Monday, July 6, 2020

Cutting the Gordian Knot of University Research and Education Funding

In "University research funding and international student numbers rose, and will likely fall, together" (EduResearch Matters, 6 July 2020), Andrew Norton points out that most Australian university academics are employed to both teach and conduct research. This should not be a surprise as the Dawkins reforms designed this into the Australia higher education system. Australian universities are required to conduct research to be called universities. This has proved useful for marketing university courses, particularly to international students. The students select a university largely based on the research reputation. The dilemma for universities is that research output has little, if anything, to do with the quality of education.

Australian universities have been successful marking education internationally, based on their research record. However, good researchers do not make good educators. Having specialist research and teaching staff would make sense in terms of efficient delivery of quality education, as might a return to the pre-Dawkins education only institutions. One way to make this marketable to students would be by associating each research university with a cluster of teaching-only University Colleges.

The obsession with research rankings, I suggest, could be countered by promoting education and impact ranking schemes. Rather than being a victim of rankings developed by media companies, universities could cooperate to create more useful measures which suit their interests. A good model for this is the “Webometrics Ranking of World Universities” which ranks ten thousand universities.

Australian universities failed to prepare for an international crisis preventing students getting to campus, even when warned of this. There were relatively simple measures, using e-learning, which other countries planned for and which some of us in Australia were ready with.

Universities are also not addressing the longer term risk of competition for students, particularly from China’s Belt and Road Education Plan. Previously I worried this may see a long term decline in the competitiveness of Australian universities. However, due to COVID-19 and international tensions, Australia's universities may have only a few years to change the way they deliver education, if they wish to remain in business.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Online Learning for Remote and Complex Environments

Mr Andrew Laming MP,
Chair of the Committee.
The Australian Parliament is looking into the impact of COVID-19 on learning, as part of its inquiry into education in remote and complex environments. Public hearings are suspended due to COVID-19, although I suggest these could use video conferencing. The inquiry has received 64 submissions, including mine (number 50):

Train Teachers Online to Provide Blended Learning 

Submission to the Inquiry into Education in Remote and Complex Environments

This is a submission on online teaching during the COVID-19 Pandemici. Replicating the classroom using video conferencing is only a small part of the answer. University and school teachers need to be trained online to teach in blended mode, for the optimum combination of online plus face-to-face learning, to suit prevailing conditions. This approach made it possible to teach university students without interruption during the lock-down and is suitable for older school students, providing a smooth transition to normal teaching.

Blend Classroom and Online for Resilient Learning

In February 2020 with the prospect of COVID-19 keeping students from campus, I was able to quickly switch from blended learning, to fully online teaching at the Australian National Universityii. The course text and videos were already stored in the University's Learning Management System (LMS), which the students can access via the Internet from anywhere, at any time. Most student activities (forums, quizzes, and assignments), could already be undertaken online at any time. This left just the face-to-face workshops, to be replaced by video conferences. When students begin return to the classroom, video conferences can continue to link those who cannot attend, to their teachers, and more importantly, to the other students.
The ability to rapidly change from campus-based to online instruction is a by-product of a blended approach to teaching. To allow maximum flexibility, I first design for online delivery, then add campus activities, combining online and campus in chunksiii. If a student is unable to get to campus, they can still undertake most activities.
As an international graduate student of education, I had experienced the difficulties of studying at a distanceiv. In 2017 I realised my students could be stopped suddenly from getting to class and suggested preparing for this with online learningv.

Train Teachers Online to Teach Online

Australian universities and schools have the good fortune of access to high-quality LMS. One example is the Moodle product, developed in Western Australia, and now used by schools and universities across Australia, and throughout the world. Tools such as Moodle, allow a teacher to provide the materials the student needs, wherever they are. However, what is also needed are teachers trained to teach online, as well as in a classroom.
While we have the technology for teaching, what has been lacking during the COVID-19 Pandemic are university and school teachers trained to use that technology effectively. More important than technical training, is the ability to build a rapport with students who are remote from you. This can be done by having teachers experience being online students themselves. This dogfooding approach ensures that teachers understand the stresses of being an online studentvi. I suggest that school and university teachers should undertake at least one semester unit of instruction online, about how to teach online. This online learning should model good techniques, such as students working together to accomplish a task, peer assessment and an absence of formal examinationsvii.

Tom Worthington MEd FHEA FACS CP IP3P
22 May 2020

Biography: Tom Worthington is a computer professional and an honorary lecturer in computer science at the Australian National University. A Certified Professionalviii member of the Australian Computer Society, in 2015 Tom received a national gold Digital Disruptors Award for "ICT Education" and in 2010 was Canberra ICT Educator of the Year. He previously worked on IT policy for the Australian Government and in 1999 was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy. He is a Past President, Honorary Life Member, Certified Professional and a Certified Computer Professional of the Society as well as a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Tom has a Masters of Education in Distance Education from Athabasca University, a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education from the Australian National University and a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment from the Canberra Institute of Technology. He blogs as the Higher Education Whisperer and is the author of Digital Teaching In Higher Education.
While an Honorary Lecturer at the Australian National University and a member of the Professional Education Governance Committee of the Australian Computer Society, his views here do not necessarily reflect those of either organization.

i Home learning and teaching during COVID 19, Media Release, House of Representatives, 14 May 2020.
ii Learning to Reflect, Learning Module Notes for the ANU TechLauncher WPP Exercise, Tom Worthington, November 2019. URL
iii "Blended learning and learning communities: opportunities and challenges", Fleck, J. (2012), Journal of Management Development, Vol. 31 No. 4, pp. 398-411.
iv E-Portfolio for the Athabasca University Master of Education, Tom Worthington, 6 December 2016. URL
v Digital Teaching In Higher Education: Designing E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment, Worthington, T., 2017. URL
vi Dogfooding: Learning About Teaching by Being an On-line Student, Tom Worthington, 2017. URL
vii Blend and Flip for Teaching Communication Skills to Final Year International Computer Science Students, Tom Worthington, 2018 IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering (TALE). In Press. Presentation notes:
viii Liability limited by a scheme approved under Prof. Standards Legislation

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Universities Should Prepare for Second Wave of COVID-19 with Online, Flipped, Blended and Hybrid Learning

With the sudden shift to online learning due to COVID-19 in the first half of this year, university academics may be feeling a little overwhelmed. Online students can be harsh in their criticism and the natural reaction is to provide more content and feedback more quickly. However, there is now a little time before second semester to stop and consider how better to provide education in online, flipped, blended and hybrid modes.

