Educational Technology & Society 2(1) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

IT for Learning Enhancement

(Book review)

Reviewer: Sergei T. Glavatsky
Director, Center of New Information Technologies, Moscow Lomonosov State University,
Leninskie Gory, Moscow 119899 Russian Federation.

Textbook details:
IT for Learning Enhancement
Moira Monteith, Centre at Sheffield Hallam University, England
1998, Swets & Zeitlinger Publishers, P.O. Box 825, 2160 SZ Lisse, The Netherlands
(ISBN 90 265 1524 3)

The book reveals how alluring some features of Information Communications Technology (ICT) can be, what kind of the motivation and sense of creativity it can bring.

The book consists of 11 chapters of different authors and the introduction. The chapters of the book are based on research but are not organized to one format alone. Some are more oriented to formal research practice, others to reflection on observed practice in the classroom or at home. At several points they overlap.

Mostly authors consider the usage of ICT in classrooms, libraries and homes. Some problems under the consideration are:

  • the directions in usage of ICT;
  • the role of a teacher in education process with the use of ICT;
  • the increasing of student activity in education process with the use of ICT;
  • how to control the student use of ICT in classrooms, libraries and homes;
  • the reflection of students in education process with the use of ICT;
  • acquisition of the knowledge obtained with the use of ICT.

The authors represent mostly schools of education of several universities and colleges of UK. All of them have the experience in the usage of information technologies in teaching young people.

Rupert Wegerif and Lyn Dawes ("Encouraging Exploratory Talk Around Computers") deal with a common situation in primary classrooms - a group of children sitting in front of a computer, working together. Researchers are working closely with teachers to develop a double strategy: teachers and children participated in a program designed to encourage listening skills, develop a cooperation but also to stimulate critical argument.

Authors have shown that the intervention program encouraging exploratory talk can improve group reasoning, both in solving abstract puzzles of the kind given in standard tests of reasoning and in the discussion of socio-moral issues. And it has been more difficult for them to show that this intervention improves learning in more content-based curriculum areas.

Jean Underwood ("Making Groups Work") explores those factors that hinder or help effective group work. She looks at research findings as to why group work may or may not be beneficial for children's cognitive as well as social development, and also considers the practical problems facing teachers when they try to encourage group work in school.

She considers that 'many difficulties are not fundamental weaknesses but arise because insufficient attention is paid to teaching children to work in groups.' She claims however, that evidence shows that children tend to work more collaboratively when working on computer tasks together rather than other classroom tasks. She concludes that 'even in tasks with limited cognitive load, working together can have beneficial effects.' Gender, group composition and the nature of the task can mean that children working in groups have significantly different experiences.

Stephen Marcus ("Picture Information Literacy") writes about an action research project to enrich the participants' understanding of themselves as professionals and their understanding of their students.

It was grounded in the notion of the 'reflective practitioner' and ambitiously combined writing with the development of visual literacy. He defines visual information literacy as including the ability to 'read' (i.e. interpret, decode, translate) and design (i.e. create and communicate with) images. He believes that there is a reciprocal relationship between teachers studying their teaching and the evolving conduct of that teaching. 'Teachers who observe, question and analyze their own classrooms find that such classroom-based research benefits themselves and their students.'

Toni Downes ("Using The Computer at Home")has been researching extensively the use of computers in Australian homes. Statistics about Australian use of home computers indicate the same factor as in the UK, that there is a definite gap between technology rich homes and those which are technologically poor. Many children considered that they learnt useful skills from playing computer games and the concept of 'play' was very important in their computer use. Much activity was concerned with school work, with which parents helped considerably. The majority of children preferred to work on the computer at home rather than at school and were often indignant about the lack of organizational control at school over regulating equal access. A teacher's program for utilizing computer work in the classroom with her children is included. The chapter ends with suggested recommendations as to the better educational use of ICT and the nurturing of links between school and home. Parents were positive about their children's use of computers, believing that they were important for future prospects, but were concerned about handwriting, spelling, reading and using a library. The children do not appear to share those concerns. Toni Downes suggests there is a problem for the children who are losing the motivation to be 'bi-literate', that is combining new literacy skills with the old.

Moira Monteith ("The Place of Learning")has been analyzing the conversation between children and parents while they were word processing at home. The various factors in the learning context are examined.

Transcripts of the talk are compared with David Wood's model of teacher talk. The dialogue is examined within four groupings: two children from Y1 who are beginning to read and write, four children from the same school who have extremely good 'collections' of printed work, two boys who are not as keen as their mothers would like them to be, and children who are working by themselves. The children had considerable control over the word processing, although parents maintain a very watchful eye over spelling, punctuation and general layout. All tapes show examples of co-operative effort, with some parents going further in the negotiation of a 'learning relationship' than others. Parents who used a question/answer approach had a similar effect to teachers who used that strategy: short answers with no elaboration. Mostly the children took such comments in their stride or even ignored them. The transcripts gave ample evidence that many children were developing independent learning skills.

Chris Abbott ("New Writers, New Audiences, New Responses")begins his chapter with two interesting definitions of the World Wide Web. He has been researching into the uses that young people make of this medium for their homepages. He compares this opportunity for publication with more traditional outlets, and claims that there is little in common. He accepts that his chapter may be more in the way of 'historical understanding' rather than 'illumination of current practice', as the home-page culture will undoubtedly have 'moved on' during the comparatively long drawn-out procedure of publishing this book. He makes the analogy that the first web pages were often like brochures, just as the first CD-ROMs were often versions of books already published.

