October 20, 2017

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

A good question

I get asked a lot of questions about online learning, educational technology and distance education, but recently I was asked one that really stumped me, and forced me to reflect on the whole history of educational technology, at least as it has affected me.

The question was simple:

‘You’ve been working in the field now for 44 years. What have been your most seminal moments in terms of what you’ve learned?’

I’ve been able to boil the answer down into seven seminal moments.  Here I merely summarize these ‘aha’ moments. I will do a different post on each that will describe both the circumstances that led to the ‘aha’ moment, and the consequent heuristic implications for making more effective decisions about the use of technology.

1. 1970: Media are different

By this, I mean different media have different educational effects or affordances. If you just transfer the same teaching to a different media, you fail to exploit the unique characteristics of that medium. Put more positively, you can do different and often better teaching by adapting it to the medium. That way students will learn more deeply and effectively.

2. 1974: God helps those who help themselves

This stems from my experience of working in developing countries. Ever since I started working in this field, people have argued that ‘Western’ technology is the solution to educational problems in developing countries. This is hubris, and just plain wrong. Progress in education in developing countries has to start at home. Western technology can help, but only as long as it is adapted and transformed locally.

3. 1978: Asynchronous is better

Everyone learns better from media and technologies that allow them to study anywhere, at any time. In particular the ability to repeat and revise recorded material makes learning much more effective than live, synchronous teaching. This ‘insight’ stemmed originally from research on the effectiveness of audio-cassettes compared to broadcast radio, but has subsequently been found true also for television and the Internet.

4. 1986: Computers for communication, not as teaching machines

Until 1986, I had always been skeptical of computers as an effective teaching medium, especially in distance education. Up to then, I had seen them as ‘teaching machines’, attempting, ineffectively to replace teachers. The Internet changed that. In 1986, I realised that computers could allow learners and teachers to  communicate effectively over space and time. This fits much better with my philosophy of teaching and learning. Despite developments since then in artificial intelligence, this seminal moment still holds true today.

5. 1995: WWW: a universal standard

Like most people in education, I was caught cold by the World Wide Web. Until 1995, I was still using non-web technology for teaching online. The web allows rich multimedia material to be transmitted to any computer, any software system, anywhere in the world, with an Internet connection. This has had profound implications for the design of online teaching which we still have by no means fully understood or exploited.

6. 1995: Convergence of online learning

This was the year I moved from a distance teaching organization to a campus-based university. The move was partly driven by a growing realization that the technologies being introduced into distance education would eventually transform campus-based teaching as well. This is just beginning to be fully realised 18 years later, through developments such as hybrid learning. The challenge now is to identify what is best done on campus, and what online, when students have the choice of both.

7. 1997: Strategy matters

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.  This also is now beginning to happen but we still have a long way to go to be better planners and managers, despite my two books on the subject.

The time perspective

Why nothing in the last 16 years? Well, the further back in time you go, the clearer becomes the signal from the noise. Also, if something is universally true, you are likely to recognize it earlier than later. And in the educational technology field, I doubt if many things are universally true, because it is an area that is still rapidly developing.

The one exception though I might make (an eighth aha) is 2008 when I realised the importance of web 2.0 for enabling more learner-centered teaching and learning, but I still need more time to see the real significance.

In the meantime, I will develop each of these seven themes further in later posts.


What are your ‘seminal,’ aha moments in educational technology? Why?

Online learning in 2012: a retrospective

© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

Well, 2012 was certainly the year of the MOOC. Audrey Watters provides a comprehensive overview of what happened with MOOCs in 2012, so I won’t repeat what she has done. Instead in this post I will focus mainly on trying to explain with regards to MOOCs what appears to me to be highly irrational organizational behaviour, more akin to lemmings than pillars of higher learning.

Why MOOCs?

For those of us who work mainly in universities and colleges, the hype around MOOCs is like living in two parallel universes: what we do every day in online learning, and what we read or hear about in the media. (I leave you to judge which is the true reality.) Even organizations that should know better think that online learning started at MIT in 2002 with OpenCourseWare. So why have MOOCs in particular got so much press?

This is an exercise in social anthropology.

To quote from Wikipedia:

It is unknown why lemming populations fluctuate with such variance roughly every four years, before plummeting to near extinction.

