Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Reflections on Peer Review of Teaching for Promotion

Greetings from Canberra, where Professor Geoff Crisp, UC DVC&VP-A,  is speaking on Reflections on Peer Review of Teaching for Promotion. This has been organized by Pamela Roberts, the ACT HERDSA Chair.

Professor Crisp discussed the different forms of peer review (summative and formative) and their different uses (for promotion/awards, or for improving teaching quality).They then described the UNSW Summative Peer Review of Teaching. The UNSW website is very useful, having a description of the process and a set of downloadable templates.

The webinar is via Blackboard Collaborate, due to the the  COVID-19 Coronavirus. I could not get it to work with Firefox, but it is working with Chrome. However, the audio quality is much poorer than with Zoom, when using the same connection speed (and this is with my not transmitting any video or audio, just receiving). With Blackboard the audio would break up, stop and then proceed at higher than normal speed. A positive point was that the text chat form worked much better than Zoom. 

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Plan a Gradual Return to the Classroom with Blended Learning

Most educational institutions had to scramble to convert courses for online delivery due to the  COVID-19 Coronavirus*. A more orderly move back to the classroom can be planned, when the virus is under control in the next few months. This could use blended learning, with on-campus components gradually added to the blend. However, the online components should be retained for all programs, in case of future emergencies, and to cater for individual student needs.

It is not feasible to set a deadline when all classes return to "normal" campus-based teaching. Some students will be unable to return for medical and other reasons. Further COVID-19 outbreaks are possible, until a vaccine is widely administered. Australian institutions should also include online learning, as part of permanent contingency planning.

Blended learning will also better suit student needs and the reality of how they now study. The idea that most university students were "full time" and  "on-campus" was a fiction. Even before COVID-16, most students did not attend most lectures, in the typical Australian university program. Many students have families, or jobs, or both, competing for their time, making them effectively part-time students, studying mostly online. The opportunity can be taken to redesign programs, to provide blended learning. 

The distinction between on-campus and online students can be removed, along with full and part-time, domestic and international. The typical student will likely study 20% on campus and 80% online. But students should be allowed to choose the blend which suits them. Courses and programs can be flipped, with a design for online delivery, plus some campus-based elements added were appropriate. If Australian universities do not offer these options, domestic and international students seeking them will be required to enroll at overseas institutions.

Professor Marginson of Oxford University, has suggested treating online learning as a different product with a "separate pricing structure” (Coronavirus: global student flows to suffer ‘massive hit’ for years, Ellie Bothwell, Times Higher Education, 26 March 2020). However, offering cut-price online degrees could risk the reputations of institutions, and countries, for quality education.

Australian higher education policy should be changed to accept blended learning as the default, for both domestic and international students. Australia should focus on quality education for all students, wherever they are. This will reduce the burden from unworkable regulations, which have been waved during the current emergency. It will also provide a competitive advantage for Australia in a more competitive international education market.

* Those educational institutions which were already providing large scale e-learning, and those who took my advice in 2017 to be ready with online learning in case of a crisis, have had less difficulty.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Better e-Learning Tools for Combating COVID-19 via Zoom

Better e-Learning Tools for Combating COVID-19 by Tom Worthington
Just gave my first presentation via Zoom video conference this afternoon. This was on "Better e-Learning Tools for Combating COVID-19" to early career academics at the Australian National University (ANU). These webinars are being held every two weeks, to help deal with isolation.

Zoom worked much like the other video conference tools I have used to present. The audio worked well, as did the video, but screen sharing had some glitches (very much like other conference tools).

While Zoom offers to share a window on my screen, I could not get this to work with the Linux operating system and Firefox web browser. As soon as I started sharing a window, it went black on my screen and for everyone else. Sharing my whole screen worked, but then I could not see the chat window or video from other people. This was a little like presenting to a dark room full of people (which I have done in Indonesia, during a blackout). The window sharing may be better supported on other operating systems and browsers.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Zen Martial Arts Maxims for Online Teaching

To those working hard to move courses online, due to the  COVID-19 Coronavirus, remember there is no need to replace every lecture with a video, every tutorial with a webinar, or every paper examination with an online test. I recommend the Zen martial arts maxims: Economy of effort, Realism, and Switching smoothly between techniques.

In 2014, as a student of online teaching I was required to write a personal Theory of Practice. I decided to apply Zen martial arts maxims:

1. Economy of effort

Meditation, Created by Jens Tärning from the Noun Project, CC-BY 3.0, 2014
Meditation, by Jens Tärning
from the Noun Project,
CC-BY 3.0, 2014

Martial arts emphasize maximum results from minimum effort. Similarly, learning is a means to an end and so should be done efficiently: using just enough resources to get the job done. However, most theories of education ignore the cost of an activity. There tends to be an inappropriate emphasis on trying in education, rather than succeeding.

2. Realism

Education needs to provide the student with useful skills. Students will need to start with simplified exercises, but need to be exposed to increasingly realistic problems. My students either have jobs or are training for a specific role as a professional, their studies are therefore focused on obtaining skills for that job. By providing student exercises which are based on their own workplace, or a reasonable simulation of the workplace, the students are motivated and learn useful skills.

3. Switching smoothly between techniques

Educational literature is full of explanations of why one principle, theory or technique is superior to another. But one approach will rarely do for all situations. Educators need to move smoothly from one technique to another. Students will need times when they learn alone and then others in a group. They can learn the basics using a simple drill and practice computer program (based on behaviorism theory) and then explore advanced topics with other students.

From the chapter "Theory of Practice", of the book Digital Teaching In Higher Education by Tom Worthington, 2017.