The author indicates that the WWW has the potential to change the way that society views publication not only of the written word but of all forms of media. It can put in the hands of the consumer the publishing tools that have previously been controlled by only a select few. Students of the next few years will not only be able to choose what to write about, but who the audience should be, so it will be even more important that we ensure that young people understand the ways in which texts need to be modified for different audiences and delivered to them in different ways. Media education, often seen in a consumer model, will become an active research area, with students able to monitor the effects of media texts they have published, rather than viewing the texts of others with themselves as mere consumers. Thanks to the WWW, students of the early 21st century will be active media producers as well as enlightened consumers of the digital world.

Helen Finlayson and Deirdre Cook ("The Value of Passive Software in Young Children's Collaborative Work")have undertaken work with young children to investigate the contribution of the computer itself to their learning rather than the computer and the software together. They distinguish between active and passive software and include a useful diagram of the relationship between active, passive, closed and open software. Passive software could be defined as those programs that reflect the users' ideas back to them for their consideration, and in such a way can aid the creative thinking process. They compared children's responses when offered two tasks, as similarly constructed as possible, but with one presentation on screen and the other off screen. My World software, which they considered 'an example of good passive software,' was selected for the research project. Evidence was gathered which revealed that when the children were working with the computer their sessions were longer, they were more involved with their partner's work, less open to general distractions and showed greater persistence and enthusiasm compared with when they were working off the computer. The researchers also suggest that the notion of closure might be important in computer tasks.

MaryLou Thornbury and Carol Fine ("Children in Control")not only show us how straightforward it is to give children experience with robots but also how significant it can be in children's cognitive development. They consider whether the introduction of control can promote new ways of learning and thinking and whether children using control can show evidence of the high order thinking and learning that they have not always been able to demonstrate within the traditional curriculum. Their account of how significant control can be for young children is very convincing. It is tightly connected with children's ideas of sequence in narrative as well as investigation and experimentation. 'Control is a creative activity requiring the technological approach of trial, error, evaluation and testing.'

Bill O'Neill ("New Ways of Telling: Multimedia Authoring in the Classroom")argues that computer based multimedia provides educationalists with a powerful set of tools. We will have some influence on the evolution of these tools, since our everyday use will affect that evolution. Educationalists are positioned at a fulcrum where they can both reflect the changing cultural values and exploit technological developments. He traces evolutionary changes through speech and oral traditions, literacy and numeracy, printing and finally, the computer. He too maintains that the teacher is the key figure to the success of computer initiatives in education.

A decade of classroom research by Bill O'Neill and Harry McMahon give them the evidence to argue that learning environments can be created to enhance good classroom practice. Children need to own their work and their learning. By using a digital camera, children 'know that they own the images'. He considers how language use affects learning and explains how an apprenticeship model encourages children to work collaboratively. He advocates eloquently the case for using photography. The chapter concludes that 'Teaching is a deliberate and conscious activity which seeks to help the learner to direct his/her own thinking in a conscious and deliberate manner and to develop an increasing ability to represent his/her own thinking.'

In stimulating contrast, Noel Williams ("Educational Multimedia: Where's the Interaction?")looks at educational multimedia and examines the concept of 'interaction' and to what extent most software claiming to be interactive actually is. He notes that the student is offered more responsibility as well as more choice and needs to know what are the best choices for his/her needs.

Arguably the learner interacts with the designer of the learning system and the system is seldom an 'information resource' but a 'learning model'. The learners' interactions are therefore limited by the designers' model of learning. Indeed it is the information content which is the real benefit of multimedia systems not interaction. The most prevalent multimedia systems follow an instructional model of education.

He considers the impact of interactive games and concludes that primary interaction for many players may not be with the game but around the game. 'Computer games set up expectations for interaction which educational multimedia often does not satisfy.' Cost also limits interactivity.

He concludes that hypermedia allows everything to be linked to everything just like human imagination. But teaching, as opposed to learning requires rather narrower perspectives. We need more radical reviews of what learning might be, combined with innovation in design to realize more fully the true potential for educational interaction in multimedia.

The chapter "Explorations in Virtual History" written by Jonathan Grove and Noel Williams, discusses some of the preliminary findings from work on Virtual Reality (VR) in schools and the implications for future development of this research. The study is concerned with the emergence of a new technological medium and therefore prone, as it must be, to the problems of using such a medium. However, Jonathan Grove and Noel Williams skillfully outline their research and its relationship with other educational media.

They begin by stating the difficulties arising from the fact that VR is an umbrella term for a 'complex network of ideas'. However, the two authors look at the definition as it corresponds to educational use. They outline the case- study, focusing in particular on the role of exploratory talk as it was evidenced in transcripts. They point out also that suggestions such as 'click on that' are indeed quite different in a 'conceptualized three dimensional space' and much more positive than merely a suggestion of a place where the mouse controller might place the pointer. It is therefore perhaps never entirely appropriate to comment in text without video examples when dealing with something such as VR and does lead to the obvious notion that such analysis would benefit from being published on web pages.

The case study also provides evidence that assuming that VR is 'intuitive' may be misleading. Currently VR is 'only a little like reality' and therefore children may need to learn to use the medium just as they learn to use any other medium and they need to be 'literate in its codes.' The authors end by considering a set of principles for working practice and indicate how VR might fit in with or be adapted for learning within the classroom or at home.

Resuming we can say that the book is a collection of reports on thorough research works in the usage of ICT in education. It would be useful for those who are teaching young people (pupils or students) as well as for developers of new information technologies in education.