Classes are moving online, but teaching methods still need to catch up, says education expert

The pandemic rapidly switched education to an emergency remote teaching model. But does that temporary change mark a bigger shift toward online learning? And could that make university and college a more flexible experience? Online education expert Tony Bates weighs in on how higher education is changing.
Tony Bates says one of the things that will come out of the shift to online learning during the pandemic is a rethinking of that first-year, large lecture class experience. (Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock)

The pandemic may have forced classes in grade schools and post-secondary institutions online, but we need a bigger shift in teaching methods to create the best learning environment for students, says an expert in online education. 

"We have good models from past experience how to teach well fully online, but we don't have those models about what's best done face-to-face and what's best online," said Tony Bates, who is a research associate at Contact North and senior advisor at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University.

Bates, who has authored a dozen books on the importance of technology in higher education, explained that educational institutions will have to offer a very clear value proposition for in-person classes, now that the majority of students have had some experience with online learning.

"I think the big question is going to be, 'Why get on the bus and come to campus, what are you offering that's so special that can't be done online?'" he explained.

Bates spoke with Spark host Nora Young about what he thinks the higher education experience will look like when students return to class in September, and how online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic might change how we think of education. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

What do you think the higher education experience is going to look like for students in Canada this fall? 

I suspect it's going to be a lot better in September than it was in the spring for most students.

What's happening now is most institutions are working like mad to get that expertise out to their instructors, to get them better prepared for online instruction. The problem is, most faculty have had no training in online learning. One thing we know is that moving face-to-face teaching online isn't the best way to go. There's all kinds of problems for students, such as cognitive overload, giving the students too much information too quickly. You really have to start redesigning differently, and particularly to enable students to be more active in their learning. 

Bates is a research associate at Contact North, senior advisor at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University, and the author of several books about online learning and distance education. (Gabriel Lascu)

Some have made the argument that what happened at all levels of education during this pandemic was not online learning but emergency remote teaching. So what has to happen in the fall to make the transition to effective online teaching? 

I think the real answer is redesign of courses. I think that will come from experience, from instructors learning what doesn't work so well online and what does work online.

I think one of the things that will come out of this in the long run will be a rethinking of that first-year, large lecture class experience. It's going to be very hard to shift that model — it's an 800-year-old model. But I think faculty will find that they can use video much better than using it for talking heads, for instance. They can use it to demonstrate things, they can get students to make videos to show how they're applying their learning in real-world situations. 

Do you have a sense of what the students want, though? Do they want that blended learning? What I remember from post-secondary is that the social, interpersonal stuff was a hugely important part of not just my social life, but my intellectual development.

I don't see why, in the long run, we shouldn't be able to offer everything, so students can study in any way they wanted. The important thing is the learning outcome should be the same, the exam should be the same, but the students can get there through different routes, different ways of learning.

The demographics are on the side of online learning. We're seeing a flattening at the moment — and I think it'll be a decline — among the numbers of students coming out of high school, purely for demographic reasons. And we're going to see increased pressure for lifelong learning, because of people changing their jobs frequently. So I think the universities are going to have to restructure somewhat to accommodate these changes in demographics. 

Going back seven or eight years, there was a lot of excitement about MOOCs — massive open online courses — but the promise of moving everything online kind of fizzled. What did we learn from the MOOC experience in this new situation?

I think the real value of MOOCs is in the informal learning space. 

What I think will happen is that we'll have much more thoughtfulness about how we combine online and face-to-face learning for credit-based teaching, so that we get the best of both worlds. And that's not gonna be done through MOOCs, because they don't provide support that learners need to succeed in a full degree program over the three or four years. The numbers are too great to give that individual, personal support. 

We're talking about the new "new normal," whether COVID has been an opportunity to fundamentally change some things we take for granted. Could these changes redefine what higher education is? 

Yes and no. No, because there is a huge inertia in the system, there's all these structural barriers to radical change. Secondly, there are a lot of good things about, particularly, the university, that I wouldn't like to see change — the freedom of inquiry for faculty, the ability of the instructor to be in charge of their own teaching, and so on. 

What I do think is needed is much more faculty development, much more training in teaching, and far less emphasis on content presentation. The content is important — you gotta know stuff in order to develop a skill — but I think we need some changes in the balance between content delivery and skills. Students can get the content online now anywhere. What they need help with is that learner support.

Written by Olsy Sorokina. Interview produced by Kent Hoffman. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Tony Bates, click the 'listen' button at the top of the page.