Bates, A. (1995) Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education Routledge: New York/London

How much has changed in educational technology over the last 30 years?

In my 1995 book listed above, I suggested 12 golden rules for using technology in education and training. It should be remembered that when I first drafted these ‘rules’, three years before the book was published, the World Wide Web was not in general use in education, and there were almost no fully online courses.

I wonder how many of these principles you think still apply today. I present them below exactly as they were published in 1995, although for some I have highlighted specifics that I believe are still important today, and added a few comments in brackets [].

1. Good teaching matters

Clear objectives, good structuring of learning materials, relevance to learners’ needs, etc., apply to the use of any technology for teaching, and if these principles are ignored, then the teaching will fail, even if the unique characteristics of the medium are stylishly exploited. Good teaching may overcome a poor choice in the use of technology, but technology will never save bad teaching; usually it makes it worse.

2. Each medium has its own aesthetic

Professional production and design is important. Each medium has a different range of production skills necessary to exploit its unique features; this means that ‘quality’ production counts – a computer assisted learning program that does not fully utilize the special design features of computer-based learning (e.g. fails to use interaction, graphics, or remedial aspects) will not work, even if in theory the computer was the most appropriate medium for the particular task.

3. Educational technologies are flexible

Technologies are generally flexible and hence interchangeable in education and training, i.e. what can be achieved educationally through one technology can usually be achieved through any another technology, given sufficient imagination, time and resources. Thus the absence or non-availability of a particular technology does not necessarily prevent learning goals from being achieved. Each technology can be used in a wide variety of ways. Consequently, differences within a technology or medium (for instance, between two television programs, one a televised lecture and the other a documentary) may be greater than between media (for instance, between a face-to-face lecture and a lecture on a radio program). Nevertheless, intrinsic differences between technologies have been identified which have implications for teaching and learning, and knowledge of these differences should guide technology selection. [‘Affordances’?]

4. There is no ‘super-technology’

All technologies have their strengths and weaknesses (yes, even multimedia). They therefore need to be combined.

5. Make all four media available to teachers and learners

In most open and distance learning, learners are not a homogeneous mass, but vary a great deal in terms of educational background, age, experience, and preferred learning style. Decision-makers should therefore try to ensure that all four media (print, audio, television, computers) are available for teaching purposes, in one technological form or another. This will give variety to a course, not only providing an individual learner with different ways of approaching the same material, but accommodating different learning styles. [I would argue today that there are more than four teaching media, including in-person teaching as a medium in its own right, and computing has diversified into several separate sub-media.]

6. Balance variety with economy

The greater the number of technologies used, the more complex the design process, and the greater the chance of redundancy and wasted expenditure; the aim therefore should be to use a limited range of technologies in any given context, but covering all the main media.

7. Interaction is essential

High quality interaction with learning materials, and interaction between teachers and other learners, is essential for effective learning. Inter-personal interaction can be provided as effectively at a distance, through the use of appropriate technologies, as through face-to-face contact.

8. Student numbers are critical

The total number of learners to be served over the life of a course is a critical factor in technology selection. Some technologies are much more economical than others with large numbers; with other technologies, costs increase proportionately with student numbers. Take the long view; what may appear cheap in the first year may be more expensive over eight years – and vice versa.

9. New technologies are not necessarily better than old ones.

There is no law that says new technologies will automatically be better for teaching than old ones. Judgement about new technologies should be made on educational and operational criteria, not by date stamp. Many of the lessons learned from the application of ‘older’ technologies will still apply to any newer technology.

10. Teachers need training to use technologies effectively

Teachers and instructors need training not just in the choice and use of appropriate technologies, but more fundamentally in how people learn, and in instructional design. Lack of appropriate training is the biggest barrier to the use of technology in education. 

11. Teamwork is essential

No-one can know everything there is to know about the educational use and design of every technology now available, and be a subject expert. Subject experts, media specialists and instructional designers are essential on every team.

12. Technology is not the issue

The issue is: how and what do I want students to learn? And where? The effectiveness of technology-based open learning is now a non-issue (see Moore and Thompson, 1990); concentrate on designing the learning experience, and not on testing the technology. There is more than enough technology around now to allow you to teach in whatever way you choose.

What has changed in 30 years?

Don’t get depressed if you are inclined to say: very little. 

Although many of these 12 principles might still apply, there has been a significant shift in:

  • attitudes among teachers and instructors to the use of technology in teaching,
  • many new  and more powerful technologies, such as mobile phones and virtual reality, have been developed,
  • online learning has become widely accepted,
  • OER have been ‘invented’, 
  • now there is an increasing move to blended rather than just face-to-face or fully online learning.
  • there have been new theoretical approaches, such as connectivism and open pedagogy,
  • and of course a great deal more has been learned about teaching effectively with technology.

So do we need new or different ‘rules’ (I prefer today ‘principles’) to guide technology-based teaching? I will try to answer this question in my next blog, looking particularly at blended learning. But first, what do you think?

  • Do these ‘rules’ no longer apply?
  • Or do we need different guidelines for teachers and instructors?
  • What new principles would you suggest?
  • Or are such principles too vacuous to be useful?

Please use the comment box at the end of this post for your answers, and look out for my next blog post on this topic.



  1. Whilst I look forward to hearing of your possible revisions, I am still impressed with how essential and fundamental most of these guiding principles still are – especially the first and last (1 & 12).
    Perhaps if they had been followed more carefully by more educators and providers since 1995, we would have been in a much stronger position when Covid hit and people found themselves having to rely much more on online approaches!
    And thanks for being such a strong influence from your OU days onward.

  2. To “rule” number 11, I would suggest we add another team member: faculty trainers/ed tech trainers (or some similar label). Without training in the use of technology, educators typically do not take full advantage of the technology that is now available, and students are the poorer for it.


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