Ten Key Takeaways from Tony Bates

Like pretty much everyone else in the field I've been immensely enjoying Tony Bates's work-in-progress, an online open textbook called Teaching in a Digital Age.

Having said that, I think my perspective is very different from his, and this summary post offers me an opportunity to highlight some of those differences. So in what follows, the key points (in italics) are his, while the text that follows is my discussion.

Note that this discussion is focused specifically on the "differences between classroom, blended, online and open learning." We have points of disagreement in other areas too :) but this post offers a way to focus on some aspects of that. Note as well that I'm not offering 'gotchas' here; Bates has discussed many of these points elsewhere and my objective is not to refute him based on this quick summary, only to identify the differences in perspective.

1. There is a continuum of technology-based learning, from ‘pure’ face-to-face teaching to fully online programs. Every teacher or instructor needs to decide where on the continuum a particular course or program should be.

The continuum here is presented in one dimension, the most obvious dimension, with teachers and instructors making the decision as to where some particular course or program ought to lie. I think all elements of this statement are problematic.

First, because online learning provides affordances not available in the classroom, there are multiple dimensions of comparison. For example, we could draw a line from one-to-one teacher on student instruction, to small classrooms, to larger lecture or presentation format courses, to delivery to thousands or even millions of people.

Second, one of those dimensions concerns whether the online offering should be a course at all. Online learning allows for informal conversation, videos, simulations, interactive learning, games, and a host of other models that can be attempted imperfectly at best in a traditional classroom. Understanding, for example, the role informal learning can play is key to understanding the distinction between in-class and online learning.

Third, in online learning the locus of decision-making need no longer rest with the instructor. Unlike a traditional environment, where a student's choices are to "stay" and "leave", an online student can select from many different options - including ion-class, if they're lucky enough to be able to find one that is local and offered at a time they can attend, at a rate they can afford.

2. We do not have good research evidence or theories to make this decision, although we do have growing experience of the strengths and limitations of online learning. What is particularly missing is an evidence-based analysis of the strengths and limitations of face-to-face teaching when online learning is also available.

Here I am first inclined to point to differing beliefs regarding the nature and role of research and theories. I consider what I do to be research, for example, and I do not consider surveys of a dozen graduate students to be research. And I am sceptical of the value of theories based on models employing (what have been termed) folk-psychological concepts and naive understandings of human cognition. Any theory of the form "x causes y" in this field should be considered suspect.

So it follows that to me "an evidence-based analysis of the strengths and limitations of face-to-face teaching when online learning is also available" is an oxymoron. Far too much in such an account is left unstated and merely assumed, with variables to be filled in by the reader's own prejudices. What constitutes a 'strength'? From my perspective, each person learning seeks different outcomes, so a 'strength' for one is a problem for another.

But most of all here is the presumption that we can determine a priori the desirable properties of online or traditional learning. In this regard, I side with John Stuart Mill, and aver that "the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it." Without an a priori definition of 'effective' most so-called evidence-based decision-making falls flat, and of course, what we do know though observation is that people desire many different things.

3. In the absence of good theory, I have suggested four factors to consider when deciding on mode of delivery, and in particular the different uses of face-to-face and online learning in blended courses: 
- your preferred teaching strategy, in terms of methods and learning outcomes 
- student characteristics and needs 
- the pedagogical and presentational requirements of the subject matter, in terms of (a) content and (b) skills 
- the resources available to an instructor (including the instructor’s time). 

I find it fascinating that three of the four factors are based on the instructor, with only the very generic "student characteristics and needs" constituting the fourth.

I can understand that, from the perspective of the instructor, the instructor's "preferred teaching strategy" matters a great deal. But from the perspective of the student, the response is, "who cares?"  Elsewhere, the many weaknesses of the lecture format, for example, have been documented, as also most instructors' preference for the lecture. This has produced yet another generation of students asleep in their classroom (especially those where electronic devices are 'not allowed').

