Thursday, April 30, 2020

Blackboard Collaborate Only Works Half the Time

This week I am attending about six video conferences a day. Most are with Zoom, a few with Blackboard Collaborate. About nine out ten of the Zoom meetings work, but only about half the BB ones. Even when it does connect, there are problems with sound dropouts using BB. Also BB only seems to work for me with screen-sharing and audio. When it does work, BB is reasonably efficient requiring 70 Kbps download and 50 Kbps upload, which is better than Zoom without video. But I can't get video to work with BB at all. It may be that my wireless link is too slow, or too high latency, but whatever reason BB is not a viable product for me.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Australian Over-investment in International Higher Education

Hurley and Van Dyke (2020) have produced a very timely report on Australia's investment in higher education. This comes as universities are looking at strategies to recover from the loss of international student revenue due to COVID-19. The authors estimate a loss of at least $10B in international student revenue between 2020 and 2023. They also warn COVID-19 could reduce domestic student demand, and suggest a change of "policy settings to increase capacity across the tertiary sector". However, given a reduction in demand, I suggest the prudent course of action would be to make better use of the existing capital investment, not increase it. Universities, and the governments which fund them, need to consider how to provide new forms of education, for both domestic and international students. As an example, through the use of blended learning, the capacity of existing Australian university campuses could be increased five-fold.

Hurley and Van Dyke draw parallels between universities and Australia's automotive manufacturing sector. They point out Australian universities are a much larger industry than car making was at its peak. However, the authors do not go on to draw the other obvious parallel: Australian governments kept subsidizing the Australian automotive industry in a way which made them less internationally competitive. I suggest the same mistake should not be made with universities.

To remain competitive, our universities need to change the educational products offered and the way they are delivered. The two to four year full-time, on-campus degree, offered by Australian universities, is equivalent to the Holden Commodore: large, expensive, and inflexible. Our universities need to offer blended online/on-campus, offshore/onshore learning, with nested qualifications, and workplace learning. This would be the equivalent of the flexible platform vehicles now produced by international auto makers, which allow combustion, hybrid or electric options, in sedan, SUV, and other styles, built in response to consumer demand.

Such predictions may sound alarmist and suggestions for change far fetched. However, in 2017, I warned Australian universities that international students could be suddenly unable to get to Australian campuses, due to an international crisis. I suggested university should be ready with an online teaching contingency, should this happen, and be ready by 2020. The COVID-19 crisis hit in 2020, but unfortunately few universities were ready with an online contingency.


Hurley, P., Van Dyke, N., (2020). Australian investment in education: higher education. Mitchell Institute, Melbourne. URL

Five Reports on the Impact of Remote Learning on Vulnerable Children

The Australian Government commissioned five reports on the  impact of remote learning on vulnerable children during the  COVID-19 emergency. These were done very quickly, but are by Australian researchers who have extensive knowledge and experience.

Brown, Te Riele, Shelley, and Woodroffe found that nearly half students are at risk of significantly compromised learning, and this is not confined to low socio-economic status families. They call for a social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists, and school nurses to be on site when students return to school. This seems to me to be unrealistic, and it is likely help will be by professionals who now provide online support.

Drane, Vernon and O’Shea  estimated 20% of students would face "long-term educational disengagement, digital exclusion, poor technology management and increased psychosocial challenges". They cite UNESCO's "COVID-19 : 10 Recommendations to plan distance learning solutions" (2020).

Masters pointed out that younger children need more scaffolding and support, particularly those who are vulnerable. This is supported by Lamb, who also points out the challenges for indigenous students, who had less less experience with ICT before COVID-19.

Clinton recommends increased digital inclusion. I suggest that while the focus should be on teaching return to the classroom quickly, the potential benefits for all students from online learning to supplement classroom education should not be neglected.

