Book reviews

By Mitul Shukla, David Mathew, Philippa Armitage, Nigel Upton

Trust and Virtual Worlds: Contemporary Perspectives

Charles Ess and May Thorseth (Eds.)

Peter Lang Publishing (2011)

Review by Mitul Shukla

This is a slight book, being just over A5 in size with around 200 pages; for some reason it reminded me of my copy of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. However, it is not a book written by a poet philosopher, although it is book containing strong philosophical debate, and in certain areas I would argue it is profound. Trust and Virtual Worlds: Contemporary Perspectives is made up of a series of works which were originally presented at the 'Philosophy of Virtuality: Deliberations, Trust, Offences and Virtues' event which took place in 2009 at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Reading through Trust and Virtual Worlds, I had the distinct feeling that that book was unafraid to tackle difficult concepts and subjects including, but not limited to, sexual objectification in child pornography, financial disparity and even mortality. This is not always an easy book to read. However it is one, in my humble opinion, worth reading.

Trust and Virtual Worlds is organised into three sections:

  • Historical and cultural perspectives
  • Philosophical perspectives on trust in online environments
  • Applications/implications

I found it interesting that the first section of the book gives a fairly clear contextualisation, and then a further exploration, of the philosophical stances taken in the critique of the virtual space in the extant literature. Indeed the contributing authors contextualise and then underline the perceived mismatch of the dualistic view of the virtual and the real. Essentially, the point here is that rather than understanding the online and offline, or the virtual and the real, as being distinct spaces, we can, through the lens of embodiment, perceive not only the virtual as an extension of the real but more accurately as the two being interwoven.

This section of the book also has some interesting debate concerning the nature of how learning is affected by our presence in virtual domains. In fact, the point is made as to the effectiveness of online learning, first from a dualistic perspective and then from an embodied one. Further exploration here is taken regarding tacit knowledge transfer online from an embodied perspective. An interesting point made in this part of the book is the improvement for some learners which is achieved through being non-co-located with other learners. The case is, essentially, that online learning is 'safer' for some students as they are not co-located with other students and are therefore more likely to articulate their thoughts, and indeed engage with others, on a given matter. This it is argued, primarily from a trust perspective, is the case as learners are less vulnerable to others through physical non-co-location with others.

The second section of Trust and Virtual Worlds looks at the impact on our understanding of trust online when we take the embodiment perspective as our basis of approach rather than the Cartesian dualistic perspective often taken in the literature.

This second section also elaborates upon the trust we give to online and/or software agents. Examples given in the text on these matters range from the relatively mundane rating systems that are used on websites such as Ebay or Amazon, to the potentially life or death situations encountered through the use of unmanned aerial systems such as the American Predator drone. This latter example is also one in which software agents need to trust one another, which adds a further layer of complexity to how we can understand and define what trust is.

A colleague once confided in me that his research area (trust) was a very 'messy' field. This viewpoint was essentially acknowledged towards the end of the second section of the book. Furthermore, some solutions to this 'messy' field effect were given. One offering in particular was the somewhat radical conclusion that we may gain a better understanding of trust, not as a focus of investigation but rather when trust is perceived as a supporting factor to other phenomena.

The part of the third section of this book I will focus upon here deals with virtual child pornography. This I found to be a well balanced, non-judgemental and insightful piece, however distasteful the subject matter may have been on a personal level. A key issue in this chapter is that virtual child pornography contains no real children, but rather depictions or avatars thereof. Further, that the creation, distribution and possession of such imagery can be seen as a 'victimless crime' even if this imagery can be deemed illegal. Ultimately, however, this chapter concludes that virtual child pornography is indeed a 'harmful immorality' based on the equality norm being essentially flouted.

In conclusion, Trust and Virtual Worlds is a book squarely aimed at an informed reader. However, having said that, all of the relevant references are given and therefore one could fill in any gaps in assumed knowledge by the authors. Overall I found this a highly insightful work which considered philosophical perspectives, as well as practical applications, and even the implications as to how this technology is and can be used or abused. I think this is a book I will buy.

Learning Development in Higher Education

Peter Hartley, John Hilsdon, Christine Keenan, Sandra Sinfield, Michelle Verity (Eds.)

