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  • Looking for a silver bullet

    - “Computer scientists have to show more respect to instructional designers.” Tony Bates is skeptical about the way in which some online teaching is heading. “We need more conversations about where we are coming from. You can’t use students as guinea pigs.”

    Tony Bates -who used to work for the University of British Columbia- was keynote speaker at the SURF Onderwijsdagen, where his vision on where technology in teaching and education is going, kicks off a day of contemplating the latest developments. Talking with ScienceGuide afterwards, Bates shows himself not all too positive about the road that is being followed currently by some institutions, especially in the USA.

    “Politicians are always looking for a silver bullet. When state governments had no money they cut education and thus MOOCs were seen as a way of solving the issue. People in America love technology, they think it will solve any kind of problems. The thing is there are problems for which you may ask if technology is indeed the right answer.”

    Arrogance or team approach

    Education is a field where this question could be raised. And apparently this issue is not being adressed at this moment. “Over the last hundred years we learned a lot about how people learn, but none of it is applies to MOOCs. I think that is mainly due to the arrogance on the part of computer scientists.”

    According to Bates a team approach to teaching is needed to fully make advantage of digital technologies as a driver for education. “You need instructional designers in that team as well as faculty and computer scientists.” The way to go are academic innovation centers like the Harvard Extension School in which educational experts together with computer scientists design new forms of education. “That requires computer scientists to show instructional designers the respect they deserve.”

    The key skill

    What stands at the core of this development is ‘knowledge management’ as the key skill students have to develop. “We need to go beyond comprehension. It’s about finding information and understanding what you are looking for,” Bates explains. What xMOOCs like the ones created by Coursera and edX are doing is focusing on comprehension. “They are content based, but they don’t work on developing softer skills.”

    The thing is these courses are focusing on developing competencies to provide employers with the employees they need. “The thing is companies have stopped taking responsibility for training. They think public colleges should do this. But our job is to educate. To make students adaptable and give them specific skills with which they can survive in a very competitive world.

    Students are not guinea pigs

    This form of education requires a design which is currently not being followed in MOOCs. Bates thinks this is largely thanks to the fact that educational developments such as MOOCs are too much driven by computer science. “It’s the startup culture of just throwing something out to see if it works. That’s why MOOCs are not for credit. You can’t just throw something out in education, you’re dealing with people’s lives. You can’t use students as guinea pigs.”   

    That doesn’t mean Bates is opposed to trying things. “We need to innovate, but we don’t just leap in to the dark. We need a different approach. We should be talking much more about the design of teaching. Technology should be subsidiary to the overall design. Otherwise you end up like Volkswagen. The emission control designers were meeting targets set by senior management, but you could say they lost the big picture.”