The Zen maxims are from Bruce Lee's Tao Of Jeet Kune Do
(Lee, 1975).

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Free open source alternatives to Zoom for Videoconferences

I spent much of the week in Zoom based video conferences, only one of which did not work. This is remarkable, given how heavily Zoom is being used due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus. In contrast, I had considerable difficulty with Blackboard Collaborate. Collaborate seems to be less able to cope with my 1 mbps broadband connection than when I used it at 28.8 kbps dial-up speed in 2011. 

There are also some open source video conference products. Hamza Mu has detailed 15 of them in "Top 15 Open source Video conference and Team Communication Solutions for Windows, Linux, Mac OSX and Phones (Medevel.com, 30 Mar 2019). The only one of these open source products I have used is BigBlueButton, which is commonly teamed with the Moodle learning management system. However, Apache OpenMeetings looks interesting.

However, these video conference tools have not changed much, from the user's point of video, for decades. The quality of the video has improved, but that is about all, and that is about the least important aspect of a video conference. These events should really be called audio conferences with a shared screen and optional video.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Tuning Zoom Videoconferencing

Today was my third video conference for the week, Reading the Corona: extraordinary responses during an extraordinary time, hosted by the ANU Indonesia Project. Chatib Basri and Rizki Siregar discussed policy options for dealing with the the COVID-19 Coronavirus in Indonesia.
With 300 participant, this Zoom video conference had many more than those yesterday, but worked much better. This is a good way to keep in touch, but I am worried about the amount of bandwidth which might be used. So I tried shaping (limiting) my network connection.

Shape Your Video Conference

I stared shaping with 150 kbps, which is Zoom's recommended minimum, for screen sharing plus a thumbnail video. But Zoom reported an unstable link and it was unusable. Increasing to 512 kbps worked well. The video was then at 256 x 144 pixels and 5 frames per second (sometimes 320 x 180 at 12 frames per second). Shared screens were very clear at 1440 pixels wide, with a small, but clear, video window next to them.

Yesterday I was using video conferencing via the Australian National University's very high speed network. I discovered I could reduce the data requirements for Zoom by keeping the video window small. Today I am using a much slower cellular modem wireless connection. But with the bandwidth shaped, and resulting lower resolution video, the experience is much better than on the higher bandwidth connection.

I used the Linux tool Wondershaper to slow down my network connection, but there are similar tools for other operating systems (and using routers). Wondershaper is not ideal, as it slows down everything, not just Zoom (other tools can select just one application to shape). Of course it would be better to tell Zoom to use less bandwidth, but I have not been able to find a way to do that.

Flip your Video Event

Keep in mind that glitches happen with video conferences. Yesterday I had four scheduled Zoom meetings. The first two worked flawlessly. The third had some glitches, and the last did not work at all.

I suggest 'flipping' the format for online events. That is, provide the presentation slides and, if possible, a short recorded video by each speaker beforehand. That way, if there are intermittent problems, the presenters can skip the full presentation and go straight to questions. Also I suggest reducing the length of events, and break them up into segments of no more than ten minutes. For example, instead of an hour long seminar, make it 15 minutes, including 5 minutes for questions.

Organizers need to be ready to switch off the video, leaving just slides and audio, if there are bandwidth problems. Also the organizers should have copies of slides and be ready to manually change them, if the presenter has difficulty doing that at their location. They should be ready to just talk, with no slides, as I have told ANU TechLauncher students

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

K12 EdTech Showcase

My third video meeting for the day was a K12 EdTech Showcase hosted by EduGrowth, an Australian educational technology innovation hub. There were quick presentations from education entrepreneurs. Interestingly, these were not just online platforms for delivering content, but also curated libraries of content. This could be particularity useful for teachers looking for stuff to keep students at home occupier.

What worked particularly well for this event were the moderator using an interview technique, where they asked questions. As with previous events, Zoom was used. This worked better when the video was turned off, with just the presenter's voice and slides.One frustration was that each time the presentation shifted to a new presenter, the display switched to full screen video. It would be useful if Zoom could be configured to stop this happening.

Work Integrated Learning in the Age of COVID-19

The Australian Collaborative Education Network (ACEN) held a video meeting today to discuss what to do about Work Integrated Learning (WIL) in response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Post secondary educational institutions (and some secondary), have students who undertake part of their program gaining practical experience in a workplace. This is required for some accreditation to work in industry. But what happens to these students with workplaces closed?

Part of the answer to that was provided by ACEN, leading by example, in convening a video conference. This was attended by about 280 people around Australia, and some from other countries.

I help teach ANU TechLauncher students who undertake group software development projects for a real client. This is a little easier to manage, as these students are normally not on the client's premises. Also computing professional routinely do much of their work using computer based tools, and the students have already been introduced to coordinating their work online. I have provided some tips on how to work remotely, from the client, from their tutor, and from each other.

The ACEN video conference suffered from some technical glitches. I have provided some tips on what to do to place less strain on our digital infrastructure. This was my second video meeting for the day, with two to go.

Use Video Conferences to Keep in Touch But Conserve Bandwidth

Greetings from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, where I just took part in the inaugural Virtual Morning Tea (VMT), for early career academics. These will be held weekly by the  ANU Network for Early Career Academics (NECTAR). There will also be more formal regular online seminars, but the VMT is an informal drop-in sessions to avoid social isolation. While this is a good use of technology, it is also a good idea to conserve the use of the public data networks, as there is likely to be high use of the coming months. So here are some tips. The video conferencing product being used was Zoom, but other products are likely to behave similarly.

