Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Master of Education in Distance Education by Distance Education

A recent item in the journal Nature (Sharples, 2016) listed  Athabasca University (AU) in Canada, as one of four institutions worldwide pioneering global open education A few weeks ago I completed a Master of Education in Distance Education  (MEd DE) at the AU Centre for Distance Education. I Tom Worthington in academic regalia with his Master of Education in Distance Education, awarded by Athabasca University (Canada), 18 January 2017selected Athabasca because they have more than two decades of experience specializing in using e-learning to teach how to do global on-line education. Now I intend to use what I have learned to help move Australian Higher Education on-line by the end of the decade.

Being an International DE Student

The AU MEd took just over three years, part-time, entirely on-line. Mostly I completed one course per term, three terms per year. For two terms I did two courses at a time, but this was very hard work and not a practice I would recommend.

During my studies I created 2,291 files totaling 458 MB on my laptop computer. In addition I created twelve Mahara on-line journals to record my private reflections: one for the program and one for each course, with about one hundred postings in each (1,200 postings in total, made up of about 100,000 words). Keeping a private journal was a good way to keep notes for use in contributions to course forums (which are assessed) and for my e-portfolio (discussed later).

While AU recommends the Microsoft Office suite, I found the free open source Libre Office was an adequate substitute. One paid application I found useful was the Grammarly grammar checker. AU also provided access to Moodle, where most course notes were provided, text based interactions took place and assignments were submitted. Access to Mahara was provided for preparing an e-portfolio (I also used Mahara for my private journals). Adobe Connect was provided for synchronous (real time) audio "webinars" and for presentation of the capstone e-portfolio. Moodle, Mahara and Connect were adequate. My wireless modem running (at times) at 256 kbps, was adequate to undertake the course.

Capstone e-Portfolio

In place of a conventional masters thesis, I completed a Capstone e-Portfolio using Mahara. This presents five artifacts, covering six competency areas (as specified by Hoven, 2015):

In a webinar at the end of the program I presented my e-portfolio and then spent thirty minutes answering questions. This was a nerve racking process, much as it would have been in a face-to-face session.

Working with Students and Instructors On-line

For just over three years I worked on-line with Athabasca students, mostly in Canada, but also in Europe and Asia. I was the only Australian in my student cohort and at times it felt a little lonely. However, I had the pleasure of meeting two of my professors face-to-face, when they were a key part of international education conferences. Rory McGreal was a keynote speaker at ICOFE 2015 in Hong Kong. Agnieszka Palalas is President of the International Association for Mobile Learning (IamLearn), which ran mLearn 2016 in Sydney.


The MEd requires all students to complete five core courses (from MDDE601 to 605), then electives or research/thesis courses. I chose electives about open, mobile and international education, as well as program evaluation and ending with the required e-portfolio capstone (in place of a dissertation):
  1. MDDE 601 Introduction to Distance Education and Training
  2. MDDE 602 Research Methods in Distance Education
  3. MDDE 603 Foundations of Instructional Design: Systems Analysis and Learning Theory
  4. MDDE 604 Instructional Design in Distance Education
  5. MDDE 605 Planning and Management in Distance Education and Training
  6. MDDE 622 Openness in Education
  7. MDDE 623 Introduction to Mobile Learning
  8. MDDE 614 International Issues in Open and Distance Learning
  9. MDDE 617 Program Evaluation in Distance Education
  10. MDDE 610 Survey of Current Educational Technology Applications
  11. MDDE 694 Capstone e-Portfolio Project

Project Coursework

Unlike Australia masters programs, which segregate "coursework" and "research" students, all AU MEd students first enroll in a common program, undertake core courses and only then choose a thesis (research) or e-portfolio (coursework). I started with the intention to do quantitative research. However, after completing the core courses, I decided on project-based coursework (as discussed in my e-portfolio).

