Study puts high-tech learning under glass

The proliferation of technology-based, distance education courses has prompted two UBC studies looking into their effectiveness.

"Lots of people have taken the plunge into using new technologies for teaching, but we only now have enough examples of regular programming to evaluate what their impact is on learners," says Tony Bates, director of Distance Education and Technology at UBC Continuing Studies.

Bates, along with colleagues Starr Owen and Silvia Bartolic-Zlomislic, is directing a cost-benefit analysis of new communication technologies as well as a study of how adult learners respond to technology-based teaching.

The results of the two-year research projects will assist course developers in identifying design issues, technology support requirements and costs to students.

Bates says the adult learning study will answer questions such as whether there are gender-based differences in technology-based learning.

"Do these course delivery methods appeal to women due to greater flexibility or will these methods be considered too impersonal?" Bates asks. "This kind of technology isn't suitable for everybody so what we're trying to do is sort out who it is most appropriate for."

The adult learning project, funded by the federal government's Office of Learning Technologies, will involve 20 case studies of higher education courses at UBC, the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, the Open Learning Agency and a consortium of B.C. Community Skills Centres. Researchers will use a mix of questionnaires and interviews with students and faculty for the project. Each case study will involve at least 50 students who will discuss their experiences with face-to-face and print-based courses as well as those with a technology component.

The cost-benefit analysis study, federally funded under the $13.5-million Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE) TeleLearning, will focus on six of 26 NCE TeleLearning projects across Canada. The NCE projects, managed out of SFU, are examining new ways of teaching using on-line technologies like the Internet.

Says Bates, "There are significant up-front costs associated with developing technology-based learning materials but also great potential for substantial savings such as time away from work. This type of research will provide institutions and companies with a method to ensure their investment pays off."

Bates adds that there are more than 100 technology-based courses offered among the five universities and learning institutions participating in the two studies.

Two years ago, UBC Distance Education and Technology was developing six new courses a year which were mainly print-based with some video and audio support. Today, the UBC Continuing Studies operation develops close to 30 courses yearly, the majority of which are delivered via the World Wide Web and CD- ROM. The latest five-course offering -- a collaborative program on teaching technologies between UBC and the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Mexico -- is offered in both countries over the Internet.

"It's no longer a question of delivery to North Vancouver," says Bates. "It's a matter of going off campus to anywhere in the world."

The studies conducted by Bates and his colleagues are to end in March 1999. Bates says final results and frequent status reports will be shared through publications, conferences and the World Wide Web at