I have been waiting for a couple of years now for a work that successfully ties together the emerging social software/web 2.0 scene with established theory and practice of distance education. Unfortunately, I didn’t write it myself. However, Jon Dron has created the first in what I assume will be a series of writing, research and experimentation (his and the work of many others) that helps us harness the affordances for enhanced learning provided through a ubiquitously connected lifelong learning population, an abundance of learning content and judicious use of agents to make it easy.

In a nutshell, Control and Constraint in E-Learning explores how to move beyond distance education’s roots as independent study, through the tight cohorts of students moving lockstep through teacher orchestrated activities, to a context in which ‘many learners, loosely joined” can have the freedom and choice to co-create their own learning. A tall order this, but one that is very much coming to a computer near you!

Dron begins the book with a look backwards at the theoretical balances between structure, control, power, and “transactional distance” (Moore, Saba, Garrison, Boyer, Pask, Gorsky, Candy etc.) He concludes (like other scholars) that many of these concepts are fuzzy, hard to validate empirically and often misunderstood by both readers and authors. He then moves unto something most of use, like, and understand- having control over choices that affect us- reverberating with a near universal desire for freedom and democracy. Though acknowledging that sometimes students cannot handle nor desire too much choice, lifelong learning demands that students participate in the experience of learning, if they are to recreate that experience on their own in subsequent experiences. He concludes that control and constraints induced by context, content and scale shape both formal and informal learning. Since education is about change, Dron then uses these notions of transactional control to map so-called learning trajectories that are changed by active control of the learner, an instructor or changes in their context of their learning environment.

Having set the theory, Dron then maps ‘transactional control” onto net activities including searching for the ‘good stuff’, asynchronous threaded discussion, LMS use and text chat. I liked the application chapters, but the detail of analysis of asynchronous and text chat became a bit tedious – the point was made that the conversation or activity is constantly changing in response to the exercise of control by learners or teachers. I also would have preferred analysis of voice chat as opposed to text, since I rarely use text chat and never in formal classes- but perhaps that is just because I am too old! Dron then plays with the idea of transactional control, to resolve some thorny e-learning issues such as making the optimal granularity of a learning object. He argues that “the smallest learning object should be the one that embodies an atomic transactional choice ”p. 135

Personally, the book got most interesting when Dron began expanding the six forms of interaction (learner-teacher; learner-content; learner-learner; teacher-content ;teacher-teacher and content-content). I had assumed that I had covered all possible combinations of the three main actors when I discussed these in 2003. But alas Dron complicates the context, by noting that the network or group is itself a learning resource and potentially powerful learning aide as exemplified in blogs, wikis, referral services, collaborative help systems and the myriad other forms of web 2.0 or social software applications. These actors are much less formal, transient and in many cases subject to happenstance, yet as the net matures the possibility of interacting with human and content resources outside of the formal learning context increases.

The book ends with a series of design principals for social software. These principles draw from a rather disparate group of theories and principles. Three are extracted directly from the general evolutionary theory (Richard Dawkins is no doubt delighted!) the Principle of Adaptability and the Principle of Evolvability, then more specifically deals with behaviours and techniques of successful species or emergent organizations such as insects’ ability to organize effectively with relatively low brainpower using Principle of Stigmergy, to allow attainment of objectives impossible by individual or class sized cooperation – think global warming. The Principle of Trust relates directly to the human relationship, community and sense of common cause that arise through use of high quality learning networks. These activities flourish if emergent networks can form appropriate sized social structures using the using Principle of Parcellation to create the small within the large. To make sense of the ecological complexity of emergent educational social context, education design architects help us construct patterns Principle of Constraint (think Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language). Of course, acknowledgement of the underlying Principle of Context dictates that learning must be customizable by the large disbursed groups spread across space and time, but that they will also will be highly connected –Principle of Connectivity through the today’s communications backbone of the Net.

To my knowledge these are the first attempts at extracting underlying design principles or patterns for educational social software. Dron next applies the principles to a few existing and emerging case studies and speculates about the future of e-learning noting the plight of teachers who cannot ‘get with’ this new learning agenda.

In the tradition of the critical reviewer, I offer four minor complaints. In the first chapter, I was flattered to see a nice long quote that I had published in 2003. Unfortunately the bibliography referenced another group of scholars led by another Anderson. I don’t usually quibble about minor typos and citation errors – unless they concern me personally! Second, I wish Dron had picked up on Morten Paulsen’s work of 1993 where he defined his Theory of Cooperative Freedom, in which he foresaw many of the affordances of social software in allowing transactional choice over time, pace, place, access, curriculum, media, and I added ‘relationship’ to the list. Transactional choice is a very broad category and noting all its dimensions, helps us plan and not default to particular familiar defaults. Third, I find the title quite confusing – at quick browse in a bookstore (online or F2F) I might confuse it with Luddite harangue in the style of David Noble or a guide to retain ing teacher control with unruly cyber-kids, but I wouldn’t likely think it was a book about social software. Finally, I wish Control and Constraint in E-learning was more accessible. Open access publishing would be an appropriate goal, but at least publication in soft cover to reduce the price from its lofty $110.66 Canadian (OK so the postage is free!) would result in tens or even hundreds of thousands more readers.

In summary, Jon Dron has made a major contribution to our understanding of learning in the networked era. This book will likely do what Alex Romiszowski books in the 1980’s and Tony Bates did for scholars and distance education practitioners in the 90’s. I doubt if it will be the final work exploring “many learners loosely joined” but it makes a first and major contribution.