It is possible to reduce data use, simply by using a small video window. With video full screen, I have found that Zoom uses about 1,000 kbps. If I reduced the size of the video window to around 512 by 240 pixels, the data reduced to 300 kbps. Minimizing the video to a "thumbnail" (200 by 112 pixels) reduced data to 220 kbps. Hiding the video reduced data to 120 kbps. This is consistent with Zoom's documentation: 1.2 Mbps for HD video, screen sharing with  video thumbnail at 50-150kbps, and screen sharing only with no video thumbnail 50-75kbps.

During a formal presentation, video is really only needed at the start to introduction the speaker, and at the end during questions, if at all. In between there are usually slides to look at, so the video can be minimized, or hidden. I suggest participant adopt that way of viewing, and if possible, event organizers set this up as the default.

There are other ways you can improve video meetings, especially with careful preparation. The aim is to have the live video meeting as just one element, ideally a non-essential one. Much can be done with text based communications, which are less demanding of networks, to keep people in touch.

Zoom, and other video products, adjust to the bandwidth available, but then tries to use all that bandwidth. This makes them poor online citizens, like someone who fills their trolley with toilet paper, if you let them. wink

As there is likely to be a high demand for Internet access over the next few months, I suggest that providers of video conference products set defaults to use less bandwidth. At the very least they could be set so only a small video window appears by default. Also they could provide a low speed option which uses no more than 256 kbps, and this could be made the default setting. As an example, Zoom has a maximum bandwidth setting, but this is disabled by default. This should be enabled and set to no more than 256 kbps.

Use Recorded Videos and Small Online Tutorials

It is time for lecturers to swallow our pride and accept the "sage on the stage" is not that important to student learning. In place of large live events, I suggest the flipped approach. Provide videos and other materials for students to study in advance (you can provide quizzes to help). Then have online tutorials for small groups. The lecturer can record some short videos for them to use during the tutorials (I suggest around 60 seconds each).

Video conference systems, such as Zoom, allow for hundreds of students to take part in an online interactive events (Webinar). During the event the class can be divided into smaller groups, to work on a task for a few minutes, then the class brought back togehter. This is an excellent teaching method, however, it places demands on the technology, and staff which may be too much due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus. There is likely to be very high utilization of videoconferencing, straining resources. Also large complex real-time events are harder to organize.

University Researchers Need to Implement COVID19 Measures NOW

Staff of universities and research organizations should have by now been issued guidelines for them to limit face to face meetings, and move activities on-line, due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus. University teachers have needed to make changes to accommodate students, but there has perhaps been less pressure on researchers to change their work habits.

Stop Gathering in the Common Room

One of the delights of being on the academic staff of a university has been gathering in the common room for regular morning tea. This is a very good way to find out what is going on, and to sound out colleagues about ideas. However, this must now stop.

Move Seminars On-line

Over the last few weeks I have been asking each organizer of a meeting, seminar, or conference I have been invited to attend or speak at to provide an online option. This started happening gradually, with notices from organizers saying they have either moved events entirely online, or at least added an online option. However, it is now time to drop the in-person option for events, and focus on providing good online alternatives.

Online events need to start on time, with someone to welcome arrivals, and assure them the audio is working. Also the number of people together running the event needs to be limited. There is no need for all the presenters to be together in the one room.

The Research Project You Save May Be Your Own

For those who are unconcerned about their own safety, I urge them to consider their colleagues and their families. If for no other reason, they need to change their behavior to protect their research, which will suffer if their research team is the center of a COVID-19 outbreak.

COVID-19 Infection Control Training Online from Australian Government

The Australian Department of Health is providing COVID-19 Infection Control Training online for healthcare and related workers.  The module was produced by Aspen Medical. An introductory page warned "Due to the high demand of the Infection Control Training course, you may experience timeouts. We are working with our training partner to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.". The approach I suggest to get around this is to provide a version of the course materials outside the Learning Management System (LMS). The LMS allows the progress of each student to be tracked and t=for them to be provided with the appropriate materials and tests at each stage. However, all that takes computing resources, limiting the number of students. Much of the demand is likely to be from people who do not need, or want, to complete the entire course. Typically, only 5% to 10% of people who sign up for a free online course complete it. Many just want to see what is in the course, or have a general interest. For these people a sample of the course materials can be provided outside the LMS. It is also possible to provide all the materials so that the course can be run in house.
The COVID-19 training does offer some material outside the LMS already:

Monday, March 23, 2020

Australian Has Been Doing Distance Educaiton for 100 Years

A timely article  today on "Online schooling and distance ed? Don’t be afraid, we’ve been doing and improving it for 100 years" by Philip Roberts and Natalie Downes (Edu Research Matters, 23 March 2020). I was talking about this on ABC Radio Canberra this-morning, reassuring students and parents that distance and online education is not completely new in Australia. However, there will be frustrations for students, parents and teachers. One thing I did, as an international online student of distance education was to keep a personal journal. In my journal I expressed my frustrations with the course, the teachers, my fellow students, and the world in general. Much better than lashing out in a class, or public forum. ;-)

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Don't Depend on Live Video for Teaching: Flip It

I suggest a flipped approach for on-line educaiton, which supplements text and pre-recorded material with live participation. While video conferences, webinars, and live streaming of video with synchronous participation are popular, these makes demands on the national network infrastructure, which may not be sustainable over the coming months. This not to say don't use video conferences and live streaming, but don't depend on them working.

ps: Last year I had a project for streaming with synchronous participation, in a way which would be tolerant of network problems. Unfortunately this work has been suspended due to the pandemic emergency, so I don't have a usable product.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Free Online Teaching Course Starting 20 March

Dr. Martha Cleveland-Innes,
Athabasca University (Canada), is offering a free five-week online course Learning to Learn Online, starting 20 March. This is the university where I undertook a Master of Educaiton in Distance Educaiton. I was an online international student, and Athabasca certainly know how to use e-learning to teach digital teaching.
"In this , you will explore the fundamentals of the learning process and various models of online courses to determine your learning preferences and which forms of online learning are best for you. Activities will address common misconceptions, frustrations and fears about online learning, and introduce techniques to help overcome such obstacles and gain confidence as a learner.

