Vol. 13 - Issue 1 2017 - ISSN 1504-4831
Sunday, 24 September 2017

Reviews

Global perspectives on E-learning.

Rhetoric and reality by A. A. Carr-Chellman (Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2005

Reviewed by
Dr. J. Ola Lindberg
Department of Education, Mid Sweden University
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Dr. Anders D. Olofsson
Department of Education, Umeå University
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It seems suitable to begin this review by giving a brief description of the context in which the texts of this book are produced. If it fails to be regarded as a description, then we hope at least it can be regarded as one possible understanding of the context. When contextualizing a book, a good idea seems to be to start with a few words about the editor, Alison A. Carr-Chellman.
Carr-Chellman, an Associate Professor of Education for the moment serving as the Professor in charge of the Instructional Systems program in the Department of Learning and Performance Systems, Pennsylvania State University, College of Education, USA, has previously in her research written among other things about critiques of distance education and e-learning, systems theory and thinking, educational systems design, critical systems and user-design. The contributors she has gathered for this book are researchers who share the editor’s interest in a critical approach to the current movement towards an extended global use of e-learning (or distance education/online education as it is sometimes also called 1). Briefly, we could say that this is a book written by scholars who, although representing different approaches and starting points, are situated in the same (critical) theoretical perspective. As a possible context for the book, this is something that could be useful to keep in mind while reading the book.
 
The book itself, as the title indicates, reports on rhetoric and reality in the process of converting e-learning into a democratic venture. The main thrust throughout the book could be summarized in one sentence, namely:

- Who will benefit and who will not from the global e-learning movement?

This question is problematized in different ways in each chapter and in each section, but always with a more or less explicit relation to the concept of democracy. One way, for example, might be an argumentation built up around the theme of who have access, or connectivity, and who have not? Another approach is an attempt to understand this e-learning movement from an urban versus rural perspective. Yet a third way of embarking on a critical analysis is to highlight public policies, public budgets and their constructions in terms of whom they benefit and whom they will not.

In her introductory chapter Carr-Chellman writes that:
 
For most of us, the idea of open access – the elimination of elitism as a function of place and prestige – holds the promise of equity. The basic premise of the rhetoric of democracy in online education is that if we can make education available to those who currently must work to earn a living and cannot attend residential programs because of geography or family obligations, then we are making these opportunities available more equitably. (p2)
 
 
In this quotation Carr-Chellman presents the idea that a viable democracy is one in which diversity is accepted and promoted as something good. At the same time it refers to what is understood as the fundamental problem in the global e-learning movement – how to convert political rhetoric into practice that works, in broad meaning, in reality?

In the book, global economy and globalization are two important concepts in relation to e-learning. Several chapters discuss the issue that the commercialization of the concept, or idea, of e-learning and the effects such development will promote could result in a rather negative form of development for many people around the world. The main idea implicit in the question of globalization seems to be if globalization and, for example, internationalization, are merely expressions of the West’s new way of colonizing what we call the developing countries? In the book this question springs from the problem one faces when undertaking this kind of venture (such as a global e-learning movement), a question of educating everyone with the same basic ideas and notions of, for example, democracy. That is, how is it possible to include all the different cultural differences that exist in the world in an e-learning venture, and not only the perspective of the Western countries? How will developing countries deal with the fact that within one country you might have two or more different cultural rationales guiding the everyday life of its people? Both the need to be culturally sensitive and the importance of recognizing intra- as well as intercultural understanding are examined in relation to the movement of e-learning into global contexts. One of the contributors to the book, Latchem, chose to articulate this by posing the following question in his chapter: “Who will write these rules and to whom will the providers of international distance education be accountable?” (p.185). We could also turn to the thoughts of Zembylas and Vrasidas (2005) to sharpen this point even more – is this movement towards globalization, in a world of e-learning, a process of inclusion or a new electronic version of colonization?

The book starts with an introductory section by Carr-Chellman and contains thereafter fourteen chapters. As the main thrust of the book could be understood as the impact of e-learning in different regions or continents of the world, it could be seen as an effort to understand more deeply the merits of such initiatives. The book is divided into five parts, each of them discussing e-learning within a particular geographical location. In total over a dozen countries are discussed, located in the following continents; Europe, Asia, North America, Australasia and Africa. Each part presents different studies or cases which are intended to reflect some of the problems in each specific geographical area, each begins with a brief discussion of the theoretical grounding/basis of the specific part and each chapter begins with a short introduction to the major themes or issues. Also worth mentioning is that the beginning of each chapter confronts the reader with a number of questions to think about while reading the chapter. As stated in the book, it is usually the other way around, questions tending to be placed at the end of chapters. This approach has the advantage of providing the reader with the opportunity to actively reflect on important issues in the text from the very beginning of the reading.

