Understanding the Building Blocks of Online Learning: Part 7
Through the writings and research of pre-eminent online learning expert, Dr. Tony Bates
For almost 50 years, Tony Bates has been a consistent, persistent and influential voice for the reform of teaching and learning in post-secondary education, notably through the effective use of emerging technologies. Author of 11 books and 350 research papers in the field of online learning and distance education, Tony Bates is also an advisor to over 40 organizations in 25 countries, and publisher of what is arguably the most influential blog on online learning with over 20,000 visits a month. A Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associate, Dr. Bates has helped educators, academic administrators and policy makers grasp key concepts, trends and challenges in online learning. This posting is one of a series that looks at Tony’s perspectives and advice on key issues in online learning.
This series was researched and developed by Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associates,
Dr. Jane Brindley and Dr. Ross Paul.
Much of Tony Bates’ work has been about how to increase access to learning by leveraging technology while still achieving the highest quality of education. According to Bates, online learning offers unprecedented opportunities to offer courses and programs to large groups of learners with relative cost-efficiency. However, he notes that teaching with technology is not necessarily cheaper than face-to-face instruction if technology is merely added on to the existing model without careful attention to course design.
In his analysis, Bates makes a useful distinction between cost reduction and cost-effectiveness. In fact, the introduction of new technologies is apt to add costs, at least in the short term. In addition to investment in infrastructure (networks, computers, and technical support staff), the steep learning curve for everyone adds both time and cost. Technology is also changing rapidly and so infrastructure investments are constant.
However, while he concludes that technology is unlikely to reduce absolute costs, it can improve cost-effectiveness in the organization in several ways, by
- Enabling institutions to reach out to more and different students;
- Using technology to reduce or eliminate some activities currently carried out by instructors, freeing faculty time for more productive use;
- Using technology to improve the quality of learning, either by facilitating new skills and learning outcomes or by enabling students to achieve existing learning goals more easily, quickly and/or thoroughly.
Bates stresses that such cost-effectiveness requires radical changes in teaching methods and organization. He offers thoughtful advice on how to determine the relative costs of adopting technologies for hybrid and fully online courses, focusing on academic cost factors (planning, development and design, faculty and staff training, delivery, maintenance and overheads), as well as more institutionally-based concerns (infrastructure, administration).
Bates reminds us that costing exercises depend on certain assumptions always open to challenge. You may find the following lessons from his experience useful as you adapt new technologies within your own context and institutional culture. Although many of the costing factors are outside your immediate control, a wider understanding of what Bates offers as institutional, as well as faculty-related, cost-related guidelines may be useful to your planning.
Key Cost Factors
Because online learning requires new approaches to teaching and learning, and consequent changes in organizational structures, there are significant costing implications. Bates has found that faculty members have 2 particular cost-related concerns – the management of your time and your need to justify the investment through positive results. While new technologies may incur software, hardware and copyright costs, for example, the most expensive investment in post-secondary teaching is usually faculty salaries. This places a premium on how you use your time, notably for instructional development and course delivery.
1) Instructional Development
Planning and developing online components, courses or programs are complex and time consuming activities. As a faculty member, your upfront time investment will likely be high, although it will be less if your institution provides a support team of instructional and web designers. Once you become more familiar with this mode of teaching, you will be more efficient in subsequent development projects and, once an online course has been well established, you will only have to monitor it for effective achievement of learning outcomes and currency of the materials, and make the appropriate periodic revisions. Hence, for a given course, your time investment in its development should be significantly less in subsequent years.
2) Course Delivery
The comparative costs of online and face-to-face teaching differ fundamentally in the ratio of fixed to variable costs. To retain quality in the latter case, you have to add more teachers as enrolments grow or class sizes will escalate and quality may be compromised. For online teaching, if courses are well-designed, they can serve many more students with relatively small cost increases.
For Bates, the quality of course design is a key to controlling costs. The nature and amount of teacher-student interaction is designed into the course, facilitating planning of teaching workload. Online learning facilitates a variety of pedagogical approaches, which help reduce instructor time, including independent learning, peer-to-peer interaction, and using adjuncts or teaching assistants effectively. Once established, a course can provide a high-quality active learning experience that becomes increasingly cost-efficient over time because more enrolments can be added without comparable cost increases.
