April 25, 2014

No. 7 aha moment: strategy matters in online learning

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© Bates and Sangra, 2011

This is the eighth in a series of posts about the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology, where I discuss why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. The others to date are:

My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology (overview)

1.  Media are different.

2. God helps those who help themselves (about educational technology in developing countries).

3. Asynchronous is (generally) better than synchronous teaching

4. Computers for communication, not as teaching machines

5. The web as a universal standard

6. The convergence of online learning (from the periphery to the core) 

What was the discovery? (1997)

Having worked as a manager by this time for 7 years, I was beginning to understand the bigger picture regarding the planning and management of learning technologies, and it wasn’t pretty. For educational technology to be used effectively, it has to be planned and managed well, and there were almost no specific guidelines at the time. Almost everything was left to the IT people. This had to change. Academics had to get involved as well.

How did this come about?

Part of my responsibility when I was at the Open Learning Agency between 1990-1995 was strategic planning. In fact I was sent on a very useful three day course on strategic planning offered by the American Management Association, but in reality at OLA my main responsibility was not so much to set strategy but to implement what the executive decided (and to be fair, I was part of the executive). This involved lots of Excel spreadsheets with deliverables and dates, but the strategies changed so often it started to become a meaningless exercise – the approach was far too much like the central planning of the Soviet Union, where plans were made but they failed to match reality. What OLA really did was driven mainly by external events, and how staff at the director level responded to them.

When I went to UBC, the approach to planning was very different, because of the culture of a university. In 2000, the then VP Academic, Dr. Barry McBride, sent out a note to all faculty which among other things stated:

We need to pay increased attention to IT and learning.  While I am convinced that IT will have a significant effect on teaching and learning, I am not convinced that we fully appreciate the opportunities and pitfalls…….In response to the IT challenge, we need to do several things but chief among them are the following: first, encourage a wide discussion about the possible role IT will play in learning at UBC and second, implement an appropriate process to support the vision that emerges from that discussion.  We must ensure that the process is responsive to the views expressed by colleagues.

He then created a committee (with the interesting name of ACCULT – Academic Committee for the Creative Use of Learning Technologies) with experts in using technology from various areas (the CIO, the Director of Distance Education, two or three faculty with experience of using LTs – including Murray Goldberg, who had developed WebCT, and representatives from the Library, student services, and a student representative.) The committee was chaired by Neil Guppy, the AVP Academic Planning, a position that had been created earlier with specific responsibility for learning technologies. among other things.

Thus it can be seen that at UBC:

  • leadership identified the issue, 
  • a senior administrator was appointed with a specific mandate to manage issues around learning technologies, 
  • a committee of experts/interested people was established to develop vision and strategy, 
  • a process to involve faculty across the university in setting a vision, or, as resulted, a set of visions, for the use of learning technologies was established
  • a committee developed a range of strategies and actions that would facilitate the implementation of these visions, and this was subsequently approved by Senate and the Board of Governors. 

This is a good example of what I mean when I talk about the governance of learning technology or online learning.

The approach was also very different from that at OLA, with UBC focusing particularly on faculty developing vision and goals for learning technologies, rather than the administration setting goals and the ‘workers’ trying to find ways to implement what in fact were are a continually changing set of goals and strategies (and a continually changing external environment that the administration was continually responding to.)

Why is this significant?

The default model in many institutions had previously been to leave individual faculty to decide how to use learning technologies, and for the IT department to respond as best they could to these demands. In best case scenarios this would lead to the CIO developing an IT strategy that covered both administrative and academic needs, but was almost always underfunded and priorities could not be set (except by the CIO). There was no pressure or encouragement for faculty to use learning technologies, and no attempt to use best practices or identify success or failure in individual faculty initiatives.

In fact, we have seen online learning in particular now starting to converge with campus-based activities, so it has become increasingly important for institutions to develop plans and strategies for online learning and learning technologies. Experience and research now suggest what this process should look like. Here are the lessons I’ve learned about this (this is a summary of the main points from Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning).

