Understanding the Building Blocks of Online Learning:

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Through the writings and research of pre-eminent online learning expert, Dr. Tony Bates (Instalment 1 of an 8 part series)

For almost 50 years, Tony Bates has been a consistent, persistent and influential voice for the reform of teaching and learning in post-secondary education, notably through the effective use of emerging technologies. Author of 11 books and 350 research papers in the field of online learning and distance education, Tony Bates is also an advisor to over 40 organizations in 25 countries, and publisher of what is arguably the most influential blog on online learning with over 20,000 visits a month.  A Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associate, Dr. Bates has helped educators, academic administrators and policy makers grasp key concepts, trends and challenges in online learning. This posting is one of a series that looks at Tony’s perspectives and advice on key issues in online learning.  

This series was researched and developed by Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associates, Dr. Jane Brindley and Dr. Ross Paul.     

Adapting technology for effective learning is the mantra for Tony’s entire career – technology for accessibility, for flexible response to diverse needs, for improved quality and cost control, and for institutional accountability.  

His constant message is that most institutions are under-exploiting the potential of technology to respond to the growing pressures for change in post-secondary education. For meaningful improvements, major changes are needed in the prevailing institutional cultures and the way they are managed. Online learning, which harnesses the power of the Internet, multimedia resources and Web-based tools, is taking post-secondary education by storm. 

For Bates, the change is starkly different from that of earlier technologies mainly used to broadcast content. In the opportunities it provides to engage students, enhance quality, widen access and be cost efficient, and the radical changes it requires for the effective organization and rethinking of post-secondary education practices and processes, online learning is a game changer.

Drivers of Change in the Way We Teach and Learn

The increasing recognition the world over of the central role that post-secondary education plays in social and economic success has spawned many drivers for change, including the following identified by Bates:

  1. An increasing demand for college and university places that has led governments to use funding to drive up enrolments and left institutions to maintain or even improve quality.
  2. Changing demographics (more older and part-time students) and more learner diversity (broader intellectual, language and cultural ranges), the dramatic increase in those pursuing post-secondary education while working at full- or part-time jobs, and the continuing growth and particular demands of life-long learning and preparation for employment in a constantly changing world.
  3. Growing numbers of students at ease with new technologies and social media who are demanding the same sort of flexibility and access from post-secondary education that they already enjoy in their daily business and social interactions.
  4. Pressures on institutions to be more open and accountable, especially for their deployment of taxpayer provided revenues and ever escalating student tuition fees.
  5. Recognition of society’s needs for skilled knowledge-based workers and the associated focus on learning outcomes (the extent to which graduates have such requisite skills as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, independent learning, ability to work in a variety of contexts, to work in teams and to navigate cultural differences).
  6. Research evidence of the effectiveness of more interactive approaches to learning that engage students more intensively and practically both within and outside the traditional classroom.
  7. The continuing evolution of web-based technologies which make knowledge much more accessible and bring learners together without the constraint of time or place.

The message is clear. The status quo is not an option. Colleges and universities must find new ways to deal effectively with increasing numbers of students and to develop them as knowledge workers in a climate of increasing fiscal restraint and public accountability.

Building on the work of theorists and practitioners the world over, Tony Bates offers thoughtful and practical responses to these challenges at a time when post-secondary education is experiencing high levels of scrutiny and increased expectations.

The Role of Online Learning

New technologies for teaching and learning have enhanced learner access to and flexibility in post-secondary education. Bates and Sangrà have documented that enrolments are increasing much more rapidly in online than campus-based courses and that those for online learning far exceed the supply, at least in North America.

For Bates, online learning is the key to a successful response to the above drivers of change. It has the capacity to be responsive to a wide range of learning needs and can be offered at unprecedented levels of scale, unconstrained by time and place. It capitalizes on readily accessible knowledge, content from a variety of sources and opportunities for more interactive learning where the focus is on developing research skills, critical thinking and creativity. It takes advantage of the power and flexibility of modern technologies and students’ ease in applying them.

Today’s Web 2.0 tools (such as blogs, wikis and cloud computing) and social networking (MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) enhance the ability of educators to address diverse audiences and allow them to pattern their teaching styles to many different needs and skill levels whether teaching in a traditional classroom, via distance education or a hybrid of each (often called blended learning).

Bates sees the pervasiveness of modern technologies as rendering the ability to find, analyze, organize, and apply digital information essential in almost all subject areas. He recognizes that core digital literacy is achieved not in a vacuum but as embedded in a given subject or discipline. This makes huge demands on faculty members who may lack digital literacy skills and it may also pose significant challenges to their preferred approaches to teaching.