Palgrave Macmillan (2011)

Review by David Mathew

For the purposes of this book, learning development is 'typically defined to include areas of practice such as study skills, academic advice, lifelong learning, and learning support'. At first, this definition (on page 1) seems uncontentious enough; and the scope of the book seems impressive and generous, especially if there will also be discussions on challenges, such as 'the proposition that in some circumstances learning development may be part of the problem rather than the solution!'

It is structured in five sections. In the first, the contributors' task is to expatiate on what learning development might be. Not only is it (in the words of John Hilsdon) 'a complex set of multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary academic roles and functions, involving teaching, tutoring, research, and the design and production of learning materials, as well as involvement in staff development, policy-making and other consultative activities', it is also misunderstood (and by implication, maligned), according to the chapter by Linda Murray and Bob Glass. Assuming not even an ideal world, but more a well-thought-out industry in which occupation terminology is more or less constant (we can dream), is a learning developer an academic or non-academic position? Murray and Glass (inadvertently, perhaps) call for this debate, while acknowledging that 'there seems to be some way to go before a full awareness of what [LD services] actually do is reached outside of the learning development community itself.' While learning developers, for example, see themselves as 'professionals, specialists, teachers, experts, academics' etc, the students have different ideas: proof readers and counsellors, for instance.

Ann Barlow, John Acroyd and Alyssa Phillips consider learning development as 'part of the problem': 'How much individual responsibility should university staff require students to take for their own learning?' they ask. And it's a good question. The authors follow it up with a full chapter; but whether we are in the camp that believes that we mollycoddle our students, or the camp that believes that students have earned (or paid for) the right to as much support as they can bear, the 'problem' would seem to be divided between the unquantifiable nature of the service itself (i.e. 'how much?') and a host of other factors. Undoubtedly it is a chewy subject in an excellent chapter, which also includes retrospective acuity – a passage on approaches to learning in the university's history – and even a comparison between eighteenth century rationalism and a contemporary study skills manual!

The second section 'looks at approaches taken by learning developers to improve a range of student transition experiences'. Over the course of five chapters we learn (again) that for want of a name the kingdom was lost (as it were): this time with respect to personal development planning. What is it? How can it be used effectively when 'Some academic staff take a view that PDP is irrelevant to their subject'? (in a chapter by Christine Keenan). Certainly the notion that PDP involves – no, demands – the engagement of learners and staff is abroad in this section's chapters, and the opinions on independent learning, expectations, and on student transition itself are usefully explored (by Ed Foster, Sarah Lawther and Jane McNeil).

The development of effective academic practice is the focus in the third section of the book. This contains interesting contributions on the subjects of academic writing, conceptual drawing, multimedia, the possibility of interdependence between learning and research, and the struggle to build student confidence in numeracy. It was heartening to see so much ground covered in fifty-odd pages, a compliment that I would like to extend to the whole book, adding to my comment on generosity in my opening paragraph.

The fourth section – on students and technology – is every bit as thought-provoking as what has preceded it (although not always for the right reasons), and initially every bit as helpfully shameless in its admission as to how little is known about the subject. However, it swiftly becomes apparent that there is something slightly odd here; that we do know more than the book is letting on. Warily nodding in agreement with comments about 'a new and emergent pedagogy' (in a chapter by Debbie Holley, Tom Burns, Sandra Sinfield and Bob Glass), or about costs and benefits, your reviewer was struck by how old most of the references were, with very few more recent than 2007. Online learning, a new and emergent pedagogy? Well, yes; but not in the way that this chapter's authors mean. Undeniably well-written, this chapter is already half a decade out of date, especially given the context of rapid changes in learning in an online milieu.

No doubt it will seem unfair that I would highlight issues that are probably not the editors' fault. Indeed, it is only when reading about a period of e-learning (and even the term e-learning) that is mostly in the past that one acknowledges the realities and vicissitudes of publishing schedules. I would guess that this book has been in the works for some time, but this does not tarnish its shine. Nor are my comments meant harshly: quite the opposite. The section on technology might have dated faster than the other sections, but it was good to remember Prensky, for example; and credit to all of the authors involved.