Now some evidence suggests their predators’ populations, particularly the stoat, may be more closely involved in changing the lemming population

Lemmings can swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. In such cases, many may drown if the body of water is so wide as to stretch their physical capability to the limit.

 I believe there are several themes that have led to MOOC hysteria in 2012:

  • they appear to be free. The direct costs of higher education, especially but not only in the USA and the UK, have been systematically transferred from the tax payer to the individual student or parents through cuts in government funding and increases in tuition fees. In other words, the cost of higher education has become more transparent. It’s really expensive. Free of course is better than expensive. MOOCs have been promoted as being free. However, there are no free services. All services have a true cost. At least to date, MOOCs are the opposite of transparency on the true cost. We do know that over a hundred million dollars have been invested this year alone in MOOCs, but what are the costs of the professors’ time, the cost of managing large numbers of students, and above all, the cost of ensuring student learning (however it is measured)? We just don’t know. Until we do, it’s a shell game
  • it’s also a numbers game: input matters more than output. The focus of the media has been on the massive numbers enrolling. However, there has been little focus on what students are actually learning. All we know is that completion rates are pathetic (less than 10%), and many of those that do complete are already well educated. Nevertheless it is argued that on a global perspective, the completion numbers are still large. However, so are the numbers in traditional higher education, and also in credit-based online learning. Sloan and Babson have been tracking the online credit numbers for years. They have been growing at a steady rate of between 12-20% a year. Ontario alone has over 500,000 online course registrations in its public universities and colleges, with completion rates in the 75-85%, matching completion rates in face-to-face classes. Millions are taking online courses for credit in Asia. But does this get mass coverage in the media? No.
  • technology triumphs over teaching: MOOCs in general have been driven by computer scientists who believe that just ‘delivering’ content over the Internet equates to learning. It doesn’t, but broadcast content delivery is something that lazy reporters can easily understand.
  • it’s all about the elite institutions. The media love to focus on the ivy league universities to the almost total neglect of the rest of the system (the cult of the superstar). Here is an appalling irony. The top tier research universities have by and large ignored online learning for the last 15 years. Suddenly though when MIT, Stanford and Harvard jump in, all the rest follow like lemmings. MOOCs are seen as an easy, low risk way for these universities not only to catch up, but to jump into the front line. But they are hugely wrong. Moving from broadcasting to learning is not going to be easy. More importantly, MOOCs are a side issue, a distraction. The real change for universities is going to come from hybrid learning – a mix of on-campus and online learning. Those top tier research universities though are going to miss out on this, by sidelining their online learning to a peripheral, continuing education activity.
  • don’t forget the politics: There’s just been a presidential election in the USA. A number of corporate leaders and some in the Republican party want to privatize the US higher education system. Anything that will undermine it is heavily promoted. MOOCs to some extent have been a tool in the hands of the media for suggesting that education need not be expensive and could be ‘free’, or at least much lower cost, if left to business. This fits the agenda of the right.

Having said all this, I believe that there is a future for MOOCs, but that’s for another post, my outlook for 2013, which comes in January.

In the meantime, there were, believe it or not, several other interesting developments in online learning, but before exploring those as well, let’s see how right I was in my outlook for 2012.

What I predicted

  1. The year of the tablet: 99% probability
  2. Learning analytics: 90% probability
  3. Growth of open education: 70% probability (depending on definition of open education)
  4. Disruption of the LMS market: 60% probability
  5. Integration of social media into formal learning: 66% probability
  6. The digital university: 10% probability
  7. Watch India
  8. The great unknown: 10% probability

Well, not a great record at prediction. I suppose you could include MOOCs within ‘growth of open education’. But look at what I actually wrote:

open access to high quality (all right, highly qualified) instructors is likely to be limited to idealistic volunteers, or to limited events (e.g. a MOOC), mainly because of a mis-match between supply and demand. Too many people want access to what they may incorrectly assume to be high quality instructors at elite institutions, for instance. This is partly an institutional barrier, as institutions try to protect their ‘star’ faculty, which is why this form of openness depends largely on individual volunteers.

Not actually wrong, but it certainly didn’t capture the mania that would develop around MOOCs in 2012.