It is this thoughtfulness, combined with a preoccupation with student learning and faculty support, that separates Tony Bates from technological champions who advocate glossy new toys while ignoring the challenges of using them to make real and sustained improvements to college and university teaching.

Seven Key Building Blocks of Online Learning

Bates considers technology a key factor in achieving an appropriate balance among post-secondary education’s three competing forces – access, quality and cost. His work can be examined through seven of the key building blocks he has identified for developing effective and efficient online learning in colleges and universities. Each of the themes described below is treated more extensively in a separate installment in this series.

  1. Planning for effective teaching with technology

    Tony Bates sees the significant potential for online learning to transform college and university teaching, whether in hybrid or fully online models. Teachers and students no longer need to be present at the same location, learners actively contribute to the knowledge base through class discussions and small group projects on the web, and diverse learner needs can be readily accommodated whether students are learning together or in their own time. However, realization of this potential requires careful planning to ensure that course objectives are effectively matched to learning activities and that technology is applied according to their specific capacities. Based on his research and online teaching experience, Bates provides sound guidance for faculty interested in teaching with technology.

  2. How emerging pedagogies map onto the new technologies

    Online learning supports many pedagogical approaches but an emphasis on learner development through activities such as collaboration, problem-solving and knowledge construction is particularly well served by the Internet and social media. Learners can pace their own learning, giving time for reflection and for understanding both the content and their own learning processes, enhanced by online discussion and small group projects. The effective implementation of online learning requires faculty to consider their view of the nature of knowledge and effective teaching, as well as the implications of this for their disciplines and choice of technologies.

  3. How faculty can support learner success

    Online learning makes particular demands of learners, notably in its assumptions of their capacity for independent study and research skills. Learner support activities include all the processes and services that colleges and universities offer so that students can navigate institutional systems and develop learning, research, and other essential skills. Bates provides faculty with advice and guidelines regarding the two main challenges they have in student support – online teaching and moderating and student feedback and assessment.

  4. How faculty can assure quality in an online learning environment

    New technologies render teaching and learning more transparent and accountable, with a greater emphasis on learning outcomes. Bates argues that there is convincing evidence that technology-based teaching succeeds best when courses are re-designed to exploit the benefits of technology, using well-established best practices in online learning combined with more traditional quality assurance methods of program and peer review. His writing outlines the key components in the design and development of quality online learning.

  5. Guidelines for faculty from educational technology research

    From the start of his career, Tony Bates has been a researcher into the effective application of various media for improved educational outcomes. His roots have ensured that he continues to look to practical research outcomes in his assessment of various approaches to teaching and learning. His research places particular focus on the relationship between the unique characteristics of a technology and its effects on learning outcomes, thus providing faculty with a framework for decision-making about choice and use of technology. He also provides useful suggestions and guidance for faculty members interested in pursuing their own research in the field.

  6. Costing considerations for hybrid and online courses

    Online learning offers unprecedented opportunities to offer courses and programs to large groups of learners with relative cost efficiency. However, Bates makes an important distinction between cost reduction and cost effectiveness and cautions that online learning is not necessarily a cheaper alternative to face-to-face teaching. While cost analysis and control are largely institutional roles, faculty choices in instructional development and course delivery are critical components of this. Bates’ development of costing models for hybrid and online courses represents a key part of his contributions to online learning.

  7. Institutional and faculty roles in strategic planning

    Far too often, institutional leaders and individual faculty members jump on technological bandwagons without considering the key determinants of success in institutional change – strategic planning and budgeting, the prevailing institutional culture, and the full involvement of and support for faculty in planning for change. Bates provides a blueprint for effective strategic planning in the context of integrating new technologies into a given college or university.

    Through such building blocks, Tony Bates shows how online learning can transform teaching and learning in the twenty-first century. Faculty members and institutional leaders will find practical and thoughtful advice, and even inspiration, in his writing and research. At the same time, he invites them to challenge his models and dream up new approaches that take advantage of the powerful facility that online learning provides to improve access to and the quality of post-secondary education.


http://www.tonybates.ca/ Managing Technological Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, John Wiley and Sons.

Bates, A.W. & Sangrà, A.,( 2011.) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, John Wiley and Sons.

Bates, Tony. ( 2001). National Strategies for Online Learning in Post-Secondary Education and Training. Paris: UNESCO, International Institute for Educational Planning.

www.tonybates.ca follow Tony’s regular postings on his Contact North | Contact Nord blog and the animated responses he regularly gets from his readers.