Ending with a look at steps for the future, Learning Development in Higher Education is a book that should be of interest to anyone in H.E… in which group I would include students. Although the book was not prepared with a student readership in mind, it occurs while reading that it might be a good idea sometimes to let our learners have a peek behind the curtain and to glimpse the diligence with which we, either directly or indirectly, endeavour to augment their university experience.

Personality in the Classroom

David Hodgson

Crown House Publishing (2012)

Review by David Mathew

Differentiation in the classroom was never mentioned – not once – while I was studying for my first teaching qualification in 1994. Fast forward five years, and the concept was on the ascendant; and by the beginning of the new millennium, it was as firmly a part of any given lesson plan as 'expected student numbers' or the words group activity.

Things change. Education changes and students change, and the industry is the richer for this triumph over stagnation: not that everyone is listening, of course, despite the best efforts and pedagogic decibelage of the likes of David Hodgson, who has now nailed his colours to the mast with a volume on the subject.

Sort of.

Engaging and well researched as this book undoubtedly is, it's a tricky one to review. It is largely made up of quizzes and activities set to nail down (say) the reader's personality, once and for all (as if this happened to be a much-discussed topic). So it was that as early as page 5, your reviewer found himself psychologically aligned with David Beckham and Marge Simpson (I kid you not!), and I was told that I gain energy from inside myself and recharge my battery (whatever that really means) by spending time alone.

As it happens, this is perfectly true (if I've understood it correctly) but what's it got to do with education? Moving on through the next quiz I learn that I'm 'imaginative, creative' – that I'm one of the 'dreamers' (such as Cinderella or Doctor Who: 'potential market?' is a question that springs to mind) who takes 'information in by looking at the big picture'.

Once again, true enough; but so what, I couldn't help thinking. If I'm closer to Katie Price than I am to Cheryl Cole (the results of the third quiz), I am happy to be so, as baffled as I might be to detect the difference; but I would have appreciated, by this point, a clue from the author as to where we were going with this.

Where we're going with this, it turns out, is to an exegesis, almost, of the 'perfect teacher'. And it is at this point (early on, page 15) that a wary sneer creeps across the reviewer's face. You see, while we're in a confessional mood, I might as well own up to something else at this point. The problem I have with this book is quite simple: I don't believe in any of this stuff. However engagingly it might have been written, I don't buy it. I'm sorry. It's a personal failing, I am certain. This book might well be of use to many practitioners, but it's not for me, I'm afraid – nor will it be at any point in the near future.

'Types.'

If I'm absolutely honest (and we've come this far, so why not be frank?) I think it's the notion of 'types' that catches in the critical craw. It is not that I don't like it, so much as I don't believe in it. (It's not even that I don't agree with it: it's more that I happen to think it's nonsense.)

The experience leaves the reviewer with a host of conflicts to deal with. Personality in the Classroom is well written... and I didn't want to read it. It is riddled with research... much of which I would take issue with. It's a good book for types unlike mine.

Full On Learning: Involve Me and I'll Understand

Zoe Elder

Crown House Publishing (2012)

Review by David Mathew

In a book in which many core messages are boiled down to snappy, though often meaningless, one-liners ('Unpack your own expertise' for example), it seems apt to do something of the kind myself. 'Full On Learning states the obvious in an engaging manner', perhaps. 'Has a striking internal design and employs annoyingly modish jargon', maybe... A most perplexing addition to the canon, it has the shape and feel of a coffee table book, not to mention a generous palette of full colour throughout; yet it covers the important subject that gathers all of us together in the pages of this very journal. With its 'feelgood' delivery, an amalgam of common-sense practicality and have-a-punt theorisation – this in turn coupled with an urgent restlessness not to remain in the same mental space for too long – the book is an earnest music-hall comedian, desperate to reach the end of his repertoire before being asked to vacate the stage.

I mean this seriously. There is something frantic about Full On Learning (as one interpretation of the title might suggest – of which more below). The subtitle is derived from a Chinese proverb which is quoted in the early pages: 'Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.' Using (generally) short paragraphs and sections, tables, illustrations and bons mots – using, in other words, any trick in the pedagogic book – the author whisks us through digital learning, collaboration, feedback and motivation; we explore her thoughts on emotional intelligence and the importance of creative thought, the prose frequently interrupted by questions to the audience or a chart (ensuring, of course, that the what is preached is practised: the book does indeed appeal to a variety of learning styles).