The characterization even of "student characteristics and needs" is suspect. The phrasing suggests two aspects of concern: first, that we are considering these in the aggregate, as a generalization across an entire class (or generation?) of students, and not individuals; and second, these are factors out of the students' control entirely, as we consider (predefined? instructor-defined?) "needs"instead of wants, and "characteristics" instead of preferences.

Part of this is the unrelenting instructional stance Bates takes throughout his work. It results in an assessment of factors impacting instructional decisions, even in areas where it's not clear the decisions are open for instructors to make. The key difference between in-class and online learning is the shift in the locus of control.

I would also add (cynically) that today the resources available to the instructor are increasingly based on the students' willingness and ability to pay, as our governments gradually remove all levels of support for public higher education.

4. The move to blended or hybrid learning in particular means rethinking the use of the campus and the facilities needed fully to support learning in a hybrid mode. 

No disputing this one.

As the trend toward online learning continues, the traditional school or university increasingly will become a place where local residents access lab and conferencing facilities, no matter where they are enrolled.Meanwhile, classes offered in situ at these campuses will increasingly need recording and conferencing facilities to support their worldwide audience.

5. Open educational resources offer many benefits but they need to be well designed and embedded within a rich learning environment to be effective. 

I mentioned above the need for an a priori presumptions regarding the desirable properties of online or traditional learning. It comes into play here.

For one would ask, what is the basis for the belief that OERs need to be well designed and embedded within a rich learning environment to be effective? The evidence seems to suggest otherwise. The Khan Academy, for example, made a virtue out of offering very low quality videos helping viewers understand math and physics concepts. People exchange and learn from ideas presented in discussion boards across the internet despite these boards having no pedagogical design at all.

I think that only within a very narrow definition of "effective" can we demonstrate a "need to be well designed and embedded within a rich learning environment."

Again, it comes back to what people want to do. Generally, the learning I need to do from the internet is immediate and simple. A (badly designed) Wikipedia page often does the job for me. Indeed, typically, something designed in a rich learning environment just takes too much time and effort to be useful. I don't need a battleship if I'm just trying to cross the river.

6. The increasing availability of OER, open textbooks, open research and open data means that in future, almost all academic content will be open and freely accessible over the Internet. 


7. As a result, students will increasingly look to institutions for learning support and help with the development of skills needed in a digital age rather than with the delivery of content. This will have major consequences for the role of teachers/instructors and the design of courses. 

I also agree with this. I've actually discussed it at length in The Role of the Educator.And my reflections here suggest a very different future than the one considered in this article.

First of all, increasingly, educational institutions will not offer courses at all. Why would they? If you're looking for "learning support and help with the development of skills needed in a digital age" you are very rarely looking for a course. Typically, you're looking for help with a project, or maybe an offer of a project, in which you can apply and augment the skills you're attempting to develop.

And different aspects of your support are offered by different people, at different institutions. Why would we suppose that the same agency offering learning is also the one assessing that learning? Insofar as 'design' (properly so-called) comes into play, it will be based as much on principles established outside education.

Sure, there will be structured learning experiences (and we might even still call them 'courses'). But the idea of an instructor offering a course through a given institution will be the exception, a tiny minority of the cases, compared to the much larger learning and development environment generally.

But of course Tony Bates knows this...

8. OER and other forms of open education will lead to increased modularization and disaggregation of learning services, which are needed to respond to the increasing diversity of learner needs in a digital age. 

Of this there can be no doubt.

But let me add that the phrase"increased modularization and disaggregation of learning services" suggests the repackaging of products and services that already exist. But the defining characteristic of online learning is the wide range of new things you can do to support learning. This leans that there will be a proliferation of new learning services. And additionally, many old learning services will be discontinued.

For example, when I was growing up, there was a thriving industry producing binders and lined paper. Moreover, the concept of blogging did not exist. Today we take electronic notes, blog them directly, and hire blog moderators to ensure children don't get themselves into trouble publishing online.

Learning online isn't simply a shift in modality. It's different. The methods are different, the objectives are different, and the services are different.

9. MOOCs are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with high quality qualifications. The main value of MOOCs is in providing opportunities for non-formal education and supporting communities of practice. 

