Tony Bates

Considered by many to be one of the “founding fathers” of virtual learning as we know it today, Tony Bates has been a major force in shaping its direction – as a faculty member, university administrator and research team leader; prolific writer, in-demand conference speaker and expert consultant.

After earning a Ph.D. in educational administration in 1969, Bates helped launch the newly created Open University in the United Kingdom. More than two decades later, he moved on to become Director of Distance Education and Technology at the University of British Columbia, where he developed and taught the school’s first online courses and fully online degree programs.

Having retired in 2003, Bates now consults to universities, colleges and government agencies worldwide, while also serving on international panels and working with such global organizations as the World Bank, UNESCO, and OECD. In addition, he has published more than 350 papers and a dozen books on open and technology-enhanced education. And in his spare time, he’s an avid skier, golfer and small plane pilot.

Dr. Tony Bates is the author of eleven books in the field of online learning and distance education. He has provided consulting services specializing in training in the planning and management of online learning and distance education, working with over 40 organizations in 25 countries. Tony is a Research Associate with Contact North | Contact Nord, Ontario’s Distance Education & Training Network.

This open access, having materials that are out there, is going to change the relationship between faculties and students.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO GET INVOLVED IN UK’S THE OPEN UNIVERSITY?

I was a researcher. I was on a three-year research contract, which would come to an end and I was looking for a job. And I advertised for a researcher to research into what distance education was and that’s how I got hired.

I’ve been doing some research into some courses that were offered by something called the national extension college, which was already working with the BBC to make TV programs to go with their correspondence courses. And when I did that research, I found that students responded very differently to the television programs than they did to the print materials. Being a researcher, I thought that’s interesting.

WHAT STARTED YOU ON YOUR JOURNEY INTO ONLINE EDUCATION?

Online learning was just coming in about 1995 and I just moved to University of British Columbia and I was appointed director of distance education but one of the main reasons they hired me was the government actually withheld something like one and a half to two percent of every institutions operating budget state universities and put it into an Innovation Fund.

UBC being a very large university was something like two and a half three million dollars and so one of the things that came out of that was web CT, Blackboard. So that’s a very interesting example of how government can drive innovation and it had a big effect on online learning for me.

We were approached by Tec de Monterrey Mexico and I’d written a book, which they’d read called Teaching Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education. And so they wanted a master’s program in educational technology.   They got money from the Mexican government to train teachers in educational technology and they wanted to deliver the course online. So they came to me and UBC and we developed a joint master’s program and one version in English and one version is Spanish. That was our first fully online program with masters and educational technology.

Not all the professor’s were interested in moving online when we first started. There was a lot of resistance at initially but as always in a large institution there were always a few professors who were wanted to do something different. And often it was the most it was often the senior professors who more or less had made their career and they were comfortable and bit bored with teaching and wanted to do something different and thought online would be very interesting.

WERE THERE ANY PROFESSORS INSPIRED BY THE POSSIBILITIES ON ONLINE LEARNING?

We had a professor of forest ecology who used to take groups of students out into the forest you know explain why things were growing where they were growing. It was a class of 200 students so he had to take ten groups out and do this. So he came to us and said look is there another way you can do that? Can we do a virtual walk through the forest? And so we did that. We filmed the walk through the forest and you could track on your computer. You know and questions would pop up saying why is this plant growing here and what’s the reasons for that and so on. It worked very well. You didn’t have to walk students around the forest.

So it’s usually driven by a need on the part of the Institute the instructor.

WHAT DRIVES ONLINE LEARNING NOW?

In a sense I think what’s beginning to drive online learning now is a question of quality of teaching on campus. A lot of faculty are increasingly dissatisfied with these very big large lecture classes with very little interaction with the students. And so if they can have a flipped classroom or have some way of having more interaction with the students and online is a way to free up some of their time for that kind of interaction.

Just put the lecture on video and so on so that’s another driver, I think.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE ONLINE LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS?

Well let me give you my view of a learning management system. For me, a learning management system is a filing cabinet. You know filing cabinets are useful. You know you need somewhere to store stuff, right? And a learning management system is a very useful way of structuring the course. You know, because you have little cabinets. You know this is this week’s work and another cabinet for next week’s work. And that’s what a learning management system is basically.

Now people say well, you know, what’s the pedagogy behind a learning management system. It’s just like saying what’s the pedagogy behind a filing cabinet.

You know, you have to decide how you want to use the filing cabinet, right? Yeah, I think you can make too much or too little of a learning management system. It’s a very useful tool, but it’s not the be-all and end-all and I think that as the technology evolves we’re moving away from learning management systems. I mean going directly to video delivery, for instance, lecture capture, it’s really another form of delivery, basically.

So, yes, we are seeing changes but underlying it all is the question of design. How do you design with teaching and where does the learning management system fit in within that design?

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHANGE IN ONLINE LEARNING?

What I think is the big change, and it hasn’t really been understood yet, but it will have a big impact in the future, is the open education movement. Which means that all material is now going to be available, more or less, free online. So in a sense students don’t have to go to the faculty member to get the content. This open access, having materials that are out there, it’s going to change not only the lecture system but it’s going to change the relationship between faculty and students.