In several ways, Full On Learning is original and quirky – even funky. (The publisher's work is not always to my taste, but it is never dull.) What must be stressed, however, is this: it is in some of the areas of more rampant stabs at originality that the book looks like it's trying too hard. Let us return, for example, to the subject of jargon. Every one of the twelve chapters starts with the words 'Full On...' – 'Full On Powerful Learners', 'Full On Creative Thinking': there is even a 'Full On Introduction' for pity's sake – and it is probably worth considering if you are someone who will think this amusing and resourceful, or someone (like me) who thinks it's overcooked. (While we're on the subject, what does 'full on' actually mean? – mean to you? A five-second search reveals a grab-bag of possible definitions: complete; holding nothing back; intense; relentless; having a strong or wild personality; audacious; there is even a reference to menstruation! While it might have meant any number of different things to the author, it might also have been nice to know what dictionary she used.)

Different issues about the language itself pertain. If you are able to get through a sentence like the following without sighing – 'teaching can be viewed as a punctuation mark in the steady flow of semi-conscious and unconscious thoughts that run through a learner's mind' – then you might well be Zoe Elder's ideal reader. Or perhaps you prefer to ditch the metaphysics and get to grips with the pragmatic. 'Knowledge is power and in order to build new things you need a foundation of old things, just as in Newton's famous quote about 'standing on the shoulders of giants'.' Well, quite. Elder has certainly read around, as her numerous supporters fervently aver herein. Indeed, the book's endpapers are a collection of rhapsodic, nay, nigh-on climactic plaudits, harvested from a wide range of sources (sadly, not 'Full On Praise': a missed opportunity, I felt). The problem is, sometimes, that in its efforts to be all things to all educators, we have a good deal of short cuts to navigate. For example, one section is headed 'IRT = EA (CA + IA)', where IRT stands for intellectual risk-taking, EA is emotional age, CA is chronological age and IA is intellectual age. The book is crammed as full as an egg, on occasion with concepts such as this: concepts that might have benefited from at least the courtesy of a bit less rushed exposition.

Misbehaviour Online in Higher Education

Laura A. Wankel & Charles Wankel (Eds.)

Emerald Group Publishing Limited (2012)

Review by Philippa Armitage

My initial thoughts on reading the title were that this book would contain ideas relating to academic offence issues, and the copying of online sources in assessments. However, this was not the main issue in the book. While the book does touch on issues of plagiarism in online academic publication and online testing, its main focus is the issue of cyber-bullying.

Other than the introduction, there are 17 chapters in the book. Each chapter is an article which deals with a different aspect of misbehaviour online. Five of these cover cyber-bullying. Each chapter consists of an abstract, main text and references.

I focussed on the three chapters most relevant to the issues of academic offences: Chapter 12, 'Misbehaviour in Online Testing'; Chapter 17, 'Will the Real "John Doe" Stand Up? Verifying the Identity of Online Students'; and Chapter 2, 'Publish or Perish: Ramifications for Online Academic Publishing'. Chapters 12 and 17 focus on issues of student online identity and of collusion and cheating in online tests, while Chapter 2 focuses on the pressure facing academics to publish work, the ease of doing this online, and the problems that this can create, such as the multiple publications of the same paper.

Misbehaviour in Online Testing (243-260) by Michael Mays looks at the benefits of online testing, such as random question generation (so that different students receive different questions on the same subject area), and multiple choice questions (which give the opportunity for immediate marking and grading); and the problems of online testing (such as the possibility for the student to access further information through the computer to assist in completing the test, and the ability for students to collude when the test is not strictly monitored and students are able to complete it in their own time).

Mays discusses assessment design, suggesting that students see assessments as 'obstacles to overcome' rather than tools for assisting their learning. The author suggests that if online tests were used within the learning institution, software should be installed which will prevent the student from being able to access the internet and use prohibited information. Where the test is taken within the institution, these issues are easier to enforce; where the learning is online this can be more difficult. The chapter also emphasises the importance of making the rules clear to the students prior to starting the test. It is also noted that it can confirm that the correct student is taking the exam by use of fingerprint access to the test.