In the first part about e-learning in Asia, the reader is introduced to the differences and difficulties relating to e-learning in Taiwan, India and China respectively. In these nations and in this part of the world a prominent feature of the context in which e-learning is embedded concerns rural areas contrasted with more developed urban centres and peripheries. The second part of the book gives insights into e-learning in Europe, where the chapters deal with Ireland, the UK and Turkey. In these cases access and connectivity are important issues, and the focus is mainly on overcoming distances and connecting people, as for example through international study circles or in the case of Turkey opportunities for studying from abroad. In the third part the reader meets the perspective of North America through chapters concerned with the Schoolnet in Canada and through what the editor herself, Carr-Chellman, calls the new frontier – web-based education in US culture. In part four, e-learning is contextualised in Australasia as a question of inclusion. This is done in the chapters about e-learning in New Zealand, focusing on the efforts of bringing culturally-sensitive distance education to indigenous minority groups, and about different Australian efforts to provide borderless virtual learning in higher education. In the fifth and final part, e-learning is described from the African point of view, and here perhaps more than in other parts of the book the question of winning or losing in the game of e-learning becomes central. For Namibia, the case discussed in the first chapter of this part, the question of access to infrastructures for communication becomes more a question of democracy than education in the critical sense. What will happen to older communities when technology eventually paves the way for new communities to emerge? In the following chapter about Sub-Saharan Africa this question is even more outspoken – can you lead from behind? Or are you destined to trail in the backwaters of those already ICT-proficient and be bound by their already determined meanings of ICT use in education? E-learning as colonization? In chapter fourteen, the book ends in an open question – is the development of e-learning already stalled? Are those now picking up on e-learning already engaging in providing education of the past?

So then, given the content outlined in the book, what is its target group?  Carr-Chellman´s book is wide-ranging and should be of interest both to academics and practitioners interested in issues of democracy, equity and globalization in today’s world and to people with these interests in combination with e-learning. We find it to be a relevant and important book, mainly because of its critical perspective.  Many of the cases discussed in the book shed light on other aspects of e-learning than those commonly addressed. With an interest in issues concerning democracy, the starting point in the question about who benefits and who doesn’t seems to be as appropriate as ever, not least in relation to e-learning and its global movement. The book can be understood as an important complement to the substantial number of books in the e-learning area often characterized by their positive tone and written in a how-to-make-it-work spirit.

In conclusion, we shall point out what we consider to be a few shortcomings of the book. The first thing that strikes us after reading the book is how much it focuses on the concept of democracy. This is not a problem per se, of course, but more troublesome is the lack of a deeper theoretical discussion of how the concept of democracy can be understood in the different chapters.  Now it is almost exclusively a question of “have or have not” or who benefits and who doesn’t. A more problematized idea of democracy could have elucidated some additional aspects of the global movement of e-learning. The same reasoning goes for the concept of e-learning. Present in the book is a conceptual incoherence, where the meaning of e-learning is used synonymously with for example online education, distance education and distance learning. A question is whether such an eclectic approach to these different concepts is even possible? Yet another aspect that can be better contextualized is the content of the so-called theoretical introduction to each part of the book. These introductions seem to us to be more in the nature of wider contextualisation of the coming chapters combined with strains of theoretical assumptions than of deeper discussions and argumentations that could have framed each section in a much clearer theoretical perspective.

A perspective lacking, or at least not explicitly stated, that could provide a coherent structure to the book is one concerning ethics. If an ethical perspective had been articulated, the book could have been an even stronger counterweight to the more positively orientated literature in the field of e-learning. One idea could have been to include a theoretical discussion with the point of departure in Lévinas (1969, 1981) and his idea of “being for the Other” – an idea that places ethics as the first philosophy. In an e-learning context, it could have been possible to understand as a question of being together that is “conditional in the unconditioned responsibility of being-for-the-other” (Hand, 1989, p 7). Being-together seems to us the single most important idea both in relation to democracy and e-learning, an aspect that could have been included and given this book a common framework. Perhaps, however,  that would have been overkill, since Carr-Chellman´s book already gives enough important insights into globalization, democracy and e-learning.


Carr-Chellman, A.A. (Ed.). (2005). Global perspectives on E-learning. Rhetoric and reality. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. 280 pp. $86.95. Hard cover. ISBN: 1412904889.
 

References


Hand, S. (Ed.). (1989). The Lévinas reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Lévinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Lévinas, E. (1981). Otherwise than being or beyond essence. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press .

Zembylas, & Vrasidas, (2005). Globalization, information and communication technologies, and the prospect of a `global village´: promises of inclusion or electronic colonization?. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37(1), 65-83.
 

 1 From here on in the review referred to as e-learning. This decision will also be dealt with later in the review.