Universities will likely be reopening classrooms in the next few weeks, initially for one on one and small group teaching. Large scale lectures may wait a little longer. However, educators must at least be prepared for isolated cases of COVID-19 which will close down classes, or whole campuses, at short notice. This requires an online option to be ready to be activated. The way I suggest to do this is with hybrid flipped blended learning.

Hybrid flipped blended learning

Hybrid: Teach in a classroom with some students in the room face to face, while others join in via a video conference. Put the images of the remote students and the text chat forum up on a big screen in the classroom and use a web camera to send an image of those in the room to the remote students. Have an assistant monitor the remote students. Have the laptop, web camera and Bluetooth wireless headset you have been using for teaching at home on hand in case the room A/V fails. Use the same video conference software as used when teaching online, so if the campus has to be abandoned, the lessons can continue uninterrupted.

Flipped: Provide the students with materials to study before the live sessions. As an incentive, have a few marks for quizzes covering the basic concepts, with a deadline for the quizzes so students have to complete this work before the live event. If students are unable to attend the live event, provide a video for them to watch.

Blended: Design for online delivery of the course, plus live activities (either face to face or via video conference). The most reliable way to do this is design for asynchronous learning first, then add the synchronous elements. This way students can keep studying uninterrupted, despite campus closures and technical problems with video conferencing.

Don't Provide Too Much Content

The temptation when first teaching is to provide students with too much to learn. This will soon be apparent in a face to face class, but you may not realize students are not getting through all this stuff online. So take a top-down approach: firstly what knowledge and skills do students need to be able to demonstrate to meet the course goals? Next, how can this be tested online (hint: a long end of semester exam is likely not the answer)? Now, how can this learning be divided into reasonable size chunks? Lastly, what resources can be provided to help the students learn (hint: you talking at them for hours is not the answer)?

Don' Provide Too Much Feedback

Beginning teachers are tempted to provide too much feedback to students on their assignments. When teaching online there is also constant pressure to respond to every question and complaint from every student.

Research shows that students don't read the detailed comments you write on assignments, so don't waste time writing them. Just provide a few brief comments preferably using standard ones from a list. There are courses on how to do this and tools to help.

Rather than respond to every comment and complaint, anticipate what students will likely ask, and tell them that in advance. Students will not always read or listen to what you say, so you may need to give the same information in answer to questions. But rather than just answering these individually, answer in a class posting. Only answer briefly and provide a hypertext link to where the details have already been provided in the notes.

If you receive an angry complaint after hours, do not reply to it immediately (unless there is a genuine urgent need). Write the reply but don't sent it until the start of business the next day. Check to make sure your reply is calm, professional and necessary. In many cases students will be making a comment, which does not need a substantive reply, perhaps just an acknowledgement of their concerns.

How Much Time Marking

You are only given a limited amount of time to teach a class. As a professional, you should try to remain within those limits. Working long unpaid hours is not good for you, for your profession, or for your students. If given an impossibly small amount of time time to teach, then you may need to renegotiate this, or decline to teach the class. However, this may just need a reallocation of time tasks, and more efficient teaching and assessment.

Don't Over Assess

Australian universities typically set 50 to 60 words per percent of assessment, or 5,000 to 6,000 in total for a course. Any quizzes or exams come from this budget.  A total time for assessment of 45 minutes per student, for all assessment in a course, was mentioned in a recent presentation by a senior academic at one university.

My rule of thumb is that the assessment should make up about half the staff time in a course. So if the assessment takes 45 minutes, that is a total of 90 minutes per course, or about 8 minutes per week to teach each student in a 12 week course. That does not sound like much time to do all the lecturing, tutoring, one-on-one mentoring and assessment you may want to do. If so, you need to decide what is essential and what is not. Start by checking if you have set too much for the student, and therefore you, to do. In particular check if there is too much assessment.Try to simply the assessment by using rubrics and have the students assess their peers (they will learn much more this way).

Keep in mind the idea is to get students to do things. If you are  talking, then the students are not doing, and so not learning. So don't waste time providing traditional lectures face-to-face (students don't turn up anyway), or online. But students like having lectures, even if they don't watch them, so provide some recordings. The production quality makes no difference and you can use old recorded live lectures, or audio slideshows. Instead put your efforts into activities for students, with them discussing the results, and you just commenting on it.

As General Patton might have said, if he was a teacher:
"The job of a teacher is not to work really hard, its is to get the students to work really hard".

Friday, June 26, 2020

Swapcard Online Conference Service

Greetings from the EduTech Asia Virtual conference, which started 23 June and runs until 26. This is using the Swapcard event system. This provides the agenda for the conference and an easy way to select presentations you would like to attend, then reminds you when they are on. It also provides service to match you up with like minded people, and book one on one sessions with speakers. 
Added to this is that you can attend virtual events using video streaming and conference services. The EduTech round-table sessions are using Microsoft Teams, which works adequately. I am not sure what streaming technology the main sessions are using, but I can't get it to work on my laptop (it streams okay on the Android app).

What appears to be missing from this online conference experience so far is the exhibition: my favorite part. This is you can wander around looking at product displays, talking to vendors, and bumping into people. How would you replicate this online?