Throughout the course you will be guided through an interactive and reflective process by a team of online learning specialists, with the opportunity to join in live sessions with leading researchers in online education.
On completion of this course, you will be able to:
  • Describe what it means to learn - anywhere, anytime.
  • Clarify personal learning preferences.
  • Identify common components of an online learning environment.
  • Compare differences between online and traditional learning.
  • Plan for areas of personal adjustment required for success in online learning.
  • Analyze different types of learning environments including a personal learning environment.
  • Explore and employ effective online communication tools and strategies.
  • Describe the role of an online learning community in supporting learning.
Certificates of completion are available for participants who pass all five module quizzes."

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Transition to On-line Study: Example message to team project students

The Australian National University is to pause all coursework teaching for one week from Monday 23 March and then deliver online for the remainder of the semester. Here is an example of a message I prepared for Techlauncher computer group project students about the change to e-learning. These students receive few conventional lectures, instead they work in teams on a project, and meet with a tutor regularly.

Transition to Online Study

The TechLauncher program is now being delivered online, due to COVID-19. I have some experience with online education, and so will be providing some tips for students, and tutors, over the coming weeks. Here are the first:

Use the tools you have: You already have an array of online collaboration resources available to you. With most of these, an individual can contribute at any time, and it is stored so others can view it later. In education, this is called asynchronous mode. Many software development teams, who are spread across the world, work this way. However, to get a sense of being a team, and when quick decisions are needed, nothing beats real-time synchronous communication, with everyone contributing at the same time.

For online tutorials, ANU has provided Zoom Videoconferencing. There is a Zoom "Meeting" for each tutorial group. You can use the meeting-id via the web, or download the client for your computer, or smartphone. With the agreement of your tutor, you can use an alternative conferencing product for tutorials. Teams can use whichever tool they find most useful for their own meetings.

You may not need video: While it is called a video conferencing tool, Zoom, and similar products, work well with audio, slides, and screen sharing. As team members already know each other well, you do not necessarily need to see each other. You can also use your asynchronous tools in a near real-time mode, talking together via Zoom, while looking at, and modifying shared documents. A headset greatly improves the quality of sound, and also using a smartphone, rather than a computer for audio tends to have fewer problems. You can use your smartphone for sound and your computer for documents, at the same time.

Meeting preparation is important: Whatever tool you use, keep in mind that good meeting preparation is even more important online than for a face-to-face meeting. You need to solicit items for the agenda well in advance, and preferably circulate the agenda, and any documents for discussion, well beforehand. It can become very confusing if documents participants have not seen before popup online during the meeting.

The tool you are using to distribute documents and images may fail during the meeting, leaving just audio (and perhaps text chat). During the face to face presentations, you have been encouraged to be ready to keep talking if the video display fails and the same applies online: if the video fails you need to be prepared to keep going, referring to documents the participants already have, or painting them a picture with your voice.

The Campus still open but be prepared: At present ANU has not closed the campus, so physical meeting rooms are available. However, this could change without notice, so please prepare now for on-line working. Also while you should take sensible precautions, there is no general requirement to self-isolate at this stage.

Don't Panic: I have been delivering on-line education at ANU for a decade, using the same proven techniques we are implementing for Techlauncher. From 2013 to 2017 I was a graduate student of education, refining these techniques for delivering international distance education. From this experience, I learned which techniques work, but more importantly, how it is key we remember there is a person on the other end of the network connection, and to treat them as such.

I would welcome comments, suggestions, and corrections.

Tom Worthington
Instructor for Learning to Reflect

Sunday, March 15, 2020

All educators must offer e-learning now

I was asked recently what to do if a student who is enrolled on campus asks to switch to online study, due to fear of COVID-19 Coronavirus. Should this only be allowed if the student has a medical condition which places them at risk, or they are unable to get to campus due to travel bans? No, I suggest all students be offered an online alternative now. Educators need not, and should not, wait for their institution, or a government authority, to order, or endorse this action. As e-learning is already having to be provided to some students, offering it to all is not a large cost or inconvenience. Teachers have an ethical, and legal, obligation to act in the interests of their students, their colleagues, and in the public interest.

E-learning for Schools Pitch

Last week I attended a Service Design Meetup at the Canberra Innovation Network, sponsored by Evolve & Amplify. We went through the standard entrepreneurial start-up value proposition process. I worked on the idea of expanding my e-learning services from university to business, in response to the  COVID-19 Coronavirus emergency. I produced a pitch, and submitted it to a start-up competition. Also I produced a video, but then discovered they completion did not allow videos, so here it is.

Images under a Creative Commons License.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Designing in an On-line Learning Option

One of the benefits of computers in education is that this makes distance education a richer experience and feasible for more students. It also can remove the need for special provisions for when some, or all, students cannot get to campus, such as in the current COVID-19 Coronavirus emergency.

