Understanding the Building Blocks of Online Learning: Part 6
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.
Tony Bates’ approach to online learning is pragmatic, but informed by accumulated wisdom from his on-the-job experience, widespread reading and consulting, and focused research into the application of technologies to post-secondary education. From his early work on the adaptation of radio and television for distance education through to his latest studies of Web 2.0 technologies, he has derived practical lessons for the effective application of various media and technologies for improved educational outcomes.
We address 2 aspects of his work here -- the implications of some of the key findings from his lifelong work on educational technology for faculty members using online learning to complement, supplement or replace their classroom teaching, and his guide to related questions of particular interest to faculty researchers.
Lessons from Research for Successful Online Learning
Bates emphasizes starting with the right research questions in deciding which technologies are most appropriate. Simply asking which is “better”, face-to-face or online teaching, is singularly unhelpful and easily misunderstood. While most studies reveal no significant difference between the 2, this does not mean that the choice of technologies is inconsequential. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve and which technologies best serve your ends.
Bates identifies the following as among the most consistent and helpful outcomes of studies into the application of different technologies in post-secondary education.
The focus should be on the teaching, not the technology.
From his experience and studies, Bates concludes that any foray into online learning must start with a vision of your model of teaching and learning. It must be based on sound instructional design compatible with your teaching values and intentions. Bates’ blog post Decide How You Want to Teach Online is a good starting point.
Different media have different educational capacities.
While your preferred pedagogical approach should inform the technologies you employ (and not the other way around), moving into online learning will almost certainly require a re-thinking of your basic approaches to teaching. Technologies have unique characteristics and capacities, making each one more or less closely aligned with different pedagogies. Online learning, particularly using Web 2.0 technologies, such as such as wikis, blogs, e-portfolios, and social media, which allow learners to find, adapt, create, share and publish information easily, represent the potential for a significant shift in power from teacher to learner, necessitating a more constructivist approach to learning.
Online learning can accommodate a range of Web 2.0 tools, as well as different media: text, graphics, audio, video, animation, and simulations. You need to understand their capabilities and use them appropriately (e.g. a wiki for communication and collaboration, a blog for broadcasting ideas or for reflective thinking, a simulation for experiencing) in order to realize their educational advantage.
Using technologies according to their unique capacities leads to deeper understanding, and a wider range of learning outcomes and skills in applying content. You can pattern your use of various media to the needs and different learning styles of individual learners. In short, teaching with technology has to be explicitly designed to exploit the full pedagogical potential of the range of media it can support. In a recent post, Bates described this finding as his first “aha” moment in re-counting a series of insights derived from research throughout his career.
Online learning is compatible with constructivist approaches.
Constructivist approaches to teaching focus on the assimilation and accommodation of new experiences with previous forms of understanding, requiring the learner to be active in observing, comparing, questioning, reflecting and discussing. Online learning, particularly using Web 2.0 tools and multimedia, facilitates this kind of active and collaborative learning. The asynchronous nature of online learning encourages interaction with, and reflection on, content, and online discussions provide the opportunity for students to test ideas, and build and construct knowledge through collaborative learning. Thus online learning can provide a way for you to approach teaching differently from didactic practice in large lecture classes.
Asynchronous learning supports reflection and critical thinking skills.
The asynchronous nature of online learning provides students with considerable control over the pace and timing of their learning, allowing for and encouraging reflection on content, the learning process, and self as learner. Students can reconsider and compare content, even in the form of discussion (because it is recorded). The opportunity for students to challenge course materials and other students’ conceptions and arguments within a course, and to find and compare multiple, and perhaps conflicting, sources of information can all contribute to the development of critical thinking skills. However, there is still a need for your active intervention as moderator and designer to ensure that these skills are actually developed.
Online moderation is essential.
For online discussion forums to enable learners to construct their own meanings, increase their depth of understanding of key concepts and principles in a subject, and apply them to new contexts, research has indicated that very careful course design and purposeful online moderation are needed. As a moderator of online discussions, you will need to ensure that students are meeting the necessary academic standards, such as evidence-based argument, setting arguments within a conceptual framework, and relating discussion to the concepts and ideas covered in the course materials. If not, the discussion can easily deteriorate into a swapping of unsubstantiated opinions among students.
Online learning supports collaboration.
One great advantage of online learning is the opportunity for students, separated by time and place, to work together on common tasks. Learning to collaborate online is an increasingly important workplace skill, and it provides important opportunities for students to share experiences and test and develop their own ideas.
It is particularly valuable for courses where students are from different countries or cultures, and in professional and continuing education programs, where participants can share and draw from relevant experiences. There is evidence, however, that using the web for collaborative learning is not without challenges. Students will benefit from clear task definitions, guidelines for collaborative work, procedures to deal with conflict resolution, and criteria for individual and group assessment. In this respect, the general literature on collaborative learning applies just as strongly to online as to face-to-face teaching.
Open educational resources (OERs) facilitate both quality and cost-effectiveness.
The increasing availability of free and open educational resources not only offers huge potential to dramatically extend post-secondary access to credit and non-credit programs in a cost-efficient manner, but it allows the instructor to select the very best quality of teaching materials from all over the world. OER can facilitate many different applications, with choices available from loose collections of learning materials (OER Africa) and carefully designed courses (Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative) through collaborative degree programs across institutions (OERu) to massive open online courses (MOOCs). A useful discussion of these different applications can be found here.
Evaluation is important to innovation
Evaluation to improve performance is part of all good teaching, but is particularly important for online teaching where new tools and approaches are still rapidly developing. At a basic level, the quality of online learning can be measured by comparing quantitative indicators such as completion rates and measures of learning such as grades obtained compared to those of students in face-to-face classes. In addition, it is critical to evaluate whether more skill-related learning outcomes such as information literacy, online collaboration, or communication skills can be achieved through learning activities that exploit the capacity of particular technology tools. The best way to continue to improve and innovate is through a systematic analysis of experience and outcomes. Bates provides a helpful overview of evaluation of online courses for faculty in this blog post.
Research questions you might wish to pursue.
As a faculty member teaching online, you play an important role in building knowledge about this field through evaluating and innovating in your practice. If you decide that you would like to go beyond evaluation to pursue research into online teaching and learning, Bates’ 2007 paper, Map of Research into E-Learning, is a good starting point. In it, he provides research questions, appropriate methodologies, references for related studies, potential partners, and possible outputs.
Of particular interest to faculty members are the topics listed under his section on Teaching and Learning, including methods of course design, quality assurance, the relationship among pedagogy, various technologies and skill development, how to combine synchronous and asynchronous teaching, and the impact of online learning on learners.
Bates’ paper is a rich resource for researchers into online learning. Even if you do not pursue research in any of these areas, you may find it useful simply to review the questions in developing your own approach to online learning and conducting systematic evaluation of your work.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
If you are fairly new to online teaching, you might want to read the series of 10 posts on Quality Online Learning on Tony’s Blog, which cover designing, teaching, and evaluating online courses in some detail. If you start with the last one, you will find links to all the previous ones.
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. (2000). Managing Technological Change: Strategies for College and University Leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Bates, Tony. (2005). Charting the Evolution of Lifelong Learning and Distance Higher Education: The Role of Research. In Macintosh, C. (ed.) in Lifelong Learning and Distance Higher Education. Paris: UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning.
Bates, A.W. (Tony) and Sangrà, Albert. (2011). Managing technology in higher education: Strategies for transforming teaching and learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. More 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)