Appendix 4: Independent commissioned reviews

A review from a faculty perspective: Professor James Mitchell

James Mitchell, Professor and Director of the Architectural & Environmental Engineering Program, Drexel University, Pennsylvania, USA.

Many of us recognize that much has changed, is changing, and will continue to change in our professional environment. Even those who are not so old depend on tools that didn’t exist when we were children: Google searches; shared documents, analytic tools, simulations, videos and the not-so-lowly cell phone.   We suspect those changes should be reflected in who, what, and how we teach. Teaching in a Digital Age is Dr. Tony Bates’ field guide for those wishing to explore this new continent. Perhaps in a hundred years there will be the same retrospective guffaws that we experience when reading of early European opinions of the Americas they’d never visited or perhaps trod lightly on a sliver of the eastern shore. It’s hard, however, to imagine a better guide than Dr. Bates.

Is author credible? Can you check what he asserts? Does he present it in an organized manner? Does he have relevant experience? Has he practiced what he preached? Does this “book” exemplify the changed approach for which he argues? The answer to all of these questions is “yes.” There are some splendid “no” opinions as well. Technology will not solve all problems. Critical thinking shouldn’t be abandoned.

First, is Dr. Bates credible? It’s difficult to imagine someone with better, experience. In a career of fifty years he’s taught in elementary school, helped start the UK’s Open University, developed and taught online and blended courses, consulted worldwide. He’s written multiple academic papers and books. He’s paid his dues.

Can you check what he asserts? Yes. Wherever possible this book cites sources with active links to make checking the source easy. He’s consistent and thorough throughout.

Is the material presented in an organized manner? Yes. A review of the Table of Contents shows that he proceeds from addressing the question of change, through an examination of the nature of knowledge, on to the ways that teaching can occur both face-to-face and online, to detailed considerations of the differences between media, and finally to the methods for choosing, assessing and supporting the varied approaches. He has covered the range in a manner that allows the reader to move progressively and also to jump rapidly to an area of particular interest.

Does this document progress beyond the traditional book? Does Dr. Bates practice what he preaches? Yes. The Table of Contents (TOC) reads much like a traditional book, but he has taken advantage of the online experience. The TOC is always present in a sidebar with active links. Tony has inserted his voice in audio clips. Videos illustrate his point where appropriate. The references are links wherever possible. More subtly, but equally important, the book is a live document. It was drafted online via a blog, with readers invited to enhance the book by responding (that’s how this reviewer became involved, an engineer no less). It is presented under a Creative Commons license so that anyone may use pieces of it with appropriate attribution. Further, the online version is structured so it can evolve.

Does technology answer all questions? Where Dr. Bates long experience and strong British fundamentals enhance his approach shows most beneficially in his recognition of the importance of the teacher’s epistemological approach as well as the tradition of education. He values, as the book shows, the second order thinking represented by the abstractions of academic discourse. He understands that a belief in a behaviorist’s tabula rasa is going to produce a very different understanding of what’s important in education from that of a constructivist or connectivist. He addresses those differences and attempts valiantly to include them in the many detailed discussions of the many media now available. Although Bates doesn’t mention him I suspect he’d be very sympathetic to this reviewer’s favorite teaching reference, The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet (1950), written well before computer technology complicated matters.

Are There Important Topics Not Included? Yes, not surprisingly. First, there is comparatively little attention paid to what we know from good research about how the individual student learns, what motivates them, what impedes them, how to determine when they’re ready for a particular approach, and the many ways to approach the same goals. Certainly the many media he presents are vehicles to address the requirements of each student, but Bates’ focus is more on the delivery tools than on understanding the students’ needs. Is that bad? No. Had he attempted that as well, this already ample document would have been far, far longer. How Learning Works (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, Norman 2010) would be a splendid companion to Teaching in a Digital Age.

Similarly, how to change existing institutions so that they truly embrace and act on these new modes of education is minimally addressed. The explicit audience of this document is the individual instructor or graduate student, not the person with budget power. Undoubtedly this was a conscious decision since Dr. Bates has spent many years working with academic decision makers. Here he’s attempting to empower the individual, quite possibly hoping they’ll become the decision maker of the next generation.

Should you read it, and will you enjoy it? Emphatically yes if you share an unease about making elegant barouches while Mr. Ford is introducing the Model-T. Most importantly, Dr. Bates’ thinking is grounded, organized and inclusive. His writing is clear, the references abundant, the variety of examples edifying. Your efforts will be well rewarded.

Received: 7 June 2015