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A Conversation with Tony Bates

University Business, Feb 2013
Tony Bates

Tony Bates is the author of 11 books in the field of online learning and distance education. In addition to his most recent title, Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning (Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Co. 2011), Bates moderates a widely read blog about online learning and distance education resources at Popular with audiences at education conferences around the world, Bates will be a featured speaker at UBTech 2013 in Orlando. He recently spoke to UB about the growing importance and necessity of online learning technologies as part of the academic structure of the university.

We’ve seen studies about the technology usage gap between students and faculty, where students are dissatisfied with the amount of learning technology that faculty use. You say we are failing all students by not using technology to its fullest. Can you expand on that?

First, I know that universities are not just about jobs, but I think a lot of students pay large fees because they hope to get better jobs, so you have to take that into account. And if you look at the kind of jobs that people are going to these days, they are likely to be using technology in their work. If they are professionals, they need to know how to use technology in their subject domain.

For example, I see real estate agents now using geographical information systems because it gives them a much better way of updating and assessing the relative house prices within their region. So if you’re not using technology as an instructor in a way that is relevant to the subject domain in which you are working, you aren’t producing students with the skills needed in the 21st century. It’s the attitude that if there are technologies out there that can help you in your job, you need to be on top of them all the time.

Does technology improve the quality of teaching or does it enhance what is already high-quality teaching?

In many universities, the quality of teaching is not high, particularly in the first and second years. There are very large lecture classes, and little interaction between faculty and students. It’s an information transmission mode, which doesn’t develop the skills and critical-thinking abilities that you really want from students. So, when faculty argues that they are already teaching very well, I think that needs to be challenged.

I think the quality of teaching can be improved dramatically by the intelligent use of technology. It can enable more interaction among students and between the student and teacher. But that will only come about through redesigning the teaching experience. We are beginning to see more hybrid learning, a combination of online and face-to-face teaching, as a result.

Older students and lifelong learners have become the majority of the student population in the United States. Yet the focus is still largely on recruiting the “traditional” student. Should schools be thinking of e-learning or distance learning as more ideally suited to this larger segment of the population?
Absolutely. Most students with families and jobs need the flexibility that online learning provides. For many, there is no alternative other than distance education. Sure, maybe they can come to campus for a week or weekend if they need to, but often if they are to continue to develop in whatever field they’re in, they will need more flexible ways to access the campus than just attending regular classes.

Last year saw a lot of growth from MOOCs. Are we approaching a tipping point where we’re going to eventually have two distinct types of learning

MOOCs are very interesting, and they’ve been a wake-up call to many institutions. But the way they operate at the moment, they are not a big threat. [Officials at] many universities say, “It’s just another form of continuing education. We don’t have to worry much because it won’t threaten our core.” But I think that’s a mistake. They should realize that MOOCs could be a real threat. If schools like Harvard and Stanford start offering free or low-cost courses to a very large number of students, that could take away from their core base of students.

Here in Canada where I live, several of the most prestigious universities have set up task forces to look at where they should be going with flexible learning. Not just online learning, but flexible learning. They understand there are a number of factors coming together at the same time to create a perfect storm. MOOCs are one. Changing demographics is another. So is technology use by faculty, as well as pressure from students. They’re all forcing institutions to think strategically about where they are going with learning technology.

You’ve said most institutions are badly managing online learning and learning technologies. What did you mean?

First, to be clear, I’m not talking about infrastructure or IT support, which is often very well managed. I’m talking about the strategic management of learning technologies.

The tendency has often been to leave it to faculty to decide whether or not to use technology. There is no requirement or pressure or even retraining for faculty to use technology. So we have a sort of ad hoc development of technology usage at most institutions.

Then the schools respond to faculty demands by providing help through instructional designers or education technologists. But it is reactive, rather than a strategic direction from the leadership. Without clear goals as to why technology should be used, without clear objectives and ways of measuring how successful they are, it is not going to be managed very well.

I’m not suggesting a strictly top-down management style. You need some leadership, but you also need to engage faculty in making decisions about the use of technology. What I see lacking at many institutions is that strategic leadership. It tends to be a panic response: MOOCs have come, so we should be doing MOOCs. Or maybe a VP of academics will come on board for a few years and begin to make changes, but then the person leaves and the whole initiative drops.
Strategically, institutions should have learning technology in sight as they look at the future. Where does it fit? What kind of student are they trying to reach? How can it help them meet those students’ needs? Earlier, I said students need more flexibility. I think that applies not just to older students, but to the younger students, as well. As education costs go up, students have to get part-time jobs; they are trying to balance that with a class schedule and it doesn’t work very well unless they have some flexibility like blended or hybrid learning.

So should this become part of the fabric of the institutional mission of the university?

Definitely. There should be a statement in the strategic plan about the university’s commitment to learning technology and why it is important. It’s a supportive message to faculty. It should be integrated with the academic plan, if they have one. They should be looking not just at academic content, but also at how they will deliver that content.

Do you think the university of 10 or even five years from now will be radically different than it is today?

Physically, probably not. You’ll still have buildings and lots of people on campus, although the car parks may be a bit emptier. But in terms of what happens in the classroom, I think it will look very different. What I think we’ll see gradually disappearing are those very large lectures, except for special occasions like the beginning and end of a semester. We’ll move away from those to much smaller classes. Students will still be coming to campus, but do much of their work online.

What about faculty? Will they become more facilitators or will they continue to drive the learning process?

I hope they are driving the learning process, but I think we’ll be moving more to the “guide on the side” form of teaching. In the end, students have to take responsibility for their own learning by the time they leave school.

The problem isn’t in faculty selecting content for the student, but in helping students learn to find, analyze and apply information appropriately. We need to help students select their own content and evaluate that against academic standards as to its reliability and validity. So faculty will be guiding students, but also helping them make decisions about what is valid information and what isn’t. That’s a skill everyone needs in their lives. It’s a core fundamental skill of competency that we need to be teaching. That requires a more facilitative role than a faculty member telling you what you have to learn. When they leave, there is no one to tell them that.