Sunday, November 19, 2017

How small are the units in micro-learning?

Sean Gallagher writes "As Corporate World Moves Toward Curated ‘Microlearning,’ Higher Ed Must Adapt" (Nov 6, 2017, Edsurge). But how flexible are the alternatives to traditional institution programs and how small are the "micro-learning" units? Gallagher points to MOOC providers, such as EdX, as a new model for corporate learning, but are they? Also is the term "micro-learning" misleading: splitting learning in "micro" units may make the study more convenient, but does not reduce the thousands of hours required for a professional qualification.

The oldest reference to "micro-learning" I could find in the research literature was Brudenell and  Meier (1968). The authors provide "5Rs of Microlearning": Record, Review, Respond, Refine, and Reteach. This is from the age of analogue videotape, but the advice is just as relevant today. The authors suggest instruction videos of three to seven minutes. In contrast, today's MOOCs require more than an hour of study per day, over several weeks.

The "EdX Micromasters", described as "a series of higher-level courses recognized by companies for real job relevancy, and may accelerate a Master's degree...". But the courses making up the Micromasters are each twelve weeks long, with eight to ten hours study a week. This is about the same size as a conventional university course and at 96 hours study for each unit does not seem very "micro". In addition the student must complete a fixed set of courses from EdX and then a capstone assessment for the Micromasters, with no substitutions of other courses allowed, making this less flexible than a conventional university program.

The EdX Micromasters is similar to a university graduate certificate. However, a university will typically permit the student to incorporate courses from other institutions and give credit of prior learning (the Australian VET system provides even more flexibility).

A certificate under the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) requires 600 to 1200 hours of learning.  A VET certificate, such as the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment (TAE40116), has ten "Units of Competency". This works out to an average minimum of 60 hours per unit. In contrast a university certificate would be made up of only four courses, making for 150 hours per unit, two and a half times the size.

How small can a unit of learning be? At 60 hours a VET unit still seems quite large. At the other extreme the typical one to two hour workplace training course seems too short. There are structured, placed short on-line courses, such as ANU Online Coffee Courses, at one to two hours for a week long course. But could two hour courses be assembled ("curated") into a larger unit of learning? This would require thirty such courses for a VET Unit of Competency and three hundred for a AQF Certificate.

ps: The prefix micro denotes one millionth. If taken literally "micro-learning" is a very small amount of learning. The longest qualification under the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) is four years.  A full time year is 1,200 hours study, so a four year degree requires 4,800 hours. One millionth of a degree's worth of learning would be just over 17 seconds.



Saturday, November 18, 2017

Friday Night Startup Pitches in Sydney

Last night I attended the weekly "Fishburners Friday Night Pitches". These are held in the basement of an old warehouse, filled with budding entrepreneurs. There were free drinks and much discussion. Then three pitches, and responses by three judges on a couch.

Fishburners is much the same as any co-working/startup center I have been to around the world (silly name, in an old building). However, two of the pitches were exceptional:
  • Omri Wislizki, Manager of the Australian Landing Pad Tel Aviv. Okay, this was not really a pitch of a startup: he was encouraging start-ups to come to Israel. Nevertheless, it was a very funny pitch for a very difficult to sell product: why set-up in Israel?
  • The last pitch was Brian Lim, Co Founder of HyperCubes, who are planning to launch micro-satellites for earth observation.
ps: Fishburners is moving to the Sydney CBD. It will be interesting to see if the start-up atmosphere can be re-created in a bland office building.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Start-ups in Schools

Anderson Hinz and Matus (2017) report positive results from teaching students to be entrepreneurs at twenty-one Australian schools. The schools in NSW and Victoria have been providing entrepreneurial learning, where teams of students work on real world problems, to come up with a product or service.

For several years I have been mentoring teams of Canberra university students in the Innovation ACT competition and more recently tutoring computer science and engineering students in the ANU TechLauncher program. The students learn how to work in a team, talk to prospective clients, make a presentation and budget resources. This is normally thought of as something for later year university students to undertake. It is interesting that this same approach has been applied to school learning.

