Towards a theory or model of productivity for online learning: outcomes, scale and design

Tony Bates, Let's Talk About Tech, Sept 06, 2013
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Tony Bates offers a deeper look into the task of evaluating outcomes on online learning, based on commentary from Max Blouw and an HEQCO report and blog posts from Tom Carey. There's a lot here, a lot that's right and with which I'm in agreement, but also room for questions. While I can't offer a full criticism, but let's look at the starting point offered by Blouw and accepted by Bates:

"Universities are primarily in the business of positive human development. They focus on enhancing the abilities of our graduates to communicate clearly and effectively, to analyze, to confront ambiguity with clear methods and confidence, to break down problems into manageable parts, to think critically and to question deeply."

Now my concern isn't that this is false so much as incomplete. Because if this is what universities do, one might ask, then why do they have different departments and facilities and programs of study? What seems to characterize a university is diversity and yet here we have the mission of a university wrapped up in one neat box. Why is this important? Because the rest of Bates's post looks at the 'best way' to implement this objective. There's a universality throughout - one objective, one best way, one theory - which is why we see Bates saying (for example) that we can draw from Rumbles' writings on print, television and video-cassettes to talk about scaling learning online.

Because - you see - it's not about what university's objectives are - it's about what the student's objectives are (and those of the wider community, which would like to access education, but can't). You can't wrap those all up into a simple statement, and so you can't simply draw from theory developed and applied in the 1980s. Just as (as Bates very correctly says) you can't create an effective MOOC by recreating classrooms and lectures online.

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