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

The knowledge web: Learning and collaborating on the web

(Book review)

Reviewer: Abdul Paliwala
Professor of Law, University of Warwick
Director, CTI Law Technology Centre, Law Courseware Consortium
School of Law, University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL United Kingdom

Textbook details:
The knowledge web: Learning and collaborating on the web
Marc Eisenstadt and Tom Vincent (Eds.)
1998, London, Kogan Page, Sterling, VA, USA, Stylus Publishing
(ISBN 0 7494 2726 4) Vii + 295 pages +

"We would argue that Knowledge Media is about the process of generating, understanding and sharing knowledge using several different media, as well as understanding how the use of different media shape these processes" p 4.

This is a book from the Knowledge Media Institute of the Open University in the United Kingdom which is about the use of mainly web based knowledge media in higher education. The editors aim to be both evangelical and pragmatic in speaking with enthusiasm about the future role of the new media while at the same time showing an awareness of their limitations in the current environment. Some authors attempt to integrate the use of traditional with new media, for example Scott and Phillips, others also discuss how to overcome some of the issue involved in encouraging dialogue on the web (e.g. Stratfold in relation to web conferencing for students and Shum and Sumner in relation to debate in electronic journals). However, in the end the overall tone of the work is more evangelical than reflective.

I do not intend this to be a damning criticism because there are a considerable number of virtues in the book. The most significant one is that it provides a coherent description of the state of the art. The coherence emerges from most of the papers being from members of the Knowledge Media Institute and the remaining ones being from connected organisations of the Open University, with the sole outsider being Alberto Riva of the University of Pavia. The underlying evangelical theme of the book therefore reinforces the OU approach to distance education. As the Sir John Daniel, the Vice Chancellor forcefully points out in his abstract: "Group teaching in front of remote TV screens? This is not only an awful way to undertake distance learning, but flies in the face of everything that we have learned while conducting successful open and supported learning on a massive scale for the past 27 years" (p21). The OU approach is to emphasise not synchronous class room based video conferencing, but to emphasise asynchronous interaction through computer conferencing. The emphasis is on using the new media to enhance individual student learning and not remote classroom teaching. In a strong criticism of dominant distance learning approaches, he suggests that perhaps US higher education "values teaching more than learning".

The rest of the book follows these themes into three Parts: I – Learning Media; II – Collaboration and Presence and III – Knowledge systems on the web. While Part III constitutes a distinct technical entity, it is more difficult to distinguish I and II as collaborative learning performs an essential role in learning media. The chapters include ones on interface design, particularly for those with disabilities (Vincent and Whalley), the use of simulations (Whalley), the development of course maps as learning support mechanisms on the web (Sumner and Taylor) and general human support (Scott and Phillips). In Chapter 6 Petre et al make the crucial point that migration of courses onto the web requires more than simple transference of content, but a rethinking of the whole educational process in the context of the new enriching media. For example, communication between tutors and students and among students can be developed through asynchronous conferencing, but it is still generally recognised that this is not as satisfactory a medium as face to face tutorials. Nevertheless, there is the benefit of greater flexibility in time and space, and a possibility for developing richer interaction between students than is possible in the all too brief classroom contact.

Part II on collaboration and presence deals with a range of issues in collaborative learning. For example, Stratfold deals with ways of adding value to electronic conferencing on the basis of research on OU conferencing. Shum and Sumner describe the use of a Digital Document Discourse Environment to carry out editorial, refereeing and author communication tasks for electronic journals. This is a key factor in the development of fast and efficient turnaround and publication of electronic journals. While the emphasis of the book is on asynchronous activity, Scott and Eisenstadt deal with experiments in developing virtual classrooms using webcasts. The authors use the term ‘pan synchronous’ to describe the web environment created – for example, including live as well as recordings of video or audio lectures, the presentation of slides used as well as asynchronous conferencing. They suggest that the significant problems of virtual classrooms can be overcome by transcending the classroom metaphor and involving interactive activities such as the ‘pub quiz’. The metaphor is not web specific. Rather, it comes from the pedagogy of ‘active learning’.

One of the greatest problems of web communication activities is organisation. Intranet tools assist greatly with these. Domingue and Scott describe a system called KMi Planet, a web based news server which uses ‘intelligent agents’ to alert readers as well as solicit, gather and format stories. Domingue and Mulholland discuss ways in which tutors and students can work together to visualise software.

Part III deals with knowledge systems on the web, bringing together issues from AI research and cognitive science. The underlying issue is the production of effective management using knowledge systems. Zdrahal and Domingue discuss the use of ontologies in design collaboration. Watt deals with the use of ‘psychological agents’ in the management of the web and raises some important issues about delegating control to these agents. Masterton discusses the use of Virtual Participants as tutors’ assistants in managing web based learning. Thus Riva and Ramoni describe the use of LispWeb to overcome the limitations as well as exploit the potential of existing software environments such as Java. Stutt and Motta concentrate on the representation of knowledge especially through ontologies and problem solving methods with the emphasis. The controversial promise of knowledge systems is that formalisation is technically required, educationally appropriate in a constructivist model of learning and politically required to deal with a world which will be increasingly populated by ‘semantic agents’ of the ‘cyberworld’. Yes, but perhaps the performance of non-knowledge system tools still transcends that of the knowledge systems, and perhaps the current need is to transcend artificial distinctions between knowledge systems and other technologies.

Perhaps the greatest value of the book is in its innovative use of the book plus web. The website in this case is not merely a case of further and better particulars, but enables you to explore the whole wonderful world of the knowledge web, with simulations, webcasts etc in a way which is efficiently organised to bring a new meaning to the expression the ‘book of the film’.