During my studies, the program changed to incorporate a larger capstone electronic portfolio. This changed from being something tacked on the end of the program, to a semester long course in itself. As one of the students during the transition, I had the choice of either option. Fortunately I chose the full course option, as preparing an e-portfolio proved to be surprisingly difficult. AU is still refining this process, and more scaffolding (treating the e-portfolio as a series of assignments) I suggest would help.


One of the most useful aspects of the AU MEd was studying while also working in the field. Like my fellow students I am an experienced teacher and could not only bring that experience to the courses, but also immediately apply what I was learning. As part of the MEd, I updated my ICT Sustainability course, designed an on-line innovation course. Also I produced two conference papers (on e-learning for Asia and a new e-learning paradigm).

Part of studying in this way is the increased confidence which comes from learning by doing. I have been able to help students preparing their e-portfolios for ANU Techlauncher. program, as not only had I learned the education theory, but also prepared an e-portfolio in practice.

My intention is to continue to put what I have learned into practice, helping Australian universities move their education on-line, using group work, peer assessment, and e-portfolios.

Re-skilling Academics for e-Learning

Most higher education in Australia will, I suggest, be provided via some form of e-learning by the late 2010s. This is not suggest that classrooms and campuses are obsolete, but that most students will study by blended learning, with the blend about 80% on-line and 20% in a classroom. The difficult part of this transition will not be technology: Australia and New Zealand are world leaders with the Moodle learning management system and Mahara e-portfolio package (both available free).

The problem is to educate tens of thousands of academics in effective teaching techniques and to convince more senior academics that this is a valid form of education. I hope to be able to assist with this, by having teaching recognized as a specialization for computer professionals, so we can then lead the e-learning revolution.

ps: Suggestions for Improving the MEd

The Athabasca University MEd (DE) courses were very similar in format to the on-line courses I had taken at USQ and run for the Australian Computer Society and ANU. To this AU added the capstone e-portfolio. This format works well for students who are mature, motivated career professionals.

I suggest the AU MEd could be improved by:
  1. Four terms a year: Doing more than one course at a time greatly increases the difficulty of study. To increase the rate of completion, I suggest four terms a year. Having a long "summer" holiday makes little sense for working part-time students around the world.
  2. Quizzes: Learning management systems have provision for automated quizzes. These are useful to help the student learn the basics. A quiz each week for a small number of marks (1%) helps keep students studying.
  3. Peer Assessed Forums: Having a small amount of marks (10%) for student contributions to forums is useful. However, this is a burden for instructors to mark. I suggest having peer assessment using the in-built LMS feature for this.
  4. Allow Instructors to Update Materials: Minor corrections will need to be made to course materials during a course, particularly correcting broken hypertext links. Instructors should be given access to the LMS to make these changes without having to refer them to administrative staff.
  5. Use e-Portfolio in All Courses: An e-portfolio is a powerful learning technique, but one which is very difficult to master. I suggest having the students start on e-portfolios in the introductory course, including the practice of peer review. This then could be used in all courses.
  6. Address MOOCs: The MEd syllabus concerns conventional on-line distance education courses. There needs to be some mention of other formats, particularly MOOCs. Instructional designers need to learn how to face the question of: why do we need you to design and run a course when we can get a MOOC for free?
  7. Introduce Assessment: What is an "average" grade needs to be explained to students. This is so students, particularly international students, can have reasonable expectations.
  8. Scale Fees: Athabasca's fees for international students are less than an Australian student pays for a domestic Australian program. Increasing the fees, where a student can afford to pay, would allow the university to pay for more instructor time and also help ensure the financial viability of the institution. Athabasca already has a form of fees for different regions, with students from Greece and Eastern Europe paying a lower rate for the course through the Eastern Macedonia and Thrace Institute of Technology.


Hoven D. (2015, January 7). ePortfolios in Post-Secondary Education: An Alternate Approach to Assessment. UAE Journal of Educational Technology and eLearning. Edition 1.

Sharples, Mike. (2016, December 15). Digital education: Pedagogy online, Nature.

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