What I think students will really want from a university in the future is help with their learning, not the delivery of content because they can get that.

YOU PREDICTED THAT ONLINE LEARNING, AS A SEPARATE CONSTRUCT, WOULD DISAPPEAR. WHAT DID YOU MEAN BY THAT?

Yeah, I did say that I don’t see online learning as really being seen as a separate activity because it will be so integrated into the everyday work of a teacher and student that you will just be seen as part of a normal study.

But what I think is going to happen, now, is that the real differentiation between online and campus is that there are students who can’t come on campus and so they’ll always have separate online courses or separate online sections. But I don’t see why we can’t design a course so that it’s flexible enough that if students want to do it all on campus they could. If they want to do 50% of it on campus and the rest online they could. If they want to do it all online they could. It’d be the same course just delivered in different ways. So, the mode of delivery will change but not the content. Not even the teaching method, necessarily.

DO YOU THINK THE OUTCOME OF STUDENTS LEARNING ONLINE VS. ON CAMPUS WILL BE THE SAME?

I think you can do some things better on campus than you can online. You can do some things better online than you can do on campus. I think the really interesting question is that the argument used to be, oh we can’t do that online and then ninety percent of the time we found that wasn’t true. You can do it online. I think the real question out of that you have to ask is what is it so special about the campus that the student should come in when they can do nearly everything online.

IS THE NATURE OF KNOWLEDGE CHANGING?

The nature of knowledge is changing within a digital world. And I want to relate it to basically the kind of jobs that students are going to have to do in the future and what skills they need for those jobs because that should be. I won’t say it’s jobs that should be driving the teaching but it is what drives students to go to university these days and I think we have to be aware as instructors what kind of skills they’ll need.

WHAT IS YOUR BEST ADVICE FOR ENCOURAGING NOT SO ENTHUSIASTIC FACULTY MEMBERS TO TRANSFER THEIR COURSE ONLINE?

If you want faculty to teach differently you have to start with the faculty’s issues. What are they struggling with? What are they looking for? Now, again, a lot faculty don’t want to teach. Right? They really would just want to do research and if they could get out of teaching that’s fine. So often they’re looking for a quick and easy solution. Can I just put my lectures online and walk away and don’t have to do anything? So you start with that and you say, yeah, sure you can do that but if you’re going to use video actually you could use it a lot better. So you have to engage them in a discussion, but you have to start from where the faculty member is and where they want to go.

IS THERE A BIG DIFFERENCE IN THE WAY COURSES ARE TAUGHT ONLINE BETWEEN THE SCIENCES VS. THE ARTS?

I think every subject discipline has its own sort of pedagogy built around it. It comes back to epistemological issues about the nature of knowledge. There are some scientists who think in a constructivist view of the world, not many, but some do.

We have an actual Nobel Prize winner at UBC who’s very much into constructivist approaches to teaching science. He said there are two ways to teach science. You can teach this is what science is or you can teach a person to be a scientist. In other words, you teach them to think like a scientist. You have to build your online teaching around that epistemology. It has to reflect that otherwise it won’t succeed. And, on the other hand, there’s a danger in that too because you can end up with very behaviorist kind of courses particularly in science. We’ve seen that coming out of Harvard and MIT with MOOCs.

It’s a very, you know…we’ll come back to the question. Are we teaching the soft skills that students need? Well, you don’t do that in a in an EDX or a Coursera MOOC. It’s content delivery, primarily. Not always, I mean there are different MOOCs that are not all like that but the majority are really content delivery. And so that’s the danger of taking to behaviorist view of science you end up just delivering content and not getting, as Carl Wieman at UBC says, getting students to think like a scientist.

SO ARE MOOCS HELPFUL OR DETRIMENTAL TO STUDENTS?

Watch The History Channel. Right? Great! Really like very interesting programs and so on. It doesn’t make me a historian. The same if you watch philosophy on a MOOC. It’s delivering a philosophy course but it doesn’t make you a philosopher. Right? And so it’s good that people are sharing their knowledge for anybody who wants it, okay, but you have to think about what is the purpose of it. And if the purpose is to publicize the institution, show what great faculty they’ve got, it’s great way of doing that. MOOCs are very good for doing that but it’s not going to replace the teaching of a philosopher.

WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO WRITE A 500-PAGE BOOK?

That’s a good question what motivated me to write a 500-page book? Well first of all, I didn’t know it’s going to be 500 pages. If I’d known that I probably wouldn’t have done it well first of all. I couldn’t find anything that I could give the faculty that really dealt with the kind of issues I’ve been talking about and particularly, you know.

There are books on how to teach online and there are books on how to teach on campus, but I couldn’t find anything that dealt with that kind of integration of online and distance learning online and face-to-face teaching. And, secondly, in British Columbia, we have an open technical project, which means that students can get textbooks in their first and second year downloaded online for free. And so they had they already had a platform for doing that, so I could move straight into that platform. And the third thing. I’m at the end of my career, you know. I don’t need the money. I don’t need to publish another book. I’ve already got 12 books. I don’t need to have it for my CV and so on. So it was giving back, basically, I mean, I’ve had a good career. I had a wonderful life as a result of being in this field. So it was something nice to do and I really enjoyed doing it.