Book reviews

By David Mathew, Lilian Alys, Herbert Daly, Mitul Shukla, Mark Gamble

Learning at Not-School

Julian Sefton-Green

The MIT Press (2013)

Review by David Mathew

While some people might disagree that 'it is universally acknowledged across the social spectrum that schools in and of themselves are not the end-all and be-all of education' (the word universally is particularly worrisome), it is nonetheless fair to accept that as time progresses, more and more alternatives to a traditional, classroom-based, face-to-face learning experience have become available. These alternatives are what the author terms 'learning in Not-School' experiences, where we learn in not-school environments such as after-school programmes, youth clubs, or on the Web.

This is an interesting idea for a short book of 92 pages, but I do wish that the editing and proofreading had been more robust. However interested one is in a subject, the tightrope of reader interest can be easily twanged by something like the following paragraph (from page 23), which I quote at length.

The 'learner in not-school settings is theorized in two important ways: in respect of their (sic)interest, enthusiasm, and motivation, and along an a (sic) emotional axis in terms of their relationships with others, especially adults. The former focus in a sense posits the figure of the learner as possessing agency and individual choice that is frequently denied in other settings. Yet the latter focus is often preoccupied with deficits, with the absence of parenting figures in young people's lives and the needs of the young for support and security.'

These sentences are, unfortunately, not alone: this is but one of the book's paragraphs that obliges the reader to auto-correct errors as he goes along. On plenty of occasions I found myself re-reading a gobbet, mentally painting in the correct punctuation, or smoothing out an imbalanced phrase. And while I fully accept that a book should be the reader's work as much as the writer's, I cannot help feeling that for want of a sterner editorial eye Learning at Not-School would have constituted a more enriching reading experience. A pity.

Education in Prison: Studying through distance learning

Emma Hughes

Ashgate Publishing Limited (2012) 

Review by Llian Alys

Every year, an estimated 4,000 prisoners study through distance learning (Schuller 2009). Due to staffing, financial and other resource implications, most prison education departments can only focus on basic skills and therefore distance learning[1] offers the 'educated'[2] prisoner opportunities to continue their learning career (Hodkinson 2004; cited by Hughes 2010). Despite interest in the association between education and crime (e.g. Groot & van den Brink 2010), prison-based education and prison-based distance learning in particular have not received much research attention (Hughes 2012). The small body of work in this area is growing however as evidenced by 'Education in Prison.' This book presents the findings of Hughes' qualitative study of prisoners' experiences of distance learning in prison (funded by Birmingham City University and the Prisoners' Education Trust). From a pool of nine prisons, 76 respondents who had undertaken courses funded by the Prisoners' Education Trust completed questionnaires and 47 were also interviewed about distance learning and its unique benefits (e.g. variety of topics, expert tutelage) and challenges (e.g. motivation, independent learning).

In Chapter 1 (Introduction), Hughes provides a brief summary of research and policy concerning prison education and sets the scene for the research (describing the political landscape at the time and the methodology of the study). Chapters 2 and 3, respectively, examine the personal and institutional factors which 'push' prisoners towards distance learning and those which 'pull' them away from education. Chapter 4 explores the interaction between education and identity — how education influences self-perceptions and how self-perceptions can also sabotage the learning process. In contrast to Chapter 4's focus on the self, Chapter 5 turns to the other actors in the learner's life (both within and outside prison and including family, friends, fellow prisoners and prison staff) and how they can impact on the learning process and how this learning may influence the prisoner's wider network and environment. Chapter 6 focuses on the future – how learning and education may impact aspirations, direction, opportunities and identities post-release. The final Chapter 7 (the Conclusion) draws together the threads in the previous chapters and makes a number of policy suggestions for encouraging engagement with education in prison.

The book is written in a clear and engaging manner with consistent signposting to themes and chapters. Hughes makes good use of quotations and refers to supportive theoretic and research evidence when appropriate. Surprisingly, given the overall quality of the book, the discussion of methodology is limited. For example, no information is given regarding the questionnaire items and the interview questions and therefore the quotes provided are decontextualised. It is interesting that the author refers to the importance of context in relation to decisions to study or not but does not refer to how the context of the interview may have influenced responding. While Hughes admits in the introduction that the 'students' stories have inevitably been filtered and shaped by myself, and my role as a researcher in developing, participating and influencing the overall process cannot be ignored' (p. 10), little reflection is undertaken on this issue.

