Making Sense of Online Learning: A Guide for Beginners and the Truly Skeptical

Article excerpt

Making Sense of Online Learning: A Guide for Beginners and the Truly Skeptical, by Patti Shank and Amy Sitze. San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2004, 192 pages, $35.00.

Making Sense of Online Learning: A Guide for Beginners and the Truly Skeptical provides a thoughtful, balanced, and easy-to-read introduction to the field of Web-based instruction. Using a style that is casual and instructive, authors Patti Shank and Amy Sitze guide readers through the various aspects of designing instruction for online learners.

The book's purpose and intended audience are stated clearly in the opening pages:

This is a book for beginners, skeptics, and folks who want to improve the way they use the Internet for teaching, training, or educating...our goal is to give you a conceptual overview of online learning topics so you'll understand the big picture and how all the pieces fit together. (p. xv)

A quick summary of the key principles discussed in this book reveal the authors' perspective: (1) online learning is complex but understandable; (2) distance learning is here to stay; (3) various delivery methods have their advantages and disadvantages; (4) online learning is not always cheaper; and (5) there is no one right technology. Shank and Sitze maintain a common-sense approach throughout the book as they raise (and answer) a number of critical questions that designers, developers, and leaders of online learning need to consider such as "When does using technology for learning make sense?", "What skills do I need?", and "How can you evaluate online learning?" The authors' practical style enables readers to easily apply the information to their own needs and interests.

The book begins by addressing some of the foundational aspects of learning. The authors deftly lead their readers through key principles before introducing technical manifestations of the theory. For example, the authors contrast the traditional view of learning (transmission of information from instructor to learner) with a constructivist perspective (learning as an active process of working to make sense of new information). They define interactions as activities that provide learners with opportunities to make sense of new information and apply it to their own personal experiences. Some interactive activities include field work, case studies, tutorials, and discussions-all of which can be conducted with or without technology components. Interactive activities must be selected based upon specific real-world needs of the learners rather than a pre-determined list of content topics. Instruction that is developed from this learner-centered perspective is more meaningful to learners because it is designed to help them make sense of information and apply it to their personal needs and interests.

Shank and Sitze wisely devote a chapter of the book to identifying and describing more than 30 of the most commonly-used terms in the field of online learning. Similar to the overall nature of the book, this section covers a wide spectrum of topics, including HTML, learning objects, open-source, and SCORM. The simple and accurate explanations meet the needs of the intended audience, but experienced readers might be left feeling that a particular term or topic was described in too simple of detail. Accessibility, for example, is addressed in only two brief paragraphs, even though it is currently a "hot topic" in the field and an area to which many organizations are directing resources. No mention is given as to what makes an online resource "accessible" or why many Web sites fail to meet accessibility guidelines.

As this glossarial section introduces readers to the more technical aspects of online learning, the authors strive to assure readers that they too can master the terminology of the field. They invoke a folksy tone that likely is intended to create a relational connection with the primary audience of non-technical trainers or educators. However, statements such as "we need to be able to get along with IT" and "here are my three steps for learning geek speak" perpetuate an us-versus-them sentiment. …