Although there have been lots of interesting individual uses of tablets, particularly in k-12, they certainly haven’t taken off to the extent to which I predicted, at least in post-secondary education. However, so much in prediction depends on timing – maybe it will happen this year. For instance, mobile learning, one of my predictions for 2011, certainly expanded in many institutions in 2012, and will certainly continue to grow in 2013. The use of data analytics definitely increased, but still in a minority of institutions, in 2012, but learning analytics are still being used by a very tiny minority. The technology isn’t quite ready yet. (Again, this depends on definition – I’m talking about the hope that learning analytics will help instructors to achieve better learning outcomes, or put another way, will help students to improve their learning.)

What you read

Another way at looking at 2012 is to see what you chose to read. There are just over 1,800 posts on the site. Here are the top 14 posts in 2012, with the number of hits. (If you missed one, just click on it.)

Recommended graduate programs in e-learning


What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs


e-learning outlook for 2012: will it be a rough ride?


New technologies for e-learning in 2012 (and a little beyond)


A short critique of the Khan Academy


Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance?


What Is Distance Education?


Why learning management systems are not going away


E-learning quality assurance standards, organizations and research


A personal view of e-learning in Saudi Arabia


A student guide to studying online


10 types of plagiarism (and why I’m pleading guilty to at least one charge)


Daniel’s comprehensive review of MOOC developments


Designing online learning for the 21st century


The numbers of course are skewed by their date of  posting. Those posted early in the year have more chance of being accessed than those posted later. Timing also matters in terms of external events. Despite all the hype about MOOCs, only two of the top 14 posts were specifically on MOOCs (although there were several others posted). I am though surprised at the amount of interest in prediction, especially given how bad I am at it!

The inclusion of ‘Can you teach real engineering at a distance?’ at no. 6 is really interesting. This was posted originally on July 5, 2009, but it has sustained a long discussion that is still active today. I was also pleased to see that designing online learning for the 21st century squeezed in, as this was about design of online learning. I’m glad there’s still at least some interest in this issue. There is also evidence that the site is being used by  a lot of online students (or potential students), which is very gratifying. I need to do more posts targeted to students next year.

What I did

Since I’m not free and open (except here), this is some indication of what institutions were interested in this year (at least enough to pay me for it).

Site visits for consultancies or discussions with faculty/staff on strategies or designs for online learning

  • Mexico City: to develop a business plan for a national Mexican virtual university
  • Edmonton: Campus St-Jean, University of Alberta: informal review of online learning activities
  • Université de Sherbrooke, l’université Laval and Université de Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Québec
  • Vancouver Community College, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and University of British Columbia, BC
  • University of Manitoba, Winnipeg
  • EFQUEL conference, Granada, Spain
  • COHERE conference, Calgary, Alberta

Online consultancies

MOOCs and Webinars

  • planning and managing online learning: participant in #Change 11 cMOOC
  • costs of online learning: guest instructor for University of Maryland University College/University of Oldenberg, Germany
  • Elections Canada: online course design

Institutional site visits and reports on gamechanging institutions

  • Western Governors University
  • Open University, UK
  • Open University of Catalonia, Spain
  • London Knowledge lab, Institute of Education, London, UK.

It can be seen there was a great deal of interest in:

  • strategies and management,
  • new course designs,
  • design and organization of online institutions,
  • the costs of online learning

during 2012. These issues are not likely to disappear next year, either.

Politics and economics

In 2012, there were major developments in both the politics and economics of online learning. Governments in the USA and Europe accelerated cost cutting in post-secondary education. Nearly one billion dollars has been cut from the community college system in California alone since 2008. Student tuition fees have risen dramatically over the last five years in both the USA and the U.K. Even in Canada, provincial governments are facing the need to constrain public funding.

In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, the government threw down a challenge to the post-secondary institutions. Enrollments will need to increase, quality must be obtained, but there will be no new money. What can the institutions do to increase productivity through innovation? It’s a good question. Business cannot go on as usual. There is surely room for improvement and change in our institutions.

This theme is likely to continue into 2013. Governments, parents and increasingly students will be looking to online learning to increase productivity: better learning outcomes for less money. Are we up to the challenge?

