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Van Lieshout, Marc, Egyedi, Tineke M. & Bijker, Wiebe E. editors.  Social learning technologies. The introduction of multimedia in education. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2001. ISBN 0-7546-1409-3 45.00

This volume is one outcome of an European Union Project called Social Learning in Multi-Media. The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 addresses the conceptual framework of social learning and its application to the use of multimedia in education. Part 2 presents case studies of the process of introducing multimedia into education. Part 3 presents a series of comparative analyses in which the findings of the individual case studies are examined and analysed as a whole in the context of the theoretical framework introduced in Part 1.

Multimedia are defined as:

...the (simultaneous) use of different types of (electronic) media, such as text, sound and (moving) images [...] When discussing the meaning of multimedia for education, I want to focus on the meaning of information as well as interaction, communication, for the learning process (p.13).

Thence 'multimedia' is regarded as interchangeable with 'information and communication technologies'. In defining the concept of social learning the authors are keen to point out that (in its action-oriented aspect) the term has similarities with learning but should not be wholly identified with it. Social learning has more to do with the reflexive component of social practices:

Social learning (as analytical concept)...does not relate to an actor, or a collective (or society at large). It simply equates the presence of reflexivity (some might say: intended or unintended feedback) within social practices with learning (p.55).

In any introduction of information and communication technology the authors maintain that attention ought to be paid not only to the technology but also to the social practice in which the technology will become embedded. In sum:

...The central questions in this volume are: In what manner is multimedia used in the education sector? Which mechanisms affect the introduction, development and diffusion of innovative multimedia uses in the field of education (pp.4-5)

Innofusion is the concept used to explore this process of introducing information and communications technology. It is a conflation of innovation and diffusion and seeks to convey that these processes occur simultaneously. The concept is cashed out in terms of 'appropriation', 'configuration', and 'translation'. Very briefly although users are constrained and 'configured' to behave in certain ways in their interactions with technical designs users can and do appropriate and adapt technology to local circumstances. Over time translation also occurs when for example the original intentions of a project are translated into new intentions. The authors then proceed to evaluate the success and failure of a multimedia project with recourse to "the manner in which the process of change is incorporated into the social practice" (p.59). This manner might be predominantly experimental or predominantly controlled or as is most often the case a combination of both. Such processes of change may or may not involve social learning. For the authors, social learning in the introduction of multimedia is evidence that progress has occurred.

Part 2 contains eight studies conducted by researchers on the project in different European countries:

Most of the cases focus on a multimedia project. They cover a variety of issues, educational settings and multimedia uses. The 'learners' addressed range from children to adults; the educational settings vary from primary school to the home and the university setting; the initiators of multimedia use are educational institutes, government bodies and, sometimes, commercial companies; the multimedia used ranges from stand-alone software for private use to communication technologies for distance teaching; and the issues of concern range from gender aspects to economic issues (p.7) .

An overview of the UK case study "Learning in Cable-School: The Use of Networked ICTs in an Educational Context" serves as an example of the general approach taken. This study documents the history and 'failure' of a project in the north of Britain. The case is based on interviews with two teachers in one of the schools and with the manager of the project. The intended aims of the project were to implement an IT infrastructure linking schools around the region. The cable-based Internet service would provide web authoring tools, ftp and electronic mail software as well as some simple teaching resources including class worksheets and quizzes. While the former were intended for use by teachers to develop and download materials the latter were aimed at facilitating inter-school collaboration and discussion through the shared development of worksheets. What the author traces in the case is how over time the IT infrastructure develops separated from those who were aware of its 'pedagogic potential'. As a result of interactions between a number of different groups and events e.g. a local government re-organisation:

CableCo developed the Cable-School project as a means of inter alia 'proving' the concept of networked communications to the local councils within the area to be served.

The Internet service in effect becomes a marketing strategy for CableCo rather than a pedagogic tool per se. Social learning is identified as occurring however in the way e-mail is adopted by teachers in local settings, leading them to explore the use of other internet tools such as web authoring and ftp software. A theory of social learning is also used to explain how the failures of the project in delivering a system intended to provide technical and pedagogic support can be related to the social being separated from the technical and the technical being separated from the pedagogic. Teachers in schools did appropriate the technology but on an independent basis. So although innovations and local solutions unanticipated by the designers did occur such innovations were developed in isolation from other teachers. This leads the author to characterise the situation as one of 'the social learning of independence' (p.97). In conclusion the technological infrastructure but not social practice had been addressed. The project's successes and failures can be accounted for in terms of social learning. In terms of its original intentions to combine ICT and pedagogic content the project failed but was also successfully in the aspects appropriated by teachers. Of primary interest in the context of the book however is the manner in which the project failed. In this case Because the social context for the technology was not addressed and hence social learning as part of a reflexive educational Practice did not occur.

Part 3 contains a series of chapters that synthesize comparative analyses of the case studies in the context of the theoretical framework. An overview of The key features and objectives of the cases are provided and processes of infusion And social learning described. Comments are also made on how the successes and failures of projects "relates to The manner in which the process of change is incorporated into the social practice" (p.59). In terms of the 'Cable-School' example the configuration Of the school setting fails because of the lack of uptake of all components of the Intended system e.g. worksheets. However there is appropriation of e-mail/Internet. Instead the school server installed is translated from a device for developing collaborative Worksheets into a communication device oriented around discussion and community self-help. Similar elements of the theoretical framework are also presented in the context of other case studies.

A separate chapter deals specifically with how infusion processes surrounding the introduction of Multimedia can be improved and the "mechanisms that drive and hamper infusion" addressed (p.265). These mechanisms include factors intrinsic to infusion such as teachers and institutions As well as factors extrinsic to infusion processes such as markets.

In a further chapter the authors revisit the concept of social learning and seek to identify "How reflexivity is constituted in the cases under study". This they do by plotting dimensions of each case study on a spectrum from mode of experimentation to mode of control. The Cable-School initiative is characterized as "submissive experimentation", what one might call weak experimentation with experimentation being the dominant mode in most of the dimensions (e.g. open to change, absence of boundaries and exploratory) With an even balance of process and product but with control hierarchical and closed. The authors are then at pains to point out whether:

...there is a correlation between success and failure, the mode of experimentation and control, and technology and education (p.303).

The authors' thesis is that the success and failure of a project are so related. The Cable School project failed in terms of the original objective of delivering shared teacher development of worksheets but was a success in regard to delivering an information infrastructure and stimulating communication and discussion. These successes and failures can be related to the mixed modes of experimentation and control that help to characterise the manner in which the multimedia was introduced. The authors' final recommendations are:

  • More is learned from failure than from success
  • In the development, implementation and application of technologies various groups are involved
  • Multimedia form and content are inextricably linked

This is a thought-provoking volume that is both theoretically-driven and empirically grounded. It should be read by all those seriously interested in the effective introduction of information and communications technology in education.

Jonathan Foster
University of Sheffield
29th June 2001