Bates offers some guidelines for optimum class sizes for face-to-face, hybrid and fully online courses, but cautions that these depend very much upon the amount of interaction built into the course. An online course that manages teacher-student interaction well for example, with the use of group projects, peer critique, and learning materials that provide feedback and self-assessment tests can be offered to 100 or more students with relatively low delivery costs. On the other hand, Bates estimates that online courses are less cost-efficient than face-to-face instruction for enrolments under 20 students.
A Business Plan Approach
Bates strongly promotes developing a business plan that takes full account of the 10 key cost factors in online learning development including the allocation of faculty and staff time. Bates and Sangrà offer the following components, many at the level of institutional control, of such an approach:
1. Track time investment.
Given that instructor time is the key costing variable, it makes sense that faculty members track how their time is used in teaching – for course development and design, selecting appropriate technologies, changing the ways work is done with students and managing the whole process with institutional colleagues.
2. Change how costs are tracked.
As the use of technology-based teaching expands, take an activity-based approach to costing, allocating all direct expenses and the associated revenues to program accounting, allocating each instructor’s time and proportional salaries to all aspects of course development and delivery. Bates and Sangrà argue that only in this way can the true costs of online learning be fairly compared with those of face-to-face teaching.
3. Be clear on issues of compensation for technology-based teaching.
A lot of technology-based teaching may be developed at the expense of other activities, meaning that faculty members require release time or at least formal recognition that other priorities may be compromised in the short-run (research, community service, other teaching) until online materials are identified and integrated into courses.
4. Link costs to benefits.
Investing in technology may enhance the teaching of a particular course, but increase its net costs, at least in the short term. To truly assess cost-effectiveness, you must be clear about the associated benefits. Are your students more actively engaged? Are they more successfully achieving the desired learning outcomes? Are there cost-efficiencies in the long run? The results will help you and the institution determine the value of such continuing investments.
5. Develop business plans for programs.
Bates advocates activity-based business plans to achieve the above steps. This involves costing all the investments of faculty and other staff time in developing and delivering courses, including planning, maintenance and overheads. We have not traditionally done this for classroom teaching and so there is understandable resistance to it for online approaches. However, the increasing interest in online learning, combined with tighter fiscal regimes in almost all colleges and universities, strongly suggest the merits of an activity-based approach to costing, budgeting both time and money for maximum learner success.As a concrete example, Bates recounts the University of British Columbia’s approach to costing its 12-course Masters of Educational Technology program, designed to be delivered completely through online learning.
In a detailed analysis, he shows how the initial costs were significant, but fully recouped by the end of 7 years. After that, a significant profit could be realized although some of the surplus revenues should be re-invested in the program to ensure its continuing quality and up-to-date contents.
While you can achieve much on your own time for 1 or 2 courses, you need increasing institutional support to sustain your involvement. Bates advocates a project management approach that brings you together with a team of support professionals, such as instructional designers and web programmers. This model, long employed in distance education, makes more efficient use of your time as subject matter expert while other professionals share the course development workload. This carries over to course delivery where you have tutor support in helping students navigate through the materials and develop their independent learning skills.
Ultimately, your investment in online learning, notwithstanding its relatively high development costs, will pay off to the extent that it extends accessibility, enhances or at least matches the quality of learning outcomes of face-to-face teaching, and is more cost-efficient in the long-term because of reduced delivery costs per student.
A more detailed assessment of the factors influencing the costs of online learning and the various categories of costs is provided by Bates in this document prepared for Contact North | Contact Nord.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Bartolic-Zlomislic, Silvia & Bates, A.W. (Tony). (1999). “Investing in Online Learning: Potential Benefits and Limitations” in Canadian Journal of Communication. 24:3.
Bates, A.W. and Poole, Gary. (2003). Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education: Foundations for Success. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, John Wiley and Sons.
Bates, A.W. (Tony). (2000). Managing Technological Change: Strategies for College and University Leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bates, A.W. (Tony). (2005). Technology, E-Learning and Distance Education. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.
Bates, A.W. (Tony) and Sangrà, Albert. (2011). Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, John Wiley and Sons. Information about the book, including summaries of chapters, scenarios from the book and opportunities to discuss some of the issues, can be found at http://batesandsangra.ca
Tony Bates’ blog (www.tonybates.ca).