Goodbye, 2012

I asked the question last year: will it be a rough ride? It’s certainly been a fast ride and quite bumpy at the same time. I don’t know how you feel, but I feel I’m hanging on, but only just. It’s good though that it’s exciting, stimulating, infuriating, and frustrating. It means that online learning is alive and well, growing in both breadth and more importantly depth.

So to all my readers, thank you for coming along for the ride. Have a great break, merry Christmas, happy Hanukah, or just have a good time, whatever your religion or beliefs. And I look forward to sharing my outlook for 2013 in the new year.


1. What pleased, surprised or disappointed you in 2012 with regard to online learning?

2. What do you think was the most important development in 2012 for online learning? Obama’s re-election? MOOCs? New course designs? Or something else?

3. Are we up to the challenge of using online learning to increase productivity through innovation? If so, what would that look like?

Call for papers for conference on blended learning


Blended Learning: A Strategy for Transforming Teaching and Learning


COHERE is a collaboration of universities focusing on the research and practice of blended and online learning within higher education.

Keynote speaker:

Tony Bates

Two keynote topics:

Meeting the challenge of technology: are we failing as managers?

Designing university teaching to meet the needs of 21st century students


October 18, 19, 2012


Delta Airport Hotel, Calgary, Alberta.


Now open. Click here for more details

Call for proposals:

Now open: Deadline August 31

Click here for more details

Spanish version of ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education’ now available

 Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2012) La gestión de la tecnología en la educación superior Barcelona ESP: Octaedro:ICE-UB

The Spanish version of ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning‘, is now available from Ediciones Octaedro.

#Change 11: Week 6: Managing Technology: the discussion so far

Comments to date on Managing Technology to Transform Teaching

It’s now Friday, five days into the week, and I’ve tracked the following comments or responses to the webinar and my earlier post on this topic:

ZML Didaktic (Austria): Good set of notes of the webinar and a few comments

Death by Structure Very interesting posting by Viplav Baxi with very thoughtful comments.

Umair comments on the need to change the classroom model.

x28′s new blog directly addresses one of the key questions for this week: can change come from within?

Multilitteratus incognitus discusses participation in MOOCs – not directly relevant to the managing technology topic, but I’ll be responding to this later

Paul Prinsloo in a deeply thoughtful posting discusses the ‘enhance’ vs ‘transform’ issue, arguing that even though there are still benefits in using technology to enhance teaching and learning, in fact in the end technology will transform it.

Squire Morley has excellent notes from the webinar and an interesting discussion

Jenny Mackness in Jenny Connected asks ‘Is our education system in crisis?’ and discusses the issue of whether change can come from within or without.

Jeffrey Keefer’s Silence and Voice wonders why there has been so little discussion on this topic, a point I will address below.

Jaapsoft in Connective argues that education is about relationships and changes will come from technologies that support relationships

Squire Morely has excellent notes from the webinar and a discussion that includes the issue of costs of technology.

Have I missed other postings? If so, please let me know and I will add them – or please add your comments directly below.

Discussion of the topic

I’m finding it difficult here to separate form from function. The nature of a MOOC clearly influences the form of participation and the nature of the comments.

Not surprisingly, the discussions were less than conclusive on whether change will come from within or from without the institution. In general, those who commented argued that change will come both from within (but slowly) and from without. I particularly liked Paul Prinsloo’s discussion of how technology changes the nature of knowledge, that even using technology to enhance traditional forms of teaching will effect change.

Change from outside

Surprisingly though no-one argued that if digital technologies are to be fully exploited that this is more likely to come from new ways of teaching and new forms of organization that will exist outside the traditional institutional models of schools, colleges and universities (an argument I was expecting from a MOOC organized by Stephen Downes and George Siemens). This also happens to be my view of what is likely to happen.

In other words, innovative teaching that fully exploits new digital technologies and which help develop the core skills and competencies needed in the 21st century will mainly come from outside the formal, public education system (or will be marginalized within the system). The inertia and the barriers to change within the public institutions are just too great, unless they reach a crisis point, by which time it is likely to be too late. This would fit the pattern of disruptive change argued by Christensen (2011).

The full exploitation of digital technology for teaching and learning is likely to come about in two distinct ways. The first will be through the privatization of education. Institutions such as the University of Phoenix do not face the current barriers to change of the public institutions (especially universities), and will move aggressively into providing more modern and more sustainable forms of digital education that will increasingly be attractive to employers and to students.