Hughes' work is a valuable reminder that behind each statistic is a person and that behind each enrolment (or not) on an educational course, there are multiple personal, social and environmental determining factors. The strength of this book is bringing to life the educational histories of these individuals and allowing us to learn from their failures, false starts and (most importantly) their successes. If you are interested in facilitating the learning of disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups, this book will be of interest to you. While Hughes makes links between prison-based education and adult learning in the community, there are also parallels with learning in a widening access institution. I am in no way implying that students at the University of Bedfordshire are criminals or that they will one day continue their education behind bars... However, they may have very similar educational life histories to Hughes' participants. For example, some may come from families or communities with a 'counter-school culture' (Willis 1977) or no previous experience of higher education. Some may have had negative experiences at school (being more interested in friends than in education and experiencing conflicts with teachers) and others may have had an undiagnosed learning disorder which they feel held them back. Most importantly and I would argue, most commonly, many may lack academic confidence. To 'push' towards education, Hughes, or rather her interviewees, emphasise the importance of having a subject of interest and a suitable learning approach, of deconstructing psychological barriers to learning and building up academic confidence and self-esteem (elements embedded within our University's Cre8 framework). The prisoners' narratives also include some cautionary advice. They demonstrate how institutional policies and attitudes and those of other prisoners and staff can undermine self-confidence and motivation to engage in education. Students and staff can also inadvertently create an environment unsupportive of learning by focussing on the outcome (grades) to the exclusion of the learning process (development of transferable skills). It can also be challenging for the staff member balancing numerous responsibilities to focus upon what is important – facilitating the students' learning experience – and this may be evident to students. The University of Bedfordshire goes to great lengths to demonstrate the value and importance it places on the learner's experience and its commitment to education but this diligence must be continuously monitored and maintained.

To conclude, this book is not a 'good practice' guide or evaluation of current interventions in prison but provides an insight into the diverse experiences of learners (whether they are prisoners or not). It demonstrates the life-changing capacity of education to restore 'spoiled identities' and form 'new' and valued ones (Hughes 2012) and if nothing more, is therefore an inspiration to teacher practitioners. It is up to the reader to determine whether and how they can make best use of this insight in their own role.

References

  • Groot, W., & van den Brink, H. (2010) 'The effects of education on crime' Applied Economics, Volume 42, Number 3, pp. 279-289.
  • Hodkinson, P. (2004) Career decision-making, learning careers and career progression. Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training Working Paper 12 (based on Discussion Paper given at Working Day II, 23 February 2004). [Online]. Available previously at: www.nuffield14-19review.org.uk/files/documents38-1.pdf [Accessed: 5 January 2005].
  • Schuller, T. (2009) Crime and lifelong learning: IFLL Thematic Paper 5. Leicester: NIACE.
  • Willis, P.E. (1977) Learning to labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. Farnborough: Saxon House.

Innovations in Mobile Educational Technologies and Applications

David Parsons

IGI Global (2013)

Review by Herbert Daly

Applying mobile computing technologies to support education has been a strong theme in research for the broader fields of Education and Information Systems. This new title from IGI Global brings together a comprehensive collection of studies which frames and illuminates this new area. The collection, of 20 studies in total, is based on research from a variety of universities around the world, though work from European institution predominates. The four sections of the book address different aspects of mobile learning; the section first looks at established research directions, the second examines design solutions and theoretical frameworks, the third focuses on solution development, while the fourth section looks at the evaluation of different applications.

Section one, Mobile Learning Research Directions, frames recent m-learning research strands from different perspectives. Traxler's chapter (Chapter 1), for example, identifies some achievements so far in the field from the perspective of a researcher conscious of the field's rapid development from its recent inception. By contrast Vas & Kismihok (Chapter 4) examines the perceptions of students who have experienced m-learning about its effectiveness. Wingkvist & Ericsson (Chapter 2) looks in detail at methods applied in mobile learning studies, surveying and evaluating more than one hundred studies to provide a summary of established research techniques and approaches.

