W. Brian Whalley
University of Sheffield
Book Review: Learning with Online and Mobile Technologies
Learning with Online and Mobile Technologies: A Student Survival Guide. By Janet MacDonald, Linda Creanor, Gower Publishing, 2010, 125 pages, ISBN 978-0566089305
'Learning with Online and Mobile Technologies' is an example of an ever-increasing range of 'self-help' books for students on a variety of topics relating skills, tips and education. Such books range from 'Critical thinking skills'  to the quite specific, for example, 'Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and more' . This offering from Gower/Ashgate comes somewhere in between. It introduces students to the main current technologies and some of the pedagogic devices they might find in modern education.
Chapter 1 introduces and sets the basics of mobile and online technologies in perspective. It includes 'Lifelong Learning' and a useful diagram showing inter-connections when studying with these technologies. The well-established term Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) covers the subject matter adequately. Chapter 2, 'Student voices', shows the book's student orientation by presenting some diverse views, experiences and usage of these technologies. All students will need ICT in their life after Further and Higher Education but no means all will have developed from practices at school. Chapter 3 includes ideas of learning spaces and good practice as well as some notes on 'distractions and effective learning'. Some useful information here, although I baulk somewhat at the suggestion that USB data sticks should be used even as temporary backup devices; they are by no means reliable and easily get lost. I have not yet heard 'the dog ate my data stick' as an excuse for non-submission of a piece of work but ... There is a tendency to equate 'temporary' with 'all'; and not just for students. My experience suggests that, in general, students need more ICT support and consolidation of good practice than we might think, and this chapter is a useful introduction in deciding what this support might be.
Chapter 4 deals with 'traditional' academic activities ('Listening, Reading and Sense-making') which, although short, is a good introduction. Chapter 5 follows this with 'Listening, Reading and Sense-making: a survival guide'. There is perhaps a tendency for a reader to read this too quickly, nod sagely and pass on. But again, there is a great deal of wisdom available here and students need to digest it and practise it in their work. These are useful sections and, like all the chapters, can be digested fairly easily. What I liked throughout the book were boxes with 'Tools you might use' and 'Try this' as well as quick tips, references, Web sites and applications. I found these chapters useful to think about from a teaching perspective too, and I am sure students will use them in an effective manner. They help concentrate the mind for various tasks they are likely to encounter in their education – although see a warning note below.
The subsequent chapters follow a similar, paired, format, Chapter 6 is 'Communicating and Community' while Chapter 7 is ditto: 'a Survival Guide'. Chapter 8 is 'Searching and Researching', 9 is the survival aspect with Chapter 10 on 'Writing and Presenting', These are relatively short chapters but provide the basics under the chapter headings so that are not too much to tackle at any one time. The survival guide for 'Writing and Presenting' in Chapter 11 includes a short section on collaborative writing; but it is a pity there is no linkage to plagiarism and collusion. Students still need clarification on crossing the, often unexplained, boundary between them and co-operation.
The book makes easy reading and is not lengthy, so it can be browsed through in an evening and read in more detail as the short chapters and their survival guides are required. The book also has, Appendix A, 'Web links to further resources' (with an online link to a Google site ) and Appendix B. 'File Types and Common Web Link Codes'. The former is useful but the file types list omits some that students might well come into contact with, e.g. .png. Here, as throughout the book, there is a general Microsoft-orientation with only an occasional OpenOffice and Open Source or Apple/Unix/Linux mention. There is a reference to 'Open Source' software in the Glossary (also with an online Google site ) but I think this is a theme that could be extended as more businesses use Open Source software and impecunious students (or their institutions) do not have to be in thrall to Microsoft.
I suspect that many students buy books such as this on the supposition that the buying and browsing will give competence. Competencies however are only done by participation, interaction and practice. Students do need advice, reassurance, ideas and support in their activities. This may be related to a single pedagogic entity at a time; 'podcasts' say. Immediate and specific advice is required but the whole is not needed. A print-on-paper book may not be ideal for this but the e-book version apparently is just the print-on-paper published electronically. A wiki textbook  could be a more suitable format. The online glossary  is just a linked version of what is in the book and I'm afraid just does not cut it. Suitable links to Wikipedia or YouTube would be rather better, although the online glossary does ask for readers to add to it. ICT is a rapidly moving world and an updatable repository of information would aid student understanding as and when required. The above is not a criticism of the authors – they have done a good job and there is much valuable information here – but rather of the medium for this type of publication.
Student Perspectives on Technology
The recently published report, 'Student perspectives on technology – demand, perceptions and training needs'  by the National Union of Students in the UK was commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council of England on behalf of its 'Online Learning Task Force'. The report observed some trends that are significant in the present context:
Students prefer a choice in how they learn – ICT is seen as one of many possibilities, alongside part-time and traditional full-time learning, and face-to-face teaching.
Appropriateness of technology varies significantly from course to course – students value the incorporation of ICT into their learning experience, but the demand in terms of the degree to which this occurs varies depending on course and type of study and assessment.
This book provides some of the basic information they will need for ICT development as well as a little about some basic educational (or pedagogic) methods as reviewed above. However, the report goes on to say:
Students are concerned about the ICT competency of lecturers and academic staff– There are varying levels of ICT competence on the part of lecturers and staff and, whilst some are clearly skilled or at least able to function in an IT setting, others lack even the most rudimentary IT skills; 21% of students thought their lecturers needed additional training.
There has been considerable development of 'e-learning' or better, 'Technology Enhanced Learning' (TEL) and what this means for the 'net generation' - for example, 'Rethinking learning for a digital age' . Yet, if students are to use ICT effectively in their life after university, then tutors need to provide appropriate use of ICT in courses and modules. The ICT/TEL text-book for staff has not yet been written – but perhaps this is it!
As learners experience a technology-rich age they should be able to take their developing skills and make them applicable to a wide range of academic tasks when in education and beyond. This book would be a useful guide at schools, not just FE and HE. Students buying it will certainly benefit from it, at least as a start into their technological education. It is not at the cheapest end of the spectrum but is reasonable value for money. However, given the items listed in the NUS report, I suggest (and not with tongue in cheek) that purchasers of this book should include teaching staff. Librarians and ICT staff might have copies available at help desks too.
- Cottrell, S. "Critical Thinking Skills: Developing Effective Analysis and Argument". 2005. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Pulman, A." Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and More". 2009. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- "Learning with online and mobile technologies", Web links to further resources,
- "Learning with online and mobile technologies", Glossary of Acronyms and Common Terms
- Whalley, W.B. E-Books for the Future: Here But Hiding?', October 2006. Ariadne, Issue 49 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue49/whalley/
- Higher Education Funding Council of England "Understanding student perspectives of online learning" 2010. (10 November 2010)
- Sharpe, R. Beetham, H. and de Freitas, S. "Rethinking learning for a digital age". 2010. New York and London: Routledge.