“e-Learning should be used strategically and not just as a tool that everybody uses”
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Tony Bates thinks e-learning should be used selectively for new markets or specific pedagogical purposes, and he suggests a strategic approach to implementing e-learning.
Doctor Bates retired from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada, at the end of 2003, where he was director of Distance Education and Technology in the Continuing Studies Division. Now he is a part-time professor at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) in Barcelona. His responsibility at the UOC is to build up an e-learning research programme focused on three areas: policy, teaching in virtual environments, and web services and content management.
In this interview, Dr Bates gives us some firmly grounded opinions about many of the challenges the Universities are facing.
Let’s start with a prototypical question: What should be the role of ICT in the ‘traditional’ Universities?
Tony Bates: Let me say what I would like to see happen. I would like to see e-learning focused on the areas where it brings the most benefit. It should be used strategically and not just as a tool that everybody uses. We should realize that e-learning is expensive and time consuming for the professor, particularly at the beginning. It means a lot of change if we are going to do it well.
What do you mean by using e-learning strategically?
It could mean using e-learning for new markets, like the lifelong learning market, which will pay for itself eventually. Or it could mean also using ICT for specific pedagogical purposes in certain subjects. Statistics, for instance, is an area where students have many problems and you can use the technology, with graphics, video or animations, to really help the teaching.
Why is e-learning not used more – and more imaginatively – in higher education?
There are lots of reasons. Developing e-learning means more work, and research professors make very rational decisions about how to spend their time. Particularly in a research university, there is this clash between trying to keep teaching down to minimum in order to spend more time on research. Professors would like to see ICT used in such a way that it reduces the time spent teaching, which is difficult.
But in some areas it seems that e-learning can really reduce teaching time.
Yes, but this happens only when courses are completely re-designed so as to exploit the technology. In the humanities, or areas where you need more discussion and dialogue, the professor really has to be highly involved both in the design of the course and its delivery. And unless you change the reward system, and reward teaching as much – if not more – as research, there is no incentive for professors to change. That is one big barrier, and probably the biggest.
The poor training of professors in teaching could be another barrier?
Professors lack pedagogical training, so they are not in a good position to rethink their teaching. There are two ways to solve that. One is to require professors to be trained to teach, which again runs up against the problem of research. If you ask them to take a qualification in teaching, they’ll probably go to another university that doesn’t require it. It’s a system-wide problem. And to change the whole system would mean government intervention, and universities don’t like that.
Professional qualification in teaching doesn’t seem very realistic for professors… Which is the second way to involve academics in the development of e-learning?
The alternative to training is one that is equally unacceptable to many professors and that’s to work in a team, with professional pedagogues, instruction designers and technical people like web programmers. For me, that is the best way for them to work in the development of e-learning. They don’t then have to be an expert in everything, they have to concentrate on their subject and how best to teach the subject, but be open to suggestions from the instruction designers about redesigning the teaching to make use of the technology.
And what about the students? Some surveys show that University students see e-learning just as a tool to extend learning to remote areas, but not as a good way of learning.
You have to realize that e-learning is very young. The first web courses didn’t start until 1996. It’s not surprising the general public and students are not fully aware of its potential. It also depends on who you ask. If you ask undergraduate students, they see e-learning as a useful tool but they don’t want it to replace face-to-face contact with the professor. They like the social aspect. That’s why they come to the university.
Do working students have the same, let’s say, sceptical attitude about e-learning?
I have an example to illustrate your question. Now tuition fees have risen in Canada, they’re some 3,000 euros a year. As a result, many students are taking part time jobs, and they’re looking to e-learning because it gives them the flexibility to work around their part-time jobs. If they miss a class they can catch up by going online. And if you ask working people, most of them would prefer e-learning to having to go to a campus.
This is a key aspect to me. There are a lot of professionals who need to update their skills and e-learning is a great way to accomplish that. But it seems few people are aware of its potential.
The reason that many people don’t appreciate it is because there isn’t a great deal on offer at the moment. But the continued professional education market would respond to online programmes if they were offered by reputable universities. And the problem is that the reputable universities, the research universities, haven’t done a good job with lifelong learning, because they see it as extra work. So the trick is to build an economic model that will bring more professors to the university, paid by continued professional education programmes. These professors really have to be financed through student fees. And this kind of student will pay full fee. All that money can then go back to the academic department so that they can hire new professors. So e-learning should not be extra work for the existing professors. This gives an incentive then to departments to get into e-learning, and that market has not been well explored, certainly not in Europe.
To what extent can e-learning be standardized and reused in different contexts?
I’m sceptical about that. There is some content that can be standardized, mathematics and physics probably. The problem is not the content. A lot of teaching is culturally and socially based. In the industrial economic model, where you have hierarchies, a transmission model of information works very well because the information comes from the top, you don’t challenge it. Particularly in a very large university you have the same hierarchy, you have professors, lecturers, researchers, students, and so the transmission model fits an industrial society.
I guess you don’t think there is a big future for this model…
When you move to a knowledge-based society, when you need more individual responsibility for learning and lifelong learning, and applying learning to your work all the time, you need a different type of teaching. You need to move towards problem solving and case studies. It’s a different way of teaching physics, for instance, and physics becomes a means to an end, not an end in itself. Particularly when you get into the professional fields, it gets more interdisciplinary, more topic and problem focused than content focused.
What would be your recommendations for universities that wish to begin to be involved in e-learning?
I think universities have to go through stages of development. The first one is what I would call the lone rangers, individual people enthused by the technology, working on their own and experimenting. The second stage is when the lone rangers start putting pressure on the university administration to provide help and resources. That’s followed by a third stage of rapid uncoordinated activity, and lots of things happening all over the place and lots of problems as a result. That leads to the fourth stage, which is focus, policies and priorities. At that stage the institution starts thinking strategically: What are the best areas for e-learning? What policies should we put in place? What technical and educational support do professors need? The fifth and last stage is the sustainable and high quality use of e-learning in selected areas or for specific target groups.
What would be your advice for institutions that are at various points on this path?
I think most institutions are at the third stage of uncoordinated activity. My advice would be to put a process in place. By this, I mean setting up a committee to look at policies and priorities and to produce some kind of plan for e-learning. And, secondly, make sure you’re getting in the necessary support staff on a full employment basis. One of the big problems is we get programmers and instructional designers hired on contract. They do a good job, they start learning and then the contract runs out and they go and get a job somewhere else. So it’s important to have some human resource policies in place and a career structure for these people.
What is more important, the policies prepared by the institution or the willingness of individual professors?
It’s both a top-down and a bottom-up process. The institution needs to set some strategies. But it has to come from the professors too. If the academics don’t want to do e-learning, it’s not going to happen. There is a lot of useful information about Tony Bates's activities and publications on his personal website.
See also the article on Virtual Models of European Universities for an overall vision of the situation of e-learning at Higher Education institutions.