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Wireless Headset Helps with Video Conferences

Video conferencing
with a Jabra Talk 5 Earpiece
and ANU CECS Beanie
Since February I have been in many hours a day of video conferences. So I purchased a Jabra Talk 5 Bluetooth earpiece.

With a USB Wired Headset
Previously I used two sets of wired USB headsets (I won a set in in an e-teaching competition and the other were $5 at a charity shop). These have comfortable padded ear-cups, and a boom microphone positioned in front of the month. This provides excellent audio quality, and excludes external noise. However, after a day of hours of video conferences, my ears start to feel squashed. Also the cable tethers me to the desk and I look a bit silly in them.

Jabra Talk 5 Bluetooth earpiece
The Jabra is a lightweight alternative, with a loop to go over the ear, and a selection of in-ear rubber tips. The microphone is at the stubby end of the unit closest to the mouth. Pairing with my laptop was fiddly until I installed the Blueman application for Linux.

The earpiece is comfortable, the sound is okay, but not as high quality as the headphones. The wireless range is adequate for my apartment. Also handy is that I can wear the earpiece with the ANU CECS beanie I received this-morning. ;-)

There are wireless headsets available for about one third the cost of the Jabra, but they have a much shorter talk time, and would not get me through the day.

There are a few glitches: it is difficult to pair the Jabra with more than one device. When I pair it with my phone, I then have difficulty repairing with the laptop. Also it is difficult to mute the microphone and be assured this as been done. The Talk 5 is the bottom of the Jabra range and there are units with more features, but it is adequate for my purposes.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

EduTech Asia Virtual Free Online Conference

Greetings from EduTech Asia Virtual, which started 23 June and runs until 26. There are streams from K12 to higher education for teachers and administrators. I presented at the 2018 conference live in Singapore, and the organizers have an event planned in person 11 November. But in the interim they have a live online free conference, which attempts, as closely as possible, to simulate the face to face experience. There are the usual keynote speakers, and panels. But what I found more interesting at EduTech Asia were the round-tables.

The round-tables were were with as many people as would fit around a banquet table. There was a moderator to lead the discussion, but most of the talking was done by the delegates. This format is being emulated right now, using Microsoft Teams. The online forum allows for more participants, bit works much the same.

One problem is getting used to Microsoft Teams, which I have not used before. I appear to not be the only one having problems. This may be due to using the web browser client, rather than an app. I can't work out how to turn off my camera, which I normally do to save bandwidth (most participants do not appear to have worked out how to turn their cameras on). The mute button for the audio is very slow to respond. Participants commented that my audio was breaking up. One curious point was that only about 120 kbps was being used, and the video displayed was very grainy, while my Internet connection is capable of 7 mbps.

Overall Microsoft Teams in the browser is usable, but very much poorer experience than Zoom. However, that is not a fair comparison, as I am using Zoom with its own app, not in the browser. Much to my surprise, I found there is a Teams client for Linux, which I will try for the next round-table.

Humanitarian Computing Scholarship

"I want to inspire students to look at how
they can better the world
through the application of technology,"
Since 2013 I have been funding a Humanitarian Computing Prize for students of the Australian National University. This has now been endowed on a permanent basis. So I was thinking of offering funds for some form of Humanitarian Computing Scholarship. This would be for a student undertaking a project with tangible outcomes which would improve the human condition through computing.

As an example of humanitarian computing, I assisted with the award winning Sahana free open source disaster management system. More recently I proposed "Blended Learning for the Indo-Pacific", to deliver low cost micro-credentials via mobile phones (Worthington, 2018). ANU already has a Humanitarian Engineering focus, but not the equivalent for computing. Occasionally I mentor social enterprises in the Innovation ACT competition and tutor humanitarian projects in ANU TechLauncher.  Any suggestions as to what or how would be welcome, examples of similar schemes, offers of funding, would be welcome.

I hope to get some ideas from the IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT) Australian workshop, 26 Jun 2020.


T. Worthington, "Blended Learning for the Indo-Pacific," 2018 IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering (TALE), Wollongong, Australia, 2018, pp. 861-865. doi: 10.1109/TALE.2018.8615183 URL

Monday, June 22, 2020

Does Australia Need a Microcredentials Marketplace?

The Australian government is to build a and online microcredentials marketplace, but I am not sure it is needed. The existing Courseseeker website is adequate for searching among 344 relatively homologous short courses, which have similar outcomes, duration, mode of delivery, and credit point value

This project is not quite as exciting, or complex, as it might first appear. The "micro-credentials" the Australian government is currently funding are not really microcredentials, they are conventional university bachelor and graduate certificates, requiring a half year of study. To be eligible for funding the government required the courses to be delivered online. They were required quickly to retrain people made jobless by COVID-19, and so are made up of introductory courses from existing university degrees. As a result there will not be much for students to choose from in terms of outcomes, duration, mode of delivery, or credit point value between the qualifications from different providers. This, of course, assumes the suppliers will be limited mostly to not-for-profit universities.

There is no reason why VET sector institutions, both government and private sector (non and for-profit), could not offer such certificates. The VET sector might be able to bring some innovation to this category of qualification, which is lacking in the university sector. VET has a more flexible approach to education, with recognition of prior learning and competency based assessment.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Australian Government Changes to Higher Education Funding

The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Education
The Minister for Education, Hon Dan Tehan MP, announced changes to Australian Government funding of university courses last Friday in a National Press Club address (). The Minister characterized this as  "... educating Australians for the jobs that will be in demand in the future". However, the government has focused on universities, and not addressed the vocational  education sector, which is intended to provide and shorter, cheaper more flexible forms of education, and better equipped to deliver  "micro-credentials".

Minister Tehan pointed out that research showed the "...  majority of new jobs will require tertiary qualifications" and suggested "... almost half of all new jobs will go to someone with a bachelor or higher qualification". However, I suggest student's first qualification should not be a degree, and need not be at an institution which conducts research.