Pictographs by
Carlos Sarmento

from the Noun Project
(CC BY 3.0 US).
In 2017 I suggested that Canberra's universities should provide for e-learning, as the large number of international students could be prevented from coming to campus at short notice. Since then I have been designing courses to be delivered on-line, with classroom activities added for those students who can get to campus. I discuss this in my book "Digital Teaching In Higher Education" (2017):

Wall mounted LCD screens and desks on wheels at ANU Marie Reay Teaching Centre
Wall mounted LCD screens
& desks on wheels at
ANU Marie Reay Teaching Centre
An example is the "Learning to Reflect" module for Australian National University computer project management students. This has an e-book, videos, online quizzes, and online student forums. There is also provision for face-to-face workshops. But in the current circumstances, it seems likely these will be switched to online as well. There is no need to chnage the course content, or assessment processes, as they are all already online.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Idea of the University Has Not Been Canceled

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,  Robert M. Pirsig, 2006
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, 2006
Universities are canceling events to minimize the risk of the transmission of COVID-19 Coronavirus. For the present, face-to-face teaching and research will continue, with precautions in place. Ironically among the events cancelled is "The Idea of the University - Crisis or Adaptation?".  I was reminded of Pirsig:
 "...the real university exists not as the physical campus, but as a body of reason within the minds of students and teachers ..."
From Chapter 13, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, 2006
Decades later this idea has been made a practical reality by adopting teleworking and telelearning. I suggest those organizing events at universities should not cancel or postpone them, assuming the current emergency will end soon: it will not. Instead, just as with teaching, organizers of events should provide blended, or fully online, options. The idea of the university can continue, despite the crisis, through adaption. This will be important to the well-being of staff and students, who need something to keep them occupied, other than worrying about a pandemic. It is also important that the university continue to provide a valuable service to the community, through research, education, and community outreach.

Don't Postpone Examinations: Replace Them With Realistic Tests

Media reports indicate that some universities are postponing examinations due to the about the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Unfortunately this emergency will not be over quickly, so this is not an effective strategy. It is technically possible to run online invigilated examinations. Athabasca University (where I studied education), uses the product ProctorU for this. However, even with a tool, the administrative burden is high. Running pass/fail oral exams via videoconferencing is also possible (I did one of these for my MEd), but these are time consuming, and stressful for the students.

The approach I suggest is to use multiple assignments, and tests (with provision to deter cheating), to determine the student's grade. If some form of supervised test is required to verify the student is not cheating, then this could be a pass/fail one, to confirm the previously established grade.

Paper based end of course examinations are not an effective form of assessment of real world skills. I suggest instead changing to other forms of assessment which realistically assess skills and knowledge. The best way to do this is to have the student carry out the tasks they are being trained to do, either in a real workplace or a simulation, and see how they do. As an example, I help train computer students in project management. This is assessed by having students work in teams on a computer project for a real client, and seeing how they do. The assessment is, in part by their peers, but mostly by staff.

An Approach to Sessional Teaching Staff

Recently I was asked about an approach to sessional teaching staff at university. These casual staff are called tutors, teaching assistants, or graduate teaching assistants. They may be undergraduate students in the later years of their study, postgraduate students, retired academics, or working professionals who teach part time. I have occasionally carried out this role, studied the topic as a student of teaching and helped train tutors. I have come to the conclusion there is an inherent problem which needs to be solved by universities: university teachers are not required to be qualified to teach. I suggest this could be best solved by offering teacher training as part of degree programs, and would remove many of the problems with recruiting and administering tutors.

Offer teacher training as part of degree programs

University teachers are required to be qualified in the area they are teaching. Tutors who are students are typically at a later stage of their studies than those they teach. Such students make good teachers, as they can relate better to students than someone who has not been a student for decades. However, these tutors typically receive, at most, one day of training in how to teach, and there is not time before classes start to give them more training.

The solution to under-trained tutors, I suggest, is to offer concurrent training as part of their formal degree program. Students who wished to be tutors would be required to enroll in a teaching course as part of their degree, and would undertake this study at the same time they are teaching. Tutors would be required to complete at least a one semester course (one quarter full time study: about 100 hours study). Students would pay the normal course fee for this course and receive credit towards their degree.

Those who are not students would be required to undertake the same teaching course as the students, unless they already had some form of teaching qualification (such as a Cert IV T&A, or a Grad Cert in Educaiton). Those who were not students would not have pay the course fee, but have the option to do so if they wished to receive a certificate of completion, and credit towards further study.

Such a teaching course would be blended, with optional face-to-face classes, and would model good teaching and assessment practices. Much of the value of this would be from experiencing how to teach.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Sustainable energy Planning for Indigenous Communities

Greetings from the Australian National University where Professor Paul Parker, University of Waterloo is speaking on "Sustainable energy planning in Canada: recognising diversity and the need for Indigenous voices". There are significant lessons for providing energy to remote Australian communities, in terms of consulting the local community on what they need. Surprisingly, solar energy is viable in Canada, along with wind. I asked Professor Parker about the role of for-profit companies in alternative energy, as most of the examples given were government funded not-for-profit initiatives. The problem is that these are limited by the availability of public finding. I suggest some training in startups for those involved may be useful, so they can seek out what the customer is will to pay for, so they can be self funding.

One of the audience asked about portable energy systems for  Australasian abourginal communities. I pointed out that ECLIPS Engineering built a Container Roll-Out Solar System (CROSS) for the Australian military. This is a very rugged system of standard solar panels attached to a hinged framework mounted on a shipping container compatible platform. It would be able to provide power for a small town. Smaller versions could be built for family groups, which could be packed into a trailer and towed behind a car.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020


Poster generated using Keep Calms.
Since the COVID-19 Coronavirus started causing difficulties for Australian education a few weeks ago, I have lost track of the number of emergency meetings, and written thousands of words of advice on how to change to e-learning. Here is an attempt to sum up what to do in five words "KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON-LINE".

Academic or Industrial Doctorate?

