Understanding the Building Blocks of Online Learning: Part 5
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.
Like many faculty members, you may be concerned that, in the rush to apply the latest technologies, the quality of online learning may not match that of face-to-face teaching. Based on a lifelong preoccupation with teaching with technology, Tony Bates offers knowledge and perspective invaluable to those contemplating teaching through blended or hybrid learning, or embarking on a full online learning project for the first time.
We focus here on 4 issues that address the quality of online learning:
- Comparing the results of online learning with face-to-face instruction;
- The status of online learning in your institution;
- How to design and delivery high quality online learning; and
- The role of quality assurance.
1. Comparing the Results of Online Learning with Face-to-Face Instruction
In a meta-analysis of over 1,000 research studies comparing the impact of face-to-face and online teaching, Bates and Sangrà concluded that there is no evidence of significant differences between the 2 modes of instruction. However, the authors interpret these results with caution, noting that quality is contextual. For example, the flexibility afforded by online learning makes it more attractive to adult or part-time learners, whereas younger full-time students may benefit more from face-to-face instruction until they have acquired more independent learning skills. A technology well-suited to teaching welding to students in remote sites may not be suitable for teaching a hybrid social science class.
The demands of a particular teaching and learning context are paramount to assessing a technology’s quality. Whatever the results elsewhere, you need to conduct your own research and evaluation of technology-based teaching to identify the conditions optimal for your teaching, your students and your institution.
2. The Importance of the Status of Online Learning in your Institution
One of the key factors affecting the quality of online learning is how a given course is designed and developed. Bates has identified four main approaches to course development, representing increasing levels of institutional support for faculty. It is important to consider which of these approaches best fits your own situation:
If you are a pioneer in moving to online learning in your own institution, you are probably what Bates calls a “Lone Ranger”. By far the most common approach, this model describes the efforts of an individual faculty member to integrate one or more technologies into a particular course without formalized institutional support. While this practice retains your autonomy and control, it usually requires a disproportionate amount of your time for preparation and may be difficult to sustain.
Boutique Course Development
In this approach, you are assisted by an instructional designer or technology support person from a centre set up by your institution for this purpose. This works well when relatively few instructors need help, but is probably not sustainable when demand increases and you can no longer count on timely and appropriate help exactly when you need it.
Collegial Materials Development
Here, you collaborate with academic colleagues within or beyond your institution to develop online materials. You share ideas, jointly develop or share course materials, and provide critical feedback to each other. You decide which materials to include in your own courses and which to share with colleagues. This can be extremely effective, especially in bringing a group of colleagues together around common cause, but you may quickly discover that you need a more systematic approach and greater institutional support as this practice grows in the institution.
Using the project management approach, you work with a team of experts according to your course development needs (instructional designer, multimedia designer, web designer, programmer) managed by a team leader or project manager (who might be you). Bates suggests a full project management model as the best route to ensuring course and program quality, especially when developing entire courses or programs online. Other advantages of this approach are the opportunity to learn more about online learning as part of a team and efficient use of your time as subject matter expert because much of the technical support work and design is done by expert associates. Once you have gained course development experience working with a team, you may choose to work more independently.
3. How to Design and Deliver High Quality Online Learning
Once you have identified the optimal approach to course development for your needs in your institution, Bates offers the following 6 components as the key to achieving high quality in online learning.
Planning and instructional design: Perhaps the strongest theme running through Bates’ concerns about online quality is his preoccupation with careful planning and instructional design. For him, you must first establish clear learning objectives and outcomes and plan an appropriate mix of learning activities to achieve them. This includes pre-determining the nature of the interactions you want among students, the learning materials and the tutor or instructor.
An integral part of the course design process is selecting technologies for their specific capacity to support the learning activities and interaction chosen. As noted above, you can benefit from the assistance of in-house professional staff such as instructional designers and web programmers in these endeavours.
Delivery and student support: Given that all your students have ready access to the online components of your course, you have a responsibility to ensure that they have the technological and learning skills to take full advantage of them. Course quality depends not just on the materials, but also on the extent to which students are engaged with them and with each other. Research underlines the importance of an instructor online presence in achieving this.
Supporting students as they navigate through the wealth of learning materials available online will both motivate and help them to develop lifelong learning skills. Other important forms of learner support include library services, writing coaches, counselors and others who can help students develop their own independent and interdependent learning skills.
Faculty knowledge and preparation: It is important to identify what you need to learn about teaching online and find the consequent professional development opportunities that will enhance your ability to produce effective online or blended learning courses. Developing collaborative working relationships with professional colleagues such as instructional designers and web programmers can be invaluable.
Your openness to taking their advice and considering new approaches to your teaching will be a key factor of success. Online learning opens up power relationships within an institution and your awareness of this will help you to navigate through the associated complexities of institutional politics in course development and design.
Media production: Recognizing that learning is enhanced by providing content in forms other than just text, course quality will be enhanced by effective visual and audio components. These need not be sophisticated or expensive. What matters most is the appropriateness of the graphics and other technological aids to your course objectives.
Visibility of content: You can take advantage of the public visibility of online course materials and interactions with students. While the openness of online teaching may be disconcerting at first, it contributes to the development and improvement of course materials by lending itself readily to more collaborative approaches with both peers and students. The development of open educational resources has contributed directly to quality improvement because learning materials can be critiqued and modified by your best academic colleagues from anywhere.
Evaluation and revision: It is important to formally evaluate course and program objectives and learning outcomes based on the goals set in your institutional or departmental plans and revise courses and programs accordingly. Benchmarking against other institutions also helps measure quality. There are numerous international agencies that set out best practice results for online learning against which you can measure the success of your own courses and programs.
More detail can be found in Tony’s nine-step process for achieving quality in online learning.
4. The Role of Quality Assurance
Enrolments in fully online and hybrid courses are escalating dramatically in post-secondary institutions all over the world. It is clear that technology has become part of teaching practice and the lesson from Tony Bates is that this underscores the need for you to incorporate quality considerations into course and program design from the outset. He points to the appearance of a new journal dedicated to quality in online learning as a measure of the growing interest in this field.
Bates observes that the growing competition among institutions combined with the relative openness of online learning will increasingly place a premium on the development of quality assurance measures. Accreditation agencies in the United States, Britain and Australia are developing formal quality assurance standards for online learning. While Canada has not established formal quality assurance mechanisms, there is increasing interest in key performance indicators and benchmarking practices in colleges and universities.
In summary, Bates offers the following as the best guarantees of quality in online learning:
- Your own knowledge of and experience in the use of technology for teaching and learning;
- Your access to highly qualified and professional learning technology support staff and project management approaches to online learning;
- Institutional support in the form of appropriate instructor-student ratios, for your own professional development, and appropriate release time for course development; and
- Your attention to systematic evaluation and ability to use the results for continuous improvement to the teaching and learning process.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Bates, A. W. (2000). Managing Technological Change: Strategies for College and University Leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
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)