The report identifies four elements:

  1. "The collaboration
  2. Voluntary networked learning
  3. Students as active contributors - every network learning workshop for and with students and teachers
  4. Adaptive - principles, rather than a fixed program, guided school actions and decisions"
The part I have found most interesting is the re-framing of the student-teacher relationship. Students work with their team and draw on resources, one of which is the teacher. In ANU Techlauncher, we encourage teams to also learn from each other, supported by an assessment scheme which involves students providing feedback to each other and then assessing the quality of that feedback.

The report includes a section on "Scaling the learning", however, the resources which such an activity needs has perhaps been underestimated. Even a well resourced university, such as the ANU, has difficulty finding sufficient tutors, mentors and projects for students. Teaching in this filed requires skills which are not currently part of educational curriculum. I have tried to fill some of this gap with my book "Digital Teaching In Higher Education: Designing E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment". 

One of the benefits of entrepreneurial learning not covered in the report is the ability to connect to the wider community. Students need problems to solve and mentors to help them do this. Also there are resources in the various "start-up" business centers, established by local government, universities and business organizations. In Canberra there is now a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem around the Canberra Innovation Center


Anderson, Michelle., Hinz, Bronwyn., and Matus, Hannah. (2017, November). The Paradigm Shifters: Entrepreneurial Learning in Schools, Research Report No. 04/2017, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University. URL

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

New Website for Finding Australian Postgraduate Courses

Richard McKeon, Director at Postgrad Australia
Richard McKeon,
Postgrad Australia
The company Postgrad Australia has launched a new website for students looking for postgraduate programs. As an example, the site lists 18 Graduate Certificates in Higher Education. I was able to sort the list by fee or by satisfaction. 

The most expensive certificate ($23,904) rated highest for student satisfaction, which is reassuring. But the lowest priced course ($3,980) did not rate far behind for satisfaction. At one sixth the price, this suggests value for money. This also applied to Masters of Education, with the cheapest being rated almost as highly by students as the most expensive. Perhaps the website could include a "value for money" rating for programs, which would be a ratio of fee to satisfaction.

One problem with the site is that there is no option to search by method of course delivery. Like many graduate students, I want to be able to study on-line in my own time. So I want to limit searches, at least initially, to on-line programs. This would also be of use to international students, who don't want the bother and expense of having to visit Australia.

Of course the other limitation with Postgrad Australia is that it only includes Australian based institutions. Students can study on-line anywhere in the world. I studied in Canada while on the other side of the world in Canberra.

Dogfooding the Interactive Lecture at ANU

Greetings from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, where I have been taking part in an interactive lecture on "Deep Learning and Interactive Lectures" by Glen O'Grady, Director of the ANU Centre for Higher Education, Learning & Teaching. This used the Echo 360 Active Learning Platform (ALP) and is an example of dogfooding: leading by example, using the tools you are advocating others use.

Echo's ALP seems to have moved some way towards the combining of lecture recording and webinar software which I outlined in a paper (Worthington, 2013) and discussed later that year with staff at Echo360's Perth office. This would allow students to interact live in the classroom, remotely in real time, or later with a recording. One feature still missing is for the student to be able to pause the live event and time shift. Students would then be able to interact as if the lecture was in real time, answering quiz questions, entering and reading text chat, but minutes or days, later.

However, the focus of Glen's talk was the pedagogy of increasing interaction in "lectures", rather than the gadgets. This seems to be a development of "Lecture 2.0" from a decade ago, to make the classroom experience more engaging. The problem with this was, and still is, the constraints of the room layouts available, the curriculum, and perhaps most of all, the lecturer's limited course design and teaching skills.

Conventional lecture theaters are designed for the student to be able to see and hear the lecturer, not for group interaction. Even where interaction is physically possible, lecturers have difficulty using a format other then them talking and students listening, as this is the only teaching technique they know.