It is again interesting to see this one thing highlighted. It is interesting to me because this was never the intent of the MOOCs I produced, and with some few exceptions, is not the intent of MOOC producers today.

But more interesting is the question of why MOOCs are a "dead end" in this regard.

The suggestion here (and it's only implicit) is that MOOCs are incapable of providing the learning required to warrant the awarding of a credential. That's why Bates includes the phrase about students "who do not have adequate access to education."This suggests that access to traditional education is a necessary condition, that MOOCs could not provide an education by themselves.

But why not? The role of answering this question is played by the phrase"high quality qualifications." Even if MOOCs could provide qualifications, they would not be"high quality". These, it appears to be suggested, may be offered only by (putatively) high quality formal education.

But I submit that these are not empirical arguments. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the only reason students cannot earn high quality credentials in MOOCs is that the institutions that offer such credentials won't grant them for MOOCs. And why would they? Their business model depends on requiring students undertake extensive and often extensive coursework before the credential can be issued.

What makes the MOOC a "dead end", in other words, has nothing to do with the MOOC itself, but rather, has everything to do with the credentials.

The more interesting question here is whether a person working from childhood could achieve the same degree of knowledge and (qualification for) credentials taking MOOCs exclusively. Can a non-literate and non-educated person become literate and educated through open online learning? Is there a fundamental property of closed formal learning that suggests that it is the only route to a credential?

There are arguments to be made on both sides here. But I submit that the case is far from closed, and that this is not a takeaway.  

10. OER, MOOCs, open textbooks and other digital forms of open-ness are important in helping to widen access to learning opportunities, but ultimately these are enhancements rather than a replacement for a well-funded public education system, which remains the core foundation for enabling equal access to educational opportunities.

I think that Tony Bates and I both agree on the importance of an open and accessible public education system.

Where we disagree is in the form that system should take.

The existing public education system does a poor job of ensuring equal access to educational opportunities. Major barriers exist across the board, in factors as varied as child poverty and nutrition, access to school materials, fees and access to extracurricular activities, expectations and class backgrounds, travel and work opportunities, opportunity cost and risk, and much much more.

Viewing online learning as nothing more than an enhancement of the traditional system is, to my mind, to preserve the inequalities inherent in the traditional system. It is to misunderstand the role played by the traditional system not only in the provision of an education but also in social netorking and the formation of social classes.

The primary purpose, for example, of a school like Harvard or Yale is not to provide a superior education (their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding). It is to provide exclusive access to a network of potentially rich and powerful individuals who will shape and promote your career through future life. Simply building an enhancement on that system will not change the inequality it represents.

For online learning to truly reach its potential it needs not only to break the educational monopoly of the rich and powerful, it needs to break the social monopoly of the rich and powerful, rending open their cliques, and laying bare the foundations of their influence. We too can form global networks of mutual self-support, but only if we break the existing structures designed to preserve status and privilege.

And in the end, I think that this points to the deep difference between Tony Bates and myself. I think that we disagree ultimately about what constitutes an education.

I think that he views it in terms of classes and content, of subjects and competencies and credentials, in terms of instruction and demonstration, pedagogy, skills and knowledge. This is a common and very traditional view of education, but one which I have increasingly come to question.

In my view, education is more akin to shaping and growing oneself, of acclimatization to a community and to an environment. The learning of any subject is analogous to the formation of a literacy in that subject, based not only in speaking the right words, but also in seeing the world in a certain way, recognizing some things as important (and other things as not). Expectations are as important as knowledge in this view, the way we say something as important as what we say.

This is what distinguishes between the education an elite receives, and an education that is reserved for the rest of us. While the mass of people get facts and skills and credentials, the elite are transformed into a natural ruling class. It's like the difference between someone who is taught the rules of the game, and someone who trains as an athlete. No amount of skills and drills can produce in a non-elite person the social and literary bearing of an elite person.

My objective is to transform learning as a whole into something that produces at least this possibility for everyone. We should embrace this as a public policy objective. Because, with all the capacity, technology and wealth available to us in society as a whole, it's the least we can do.

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