Greetings from the Australian National University, where Intel fellow Dr Brendan Traw is speaking on "Academic or industrial?". He is arguing the case that a PhD is a good foundation for a career in industry. As part of his case Dr Traw showed statistics that US doctoral degree holders earn significantly more than those with just a masters. However, these statistics cover all doctoral degrees: both PhDs and Professional Doctorates. Those with professional doctorates, particularly in the medical field, have high earnings, and so skew the statistics. I suggest we need more professional degrees in other fields, not to boost the income of graduates, but to provide graduates with skills specifically tuned for industry. A PHd is intended to train a researcher, but there are very few research jobs, in universities, and elsewhere. Most doctoral graduates end up in industry, so I suggest they should be gaining skills relevant to industry, as well as research. Perhaps rather than making students decide between a PHd and a Professional Doctorate (which are both at level 10 of the Australian Qualifications Framework), at the start of their program, we should allow them to choose somewhere on a continuum between.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Open Discussion Session on Media Blockchain in Sydney with JPEG

Quad-chart for Blockchain for education
Few realize that JPEG is not just a series of technical standards for images, but also a group of people. The "EG" is for "Experts Group" and I had the pleasure of giving a presentation to the group, when they were in Sydney last month. This was an "Open Discussion Session on Media Blockchain". I talked on "Blockchain for education" Also  Dr Sabrina Caldwell, from ANU presented.

We were all asked to provide a one page quad chart on blockchain. The presentation slides are available.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Online Courses on Coronavirus from World Health Organization

The World Health Organization has released a series of web based courses about the COVID-19 Coronavirus. These are intended for  health professionals, and incident managers. The courses are self-paced and available in multiple languages. As an example " ePROTECT Respiratory Infections" takes 2 hours and has four parts:
  1. Introduction
  2. How to protect yourself ...
  3. Basic hygiene measures
  4. Wearing a medical mask
Each part consisted of a video of about 20 minutes.  The English versions have English closed captions, plus a transcript and audio download. There is a small amount of a talking head, interspersed with slides. There is a discussion forum, with topics for discussion, under the video. The layout is clear and the interface is responsive.

I suggest the training could be improved by breaking the videos up into smaller segments. Ten minutes is usually considered about as long as a training presentation, should be, and preferably much shorter. The talking head in the video are useful to give authority, but less could be used: this is only needed at the start (and a simple still photo would do).  The slides used have too much text, and it might be good to break these up with some stock video footage.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Conference Organizers Need to Plan for Infectious Disease Outbreak

Tom Worthington Speaking at NICT 2018 in Colombo
Tom Worthington speaking at NITC 2018
Those organizing international conferences in the next few months need to have a blended, or fully online, option available, due to COVID-19 Coronavirus restrictions. One option is to offer venues distributed around the world, which delegates can travel to locally. They will be able to interact face to face with colleagues. They can participate in local presentations face-to-face, and those from other venues via a video link. The moderator at the speaker's venue can relay questions submitted thorough the conference's chat facility, and queue audio questions.

A conference can be run 24 hours a day, with three venues spread equally around the world's time zones, to "follow the sun". With this format each venue takes turn running the conference during their daylight hours, handing over at sunset.

As someone who speaks at international conferences several times a year, I would miss the  travel to interesting places and meeting new people. But sometimes it can be a relief when you travel for many hours, to get to the same old place, and see the same old people. ;-)

ps: Not that I will be refusing invitations to interesting places just yet. I just accepted one for June.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Standardization of Australian Higher Education is for Mugs

With the need to rapidly produce online courses due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus, there have been calls for  standardization of Australian university courses. This would make it easier for staff producing courses and students taking them. However, there is obvious reluctance for competing institutions, faculties, and even competing staff members in adjacent rooms, to standardize. Rather than some top down set of rules, I suggest training staff in online course design would be more effective. This would produce more consistency, but allow flexibility.

ps: Recently in a charity shop I found two mugs on the shelf: one branded UNSW, and the other UNE: same color, same size, so at least there is standardization of something. ;-)

Cheap Low Resolution Webcam Better than High Resolution

Logitech C170 Webcam
Some Australian Aldi stores are selling off Logitech C170 Webcams for $AU6.99 (1024 x 768pixels maximum resolution). If you want something for communicating with students, or making quick talking heads videos, these would be suitable.

I have a couple of Logitech web cameras, which I have been loaning out to colleagues for teaching online, over the last few days. These are not as high resolution as newer cameras, but that can be an advantage. You don't need very high definition video for online teaching. I suggest not producing video for online delivery at more than 1280×720 pixels (standard HD). A webcam for that will cost about $AU60.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Australian Government Guide for Online Education into China

A short Guide for delivery of online education into China has been released by the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (17 February 2020), for international students who have been unable to get to campus due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus. This reports that Australian "edu.au" websites are working in China, but if third party websites are also required there could be problems.

Also students access may be slower, for multimedia and large files in China. The guide suggests hosting of content in, or near China, such as Hong Kong, Macau or Korea, may help. Austrade provide a list of online platform providers. Before looking at onshore options, I suggest reducing the size of multimedia files. This can be as simple as saving a video with reduced resolution, reducing files to one tenth the size. Usually it it the video files which take up most of the space, but occasionally a poorly formatted PDF file can cause problems..

The Austrade report points out that China does not recognize foreign online qualifications. The acceptability of blended learning, a mix of online and classroom based, is unclear, and is being investigated. When I studied the topic of online education in China and India, I found there was a suspicion of this, even where such qualifications were officially approved. This is not just an administrative hurdle to be overcome but a cultural one.