Growth areas the minister identified were: health care, Science and Technology, Education, and Construction. The government will also include agriculture, although it was not one of the growth areas identified.

The government will provide 39,000 more university places by 2023 and 100,000 by 2030, but without any increase in funding. Instead this will be done by shifting government subsidies for different subject areas. The ANU VC did point out that funding will again be indexed for inflation, which will help universities.

In his speech the minister said "It’s a similar model to the one we used rolling out our microcredential initiative that offers short, online courses in areas of expected job demand.". However, the program referred to was not for micro-credentials, but bachelor and graduate certificates (equivalent to half a year long diploma). Microcredentials are much shorter qualifications.

At the time of the previous announcement, I assumed the Minister had misspoken in interviews referring to certificates as "microcredentials". However, the latest press club speech refers to micro-credentials seven times, so this is no accident. Graduate certificates already existed, and while undergraduate equivalents of these were new, they were hardly revolutionary. However, they did herald a more interventionist approach by Government, as they were for specific priority areas.

Under the new funding approach students of agriculture and mathematics pay 62% less than before, in teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages 46% less, and science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT, and engineering will pay 20% less. There is no chnage for medicine, dental, and veterinary science. To balance the cost, students in Humanities pay 113% more, Law and Commerce 28%.

The Government strategy assumes more students will enroll in the cheaper degrees, but the ANU VC suggests this may not happen. Most domestic student receive a HECS government loan, and research says they therefore do not see a strong price signal. The result could be that just as many students enroll in the higher cost degrees, resulting in more loans and cost for government.

An important point to note is that while most of the speech refers to the cost of degrees, the costs are per unit (or what is called a "course" in US terminology). So what an individual student pays depends on what units they choose each semester. The Minister emphasized an Arts student could save money by doing IT units. This will create an added level of complexity and potential for gaming the system by re-categorizing units. As an example, law courses categorized as "IT", to make them cheaper, or IT courses categorized as law to make them more expensive.

One aspect of the new policy not discussed by the minister is if a university degree is the best preparation for a job, or are there better cheaper, more flexible, alternatives? The "micro-credentials" mentioned by the minister are made up of introductory units from traditional inflexible degree programs. This differs from the training provided by Australia's Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector.

State government TAFEs and private VET organizations are specifically designed to provide fast flexible job specific training, unlike university degrees. As an example, after completing a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education in the university system, in undertook the equivalent Certificate IV in Training and Assessment in the VET sector.

For university I completed traditional semester long units. In contrast, there were no conventional classes for the much shorter modules which made up the VET Cert IV. Instead I met with an assessor, who helped me prepare evidence of my prior learning, and then select short online units for missing skills. It would be possible to use a similar approach at university for a degree, but this would require retraining staff and re-imagining what university is for. The Australian Government's approach appears to be to nudge universities in this direction.

The Government will also provide funding for regional, remote and Indigenous students, with a Tertiary Access Payment of $5,000 to relocate to study and a Fares Allowance. Interestingly, this will apply to a Certificate IV, as well as university degrees. However, no funding was announced to improve the quality of online learning, which could improve the education of many more regional, remote and Indigenous students. A$500 m fund to support Indigenous, regional and low SES students into and through university might be able to be applied to e-learning. There is also $21 m for Regional University Centres which support regional students.

Near the conclusion of his speech, the Minister said he expected demand for international education will "remain strong post COVID-19, if borders start to open by 2021". Unfortunately there was no mention of any initiatives to help universities expand new forms of international education. In 2016 and 2017 I warned an international crisis could stop students getting to Australian campuses and suggested an online option be made ready for this contingency.

The Australian government did not take up this suggestion and Australian export revenue has suffered as a result. There are other longer term trends threatening the Australian international and domestic education industries, which unfortunately the government and universities are not addressing. In the decade after COVID-19 it is likely we will see competition for students from new forms of institutions around the world.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Rethinking Research and Industry Conferences Online

There are companies offering to provide a platform to reproduce face to face academic and trade conferences on line. But perhaps rethink what is useful and what participants value about a conference, rather than reproduce a physical one.

Martin Dougiamas, creator of Moodle,
and Tom Worthingtont,
EduTech Asia 2018
I have been impressed with EduTech Asia's zoom based live webinars. These are very simple: an MC a panel of two or three speakers and plenty of time for questions. However, they clearly see this as just a stopgap to keep potential delegates and exhibitors connected until they can have a traditional event. Their first event is planned for November in Singapore, which I would be delighted to speak at it again, but not if I have to spend two weeks in quarantine in Australia, on my return.

Also the Australian Computer Society has run two Hackerthons, using Slack, Zoom, and the usual collaboration tools. What makes these effective is that they recruit a team of volunteers to be actively involved with participants. I was a mentor at the first and a lead mentor at the second. What also helps is having sponsors.

A conference is not just one thing. There is the chance for a trip somewhere. TALE 2019 had the attraction for me of visiting Yogyakarta.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Allow International Students More Online Study in Line with Canada

UBC Irving K Barber Learning Centre
Reports indicate international students will be able to do up to 50% online study at Canadian universities and still qualify for a Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP). For an Australian Post-Study Work Visa, international students have to be studying in Australia for 16 months and when in Australia must do 75% of their study on campus. This makes Australian universities less competitive. So I suggest the requirement for study in Australia be cut to 6 months and  25% on campus.

Canberra' universities are planning to trial special flights for returning international students. This an ambitious and  complex exercise*, however it is only a short term measure.

Universities need to, I suggest focus on quality online courses, so students can study wherever they are. Having large numbers of students coming to Australia to study for long periods is no longer a sustainable business.

In 2016 and 2017 I was one of those who warned Australian universities of the risk from international students suddenly being unable to get to campus. I suggested universities be ready with an online contingency in the short term, and transition to in the longer term to online education supplemented by a campus experience.

