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Q&A with online-learning expert Tony Bates

Author of a new open textbook discusses how faculty instructors can deal with the changing digital environment.


When you think of distance and online learning you may think of Dr. Tony Bates, and for good reason: he worked for 20 years at Britain’s Open University, was an executive director at the Open Learning Agency of British Columbia, and was director of distance education in the continuing studies division at the University of British Columbia. In 2003 he founded Tony Bates Associates Ltd., a company specializing in consultancy and training in the planning and management of e-learning and distance education. Dr. Bates is the author of 12 books, and his latest is an open online textbook for faculty and instructors called Teaching in a Digital Age. University Affairs spoke with Dr. Bates about his new book and how he sees the changing landscape of higher education teaching.

University Affairs: What can instructors and faculty expect to gain and learn from reading this text?

Dr. Bates: I wrote the book because there’s a lot happening in higher education teaching, including increasing integration of online learning with campus-based teaching. All faculty are facing this challenge. Most instructors at universities don’t have teacher training courses, so they don’t often have the pedagogical background to respond to these changes. What I wanted to do was create a guide for faculty instructors to deal with the changing digital environment in which teaching in higher education is operating.

UA: What is ultimately different about teaching in a digital age?

Dr. Bates: There are several differences: we have a more diverse group of students than we used to. As we’ve entered into mass higher education we have students with a very wide range of backgrounds and abilities. When you have lots of different students and you want them to succeed, you have to diversify and offer more flexibility in your teaching methods.

Another issue is rapidly changing technologies, particularly in the area of social media, and the fact that students are using these technologies anyway. But these technologies have pedagogical benefits and can help you deal with the diversity of students and large class sizes by shifting some of the work to the students and away from the instructor in terms of delivering content, for instance. These technologies offer different ways of teaching, in order to get students more active in their learning and more responsible for their own learning.

We used to have the small elite universities where there was a lot of interaction between students and teachers; then we had the mass higher education where we had much more in the way of content delivery and large lecture classes; and now with new technology we have the opportunity to bring back that increased interaction.

UA: Why offer it as an open textbook?

Dr. Bates: One of the themes of the book is how the open education movement is going to change the way we teach, as more and more content becomes available online. Actually, I think in the next five to 10 years, 99 percent of all content will be free and online. So with this text I thought I should walk the talk, and offer it as an open book so faculty and instructors can see the benefits and the challenges of making knowledge freely available and open.

There are practical reasons as well. I’ve written 11 previous books, several of them published by top-level publishers, and I was dissatisfied – not with the editing which I found very valuable – [but] with the marketing. I thought that through social media I could advertise better than through a commercial publisher.

UA: If you had to condense the text into a few main messages, what would they be?

Dr. Bates: The first message is that you have to think very carefully now about campus experience, more than we have been. In most cases, at least until they get to graduate school, students are not getting a great campus experience. There are a lot of commuter students who come in, go to lectures, grab a coffee and go home again. Faculty have to consider what they’re going to do when students are present and face-to-face, versus what they choose to do using technology.

We should no longer think of the classroom as the default model, with online being an added resource. We should think the opposite way: that everything can be done online now except for certain things we should focus on when students come to campus. This is also dependent on the discipline and needs to be answered by the instructors themselves, but I want the book to get them to think about this.

Another message is that different media have different characteristics, so think carefully about what each does best; know how to assess what’s best done using text, video, audio, face-to-face and so on. I try to give some guidelines on how to make those decisions.

UA: Increasingly, the classic lecture format of teaching is seen as outdated and ineffective, although it remains popular among professors and students. How can we make better use of the lecture format, or should we get rid of it?

Dr. Bates: There are many reasons why it’s still around and will continue to be, although I’d like to see it used less than it is at the moment. It’s historical, it’s how the faculty themselves were taught, so they follow what they know. There is no structured compulsory formal training in teaching in universities and as a result there is no exposure to alternative methods, and until that starts to happen (although I don’t see it happening in the near future), you’re going to see the continuation of people teaching in the way they were taught.

But we now know that lectures are an inefficient way of teaching, especially if that’s the only method used. There are still reasons to have lectures, and it can be very satisfying for the prof and the students, but the problem with the lecture is you’re doing the student’s work: you’re doing the analysis, collecting the data, and presenting it to them. Think about the skills and knowledge they need when they leave: they need to do that work themselves. If we could shift the teaching so the students are doing more of that work and the instructor is a guide and provides the academic criteria by which students do their work, but doesn’t actually deliver the content, we’ll have better students leaving the university who are more capable of being independent learners.

UA: In chapter five, you say that MOOCs are disruptive and therefore controversial. Can you expand on this?

Dr. Bates: MOOCs are disruptive in the sense that they certainly got the attention of the media! They are disruptive because (regarding xMOOCs like those coming from Stanford and MIT) the idea is that there is an elite body of knowledge that can be tapped into and provide knowledge for everyone for free. That’s a very powerful argument. In that sense, it leaves every other university asking, ‘Well, what’s our role? What are we going to do?’

The assumption that we can broadcast a lecture across the whole world and it will solve the world’s higher education problems is a stupid idea. We’ve already tried it with radio and television, and all those things failed because learning isn’t about taking a bunch of information and just dumping it onto someone else. It’s about a whole process of development in the learner where they gain a deeper understanding of a subject area. MOOCs cut out so many essential steps that are required to develop that kind of depth of understanding. I like watching the history channel, but it doesn’t make me a historian. Of course there are benefits to MOOCs, but they have been over-hyped and over-promoted.

Other types of MOOCs – like the Canadian cMOOCs that can engage very large numbers of people with the right mix of expertise and value systems and bring them together into a discussion, addressing major problems around the world like poverty and climate change – can be extremely valuable, but that’s not always what’s being promoted.

Finally, MOOCs depend on people already having a high standard of education because there’s very little support for the learner. You are going to get independent learners taking MOOCs. I don’t have a problem with them so long as it’s seen as a form of voluntary continuing education. When it’s seen as a replacement for other types of learning I become concerned. MOOCs are good for delivering content but not good at getting people to solve problems.

UA: What has the feedback been so far in response to Teaching in a Digital Age?

Dr. Bates: It’s been very successful. So far we’ve had 10,000 downloads of the whole book, mostly in PDF format, since it came out three months ago. My next most successful commercially published book took me seven years to get to 10,000, in the same market and almost the same topic.

What surprised and pleased me is that the initial responses I had were not from faculty development offices but from heads of departments and deans. Their response was, “I want my faculty to change, I’ve not had the kind of resources to give them to enable change, and this is just what my faculty needs.” Lots of groups are interacting with the text, from a small private university in California to Royal Roads in Victoria; at Dalhousie they have a faculty book club and are using the book this summer.

One thing I’d like to add: I wouldn’t recommend that writing an open text book is for everyone. If I was a young academic looking to make my way, having a book go through the rigours of commercial publishing is very good for them as a writer and author. I benefited enormously from the help I had from commercial editors, and it would have been very difficult to have done this without that experience. Open books are not the solution to all the world’s problems, but it is a route that I think more academics will be taking. I respect people’s decision to do things differently.


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