The second means of change will be through open non-formal offerings, such as MOOCs, open educational resources, and possibly free or low cost new organizations, something along the lines of the University of the People or the Khan Academy, or regrouping of existing public institutions into new structures such as oerU. However, such regrouping will be at the margins of public institutions, not core. The main barriers to these developments are employer acceptance of such forms of education, which I don’t think will last for long, and academic credibility, which I think will be more serious.

Change from within

It is the threat to academic integrity that most concerns me about the failure of traditional institutions to change quickly enough from within. There are many important aspects of academic knowledge that could easily be lost through these new forms of learning and learning organizations, in particular, academic freedom, academic integrity, and a loss of scientific thinking.

This really needs a book to explore fully, but I would be concerned about the likely impact of the privatization of higher education on academic freedom and academic integrity. Academic integrity is more of a challenge to explain, but it is partly related to the quality of thinking and research needed at an advanced academic level, and the need to enforce standards when learners are increasingly demanding entitlement to qualifications, irrespective of performance. I see traditional public universities more likely to insist on these standards for all types of learning.

It would be better then if our current formal, public institutions attempted to change their methods of teaching to take full account of the potential of digital learning, while ensuring academic standards are maintained or enhanced. The full exploitation of digital learning and academic integrity are not contradictory, but without an institutional framework, they could become separated. Critical, evidence-based thinking and argument, scientific methodologies, and authenticated original work that is assessed through the application of high academic standards are more likely to be developed and maintained within an institutional framework, although the form and structure of such a framework may or probably should be very different from what it is now. However, I still struggle to understand how such standards are likely to be developed in an unstructured, entirely open or non-formal system of education, although open and non-formal education are excellent for the purposes of lifelong learning, once academic standards have been established and internalized.

This is a very lengthy way of arguing for change from within, but I don’t think it’s going to happen, and the consequences could be dangerous for the maintenance of of rationale and scientific thinking.

However, I would really appreciate your thoughts on this.

MOOCs and discussion

Related to the issue of the difference between academic and everyday knowledge, I was struck by the nature of discussion in this week of the MOOC. Jeffrey Keefer in his post asked:

Why so little discussion on something seemingly so valuable? Even after talking about this on the live #change11 session (with thousands of people registered and others informally participating),….and even with those finding this through other means,why so little discussion?

It’s a good question. (To be precise, Jeffrey was not just commenting on this MOOC, but on the lack of discussion in general on the web about the book). I tracked 11 comments related to my post in the MOOC. There were about 30 participants in the webinar and an unknown number of downloads of the webinar recording.

There could be all kinds of reasons for the shortage of comments on this week’s topic, but I was more struck by the form in which they occurred. Participants did not comment directly to my post for this week, but within their own blogs. I call this the syndrome of the selfish blogger. We all do this. If we have something interesting to say, we’d rather say it on our own web site than someone else’s (it would be nice though if the post was also copied to the site that originated the topic). I had to go and cull all the comments from the #Change 11 newsletter and from pingbacks to get them into one place, so I could comment on them as a whole.

The advantage of posting comments on the participants’ blogs is that the MOOC reaches a wider audience – all those who follow the blogs of the participants. The traffic on my site did increase by about 30% from Monday to yesterday (an increase of over 200 hits a day), mainly because of the MOOC.

However, no-one commented directly to my post, and up to the time of writing, no-one had taken advantage of the forums on the book site that are directly related to the topics covered this week (even Jeffrey commented on his blog, not to my post, which is somewhat ironic). Thus I failed to generate a conversation or set of conversations around this topic (at least so far, five days into the week). This is different from my experience of using threaded discussion forums in a learning management system, where I’ve been able to generate intense and prolonged conversations around topics. In my view, this is more likely to lead to deeper engagement and hence better learning and certainly a more structured discussion than the very scattered responses in this week of the MOOC.


  • Could I have done something that would have resulted in more comments, more discussion and more integration of the discussion in this MOOC?
  • Or is the topic itself the problem – just not of interest to most people in this MOOC?
  • Or are people just too busy to go beyond the webinar and a short response?

Over to you! (if you’re interested)


Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, Louis Caldera, Louis Soares (2011)Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education Mountain View CA: Innosight Institute