In February 2020 Australian universities had to scramble to implement e-learning, first for international students overseas and then domestic students, unable to get to campus due to COVID-19. Australian universities should learn from this experience and prepare transition to a sustainable hybrid model of education, rather than be unprepared for the future.

*  I received training in how to conduct an operation to repatriate people from the region at the Australian College of Defence and Strategic Studies, when working at HQ ADF.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Poor Online Course Design Disadvantaging Rural and Risking International Student Market

Dr Cathy Stone and Monica Davis have surveyed Australian rural and remote students who report they have difficulty accessing online courses during the COVID-19 lock-down. This has implications for Australia's education export industry, as well as equity for domestic students.

While only a small sample, two-thirds of the fifty-five asked, said their Internet access was insufficient. The researchers conclude that regional and remote students were disadvantaged as a result, and point to the valuable work being done by the Regional University Centres.

However, the average Internet speed reported by students in the study was 4.5 mbps, which is more than adequate for a well designed online course. Unfortunately many universities had not put in place an on-line contingency for the real possibility students could not get to campus and so were not prepared for COVID-19. Also university had not trained their academic staff to teach online, even though this is how the majority of university education was delivered in Australia was delivered, before COVID-19 closed campuses.

In February I evacuated my university office and set up to deliver courses online from home. Conscious of the limited Internet access and equipment available to students, I decided to use my low bandwidth, high latency 4G wireless modem, and a $300 low power laptop. My Internet account operates at around 4.5 mbps and has a limited data cap, after which it is shaped to 1.5 mbps. Even so I found this adequate for providing documents, videos and live video conferences.

However, while I am able to provide e-learning suitable for low speed broadband, I have the advantage of years of training in how to design and deliver online courses. In 2016 and 2017 I warned Australian universities that students may be unable to get to campus in a crisis. Last year refined my learning design to allow a fast switch to online delivery, if needed. In February I activated that option for COVID-19, with only minor changes.

While higher speed Internet access for students would be helpful, I suggest efforts should focus on quality design of online courses. Training university academics in how to design and deliver online courses can provide a quality experience with current bandwidth. Also just increasing Internet speed will not make up for other deficiencies in online courses.

Australian universities are also delivering online courses to International students who cannot attend on campus. While moves are underway to get students to Australia, this will take time*. At present students are forming views of Australian education based on their online experience. Higher Educaiton will remain mostly online, so this is critical to Australia's education expert industry. In the longer term, university education, and in particular international education, will be increasingly offered online. Australian universities and academics, need to invest in doing online education well, not only for Australian regional students, but to keep our export industry viable.

* It happens I took a short course at Australian Defence College on how to get people to Australian in a crisis, when working at HQ Australian Defence Force.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Don't Replace Long Boring Lectures with Long Boring Zooms

What stuck me was that many of the tips about using Zoom, and other video conferencing for education, apply to teaching in general. These are covered in teaching courses, but unfortunately many academics don't realize they can use the same teaching techniques online as well as in the classroom:
  1. Don't lecture: Without training, and when stressed, lecturers tend to default to lecture mode. Teaching courses usually say to switch to a student activity after six to ten minutes. However, I have been in teacher training sessions which say that in the middle of an hour long monologue. wink
  2. Break it up:  Polls and break out rooms are online versions of standard classroom techniques. Give the students something to do, either individually, or in small groups. These are easier to organize online than in a physical classroom.
  3. Make it relevant: Every bit of study, online or offline, should be relevant to the student's goals. As an example in ANU's TechLauncher program, we previously used a reflective e-portfolio. This was very esoteric for STEM students, so it was replaced with writing a job application. The same skills of reflection are developed, but you don't have to explain to a student, who is about to graduate, how important a job application is.
  4. Supplement learning with Zoom or Lectures: The idea of an excellent lecturer inspiring their students with their oration is a myth. Talking at students is the least important thing an academic can do. Don't to replace every hour of lecture  with an hour of Zoom, because those lectures were not very useful in the first place. My approach to course design, on or off-line is a traditional distance education one, with added interactive components. As an example, last year I delivered a learning module with face to face workshops. This semester I switched to Zoom, and next semester can offer both (virus permitting). The learning design, activities and assessment remain unchanged*.
* See: Blend and Flip for Teaching Communication Skills to Final Year International Computer Science Students, Tom Worthington, 2018 IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering (TALE). In Press. Preprint and Presentation notes available.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Successful Virtual Hackathons

Steve Nouri ran two recent online hackerthons for the Australian Computer Society. He has written some very useful "Lessons Learned From Executing Successful Virtual Hackathons" (Forbes, These hackerthons ran over a few days. I was one of the mentors fort the first and a lead mentor for the second (mentoring the mentors).  The idea is teams are formed and work on a project addressing a specific challenge. There are set deliverables with deadlines, judging, and prizes. 

In the past I have helped out with hackerthons at a physical location, ome were national, or global, at multiple locations. An online hackerthon creates new challenges, but also new opportunities. Mostly the online tools mentioned by Steve worked very well, but it is the socialization using them which is important.

A hackerthon is similar in format to a student group projects used in many STEM university courses, except compressed in time: a hackerthon is two or three days, whereas a group project may be ten weeks. There is the potential to use the hackerthon format in industry and in education to give staff and students experience of creative group working quickly.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Revise Guidelines for Social Distancing in Lecture Theaters

This is to suggest revising guidelines for social distancing in lecture theaters, to allow for 50% normal capacity. ARINA WHP Architects issued "Physical considerations in the operation of a university campus to meet Step 3 COVID-19 guidelines" (Version 1. 01, 26 May 2020). ARINA point out that it is not feasible to implement social distancing in most stepped lecture theaters and recommend that video lectures continue. Also it is pointed out that flat floor spaces can be more easily reconfigured. However, I suggest that the fixed seating in lecture theaters might be used to advantage to meet social distancing requirements.

