "What shall we do to get rid of Mr. Babbage and his calculating machine?" from the Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (Chapter 7), and "Go and build your engine" from John Gardner of ICL to Swade (Chapter 14). My edition of Sobel's book contains no picture plates: Swade goes one better here, and includes some well-chosen illustrations to represent the personalities and machines of both centuries.

Sobel's book was successfully adapted to film, with an interesting duality of timeframes between Harrison and his 20th-century 'interpreter' Rupert Gould, and I believe that Swade's book would also translate well, with scenes alternating between Babbage and the Science Museum team. I cannot resist indulging myself here over the casting implications: Richard Dreyfus as a grumpy but enthusiastic Babbage? Anna Friel as his flighty, aristocratic friend Ada Lovelace? And to match the intricate elegance of Harrison's clocks, we would have the beauty of the Difference Engine's 'carry mechanism', which Swade describes in almost poetic terms: an opportunity for an accompanying musical score in the minimalist style?

Swade ends his book by pointing out that, rather than being the misunderstood genius of early computing, Babbage actually managed to set computer development back by several decades: his 'colossal failure' became so well known that it cast a blight on later pioneers' efforts to design and build their own calculating machines. The Science Museum's successful construction of Difference Engine No. 2 has at least vindicated Babbage there. - Dr. Gill Stoker End of Review

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M. Mitchell Waldrop.
The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal.
New York: Viking, 2001.
cloth, 502 p., ISBN 0-670-89976-3, US$29.95.
Penguin Putnam: http://www.penguinputnam.com/

M. Mitchell Waldrop. The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal.

This book is both more and less than it promises to be. It takes the form of a detailed tour through practically everything to do with the American development of the personal computer and the Internet in the 60s and 70s. It has both visible strengths and visible weaknesses which makes it a joy to review.

The strengths are the surefooted telling of a complex story involving a cast of hundreds and stretching over two decades and more. The writing is robust and the narrative engaging. It is a long story of some 470 pages and Mitchell Waldrop is to be congratulated for sticking to his task.

In researching the story Mitchell Waldrop has made extensive use of the oral history archive at the University of Minnesota's Charles Babbage Institute. It is excellent to see the results of this work receive a public airing in a very readable form, but at the same time disappointing that the material has not been attacked in a more systematic manner. The book seems to fall between two stools. It is more careful than a coffee table book needs to be, but not careful enough to be a high class academic study. It also ultimately fails to be what it purports to be, that is an assessment of Licklider's contribution to the growth of computing. It gets the bones of the story in, in between lengthy diversions to other parts of the computing world. It makes clear that there has been consultation with Licklider's widow, and it even recounts the moment of his death. But there is too little flesh in between the beginning and the end. We see some glimpses of his character, but there is more anecdote than analysis. Early on there is a telling moment when Mitchell Waldrop discusses how Licklider loved playing tennis until the day he suffered an ankle injury which made it no longer possible for him to play at the pace and standard he had set himself. So he stopped. This bespeaks ambition and perfectionism, but Mitchell Waldrop does not take the opportunity to analyse it in the depth it deserves. Other anecdotes get the same kind of treatment when they could so easily have been made to tell more. In later parts we get more flesh, as it were, particularly in the discussion of Licklider's second tour at ARPA, where his administrative failings became plain to see, but there is no consistency in the picture.

So the book is not a biography, at least not an individual biography but more of a collective one. It suffers however from another feature of the way history is remembered, which requires those who take up the writing of a book like this to be extremely vigilant and cautious in the way they assemble their facts and draw their conclusions. The issue is that much of the history of the Internet has already ceased to be history and become myth. A case in point is the story of Robert Taylor getting a million dollars to start his networking project from boss Charlie Herzfeld in twenty minutes. This incident is recounted in detail with dialogue and with Taylor's inner thoughts. The same incident is recounted in Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), among others, in the same degree of detail and with inner musings. The trouble is that the words used are different in each case. We have no way of knowing which is true, if either of them, because neither gives the source of the material. There may well be no written or recorded source, just a story that "everyone knows". But we are not told. Those who write books of this kind have some duty to nail down the evidence and not simply to repeat the myths, regardless of how well they tell the story.

There are two ways, however, in which Mitchell Waldrop has done the history of these times a good turn. The first is that by combining together the stories of so many different people in so many different places, he has recreated a remarkable sense of the excitement of discovery and co-operation in so many fields. The second is that he puts the genesis of personal and co-operative computing fairly and squarely in its context of Cold War, and especially the Vietnam War and its political dimensions. Many commentators in the Internet business are reluctant to acknowledge its military origins, feeling, I assume, that these compromise the Internet's potential as a force for good. But without a true record, even of the unpalatable parts, there is no context and no reality.

For these contributions, then, as well as the quality of the story telling, the book scores highly. So would I buy it? Yes. I would buy it for Christmas, read it snug in an armchair, and then I would go looking for more. - Rob Parsons End of Review


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