Selecting Online Learning Technologies: An Interview with Tony Bates

Tony Bates

What are some common mistakes instructors make when selecting learning technologies?

With so many technologies available to enhance online learning, it’s important to choose wisely. In an interview with Online Classroom, Tony Bates, an e-learning and distance education planning and management consultant, offered some insights on what to consider when making technology choices. We offer an excerpt of that interview here.

Bates: I think the biggest mistake is not making better use of the existing technologies that they already have available. This is not the instructor’s fault. Often we don’t train our instructors very well to use technologies. Take an obvious example like Blackboard. Faculty may get some technical training on Blackboard, but basically you need to think about what your educational purpose is for using a learning management system. If we’re not providing the kind of training about alternative models of teaching that would enable faculty to better exploit Blackboard, then the technology doesn’t get used well. It just becomes a place to dump notes and things like that.

Are there specific aspects of a course management system that you think are underutilized?

Bates: It’s not so much the technology; it’s the thinking about how it should be used. Frequently you find people using it to support classroom teaching as a place to put pdf files, lecture notes, etc. That’s not really thinking about how the students are likely to use this material. It will be much better if it’s designed for students to interact with the material—in other words, thinking about how the students will be studying rather than saying, “Here’s a convenient place for me to just repeat what I did in the lecture.” If it’s going to be used by students independently, what kind of support will learners need when using that material? What kind of activities could they be doing?

What do you say to instructors who select technology because it’s new or because a colleague has had success with it?

Bates: I call this technological determinism. Because something is new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better as a teaching tool. I think a lot of people make that mistake: because it’s new and other people are using it, I should be using it. It always comes back to thinking about what the educational purpose of using a tool is and what added advantages it gives. In most cases you have to spend more time learning to use the tool. You have to do something different from what you’re already doing, and so just jumping into new tools is really a distraction from your overall teaching.

This comes back to training and thinking about how students learn and what affordance that technology provides. What does it allow you to do that you couldn’t do before? Is it better than what you were doing before? Are the students learning new skills that they couldn’t learn before? Are they able to apply what they have been learning? Will this lead to better learning on the part of the students or more convenience for the students? So it’s looking at what kind of job this tool does. In particular, can it replace something else you’re already doing? Otherwise, you’re just adding more work for yourself and your students. It’s really important to think about what benefit you might get by using that technology—over and above what you’re already doing.

What factors should be considered when selecting technology?

Bates: I use the SECTIONS model. It’s an acronym: Students, Ease of use, Cost, Teaching, Interaction, Organizational issues, Novelty, Speed, and Security. It’s a complex decision-making process. There are so many tools out there. We really need to be more sophisticated with our use of technology than we’ve been. That means thinking about a lot of factors when making that choice. How will this technology benefit the students? Does it make learning more accessible for the students? Does it increase their flexibility? What kind of students are you reaching—or, more importantly, could you reach who you’re not reaching already—with this technology? I don’t believe there’s any intrinsic value in using a technology just because it’s a technology.

Are there certain considerations when making future redesign/enhancements easier?

Bates: I think the key issue here is that if you don’t have a systematic, comprehensive training program for faculty, then working in a team is critical if you’re going to use technology well. That’s the way you keep your workload manageable as an instructor. If you try to do everything on your own, your workload is going to go through the roof. Most successful technology-based courses usually involve working with instructional design and Web specialists who can do Web design, video editing, and so on. Also make sure that you’re not doing the stuff that the Web designer can do much faster than you can.

Excerpted from Selecting Online Learning Technologies: An Interview with Tony Bates Online Classroom, (September 2011): 2-3.