The Australia requirement for 4 square meters per person is a general one to lessen the spread of COVID-19. In a lecture theater, people are seated, in fixed locations, facing one direction, mostly not speaking. Students are not exerting themselves physically and present for less than an hour. As a result virus spread will be minimized. Social distancing could be maintained in this setting by leaving every second seat empty. Each person would have an empty seat on either side, in front and behind them. The result would be that a lecture theater would have half its normal capacity.

I suggest this should only be a short term measure. In the longer term, most stepped lecture theaters should be decommissioned, as there are few learning benefits for students from this mode of teaching. More flexible classroom formats, which require more space for each student so they can learn actively, should be built. As a byproduct, this will allow for social distancing.

It cannot be assumed that COVID-19 restrictions will end any time soon, and there will be future pandemics. Also the provision of social distance will reduce the incidence of local outbreaks of colds and flu, thus saving the institution from disruption and staff sick leave.

Also I suggest Australian universities be required to offer all courses online, as an option for all students, as a condition of government funding. Universities should be funded for, and required to have, all teaching staff qualified to teach, at least to the level of a Certificate IV (as TAFE teachers already are). There is no reason to prevent students studying online, if they wish to. If properly trained staff are used, this is equally effective as face to face teaching.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Request LinkedIn Recommendation for the Higher Education Whisperer

My Honorary lecturer status is up for renewal at the end of this month. Following the example of Dr Mewburn (The Thesis Whisperer), I would like to include testimonials. If have helped your work, I would appreciate a recommendation.

As it happens, this semester I have been teaching 153 computer project students how to write a job application*. As I explained to the students, I know how hard it is to write a resume, as I was doing it myself, for real. ;-)

* The students are really preparing an e-portfolio where they reflect on their learning and prepare for life-long learning. But that is a bit "soft" for STEM students. So as they are about to graduate, they do it as a job application.

QS Top Universities Rankings 2021

The latest QS Top Universities Rankings  have six Australian institutions in the top 100, ranked: 31 ANU, 40 Sydney, 41 Melbourne, 44 NSW, 46 Queensland, 55 Monash, and 92 UWA. These results are similar to other ranking schemes, are widely reported, and influence student choices. However, the relevance of the methodologies used is questionable.

The QS rankings are based on five indicators: Academic and Employer Reputation, Faculty/Student Ratio, Citations per faculty, International Faculty and Student Ratios. Reputation makes up half of the raking, but is, in part, a self fulfilling prophesy: academics and employers base their ranking of an institution, in part, on how universities have ranked in the past. The ratio of teachers to students might seem more objective, but this doesn't take into account if these teachers are qualified to teach (most university academics do not have a degree in education). Citations provide some measure of research output, but this may indicate less interest by the staff in teaching. International staff and student ratio is used as a proxy for soft skills, but does not measure if the international staff and students mix, or are confined to specific campuses and classes.

Another difficulty with QS and similar ranking systems is that they only cover about one tenth of higher education institutions in the world. Most students can't afford to attend one of these "top" 1,000 universities. Most students would be better off with an institution not in the top 1,000, but which focuses on quality teaching for skills in demand, rather than research. The Webometrics Ranking of World Universites, tries to provide a boarder ranking, and covers more institutions.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Higher Education Whisperer Weekly Zoom Catch-up

Join a weekly zoom video-conference with Tom Worthington, the Higher Education Whisperer, to catch up.

Teach Our Teachers to Teach Online and Prepare for a Second Career

In a recent article by Stephanie Garoni and Jo Lampert  asks if school teachers and their educators are ready for the effects from COVID-19 yet to come (COVID-19 is impacting on our teacher workforce. Are we ready for the mostly bad (but some good) effects?, Edu Research Matters, 1 June 2020). It is unfortunate that our school teachers have experienced so much stress recently with adapting to teaching online. However, I suggest teacher educators have failed their students by not preparing them for teaching in today's world. We need to change what and how school and university teachers teach. The changes to schools will not be as great as the rationalization being forced on the Higher Educaiton system over the next three years, due to a loss in student fees.

Online learning has grown in schools but teachers have not been given the training to do this well. This is not just about using particular software, it is about being able to shape the expectations of students, and their parents, as to the role of the teacher in education. This also involves taking a professional attitude to workloads, where the teacher decides how to best use the limited time they are paid to work, rather than trying to meet impossible deadlines.

Teaching online is fundamentally the same as in a classroom, but if you do not have the techniques and discipline to do it efficiently, the workload and stress can kill you.

Like many in the workforce, teachers are being asked to work on shorter contracts. This requires teachers to be trained in how to work in this environment. It would also be useful to suggest to teachers during their training they obtain qualifications in another discipline, so they have options if teaching does not suit them. It should be assumed a teacher will teach for a few years, before moving to another career.

Unfortunately most Australian universities and academics failed to take reasonable steps to implement an online learning contingency despite the likelihood students could suddenly be unable to get to class. They also became overdependent on a few sources of international students for revenue.  However, this should not cause a teacher shortage. The shift to online learning has been sudden, but worked well. The smaller number of universities which emerge from the coming rationalization will be able to support teacher training.