The focus needs to be, I suggest, on students and their learning needs, not lecturer's dreams of full lecture theaters. Rather than try to modify lectures to make them more interactive, I suggest replacing them with better teaching techniques. This requires the teaching staff to be trained in how to teach (not lecture) and to use different forms of assessment. Lectures can then be a very minor supplement to more effective teaching techniques.

The ANU is building a new flexible learning centre with rooms for "flipped" classes (as discussed in "Brave New World in Future Teaching Spaces" by Bella Dimattina, Woroni, ANU, 3 October 2017). What is needed to use the new building effectively is to also flip the thinking of the teaching staff. Rather than worry about how to get students to come to "lectures", the priority should be first the learning outcomes, then the assessment for those outcomes and lastly what form of scaffolded learning activities are needed.

An example of this approach is the ANU Techlauncher program, where students undertake a project on a real-world problem in teams, or as individual interns, working for a real organization. The student's work is project based, with them attending weekly tutorials for mutual support and advice from a tutor. There are also workshops and conventional lectures. However, the lectures are the least important part of the course.


Worthington, T. (2013). Synchronizing Asynchronous Learning: Combining Synchronous and Asynchronous Techniques. In Proceedings of 2013 8th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (ICCSE), 26 Apr - 28 Apr 2013 , Sri Lanka. URL:
Preprint available at:

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Professional Accreditation Needs to Move Online

The Department of Education and Training issued the report "Professional Accreditation: Mapping the territory" in September 2017, but this does not appear to have attracted much attention. The report for the Department by PhillipsKPAPty Ltd, looked at the way  100 professional associations set requirements for higher education programs to be suitable for their members. 

The report points out that accreditation processes are similar between professional bodies: with a public document published specifying competencies, or a body of knowledge, which graduates are to have.Most are aligned with Australian post-secondary requirements, such as TEQSA, AQF, and Higher Education Standards Framework.
Of 100 accrediting bodies, all but 14 were self-regulating. The exceptions were for health professionals, under the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme. Half the accrediting agencies belonged to Professions Australia, Australian Health Professions Accreditation Councils Forum or another umbrella body. The authors expressed concern about smaller and newer professional bodies lacking resources for effective accreditation and not drawing on the experience of other groups.
Most accreditation is now national, but some is still state based, with inconsistencies between states. Accreditation of teacher education was identified by the authors as a problem area with a whole chapter (5) devoted to the topic. State authorities were interpreting national teaching requirements inconsistently and adding their own criteria. the authors made the extrondary statement:
"The high political and industrial stakes surrounding initial teacher education confound investigation and resolution of the apparent difficulties in this report, and exceed by far the terms of reference of this overview."
The engineering and computing professions come in for positive comment, with the authors noting that Engineers Australia was an original signatorys to the International Engineering Alliance’s Washington Accord in 1989 and the Australian Computer Society a signatory to the similar Seoul Accord. These accords recognize accreditation processes internationally. As a Certified Professional member of the ACS I benefit from this.
One problem noted, particularly for health professionals, was a requirement for training to undertaken in Australia or by Australian registered professionals. Another issue is programs accredited by multiple professional bodies. One way around this, I suggest, are joint accreditations. As an example, I have been on a panel accrediting a program for both accounting and computing bodies. Even if there are two sets of paperwork to complete, it helps if the educational institution has to deal with just one visit by one panel.

One problem the report identifies are accreditation of programs using capstones, research projects, work-placed learning and reflective journals. These are useful learning techniques, but require specialist skills and it helps if the teacher has been trained using these techniques (I undertook an e-portfolio capstone for my MEd).

The issue of accreditation of online programs does not receive as much attention as it deserves in the report:

  • 'In the case of new mixed mode delivery technologies and paradigms such as MOOCs the current approach is to put the onus on the educational provider to provide the evidence that assessment of learning outcomes is rigorous. Some providers express frustration with the lack of familiarity with these methods represented in review panels who tend to prefer traditional face to face approaches to classroom teaching. Some providers are beginning to invite accreditation panel members to log into their learning management systems so they can “experience some aspects of what it is like to be a student.”'
Australian higher education has already passed a tipping point: students now receive more of their instruction on-line than in face-to-face classrooms. Within a few years almost all university education will be undertaken online in Australia. I suggest accreditation bodies need to prepare for this reality, rather than treating it as a novel exception.