In practice on-campus full time Australian university students, including international ones,  are already studying in blended mode. They spend more than half their time studying online. However this is a very fine blend, with the student in a classroom several times a week. Also major assessment tasks are face-to-face and proctored. Replacing more of the face-to-face instruction with online equivalents is likely to be acceptable. However, remote unsupervised assessment, is less likely to be accepted.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Educators Need to Plan for Infectious Disease Outbreak

This is to suggest educational institutions revise, or create, their Infectious Disease Outbreak Response Plan, now. Australian universities, vocational education and some schools have already had to make arrangements for international students who have been unable to get to campus due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus travel restrictions. However, much more may need to be done in the coming months, with remote education provided to students across Australia, on a scale not seen before.

Individual educators need to become familiar with the precautions they need to take to protect their own health, and that of their staff, so they are then able to help their students. Educators also need to learn remote education delivery techniques, in the event their students can't come to class. Also educators need to ensure they are equipped to work from home, in the event campuses are closed.

The Australian Department of Health has activated their Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus. This has little practical effect for the general public, as most health resources and powers are state based. However, it is an indication that federal health officials consider the situation with the COVID-19 Coronavirus in Australia to be serious, and  are indicating to their state colleagues to activate their emergency plans. The US CDC has issued Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

CDC now recommend employers actively encourage sick employees to stay home,those with symptoms should be separated and sent home immediately. Posters to encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene are recommended, and other measures are recommended.

CDC also recommended planning for a COVID-19 outbreak, with businesses considering how to reduce transmission among staff, protecting people at higher risk, while maintaining business operations, and minimizing effects on businesses in their supply chains.

At a Press Briefing, February 26, CDC highlighted some of the measures in the "Community Mitigation Guidelines to Prevent Pandemic Influenza United States" (2017):
"Students in smaller groups or in a severe pandemic, closing schools and using internet-based teleschooling to continue education.  For adults, businesses can replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences and increase teleworking options.  On a larger scale, communities may need to modify, postpone, or cancel mass gatherings."

With a reliance on teleschooling and teleworking, there will be a need for technical and teaching staff to be able to support many more students and clients. Australian universities have already made adjustments to the way they teach to deliver courses to students not on campus. However, these adjustments have been made for some students, whereas plans now need to assume most, or all students are unable to be in a classroom. There also has to be provision for only a small essential support staff on campus, with teaching and administrative staff at home, online. Key to this, I suggest, is the use educational technology to train staff and students in in what to do. Education is not an essential service, like food, water and power, however it can have a very useful public health benefit in keeping staff, and students occupied.

Update 4 March: I was interviewed by Casey Tonkin, this morning" "Will coronavirus make you work from home? Remote working takes off as the virus spreads.", Information Age, 3 March:  https://ia.acs.org.au/article/2020/will-coronavirus-make-you-work-from-home-.html

Happy to talk more on this and how we teach students online who can't get to class due to the Coronavirus.

Previously I have had some involvement in planning IT for emergencies at the Department of Defence, and pandemic response. In my book "Digital Teaching In Higher Education" (2017), I warned that the flow of international students to Australia could be disrupted very quickly and set out the steps for e-learning. I have been teaching this way at ANU since 2009.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

ANU Needs a Team Leader for Staff Education

The Australian National University is looking for a "Team Leader, Staff Education", to plan and deliver professional development for teaching staff, including tutors and lecturers. It is an interesting time to be involved in Australian Higher Education, with the COVID-19 Coronavirus challenging assumptions about how education can be provided.
"Role Statement ...

1. Lead the Staff Education team in the design, facilitation and evaluation of transformative educational development programs and resources for staff that have teaching responsibilities or who support teaching, ensuring alignment with the ANU Education Fellowship Scheme.
2. Build and cultivate collaborative relationships and foster communication between College- and centrally-based staff in the University Education community to ensure programs meet current needs and strategy.
3. Inform the creation, development and management of high-quality educational materials and resources, including web and/or multimedia-based online courseware, in collaboration with team members across the CLT and with academic staff.
4. Lead the organisation and administration of activities such as staff education, training, workshops and information sessions in support of educational development initiatives and new or revised programs, in consultation with team members across the CLT and with academic staff.
5. Remain current with and potentially contribute to the latest educational research and good practices, including engagement with informed discussion on innovative teaching and learning approaches, pedagogy, technologies, software and learning environments locally, campus wide and externally. ..."
From: "Team Leader, Staff Education, Position Description", ANU 05/02/2020. 

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Online Teaching is Here Now

Casual teaching staff at some Australian universities are reported to be “panicking” over the implications of students who are unable to get to campus due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Last week I was helping teach one hundred tutors how to teach, and there were no signs of panic. Well, no more panic than any group of teaching assistants about to face their first class.

If students can't get to campus, then there will be less need for sessional staff to teach face to face (F2F). However, if some of those students are studying online, they may need more tutor support.

The same principles and techniques used in F2F teaching apply online. The practicalities are a little different online, depending on the communications technology available. But the same tools already used by Australian universities for blended learning can also be used for online learning. Staff and students are already familiar with these tools.

Universities are providing additional training and support for teaching online, to supplement that already in place. As an example, ANU provides Coffee Courses with short snippets of learning about teaching (not just for ANU staff: anyone can access these). Also, there are the usual self-paced courses on particular tools. For those planning to teach as a career, there are longer, more formal programs. As an example, ANU's "Principles of Tutoring & Demonstrating", starts on 3 March.

Relatively few Australian university courses have been delivered entirely online. More often courses are blended with materials delivered online, alongside face-to-face lectures, tutorials, and workshops. Students typically watch videos of lectures, submit assignments online, and may also do some quizzes. As staff and students are already using online tools for some of a course, a change to all online mode is not as difficult as it might first appear.