The chnage to online learning and rationalization of the Australian Higher education system is a good opportunity to think about what and how teachers are trained.  I suggest this aim to give each teacher qualifications in two disciplines: teaching and another field in which they could be employed. Obviously teachers should be mostly trained online, with time previously spent in unproductive lectures freed up for the practical experience of teaching.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Correctly Predicted in 2017 Students Online by 2020

At the moment I am talking part in the weekly ASCILITE Mobile Learning SIG (ML-SIG). There was a discussion of predictions as to what will happen with education. This reminded me that in 2017, I predicted "80% of university education to be delivered on-line by 2020". That has happened but not in the planned methodical way I had hoped.
“There is a revolution taking place in the way university students learn and I expect university degrees to be 80 per cent online by the end of the decade. This has spurred my interest in online learning, which can provide a quality education with fewer environmental impacts.”  From People: Tom Worthington, ANU College of Engineering & Computer Science
But my other prediction for 2020: Canberra the world capital, did not happen. ;-)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Continuous Delivery of Assessment

Dr Ben Swift gave a very interesting talk to tutors at the Australian National University recently about the work he has been doing using Gitlab and Continuous Integration (CI) for grading. In courses such as Art & Interaction in New Media, the tool Gitlab is used to provide an online repository of the work of each student. Students are given a template for submitting their work. As soon as uploaded, the CI feature of GitLab is  activated to carry out a series of checks specified by the lecturer of what the student submitted. These can be basic checks, such as verifying the student has included the statement it is their own work, comparison checks looking for plagiarism, and performance checks to see the code submitted does what it is supposed to. This has the considerable potential to be applied more widely to provide less stressful, more realistic assessment.

This approach might be applied beyond just computer code, to large bodies of written work with a complex structure. As Ben suggested, it would help get students out of the mindset of waiting until the last minute to submit. I suggest this could be taken further to apply the computer concept of "Continuous Delivery". With this approach the student would be expected to build a body of work in the repository, to the required standard, throughout their course. All of this work would be time and date stamped, and the student would be assessed on improvement over time, as well as quality of the finished product. A student who only deposited work in the repository shortly before a deadline would receive a grade of zero, regardless of the quality of their work, as they did not show improvement over time.

A byproduct of this approach would be to make cheating much harder. A student would have to steal, or pay for, a whole consistent body of work to be produced, not just individual assignments. They would have to deposit this work in the repository over time, in credibly sized installments, from Internet addresses consistent with their location. Multi-factor, or biometric challenges during submission could be used to make cheating even harder. Part of the student's assessment could be questions automatically generated from their own work.

Blend and Flip for Teaching Indonesian Students

The Australia-Indonesia Centre (AIC) is holding a webinar on Indonesia’s international education potential, 27 May. This will look at what Australia’s education providers can do in Indonesia, post COVID-19.
"Some institutions and businesses have seen an opportunity and patiently created a presence offshore, including in Indonesia. So how can Indonesia be part of the sector’s recovery? What are the key challenges faced in capturing opportunities in the country? Will the impact of COVID19 force a re-think in a sector that has been struggling with market diversity?  How can successfully navigate those challenges?" From Indonesia’s international education potential, AIC, 2020
As it happens I spoke at an international education conference in Yogyakarta, last December about one way Austrlaian higher educiaon instutions could provide training in Indonesia, do this, with blended leanring. The idea is internional students work in cross-cultural teams online and in person, as is already done at ANU in Canberra:
Blend and Flip for Teaching Communication Skills to Final Year International Computer Science Students, Tom Worthington, 2018 IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering (TALE). In Press. Preprint and Presentation notes available.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Don't Replace Long Paper Examinations with Electronic Ones

Last week I tried a couple of demo exams with one of the leading online exams products. While just a practice, these brought back a tinge of the terrors I suffered as a student with assessment. As an instructor, I would not use such a system for long examinations. Such examinations are not a good way to assess the knowledge, and even less so for assessing skills needed for real work tasks. In addition such examinations increase the risk to the health and safety of students. Students were already at risk of mental illness and self harm before COVID-19. They are now at higher risk, and there are better, safer, ways to carry out assessment. Online invigilated tests should have only a small part in assessing students.

There were some good points with the online exams. The compatibility test beforehand warned my CPU was too slow, but it worked okay. I have a relatively under-powered laptop by today's standards and slow Internet connection.  This is not just because I am a cheapskate, I am doing what Ken Mattingly did for Apollo 13: make sure that if it works on my equipment, it will work for those out in the void.

The business of panning the camera around the room, to make sure no one else was present was a bit of light relief.

I has some minor quibbles:
  • The instructions said to click "I agree" but the button said "I accept". That might seem trivial, but it can unsettle an already anxious student.
  • There was no timer I could see indicating how long I had left. I did not dare look at my watch in case this was seen as cheating. Apparently there was a timer, but when someone is under stress, their attention narrows. The ATSB recently reported that two pilots landed an aircraft without the wheels down, because they were distracted.
  • I had difficulty getting the camera to accept my image. I had to move a lamp so it shone on my face, which was uncomfortable.
  • After completing all questions I could not work out how to get out of the software. I ended up closing down the browser, which in a real exam would cause additional anxiety. It turned out the exit button was just under the timer which I had not seen either.
Having tried this process twice, I could image taking a short test this way.

Overall the process was stressful, like a regular exam. There is the comfort of a familiar environment, rather than an exam room, but help is further away. If it was for a small amount of my grade (perhaps 20%) and short (around 30 minutes), this might be tolerable, just. But if for the majority of the grade in a course and for hours, there is no way I would ever contemplate sitting such a test.

I have spent a lifetime avoiding formal examinations. The first strategy is, of course, to not enroll in any course or program of study which has a long formal high stakes examination. If confronted with an examination, my first thought is: "Do I have enough marks already to skip this and still pass?". If all else fails, my options are reduced to withdrawing from the course, or the program, and then complaining to accrediting and funding authorities about the poor assessment process.

In my view, any exam should be relatively short, more like a take-home examination, than end of semester one. One issue is when the students can do it. I worry that some course designers are assuming all the students take the test at precisely the same time. This will not work well at home. There should be a period of a day, or days, over which students can choose to start their exam.