Section two, Mobile Learning Design Solutions and Theoretical Frameworks, looks at successful activities in the m-learning space with the intent to isolate design features of effective studies. Three of the studies, Chapters 7, 8 and 9, focus on audio m-learning applications, examining case studies and guidelines in the area. Eliasson et al. (Chapter 5) looks at guidelines for design of collaborative exercises, identifying the device focussed approach as a possible distraction from an interactive learning experience, and strategies to address this. Coens et al. (Chapter 9) look at distraction from a different view point studying the relative effectiveness of students multitasking in an m-learning context. These studies suggest frameworks for design solutions as well as the effective use the technology.

Section three, Mobile Learning Solution Development, which contains only three chapters, looks at approaches to developing solutions informed by the needs of the educational problem being addressed. Seisto et al. (Chapter 11) provide a case study of a hybrid book project where users where involved in the design project. Ekanayake & Wishart (Chapter 12) examine an example from Sri Lanka where mobile camera phones where used in field work focusing on the different tasks and interactions this facilitated. The third, Nouri et al. focused on collaborative approach of students working in groups on a maths project using the well known Activity System Model as the main theoretical framework for analysis of the case study.

The fourth section, Evaluating Mobile Learning Interventions, provides an extensive look at the evaluation of mobile learning studies and practice, comprising seven chapters. Studies typically focus on different groups of students and whether the m-learning experience has proven effective for them. Soon (Chapter 18) focuses on the experiences of distance learners using combined e-learning and m-learning resources to complete a project. Their perceptions are examined using a qualitative approach to develop a framework of success factors for this group. Gwee et al. (Chapter 16) looks at the role of gender in a mobile game based exercise, looking at the time spent by different groups on a high school project and the outcomes for them in terms of learning and achievement. Bradley and Holley (Chapter 20) look the attitudes a group of students have to their mobile phones together with case studies for how three different students make use of their phones around their learning environment. Cochrane (Chapter 14), reflects on four years of action research studies looking a mobile web based technologies proved to cohorts on different degree courses, presenting student evaluations of their experiences

All in all, this very good book offers access to a sound collection of studies which could support the work of both experienced and novice researchers. The references from each of the chapters provide a valuable source of important theoretical references as well as key contributions to the field. Some of my more advanced undergraduate project students were able to use it to support their project work and gage popular themes as well as the state of the art in this area. It is a good addition to a library where the practical nuts and bolts of platforms and implementation can sometimes predominate. This book provides valuable perspective on previous work and offers foundations to explore new territory.

Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: a Handbook of Method

Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce & T. L. Taylor

Princeton University Press (2012)

Review by Mitul Shukla

This book is approximately A5 in size and made up of around 240 pages. Overall this was a pleasant read in a subject area that is somewhat off the beaten track. That said, I really would have liked to have read this book maybe three of four years ago when it could have greatly assisted me in my doctoral studies. However, it is still a timely piece of work when we take into account the continued growth of virtual worlds, especially with brands such as Xbox and Playstation using these technologies to garner a sense of community amongst their customer base. This is an excellent primer within the fields of virtual worlds as well as ethnography but moreover about conducting an ethnographic study within virtual worlds.

This book is made up of 12 chapters.

  1. Why this handbook?
  2. Three brief histories.
  3. Ten myths about ethnography.
  4. Research design and preparation.
  5. Participant observation in virtual worlds.
  6. Interviews and virtual worlds' research.
  7. Other data collection methods of virtual worlds' research.
  8. Ethics.
  9. Human subjects clearance and institutional review boards.
  10. Data analysis
  11. Writing up, presenting and publishing ethnographic research.
  12. Conclusion: arrivals and new departures.

Chapter 1 (p.1):[A1] 

'As ethnographers, what interests us about virtual worlds is not what is extraordinary about them, but what is ordinary. We are intrigued not only by the individuals in a group, but by the sum of the parts. We aim to study virtual worlds as valid venues for cultural practice, seeking to understand both how they resemble and how they differ from other forms of culture. We do this by immersing our embodied selves within the cultures of interest, even when that embodiment is in the form of an avatar, the representation of self in these spaces. The goal of this handbook is to provide ethnographers with a practical set of tools and approaches for conducting successful fieldwork in virtual worlds.'

The four authors of this book have a solid history in this type of research across a variety of virtual worlds. Their works are highlighted in the first chapter as well as interspersed throughout the rest of this book as examples of a salient point.

I was pleased to see the authors acknowledging the many disciplines that may be interested in this type of handbook from sociologists and anthropologists through to computer science sub-disciplines. Unfortunately a fair amount of ink is used in defining and explaining the handbook format of this work. While this is understandable in the sense of contextualisation and in explaining why some areas are not covered in great detail but in essence, I felt these issues were somewhat extended.

