Tony Bates is a realist when it comes to the pace of change in higher education. As a Senior Advisor at the Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University and a Research Associate at Contact North, Bates is the first to acknowledge the challenges in shifting to online teaching. But he also believes these challenges may just be paving the way for a boom in blended learning. In our interview, Bates discusses why adapting to new methods of course delivery means putting more focus on how students learn—and how this could shape the future of higher ed for the better.
As institutions prepare instructors to teach online for the fall semester, you haven’t been shy about pointing to some of the inadequacies. What’s broken here?
The biggest problem is we don’t require anybody with a PhD who’s going to teach in a university to have to take any courses in teaching. There are certificates and so on but it is all voluntary and only about 10 percent of faculty in any one year take any development programs. This has proved to be a real problem in making the kind of sudden switch to online teaching that we did in the spring. Most faculty were totally unprepared for this. It’s not their fault, of course; it’s the way the system runs. It’s difficult to adapt your mode of teaching if you don’t have a good background in pedagogy and how students learn. And now we are playing catch up.
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If you were spearheading a curriculum to prepare faculty to teach online, what would you prioritize?
I would focus the curriculum on helping students develop soft skills: critical thinking, problem solving, communications skills. These are the skills students can take from one job to another. Although we do know some things about how to teach these skills, they’re not very well transmitted to instructors.
The second component would be active learning. It’s easy to give students lots of content. You can give them lectures, you can give them readings but they have to have activities and opportunities for collaboration that get them to apply what they are learning. So you don’t just have individuals working on their own, but learning from each other and how to work with one another, which is another important skill for success outside of university.
Are there any efficiencies instructors can gain in adapting their courses for online delivery?
The important part is not simply adding technology on to everything you’ve done in the past. You have to change the way you do things to take advantage of the technology. An obvious example is the time spent preparing and delivering lectures. If you move online, students can go and find that information themselves, whether through a digital textbook, video or other resources. The faculty’s role then changes from presenting information to learner support and mentorship. So it’s a shift in work rather than more or less work.
In your experience, what’s the sort of mindset that tends to find success teaching in this (relatively) new world?
What is most important is ensuring every student succeeds. We don’t always work on that basis. We often say, “here’s the standard: if they get it, good, and if they don’t, that’s their problem.” But focusing on individual student success is important in online learning because students can feel isolated. They lose motivation because they feel it doesn’t matter what they do because nobody cares.
One of the benefits of students working online is that you can see what they’re doing. There’s more transparency. You can tell if a student is struggling or if they are unmotivated. So you have an opportunity to intervene much more so than in a large lecture hall. This is why I’m a fan of continuous assessment. If a student has a weekly test or essay that has to be done—and it’s going to count towards their grade—it’s good motivation for them to do the work.
You suggest that teaching online can be just as effective as in a physical classroom. How so?
There are exceptions of course but, in general, research shows that most things that are taught face to face can be taught equally well online. But it’s really the change in pedagogy more than the technology that makes it more or less effective. That means moving to methods of teaching that we know motivate students. Take the standard lecture model. Moving that online doesn’t work very well for all kinds of reasons. It’s the pedagogical change that makes the difference.
It’s really the change in pedagogy more than the technology that makes it more or less effective
Are there things that you can do better? Digital learning certainly can. If you look at some applications of virtual reality, they allow you to do things that would not be possible otherwise. For instance, in nursing, you can have simulations that allow interaction with avatars. You can make mistakes and see what happens without hurting somebody. But it’s usually not an either/or decision; it’s often in conjunction with face-to-face teaching.
Transparency is an important principle for you. Why is transparency essential in online learning and how does it help instructors and students?
Because online learning is often new to students, you need to be very transparent about your expectations. You have to be clear about what the goals are for the course, how you’re going to assess students, and what they’re expected to do each week. I usually have a module for students on how to study online before they start my course to make sure we’re all on the same page. The week before the course starts, I’ll host a forum where I ask students to post a short bio and we can discuss what’s coming up so that they feel more comfortable when they start.
Transparency into student learning is also a lot clearer online than it is in a face-to-face setting. If you are using digital textbooks, for instance, you can get quantitative data about how many students have read which chapters. But it doesn’t necessarily tell you what they’ve actually learned. For this reason, I think qualitative data is more important. Online learning allows you to see what students are thinking, particularly if you are making good use of discussion forums as part of your course.
Transparency into student learning is also a lot clearer online than it is in a face-to-face setting
Online learning is a hard sell for students. What would you say to persuade them to enroll in the coming semester?
First of all, I’d say it’s really bad luck. You can’t do anything about that so put up with it for one year. It will get better. I would also say, look carefully at the institutions you’re considering. There’s a big difference between institutions that have been doing online learning for the last 20 years and those that jumped into it suddenly.
I’d add that we don’t sell online learning very well in terms of how it prepares students for the future of work. Online learning will give them a lot of tools for doing that, because in many cases, they will be working online anyway. I think we can do a better job of communicating these benefits. So it’s a hearts and minds game.
High school students had a bumpy finish to what is a critical year academically. What can faculty do to ensure these students are properly supported?
The big challenge is the design of those big first-year lecture classes. The easy thing to do is to just move them online with Zoom broadcasts. But students will hate that. We know from the research that students can only concentrate for 15–20 minutes before they need a break. You need to break things into smaller modules with activities, get students to do some work and then come back to readings, lectures and so on.
We also have to help students take responsibility for doing the work. You can do that by having a schedule in the learning management system that says, “this is what you have to do.” That’s why it’s important faculty don’t look at the lecture as the core organizing structure. They need to look at the learning management system as the core organizing structure and then work out where their lectures fit in with all the other activities. It comes back to transparency and also explaining to students how this is going to help them in their future career.
Is there any reason to be optimistic about how the crisis will shape the future of higher ed?
We were already moving to more blended learning before COVID-19. Many instructors were realizing they could incorporate online learning to make their face-to-face teaching more effective. I think faculty will say, ‘I didn’t want to do this, but, actually, there are some good things I can do online that translate well to my face-to-face classes and now I’ve got that experience.’ So I expect to see a big boom in blended learning.
I also think it will force faculty to rethink their teaching to focus more on how students learn as a result of going online. For me, the most positive thing is that it might make teaching more effective than it has been. I’m optimistic. But I’m also realistic. We have an 800-year-old system. It doesn’t change very quickly. But I think there will be some changes that will be beneficial as a result of this.
About Tony Bates
Tony Bates is a Senior Advisor at the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, Toronto and is also a Research Associate at Contact North, Ontario. He is currently Chair of the Board of the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association. He has worked as a consultant in the design and management of online and distance learning in over 40 countries. Tony is the author of 12 books, including his latest online, open textbook for faculty and instructors, Teaching in a Digital Age, which has been downloaded over 500,000 times and translated into ten languages.
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