Understanding the Building Blocks of Online Learning: Part 8
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 describes a key “aha” moment in his career when he realized the critical importance of planning and good management for the effective use of technology in education, especially in the academic sector. From that moment forward, he became an advocate for a much stronger faculty role in strategic planning for online learning.
Consider your own interest in and experience with educational technology. Have you used online learning in your teaching? If so, are your efforts paying off in terms of knowledge and skills acquisition by your students? Are your interests and understanding consistent with those of your colleagues? Is your involvement encouraged and supported in your department and institution? Have you been able to develop your own knowledge of, and skills, in blended or online learning? How does online learning fit your approach to teaching and learning?
These are the sorts of questions that Bates suggests you consider in support of a strategic approach to planning for online courses and programs. It soon becomes evident that a crucial component of your success in online learning is the degree of congruence between your values and approaches and those of the institution.
The Stages of Development of Online Learning
According to Bates, the introduction of online learning in an institution follows a fairly standard pattern of 5 distinct stages:
- Lone Rangers: These are the early adopters who take their own initiative, often without immediate or direct support from the institution.
- Encouragement: The efforts of these early adopters attract some interest and support from senior administrators through small grants or reduced teaching loads.
- Chaos: As a growing number of instructors embrace online learning, the administration starts to worry about quality, duplication of effort, lack of technical standards and, above all, the costs of scaling up to large numbers of classes and instructors.
- Planning: It is recognized that priorities need to be set, common technical standards established, technical and design support and training for faculty developed, and cost-effective ways of developing online learning established so that budget and instructor workload can be controlled.
- Sustainability: The institution has established a stable system of online learning that is cost-effective and scalable. Few institutions have reached this stage.
The Central Role of Planning
Central to the work of Bates is using planning as the key to reaching the final stage of sustainability. He observes that moving an institution to the appropriate use of learning technologies is more about human change than technical decisions. It requires patience and long-term strategies, which may explain his findings that few institutions have institutional plans for learning technologies. He believes that institutional leaders are too cautious and choose to enhance traditional classroom instruction, an approach that tends to add costs without measurable learning benefits, instead of transforming the way teaching is designed and delivered.
The decision to integrate technology within the operations of an institution is a strategic one because it requires substantial investment and significant organizational change. Bates makes a compelling case for strategic planning, noting that it is increasingly important not just to integrate technology, but to exploit fully its potential for innovation, improved learning outcomes and more efficient resource deployment. Because technology changes so rapidly, such planning must be continuous. He has observed the following problems in institutions that have not planned well for its introduction:
- The lack of a clear rationale for technology use
- A concern about the quality of online learning
- Duplication of effort and concomitant cost increases
- Unanticipated increases in faculty and student workloads
- A growing disillusionment with the promise of technology
Components of a Strategic Plan for Online Learning
As an antidote to such concerns, Bates recommends a well-structured strategic plan for online learning that addresses the following elements, among others:
- Rationale for its use
- Student target groups
- Academic level
- Course content
- Learning outcomes
- Teaching approaches
- Student assessment and program evaluation
- Choice and use of technologies
- Program team
- Program administration, including associated business plans
- Financial plan, including fees and resources needed
- Risk management
In their case studies of 11 post-secondary institutions, Bates and Sangrà found that technology integration was highest where it was prominent in an overall strategic plan, especially if accompanied by specific plans for online learning. However, where institutions had online learning plans not embedded in a larger strategic plan, they ran into conflicts later, notably in ensuring sufficient funding to make it effective. Where technology integration was lowest, none of the institutions had any formal strategic plan.
Strategic Planning – Where do you fit in?
Obviously, your institution’s commitment to, and support for, online learning will be a major factor in your own success with it. Nevertheless, Bates starts with the importance of faculty attitudes, their concerns for autonomy and academic freedom, and the organizational culture within which they work.
Just as online learning will be more effective in an institution that takes a strategic approach to planning, Bates encourages a similar approach by individual faculty members. Before embarking on the development of online materials, you need to consider carefully their relationship to your preferred mode of teaching and the readiness of your students. Ideally, your own planning will be supported by and in sync with that of your institution.
From Bates’ extensive work on online learning, we can extrapolate the following key planning issues for your consideration. In the ideal case, the impetus will be taken by your academic department or, at least, in collaboration with key colleagues, but the following planning parameters apply even if you are embarking alone. Each piece of the plan should be carefully considered before you undertake any online project:
- Develop a clear vision and rationale for why you are developing online materials, courses and/or programs. This will involve a re-thinking of the curriculum and how best it can be taught. The presumed outcome is an array of courses offered in the mode (face-to-face, hybrid, fully online) most appropriate to the learning outcomes you establish.
- Recognize that moving from face-to-face to online teaching will require significant changes in your approaches. Do everything you can to ensure congruity between the mode of course development and delivery and your core values about teaching and learning.
- Take full account of the costs associated with initiating online learning, starting with the increased demands on your time and including the implications for technical and other support by your institution.
- Use the learning outcomes for each online course as the basis on which you can evaluate its effectiveness and make subsequent revisions. Your investment of additional time for course development will be more easily justified to the extent that you can see demonstrable improvements in student learning outcomes and widened accessibility to your courses.
- Take the time to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of different technologies in their application to teaching and learning.
- Recognizing the typical evolution of online learning in an institution described by Bates (above), work with your colleagues to develop a strong planning ethos that recognizes the interdependence of all variables and that moves you toward a project management approach to ensure course and program sustainability.
Faculty Development is an Important Part of Planning
Bates believes that, for most instructors, faculty development should not be treated as a separate, independent activity, but be embedded in a broad range of team-based strategies that support the collaborative development of effective online learning.
Bates has found best practice in faculty development for online learning is embedded in a strong instructional technology plan for the institution. From this perspective, your institution’s organizational culture makes a considerable difference to your approach to online learning. As part of planning for teaching with technology, it is important to consider your professional development needs and reasonable to look to your institution for assistance in this regard.
In summary, recognizing the pedagogical and institutional changes necessary for effective online learning, Bates has developed a strong case for the importance of effective coordination and planning, not only by the institution, but also by faculty members individually and in groups. Whatever your institution’s stage of development with technology integration, a thoughtful, planned approach to teaching and learning in conjunction with your colleagues can pay rich dividends for both you and your students.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Bates, A.W. (Tony). 2001. “Beyond Button-Pushing: Using Technology to Improve Learning,” in Rhonda M. Epper and A.W. Bates, (eds.), Teaching Faculty How to Use Technology: Best Practices from Leading Institutions. Westport, Ct.: The American Council on Education and The Oryx Press, chapter 8.
Bates, A.W. (Tony). 2000. Managing Technological Change: Strategies for College and University Leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bates, Tony. (2007). “Strategic Planning for e-Learning in a Polytechnic”, in Bullen, M. and Janes, D. (eds.), Making the Transition to e-Learning. Hershey, PA. Idea Group Inc.
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. 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’ website (www.tonybates.ca).