Academics and university administrators may be using online examinations in the mistaken belief that some law, policy or rule requires examinations. Even before COVID-19, there was flexibility with how assessment could be done. Assessment rules generally have a lot of detail about how to do a traditional examination, but then include a get-out clause saying that some other form of assessment can be used. Other forms of assessment take skill to design and resources to administer. But if you have been trained in how to design assessment (as I have), this can be done reliably, at reasonable cost.

Online exams and quizzes have been used previously for low stakes assessment throughout a course. The products being used now add automated invigilation. But if the student can choose when to start the exam, other measures will still be needed to make cheating harder. It is usual to have a question bank from which questions are chosen at random for each student, and some form of plagiarism detection for essays. Otherwise a student could note the questions, and pass these on others doing the exam later, so they could memorize prepared answers.

ps: Last weekend I was a Lead Mentor for the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces Logistics Hackerthon. The format is similar to ANU TechLauncher, but compressed into a few days. These are good examples of how teaching and assessment can be done in a more realistic way. Participants have to undertake a real world task, and are assessed on how well they do it. There are no formal examinations, instead participants show what they did.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Australian Parliament Looks at the Impact of COVID-19 on Learning

Mr Andrew Laming MP,
Chair of the Committee.
The Australian Parliament is looking into the impact of COVID-19 on learning, as part of its inquiry into education in remote and complex environments. The inquiry has already received 49 submissions, since starting in December 2019, but now wants to hear about the impact of the pandemic.
‘We want to expand our range of evidence into specific lessons and consequences of rapid and flexible home and online learning and teaching. The Committee hopes to learn more about how these new flexible approaches might continue to be applied in remote and complex environment long after schools return to ‘normal’ face-to-face teaching,’  Mr Andrew Laming MP, Chair of the Committee.

Friday, May 22, 2020

ANZDF Logistics Hack Awards

Greetings from the ANZDF Logistics joint hackathon awards. The judges thanked the 500 participants, 70 mentors (I was one of those), the Australian Computer Society who hosted the event, and the platform Slack.The awards were held using Zoom, which had also been used for the opening, and for several organizer meetings in between. This worked flawlessly for the awards, however, without an audience, or the winning teams, or the videos of what they did (for security reasons) the awards ceremony was a bit of an anti-climax. I suggest for this sort of event a little pomp is in order, perhaps music, envelopes opened, some trophies, and a few speeches thanking families. But at least it was short, at only 15 minutes. ;-)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Make Online Exams More Like the Real World

Universities are considering how to replace end of semester examinations. There is a technological solution with remote proctoring software such as ProctorU and Proctorio. These present the examination questions to the student on the home computer, and collect the answers. The software locks down the student's computer, so they can't look up answers on the Wikipedia. The software uses the student's web camera to see it is the student doing the test, and no one is helping. There are obvious limitations with such software, but what concerns me more is the stress it places on the student.

I have never had to take a test using online proctoring software. So I tried some practice exams. While just a practice, these brought back a tinge of the terrors I suffered as a student with conventional examinations. That could be lessened if taken with a human invigilator present (something CIT has used for years, in their libraries).

There were some good points: I was warned my CPU was too slow, but it still worked okay. I have a relatively under-powered laptop by today's standards and slow Internet connection.  This is not just because I am a cheapskate, I am doing what Ken Mattingly did for Apollo 13: make sure that if it works on my equipment, it will work for those out in the void.

Some minor quibbles:
  1. The instructions said to click "I agree" but the button said "I accept". That sounds trivial, but such things can induce panic in an already stressed student.
  2. The same questions in the quiz kept reappearing after I had answered them. This may have been a feature of the examination being used, not the proctoring software, but it was confusing.
  3. There was no timer I could see indicating how long I had left. I did not dare look at my watch in case this was seen as cheating. Later I was assured there was a timer on screen, but I never noticed it. So it might be worth pointing this out to students.  When someone is under stress, their attention narrows. The ATSB recently reported that two pilots landed an aircraft without the wheels down, because they were worried about something else
  4. I had difficulty getting the camera to accept my image. I had to move a lamp so it shone on my face, which was uncomfortable.
  5. After completing all questions I could not work out how to get out of the exam. I ended up closing down the browser, which in a real exam would cause additional anxiety.
But I can't imagine being able to sit though more than 30 minutes of this mental pressure. If confronted with it for a small proportion of the course grade (up to about 20%), I would be tempted to skip the exam and hope to pass. Otherwise I might withdraw from the course, or the program (then complain to accrediting and funding authorities).

As an instructor, I would not use such a system for long, high stakes exams, as it would be an unacceptable risk to the health and safety of students. The students were already at risk of mental illness and self harm before COVID-19. They are now at higher risk, and there are better, safer, ways to carry out assessment.
Student well-being is more an issue of those setting the exams, than the technology. These exams could be relatively short, more like a take-home examination, than end of semester one. One issue is when the students can do it. I worry that some examiners are assuming this will be like a paper examination, where all the students take the test at precisely the same time, which will not work well at home. What I suggest is a period of a day, or days, over which students can choose to start their exam.

Take Home Exams? There is a general assumption by academics that assessment has to be in the form of an examination. In fact university rules, and the laws they comply with, allow any  form of assessment. The assessment has to be rigorous, but sitting people in a room all at the same time answering the same questions is not the only way, or the best way to do this.

Online invigilated exams differ from a traditional take home examination in that there is automated invigilation and an elapsed time limit. The student can still choose when to start the online exam, if the person setting the exam allows that.

However, if the student can choose their starting time, the usual measures would need to be in place for to make cheating harder. With an online test it is usual to have a question bank from which questions are chosen at random for each student, and some form of plagiarism detection for essays. Otherwise a student could note the questions, and pass these on others doing the exam later, so they could memorize prepared answers.

ps: Last weekend I was asked to help mentor the mentors in a Logistics Hackerthon for the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces. The format is similar to ANU TechLauncher, but compressed into a few days. These provide good examples of how teaching and assessment can be done much better, without examinations.