Web-Based Instruction. Badrul H. Khan, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ" Educational Technology Publications, 1997, 480 pp., $89.95/Hard, $59.95/Soft)
Ironically, Web-Based Instruction is an old-fashioned book: four hundred and sixty-three pages, soft cover, published by Educational Technology Publications. No matter what Nicholas Negroponte (1997) and Eli Noam (1997) tell us about their demise, books with paper pages continue to be published even when they are about the "other." As Kevin Kelly (1997) of WIRED Magazine noted, we can access much of their material on the Web, but many authors continue to be thoughtful enough to arrange for a third party to take the time and trouble to print it out and bind it for us, usually for a reasonable charge. Web-Based Instruction is a case in point.
First of all, this book is both timely and useful. Colleges and universities across the country and the world are scrambling to get into the Web environment. Partially, this is fad-following, but there is strong evidence that electronic networks are becoming critical to our economies and societies, which means our own work and lives in education. Even in its compilation, Web-Based Instruction demonstrates a new way of working: Badrul Khan put out a call on the Internet to potential authors and relevant listservs, thereby generating submissions from around the world, including Australia, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany-all within a relatively short period of time.
The World Wide Web is not ten years old yet now assumes a central place in our information society, promising to connect everything to everything else in ways we still can only imagine. As part of his introductory chapter, Editor Khan has assembled an appendix of "Features and Components Associated with WBI [Web-Based Instruction] Learning Environments." The eight-page table lists features such as "Device, Distance and Time Independent," Learner Controlled," "Cost-Effective," and "Collaborative Learning," suggestive of he serious re-thinking of education that is also occurring. These approaches to learning are not the result of Web development, but the Web powerfully enables them and encourages their incorporation into mainstream education. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between "distance" and traditional education by observing the learner's activity; a student in a dorm room at his/her computer is as distant (or as near) as the working adult sitting at his/her computer in the next state.
The fifty-nine articles included in Web-Based Instruction are organized into five sections:
With the exception of the introductory section, most of the articles are quite focused and brief. Many provide a relevant list of URLs, which by themselves make the book worth purchasing. These Web sites alone make a powerful case for this new learning environment. Authors of the articles are instructional designers and technologists and faculty and staff in educational design, technology, or fields related to education and communications, such as library media. Graduate students collaborated on a number of articles, suggesting that this medium remains terra incognita even for many well-established in the field of instructional technology. Still, there is little techno-babble here; for the most part, the focus is on teaching and learning within the new Web environment. I have said that this book is useful, but no specific audience is identified. The real audience is other Web converts. For educators interested in using the Web for teaching and learning purposes, Web-Based Instruction is full of lists, tools, and ideas to support learning in he new Web environment.
It should be noted that this is a "second generation book" on the Web and education. Consequently, the authors feel little need to advocate and argue, coax and cajole. With this text you are in the camp of the believers and the doers. With some exceptions, little time is spent fending off arguments about the inferiority of distance learning, the value of much material found on the Web (not a word here, for instance, about pornography or confidence scams), or the unreasonable demands put on faculty and institutions. There is also very little mentioned about infrastructure, yet a number of articles assume high-end and full-bandwidth technology. The practical concerns from the perspectives of faculty, students, and administrators are marginal to he enthusiasm of those just tasting this Promised Land.
There is, almost inevitably, some tendency to stereotype traditional classroom-based instruction to the advantage of new modes. A few articles are even polemical, but none chart a clear path from classroom to cyber learning. Nevertheless, from this collection of articles emerge several common themes:
Each of these themes signals contested terrain in the academic groves, yet only a few of the articles acknowledge or identify adversarial positions. Constructivism, for example, is assumed by many articles to be the design approach of choice. There is little acknowledgement that something much closer to "instructivism" prevails widely. The article on "Cognitive Flexibility" by constructivist David Jonassen and six doctoral students at Penn State inadvertently suggest why. As exciting and powerful as constructivist environments may be, the time and skill investment required to create them would be daunting for most faculty. This may explain, beyond any pedagogical disagreements with constructivism, the many academic Web pages that are merely static information presentation.
The important issue of enabling faculty to work comfortably in this new environment is only addressed in a few of the articles. Lisa Hansen and Theodore Frick of Indiana University offer guidelines for selecting Web-based courses authoring systems, and Murray Goldberg describes the use of one such tool, WebCT, developed at the University of British Columbia. In the year since this book went to press, a number of Web course tools have emerged, including Lotus Notes' Learning Space Topclass, Web Course in a Box, and IntraKal. Additionally a number of institutions are developing their own Web course tools. Such tools, which minimize the need for technical expertise, are now recognized as critical if institutions expect many of their faculty to be able to use the Web quickly. A second edition of this book would surely focus on that development.
This concern of skill development is just one example in which the perspectives of faculty (other than those involved with educational technology), administrators, and students are given short shrift in this volume. There is little for instance, about the real difficulties of faculty in getting the time, the support, and the recognition for their work in the Web environment. There is little discussion of the costs of equipment, infrastructure, and maintenance that plague administrators and staff in the new environment. And little is mentioned about the problems of technology accessibility, training, support, and compatibility that plague students both on and off campus. This text assumes that we are headed down the road to Web-based instructions, that the road is clearly marked, and that things will fall into place as they need to. Other related new texts build on the same assumption: Building a Web-Based Education system by Colin McCormack and David Jones (1997) is more linear in its focus on setting up a distance learning program on the Web, an also includes a CD-ROM; Web-Based Training Cookbook by Brandon Hall (1997) is specifically a how-to-book on using the Web to train employees, walking readers through planning, developing, and creating Web-based training.
Web-Based Instruction and these other volumes demonstrate a certainty about where we are headed and how straight is the path. Besides little mention of the real obstacles that face the academy concerning the Web environment, they also make no effort to explore some of the new possibilities spawned here. Virtual reality is discussed, but the imaginative possibilities of identity shifting through role plays and simulations suggested in Sherry Turkle's (1995) Life on the Screen are not explored. The potential of networks for new kinds of learning behavior, what Kevin Kelly (1994) calls "swarm" or "self-organizing" behavior in Out of Control, are barely hinted at. No mention is made of the specter of competition that may arise within the Web-not only among accredited institutions (including for-profit ones), but also among new cyber universities using sophisticated psycho-technology to simulate teaching and learning interactions. The concern about the commercialization of the academy and the automation of teaching is growing. (See historian David Noble's "Digital Diploma Mills" at http://www.hronlin.com/forums/labour/9711/0271.html). I have noted that Web-Based Instruction is a traditional book. This may be the best argument for publishing future editions online. The Web environment changes so rapidly that a regularly updated cyber publication is probably the only way that this useful book can be kept current with the world it describes.
Hall, B. 1997, Web-based training cook-book. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Kelly, K. 1994. Out of control: The rise of neo-biological civilization. Reading; MA: Addison-Wesley.
Kelly, K. 1997. The future of digital publishing. Paper presented at the Digital summit Conference, October, at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
McCormack, C., and D. Jones. 1997. Building a Web-based education sys-tem. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Negroponte, N. 1997. The changing technological environment. Plenary address at the 18th ICDE World Conference, June, at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania.
Noam, E. 2997. Keynote address at the Annual Convention of EDUCOM, 27 October, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Turkle, S. 1995. Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.