  • leadership is essential. The Board and the institutional executive team need to support a move to greater use of online learning, and they all need to be on the same page about this. However, the main role of leadership is to provide overall direction and broad goals for online learning (e.g., to enable more flexible access to programs) and especially to focus on the governance structure and governance processes for learning technologies, but allow the decisions on the right mix of delivery and learning technologies to be made by faculty (preferably at the program level).
  • vision and strategic thinking about online learning is more important than detailed plans or targets. In other words avoid setting a goal of 100 fully online courses by 2014, but think strategically about where and for whom online learning will provide the most benefits.
  • faculty need to be engaged primarily in developing a vision for teaching and learning with technology, and for implementing that vision, again preferably as a team at the program level.
  • decisions about delivery models should take place through the same process as deciding about content (i.e. at the program level)
  • the role and design of online learning will vary according to the needs of the students targeted and the requirements of the subject area, which is why the delivery model and the choice of specific technologies must be driven by faculty, supported by professionals such as instructional designers.
  • a high level committee with representatives from all areas affected by the use of learning technologies needs to be established to
    • deal with priority-setting for resources to support the use of learning technologies,
    • set policies or strategies for learning technologies, such as for intellectual property, protecting student privacy, or for open educational resources,
    • ensure that the necessary support for faculty and students is in place
    • to ensure that data and evidence is collected about successful and unsuccessful strategies, actions and innovations.
    • this committee needs to be ongoing, as learning technologies will continue to develop, and the external world will continue to change, requiring strategic responses from the institution as a whole.
  • faculty training and professional development is essential and also needs to be systematic and mandatory for online teaching
  • rewards need to be put in place for innovative teaching, and a strategy needs to be developed to ensure that successful innovations are spread across the institution where they are appropriate.

It can be seen that decision-making about learning technologies will take place at all levels in the institution. Good governance will ensure that the right kind of decisions are taken at the right level by the most appropriate people.


The planning and management of learning technologies are essential, but they can be done well or they can be done badly. In knowledge-based organizations such as universities and colleges, the full engagement of ‘front-line workers’ such as faculty and students in decision-making and especially setting a vision for teaching and learning, is paramount, but faculty and students need to be supported, so strategy, decision-making, priority-setting and training and development needs to be ongoing and continuous if learning technologies and online learning are to be used effectively.


A bonus! The ninth (and last) post in this series will be on the importance of web 2.0 technologies for online learning. Coming next week at all theatres.




  1. Thnx for the series. Useful stuff.

    “the delivery model and the choice of specific technologies must be driven by faculty, supported by professionals such as instructional designers.”

    This implies that faculty are not professionals. No argument there. Few faculty know enough about learning to warrant being called learning professionals.

    Does this mean that amateurs are making key decisions? Is that a good idea?

    If not, what to do?

    Thnx again for sharing your experience. It’s helps us all.


    • Tony Bates says:

      Thanks, Kieran

      Not sure I would put it the way you do. Faculty are professionals in their subject domain. In other words, they (usually) have a deep understanding of the subject matter, and thus what is required to become a historian or chemist or nurse, for instance. But, as you say, they are rarely professionals in educational technology or learning theory. My goal is to combine these two areas of expertise through team work, thus making teaching and learning more effective. When it comes to deciding for instance what is best done online and what best done face-to-face, the input of subject matter experts is critical, but they can be helped to see alternatives by instructional designers. Ideally faculty would be trained to be both subject matter experts and educators, but there are currently systemic barriers to this.

  2. Howard Davis says:

    Tony, this is spot on. It’s my experience, also, that successful online programs are successful when senior leadership mandates/supports the strategic development of an online initiative. Conversely, homegrown, bottom-up, attempts at starting and growing online courses, certificates, degrees typically wither on the vine for lack of a strategic game plan, “official” support, and resources.

    Curiously though, I’ve found, even before this current brouhaha over MOOCs, that when I’ve asked senior leadership about why they actually wanted to launch an online program, that there was often a very pregnant pause before they responded.

    • Tony Bates says:

      Thanks, Howard

      One thing I didn’t mention is how difficult I often find it to get a serious conversation about online learning with senior administrators when I’m visiting a university or college. Far too often, the VP Academic will introduce me as a speaker at a faculty event, say how important the topic is, then apologize and leave immediately, without hearing what I have to say. Sometimes they are kind enough to attend a lunch or dinner, which is really often my only chance to have a serious conversation about rationale, strategy and ongoing support, but often most of the time is given over to small chit chat. There are of course always exceptions, but I feel it shouldn’t have to be exceptional to have such a serious conversation about what is becoming a core issue for most institutions. Maybe someone should run a workshop for university presidents and VPs on the digital revolution – but they would probably then invite someone who has run a MOOC!.

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