Review of Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures: Cybercultures in Online Learning
- Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures: Cybercultures in Online Learning is a 2009 volume of essays in the "Perspectives in Instructional Technology and Distance Education" series, published by Information Age Publishing, Inc. It was edited by Steve Wheeler.
Social and collaborative aspects of Internet technologies are central to their use in an educational context, be that in a formal or informal context. Many universities, colleges and schools now use online forums and wikis with their students, while Wikipedia can be thought of as a massive cyberculture devoted to (informal) learning. So a book on cybercultures in online learning will attract the attention of those interested in wikis. Steve Wheeler's introduction to this collection indeed acknowledges that "wikis are a powerful and as yet relatively untapped online collaborative tool that has the potential to promote deeper engagement with learning." His own study of their use in education entails a basic, local implementation. As with many of the chapters, there is an assumption of the benefits from the technology with the research reported being on the experience of users. Here, Wheeler describes how students recognise the need for a critical mass of activity for a wiki to be successful, and the corollary that there is the potential for a lack of response. He also describes how students are cognisant of the relative pros and cons of face-to-face versus online communication forms.
These are both useful observations. However, other than this one chapter, for those interested in the educational uses of wikis in general or in Wikipedia, there is a disappointing lack of coverage. Wheeler briefly quotes the debate started by Larry Sanger as to whether Wikipedia is broken or not in Chapter 17, but adds nothing. (Although I note that Attwell in Chapter 9 cites Wikipedia as a source – the Education in England article.)
Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures does contain some useful introductions to key technology, ideas and theories in online learning, although the mix of chapters seems odd, with a few rather lightweight introductions to technology (e.g., what is spam) along side heavyweight discussions of post-structuralism. Most of the chapters are discussion pieces, not without interest, but practical case studies or worked through theory remains light on the ground. The lack of criticality in some chapters is disappointing. As with much of the literature, there is still an air of hope and a need to proselytise the technology, but a paucity of theory or evidence. Hugh Miller and Jill Arnold's chapter on online identity or Nicola Whitton's on gaming are stronger in terms of theory, but stop short of useful teaching examples. Whitton, and Ken Gale in a later chapter, usefully problematise Marc Prensky's notion of the "digital native", that those growing up today are automatically comfortable with the range of modern online technologies, suggesting a more complex view of partial and dynamic engagement.
Leon James' chapter "Creating an Online Course Generational Community" stands out with his description of a multi-year interactive project. Here, student's course work is maintained, originally in paper form and now online, for future generations of students to study and use, and to add to. The richness of James's learning community is worth reading about. His novel approach pre-dates electronic wikis but shares some characteristics. James's students' experiences echo those of the students in Lazy Virtues (as previously reviewed in the Signpost). However, James does not make the link to Wikipedia himself and, as with Lazy Virtues, the technology is advancing quicker than the literature and the chapter already feels somewhat out-of-date. This is no criticism: the turnover of traditional academic book publication makes it difficult to be otherwise.
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