The authors go on to say:

'to frame our discussion, we describe virtual worlds as possessing the following characteristics. First, they are places and have a sense of worldness. They are not just spatial representations but offer an object rich environment that participants can traverse and with which they can interact. Second, virtual worlds are multi-user in nature; they exist as shared social environments with synchronous communication and interaction. While participants may engage in solitary activities within them, virtual worlds five through co- inhabitation with others. Third, they are persistent: they continue to exist in some form even as participants log off. They can thus change while one participant is absent, based on the platform itself or the activities of other participants. Fourth, virtual worlds allow participants to embody themselves, usually as avatars (even if 'textual avatars' as in text only virtual worlds such as MUDs), such that they can explore and participate in the virtual world'.

One of my only slight disappointments with this chapter was the fact that the authors chose initially not to distinguish between social and game virtual worlds. However this is a legacy issue from my own research interests rather than any intrinsic problem with what the authors of this handbook were actually writing.

Chapter 2 provides histories of ethnography and virtual worlds as well as the history of ethnography as a practice in virtual worlds.

With regard to ethnography, the distinction is made between the movement to describe the world in terms of encyclopaedias during the 18th century and the use of ethnography as a more detailed perspective on situated accounts of specific cultures. Here the authors also discuss positivism, essentially that the world can be described in terms of generalised laws. This applies also to human experiences.

It is interesting to note that originally field work was done by the likes of traders, explorers and missionaries. In the mean-while the intellectual high ground was taken by scholars using those self-same filed reports. This state of affairs started to change with the work of Malinowski (p.15), [A2] who is described here as 'the single most pivotal figure in the history of ethnography'.

The authors then go on to describe a variety of perspectives, practices and terminology, in particular structuralism, post colonialism, and feminism are discussed as well as the contributions of many scholars, Weber of course making an appearance when sociology is discussed.

It was particularly interesting to see a section describing the similarities and distinctions between ethnographers and journalists.

The section about the history of virtual worlds weave together nicely an account of science fiction fantasy literature multiplayer and single play games throughout history as well as the early computer multi-user dungeon types of text based adventure games and early graphic games such as Pong.

This account goes on then to describe Lucasfilm's Habitat described here as the very first virtual world. With an account of many other virtual worlds such There, The Sims Online, Second Life, Eve Online, Ultima, Mine Craft and so on.

The third history given here is that of scholarly activity with in virtual worlds and this section provides many reference points for the reader to follow up on if they so choose. Indeed, the authors even point out that many breadcrumbs have been left for the reader to follow up upon in this chapter to further their own personal knowledge.

Chapter 3 gives a considered and logical argument as to what the authors call the 10 myths of ethnography. These being:

  • Ethnography is unscientific.
  • Ethnography is less valid than quantitative research.
  • Ethnography is simply anecdotal.
  • Ethnography is undermined by subjectivity.
  • Ethnography is merely intuitive.
  • Ethnography is writing about your personal experience.
  • Ethnographers contaminate field sites by their very presence.
  • Ethnography is the same as grounded theory.
  • Ethnography is the same as anethno-methodology.
  • Ethnography will become obsolete.

Here the authors help the reader to clarify and frame the use of ethnography, this is especially important when we take into account that ethnography does not follow the standard hypothesis driven model of science.

For example, with regard to contaminating field sites, here the authors quote Malinowski (p.44[A3] ):

'...as the natives saw me constantly every day, they ceased to be interested or alarmed, or made self-conscious by my presence, and I ceased to be a disturbing element in the tribal life which I was to study'. With this quote as a stepping off point the authors argue essentially that by becoming part of the environment the ethnographer ceases to be an element of novelty or alarm. Rather the ethnographer becomes a newcomer. And as such, the authors argue, 'what insiders think newcomers should know about their culture tells us a great deal about what is important to them'.

Therefore the authors recognise that while ethnographers may impact upon the people that they study, that affect is one that all cultures through history have accepted: that of a newcomer who stays.

While it was enjoyable to read this chapter there were some aspects of it that were simply seemed too brief. In fairness the handbook format of this book did preclude an extended narrative on some of these matters.