One recommendation in the report which may be contentious is:
"Mutual recognition of online and on campus programs could be considered to avoid duplication of content where mode of delivery is the only difference." 
The  topic of how those who accredit programs is briefly covered, with the recommendation:
  • "Develop more efficient ways to train assessors – online, collaborative inter-professional, inter-agency training."
The authors appear to have missed the obvious similarity between evaluation of programs within institutions and accreditation by outside bodies. Education specialists are trained in evaluation and I suggest these skills could also be applied to accreditation.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Developing my Philosophy of Teaching Statement

Greetings from the Charles Sturt University Canberra Campus, where Pam Roberts from CSU and Karin Oerlemans from Kairos are running a HERDSA workshop on "Developing your Philosophy of Teaching Statement"

This is no powerpoint click and flick exercise. We started at 4:30pm and are going through until 7pm, undertaking a series of short group and individual exercises exploring how we see teaching and our role in in. The workshop is aimed at helping those applying under the HERDSA Fellowship Scheme, but is also applicable to other educational fellowships, particularly the Higher Education Academy (HEA).

One exercise was the Curriculum Ideologies Inventory from "Curriculum Theory: Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns" by Michael Stephen Schiro (2012).

Also I have been attending "Talk about Teaching and Learning" (TATAL) sessions at the Australian National University. These sessions take the educator through a series of exercises over several weeks to get them to think about their teaching practices (McCormack, & Kennelly, p. 8, 2009).

The reflective writing process is one now familiar to me having been through the process to be a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (UK) and before that in a  capstone for Athabasca University's MEd. However, this is something which still does not come naturally. Having do it several times I am tempted to use shorthand:

Tom Worthington's Philosophy of Teaching Statement
A social constructionist undertaking mentored, collaborative online learning  (Lindley, 2007) for scaffolded vocational professional education. For details, see my book "Digital Teaching In Higher Education".


Lindley, D. (2007, November). Computer professional education using mentored and collaborative online learning. In SEARCC 2007, Proceedings of the South East Asia Regional Computer Conference (pp. 18-19). URL

McCormack, C., & Kennelly, R. (2009, February). Talking about Teaching and Learning (TATAL). In A Transition Pedagogy: The First Year Experience Curriculum Design Symposium 2009 (p. 8). URL

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Derelict Campuses In Virtual Reality

Drop Box
Before getting too excited about virtual reality (VR) for education, read Patrick Hogan's "We took a tour of the abandoned college campuses of Second Life" (13 August 2015). In this he looks at virtual campuses set up with much fanfare and then left abandoned when they were found to not be popular, or useful. These have the feel of the real empty schools in the documentary "Abandoned: St Louis Schools".

These educational institutions tried to emulate a real campus in the virtual world, which I think is missing the point. VR should be used to overcome the limitations in face-to-face education, not reproduce those limitations (and introduce more of its own).

On real campuses, education is becoming virtual. Creating VR representations of obsolete physical campus facilities will just confuse students. As an example, reproducing a library card index (which some VR environments have done) makes no sense, as most students have never seen, let alone used, a real card index.

When I was an on-line student in North America, a couple of years ago, the instructor told my class to submit our assignments in the "drop box".  So I looked on the course web page for a link to the Dropbox file hosting service, but there was none. It turned out the instructor was using the term "drop box" generically and we were using the Moodle assignment module. My confusion was in part because the term "drop box" is not used in Australia, but also because it had been a decade since I had to put a printed-on-paper assignment in a physical box. In a VR environment having a box with a slot in the top would be even more confusing for a student who has never seen such a box.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Are Bitcoin and Blockchain Bad for the Environment?