The tools already in use at Australian universities for blended learning can provide online learning. Typically a mix of tools provides announcements to students, materials for, and output from, students. Using multiple tools is more complex, but provides some resiliency: if one is not working, another can be used.

Asynchronous Tools

There may be one tool for general announcements, and another to deliver course notes and collect assignments, plus a tool for videos of lectures. These tools are used asynchronously: students work through the material in their own time, and then submit a response. This makes them  convenient to use, and communication glitches less of a problem. However, tutors do not get instant feedback from students, so they need to anticipate what students might need, and when they might need it. Also, students need to understand they will not get instant feedback from tutors.

As an example of the sort of forums, posts and FAQs for an online course, see the tutor guide for "ICT Sustainability" (offered by ANU and by Athabasca University in Canada) and the module Learning to Reflect (for ANU's Techlauncher program). Students read the course notes, watch videos, do quizzes, contribute to forums, and do assignments. They get text-based feedback from peers, and instructors (audio and video are possible, but text is simpler). The full notes, videos, and tutor guides are available online.

Synchronous Tools

Universities also use synchronous tools: live video lectures, and video tutorials. With these, the instructor and students are connected at the same time, simulating a lecture theater or tutorial room. These tools are occasionally used to supplement F2F sessions. However, these tools take considerably more effort by staff and students to use. Because everyone has to be online at the same time, any glitch with the software, network, or the student's computer, results in them not being able to take part.

Usually, a live sessions is recorded for students who could not take part. However, this is not as good as the real thing. As an online learner myself for seven years, I found I was unable to connect to about one-quarter of the live sessions. With the current circumstances, I expect international students will be unable to connect to a session at an Australian university about half the time. So each session should be offered two or there times.

COVID-19 Coronavirus Response

As some students may be unable to get to campus this semester due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus, some universities have decided to offer remote access. Which of the tools will be usable, and what alternatives are possible, is being investigated by technical staff at universities across Australia. So far it appears the asynchronous tools already in daily use will work. These tools are also less susceptible to intermittent problems: if it doesn't work today, try again tomorrow.

The synchronous tools are more of a problem. The usual tools may not work, or require workarounds, and may suddenly stop working. It may be necessary to conduct some courses with no synchronous communication at all. My approach for the last few years has been to design courses for online asynchronous delivery, then blend in add F2F, or synchronous, elements. This offers maximum flexibility for remote and on-campus students. Also I had in mind the possibility that international students would be suddenly unable to attend campus.

Being a student can be a very lonely and frustrating experience, and even more so for a distance education student. Tutors can give the students the sense you are there for them, through regular posts to the class. Staff time is limited, so messages to individual students have to be used sparingly. If they have the time and the technology, to provide video, staff can do so. However, research (and my experience), shows video is not necessary.

Technology-based distance education is not new, or a fad, it has been part of university education for decades. How to use technology for teaching is something all university educators should learn, as part of their basic training. Universities offer such training free. But those with ambitions of making this a career should be willing to undertake further formal study.

Equipment for teaching online is cheap and readily available. A web camera and a quality headset/microphone cost less than $100. This is something those who teach can have as part of their professional equipment, in their bag, with their laptop computer.

In ten years of teaching online, I have had deep and satisfying interactions with students around the world, who I have never seen, and never spoken to. As an international online student for three years, I was able to complete a degree from the other side of the planet, without setting foot on campus. It was not easy or fun, but being a university student is not easy or fun. This experience is documented in an e-portfolio, a blog post, and a book.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Alterative Assesment Processes for Students Not on Campus Due to COVID-19 Coronavirus

Yesterday I was asked about how to assess students who are unable to get to campus due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Many Australian universities still have an on-campus end of semester paper-based examination. These cannot be administered to students who are isolated for public health reasons.

Athabasca University (where I studied last), has proctored online examinations for undergraduate courses, via a commercial service, ProctorU. There were no examinations for the postgraduate program I took, this having assignments, quizzes, peer assessment, and a live online capstone presentation with Q&A.

It should be kept in mind that an examination is not required at the end of every course, nor is it a good way to assess real-world skills. Many Australian universities, supplement assessment with non-supervised assessment under the category of "take home examinations".

The usual approach with online course is to have regular small, assessment tasks. This is to keep the students engaged, provide feedback, and allow staff to check student progress. Some think this assessment should not count towards the final result and some do. I lean towards the latter, but the small tests should not count for much. It is possible to use an assessment scheme which encourages, or requires, students to do the small stuff, but so that it either doesn't count to their final result, or much. For example, you can make this a hurdle: the student has to do the small stuff, but it doesn't change their final grade.

For some versions of the course ICT Sustainability I set small assessment tasks which only count for a Credit, not a Distinction or High Distinction. This is described in the course notes (but keep in mind that is a graduate course):

With online courses there is always the worry that students had someone else undertake the assessment for them. That worry can be lessened by having assessment spread out through the course, making it harder for students to simply contract out a few big tests. An approach frequently also used is to have the student give a presentation and answer questions. The presentation can be face-to-face, or live online.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Reflecting on Reflecting on Learning

Learning to Reflect" blended module. This is the last assessed task for students undertaking the ANU Tech Launcher program before they graduate. Last semester the students read notes, watched videos, did an online quiz, participated in an on-line forum (with peer assessment), then a face-to-face workshop (run by Tempie Archer, from ANU Careers). They then submitted and assignment (with peer feedback), and repeated the process. That all worked well, but was seem by the students, and my colleagues, as too complex, and too much work. There was too much to read, too many assessment items, and too much peer assessment. Also the tutors, who the students have for face-to-face tutorials, felt excluded from the process.