'Will the Real "John Doe" Stand Up? ' (355-377) by Wendy L Kraglund-Gauthier and David C Young looks at the increased use of internet based learning throughout the world and how the rules of learning and testing are enforced; it also looks at how student identity can be tested. In the setting of tests and assessments the authors acknowledge that students do share course materials from year to year, and that one way to avoid plagiarised assessments is to vary the tests and assessments which are set each year. In addition, the recommendation is that for online tests, several versions should be set so that when the student logs on he or she is randomly assigned a set of questions.

The ability to ensure that the correct student takes the test can vary from use of password protected assessments and tests, to additional use of camera based monitoring during a test and the use of fingerprint login or iris recognition. It is also now possible to install a device on a computer which prevents the student from accessing prohibited information. The chapter also advises the need to be aware of the rights to privacy of students who are learning online.

'Publish or Perish' (11-24) by Tracey Bretag focuses on the pressure upon academics to publish their work, and the issues relating to online publishing. Increased pressure to publish has resulted in issues such as creating several papers from one piece of research, using sections of previously published work in a new paper, publishing the same work in an online journal as well as a larger journal simultaneously, and submitting a paper to two journals at the same time. Bretag maintains that this practice is 'self plagiarism, and should be penalised with sanctions similar to those imposed on students who plagiarise'. Not only can this be seen as self plagiarism, it is not accepted by journal editors, but can be difficult for the editors of small journals to identify if they do not have access to the resources enabling them to check originality.

Bretag discusses research which revealed a professor in India who submitted obscure papers by other authors, which were downloaded from the internet by his students. These were submitted for publication under his own name, often with co-authors. An enquiry found 70 instances of offence over a four year period. While the provision of clear guidelines, and the morals of the individual should be adequate to prevent this, there are always cases of people who will breach this. While it can take several months, even over a year, for a paper to be published in a highly rated journal, it could be published much more quickly in a small journal or e-journal. Authors can then be tempted to publish in a smaller journal while waiting for a paper to be accepted by a larger journal.

The chapters covering the issue of cyber-bullying look at how in speaking to someone face to face, conflict is less likely to involve bullying tactics than it would when it occurs online. These issues within colleges and universities, and the perceptions of both the bullies and victims, are discussed. Questions are raised which may be useful to those who are required to monitor, advise and enforce issues involving cyber bullying.

The book covers various aspects of online issues within education. There are multiple references included at the end of each chapter, and the ideas from these references discussed within each chapter. These references would serve as sources for further reading and expansion on the ideas covered. The book would be useful for those involved in aspects of education requiring online use, whether for social or education purposes. It may not address all aspects of any issue, but the number of references included within the book should give the opportunity for further reading within the subject.

Understanding Digital Literacies: A Practical Introduction

Rodney H. Jones and Christoph A. Hafner

Routledge (2012)

Review by Nigel Upton

Books on 'e-learning' are RUBBISH.

It's a bold statement, but I have a problem.  Since becoming a Learning Technologist just over two years ago, I have read a fair few of them and the most noticeable thing I have taken away is that no one really BELIEVES in all this stuff surely…

They all champion the benefits of technology in learning.  Talk about how the use of technology increases the efficacy of learning and makes for more engaged communities of active students.  But the thing is, they're all just books.  None of them SHOW you how valuable it can be, none of them practice what they preach.

Thankfully this book is a little bit different.  To start with, it assumes no prior knowledge and covers a wide range of subjects right from what is meant by the term digital literacy, through to tools, practices and how digital literacy is affecting the world around us.  It does this in accessible language but also in an in-depth way, illustrating concepts with activities and useful case studies.

One of the most interesting things about this book for me, however, was the availability of accompanying online materials on a companion website.

This provided an opportunity to add much more depth and richness to the points made in the book, and made it possible to explore concepts both in greater detail and using alternative methods designed to facilitate preferred learning styles.  These came in the form of additional diagrams, activities and case studies that, for me, underpinned the main points and made the concepts much clearer.

This made a really refreshing change from books I have read recently; in fact, I found myself being almost disturbingly enthusiastic about the subject of digital literacy whilst reading this book.

Maybe there is something to this after all…

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