Chapter 4 is based around the notion that 'the most fundamental, consequential, and personal step in designing an ethnographic project is choosing the question we seek to answer' (p.52).[A4] 

Here three principals are elaborated upon: emergence, relevance, and personal interest.

Formulating a research question within the current context of the plethora of information that exists, especially with regard to ethnography as well as to virtual worlds, can be difficult. The authors therefore give a brief history of some of the research questions with which they began their own ethnographic research.

Emergence here is related to the concept of the ethnographer as an explorer. While simultaneously acknowledging that ethnography itself is an emergent process. Interestingly cross disciplinary or interdisciplinary research questions should not be avoided.

This chapter also gives an excellent description as to the relevance and merit of a good literature review.

Here also, the importance of passion and the personal interest of the researcher is highlighted. This is something which is rarely found in research handbooks of this nature and is as refreshing as it is insightful to read.

This chapter then proceeds to enlighten the reader on matters such as the scope of the field site and the attending to off-line contexts.

Chapter 5. The authors deem participant observation as a fundamental method to the ethnographic approach. Primarily this is so as it allows the researcher to step into the social frame of the participants. This is equally so within the realms of virtual worlds.

Within this chapter the authors discourse upon embodied participation as well as subject position. Subject position here is interpreted from the researchers' personal position of membership from within the group being investigated.

This chapter, then, goes on to explain the history and practice of participant observation in an ethnographic research study. This is achieved by the narrative being broken into smaller sections. These sections focus on issues such as: observation practice, the research self, initiating relationships, the making of mistakes, extensive field notes, data organisation, participant observation and ethnographic knowledge, timing, and experimentation with attitude.

For example, the section about 'the research self' offers advice on the practicalities of conducting ethnographic research within a virtual world environment. The advice given regarding initiating relationships in a virtual world environment is focused more on issues of rapport and trust building within the group being studied.

(The second half of Mitul Shukla's review will appear in the November issue of the JPD – Eds.)

Evaluating e-Learning: Guiding Research and Practice

Rob Phillips, Carmel McNaught and Gregor Kennedy

Routledge (2012)

Review by Mark Gamble

Published in 2012, Evaluating e-Learning: Guiding Research and Practice joins the four other books in Routledge's widely-respected 'Connecting with e-Learning' series. Comprising three parts, Setting the Scene, Theory and Practical Aspects of Evaluation Research, the book sets out to address common concerns for those academics attempting to come to grips with learning online in support of a traditional curriculum. Part One briefly addresses questions regarding the extent to which, if at all, e-learning differs from learning and explains why it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies we adopt, especially in the online context.

Part Two explores a theoretical approach based around the authors' not unreasonable premise that 'Students learn within learning environments, going through learning processes in order to achieve learning outcomes' (pg 22) and hence at the heart of the book, as explained at the start of Part Two, is a model called the LEPO (Learning Environment, Processes, Outcomes) framework. Building on the work of Biggs (1989), Laurillard (2002), Bain (1999), Reeves and Reeves (1997) and Goodyear (Ellis and Goodyear, 2010) provides a very helpful generalized and integrated conceptual framework for learning that facilitates a rigorous approach to evaluating and researching learning online.

For early researchers, or those coming fresh to the idea of research, Chapter Five provides a very approachable guidance to Research Paradigms and Methodologies leading the reader into discussion of a range of approaches of evaluation research that would be appropriate in the field of e-learning and closing Part Two.

In the final five chapters that comprise Part Three, the authors offer ideas addressing the practical aspects of evaluation research. Over the course of 180 pages, the reader is offered clear, relevant, suggestions for the practical application of theory, starting, of course, with planning your evaluation-research activity and moving on to considering research across the life-cycle of an online learning experience. This might be as small an activity as evaluating the effectiveness of the use of a discussion online to address a particularly key concept, right up to a fully distance delivery course and anything in-between. Increasingly, it is going to be a requirement that we take an evaluative approach to our use of BREO and its components and this book will prove highly valuable as an inspiration and a guide.

The authors remind us that it is not the technology that does the learning, it is the students. They remind us that when we take decisions to implement a particular approach to the curriculum that uses technology, the learning outcomes are the result of the learning processes we provide for our students and that the learning environment – the BREO units we build for our students to learn in – can moderate and mediate those processes in ways that we must seek to understand through evaluative research in order to make sure the learning actually happens. This is one book that can help make that task very much easier: highly recommended.

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