Harald Vranken at the Open University of the Netherlands (2017) estimates that bitcoin's ‘proof-of-work’ algorithm is using up to 500 MW of energy. Unlike other computing protocols, which could be improved using a more efficient algorithm, or a faster processor, the inefficiency of Blockchain is an essential part of the protocol. A question I may to put to my ICT Sustainability students next semester at ANU is "Are Bitcoin and Blockchain bad for the environment?".

In the original paper proposing Bitcoin and Blockchain, Nakamoto (p. 1, 2008) wrote "... the longest chain not only serves as proof of the sequence of events witnessed, but proof that it came from the largest pool of CPU power...". Vranken (p. 3, 2017) traces the evolution of bitcoin "mining" computers, which started using general purpose CPUs in 2009, then GPUs in 2010,  FPGAs in 2011 and Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) in 2013. Each change in technology brought about an improvement in energy efficiency, from CPUs with an efficiency of up to 0.1 Mh/J (million hashes per Joule of energy). Four years later the ASICs were up to ten-thousand times as efficient, at 10,000 Mh/J.

Vranken (p. 5, 2017) speculates about possible improvements in the energy efficiency of  bitcoin mining hardware, however, the Blockchain design has built into it a mechanism which increases the computation required as hardware (or software) becomes more efficient:
"To compensate for increasing hardware speed and varying interest in running nodes over time, the proof-of-work difficulty is determined by a moving average targeting an average number of blocks per hour. If they're generated too fast, the difficulty increases." (Nakamoto, p. 3, 2008).
This proof of work is used not only to reduce the possibility of fraud, but also to combat inflation of the digital currency (Nakamoto, p. 4, 2008). Those processing the transactions are rewarded with newly generated "coins". If this becomes too easy, then there would be runaway inflation.

Apart from the hardware, the major cost in bitcoin mining is the energy to run the equipment. As Vranken (p. 7, 2017) notes bitcoin's proof-of-work wastes energy, and there have been proposals to replace it with some useful task and alternative schemes to prevent fraud and inflation.However, the current proof-of-work scheme has proved remarkably effective. It would be interesting to conduct a more detailed analysis of how it compares with other more conventional financial systems, in terms of energy efficiency.


Nakamoto, Satoshi [Szabo, Nick?] (1 Nov 2008). Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. URL
Vranken, H. (2017). Sustainability of bitcoin and blockchains. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 28, 1-9. URL

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Teachers Need Tech Skills

Greetings from the Australian Computer Society's Reimagination 2017 conference in Sydney. 
Senator Bridget McKenzie, Chair of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee pointed out that teachers need tech skills, to be able to teach in the modern world. I suggest this also applies to those teaching in universities.
Even computer experts need training to apply the Internet, mobile phones and computers to education. It took me years to admit that as a certified computer professional and experienced university lecturer, I could not effectively apply the technology for my students. Five years and three tech-education qualifications later and my academic colleagues are asking what the "trick" to my high student feedback scores is. The trick is simple: learn to use the tech for education and it is easy.

Games for Education

Greetings from the Australian Computer Society's Reimagination 2017 conference in Sydney. The keynote speaker is Jane McGonigal on "Transforming the digital playfield – collaboration and gaming to achieve epic wins". She is pointing out that games can be used for education, because they provide reward for achievement. Also Jane pointed out that game can be a social activity. This is something well known by educators (I studied gamification in my MEd, but it is hard to achieve.

However, we don;t need to make all, or most of, education look like a video-game. The same short term challenge-reward cycle can be built into conventional looking education. As an example, my project management students at the Australian National University Techlauncher program have to learn to give presentations. Giving a presentation is a challenging stressful experience, but provides rewards through intimidate feedback from their peers. The result is confident professionals who can give very good, focused presentations under difficult conditions.

Teaching a can do approach is something which will help with Australia's tech industry development, including defecne. I was discussing this with Mark Eggleton at the Australian Financial Review recently (See: "Forging closer links with commercial partners crucial for military").