Since their first recorded appearance in history (take your pick from www.libraryhq.com/libhistory.html), librarians have had an important role in education at all levels in all major cultures. But the exponential pace of technology change is such that many of them, and the institutions they work in, have not yet caught up with the special relevance of Internet-based technologies for learning. Reading Barbara Allan’s latest book would be an effective way to remedy this, quite comprehensively.
I had to overcome a by now strong tendency to be turned-off by anything prefixed with “e-” (for any reader starting to suffer similar symptoms, I recommend that you help me start the trend of calling academic or administrative processes that involve any pieces of paper, “p-learning”, “p-government”, etc). My only other negative reaction to this book was over the author’s initial scoping definition (a useful thing for any book to do with its’ subject) of e-learning:
“E-learning involves learning that is delivered, enabled or mediated by electronic technology, for the explicit purposes of training and/or education. It does not include standalone technology-based training such as the use of CD-ROMs in isolation.”
This definition seems to be unnecessarily hung-up on an irrelevant technical issue. Something about interaction (between learners, teachers, and other learners) might have helped to distinguish the real topic slightly better. Content that happens to be physically on a Web server somewhere remote from the learner (such as a Learndirect (www.learndirect.co.uk/) course I tried recently), seems to be included but can actually leave the learner just as isolated as CDs and other “standalone” media that are summarily excluded from the author’s definition of e-learning, and therefore the scope of the book.
The part of the book that describes tools and technologies is (wisely) a brief overview. Because it concentrates on how tools (like email, online conferencing and virtual worlds) can be used (rather than how they work), it is in less danger of becoming merely a source of quaint amusement to the users of successor technologies in too short a time. Don’t expect to learn how to install and administer these things from this book (there are plenty of others for that); but do expect to find a host of good ideas and examples of good practice in using them. Having worked for some time with ‘virtual teams’ (physically distributed across Britain and Europe, and depending largely on telematic tools to work together), I saw a lot of parallels between the ways Barbara describes interactions (and what can go right and wrong with them) between learners/teachers, and the same issues for groups of people working together in other contexts. Currently available integrated/managed/virtual (which of these terms does trump the others? I’m still not sure!) learning environments and Web based training packages are also covered in sufficient introductory detail, with some good examples of their use in teaching information skills for HE students and information services staff.
What the book concentrates on, and what will remain relevant for far longer, are the pedagogical approaches and models that can underpin uses of interactive network-based media and materials for learning. Although this manages to cover quite a lot of the theory and jargon of pedagogy, it is written in an accessible style and includes a large number of ‘cookbook’ examples that could probably be re-used by other professionals and institutions. Again, the focus is mainly on information-handling skills rather than other academic subject disciplines - but that’s not a bad place to start, given the intended (and likely) readership of the book.
My biggest problem in reviewing this book was that I ended up reading it far more thoroughly - avidly, even – than I’d expected to. I don’t know if Barbara Allan has a ‘source’ inside the JISC, but her book is spot-on in anticipating their current 7⁄02 programme (integrating digital library resources with virtual learning environments, described at www.jisc.ac.uk/mle/divle/), and I will be recommending it as background reading to my own project team, and those I meet from the other nine projects funded by the programme in various HE and FE institutions around Britain. The book has also drawn on plenty of topical information arising from recent JISC and RSLP research programmes, such as the INSPIRAL Project Report (inspiral.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/). The summary of those sources will be useful for anyone approaching this convergence of specialisms from a pedagogical background. For me (as a person who has been involved in the library and technology side of this game for a few years) it was a very well-structured introduction to many of the issues about learning and teaching strategies and models, that are on my own lifelong learning timetable for this year.