While the government has relied on these reports to justify the reopening of schools, the reports themselves were made difficult to find on the Department of Education's website, so here they are:
  1. Brown, N., Te Riele, K., Shelley, B. & Woodroffe, J. (2020). Learning at home during COVID-19: Effects on vulnerable young Australians. Independent Rapid Response Report. Hobart: University of Tasmania, Peter Underwood Centre for Educational Attainment. URL
  2. Masters. G. (2020). Ministerial Briefing Paper on Evidence of the Likely Impact on Educational Outcomes ofVulnerable Children Learning at Home during COVID-19, Australian Council for Educational Research. URL
  3. Clinton, J. (2020). Supporting Vulnerable Children in the Face of a Pandemic: A paper prepared for theAustralian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment. Centre for Program Evaluation, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne. URL
  4. Lamb, S. (2020). Impact of learning from home on educational outcomes for disadvantaged children: Brief assessment. Centre for International Research on Education Systems, Victoria University. URL
  5. Drane, C., Vernon, L., & O’Shea, S. (2020). The impact of ‘learning at home’ on the educational outcomes of vulnerable children in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Literature Review prepared by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University, Australia. URL
While online learning is now taking place on a scale not seen before, it is worth keeping in mind it is not new. The impact of distance education is a well researched field. There thousands of studies over decades, most involving just a few dozen, or a few hundred students, but some with thousands, or tens of thousands. I had to sift through a lot of this stuff as a graduate student of education. I have attended education conferences with, and talks by, many of the people who wrote these reports, and it is not like they just started think about the implications of e-learning in the last few weeks.

This is not an entirely new, or unanticipated situation. After SARS, educational institutions in the region planned how they would switch to e-learning if students where quarantined at home.

The level of preparation by Australian education departments and institutions, might be a useful area for any Royal Commission into the pandemic to explore. This would be along with an investigation of the general preparedness by Australian governments, and if Ministers exercised their duty of care by initiating, and participating in, pandemic preparedness exercises.

Some excerpts from the reports:

Brown, N., Te Riele, K., Shelley, B. & Woodroffe, J. (2020). Learning at home during COVID-19:Effects on vulnerable young Australians. Independent Rapid Response Report. Hobart: University of Tasmania, Peter Underwood Centre for Educational Attainment.

Executive summary


Nearly half the national school student population are at risk of having their learning and wellbeing significantly compromised by not being at school because they are either an early years’ student or are in a vulnerable group. As soon as health restrictions permit there is an urgent need to reconnect these students to the physical context of school-based learning to support their learning and
wellbeing outcomes. Concurrently there is a need to invest rapidly in developing significant capability in schools to deliver education both online and on-site. ...


Nearly half (46%) of Australian children and young people are at risk adverse effects on their educational outcomes, nutrition, physical movement, social, and emotional wellbeing by being physically disconnected from school.

It is already clear that nationally, children and young people are experiencing learning losses. This means that there will not be the expected cognitive gains for these students over the period of learning at home. These losses will cause a delay in cognitive gain and achievement in some students and result in others being lost to the education system. ...

The reason for these losses is that many families lack the physical spaces, technology and other resources to support learning at home. Additionally, many parents and caregivers lack the time needed to support their children’s learning. This is occurring irrespective of socio-economic status, with full-time waged and sole parent-waged families reporting difficulties. ...


There is a need for a coherent cross-jurisdictional communications strategy and implementation plan to incentivise and support vulnerable students to physically attend school. The strategy should:

• Ensure schools have the safety protocols in place for physical reconnection of a significant number of students including ensuring that allied professional staff (social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists, and school nurses) are able to provide services on site where possible.

• Where full time reconnection of significant number is not going to be possible for safety or logistical reasons plan for a blend of on-line and physical presence through a week.

• Encourage universal full-time on-site attendance for pre-school to year 2 nationally

• Utilise direct and personalised invitations to specific vulnerable school students and their families/carers to see those students attend school and complement this group with invitations to a balanced cohort of students to reduce stigmatisation of specific groups and ‘normalise’ attendance.

• Enable universal on-site attendance at dedicated Flexible Learning Options, Schools for Special Purposes and Re-Engagement Programs nationally.

• Invest in targeted and personalised learner engagement for students who are not physically attending and who cannot access online learning, are not engaging in learning, or are at risk of disengaging over the short and long term

• Invest in, and support, teachers:

- to manage the increased workload of teaching both offline and online by providing additional staffing on a short-term basis: teachers, teacher assistants, and social/youth workers; and
- with professional learning for skills and expertise in the creation of non-school based learning strategies, such as high-quality online content, lower technology radio, as well as television content; and
- for re-engagement and trauma-informed approaches for the most vulnerable students.

Recognising the necessary input from parents to support learning at home goes beyond physical provision of resources. Many families require additional support beyond the current web-based material (eg. utilisation of television and radio, as well as outreach through community networks, and support in the moment).

Most of the cost will likely be related to additional resourcing at the commencement of the strategy and short to medium terms, as well as for teams with ongoing responsibility for implementation and oversight of operations, and reporting. Immediate investment can achieve social impact through maximising the value created by Commonwealth Government and State and Territory Government spending on education.

The financial costs may include:

• provision for teachers to have time to enhance skills in, and implement, online pedagogy;
• additional resources for allied professionals within schools;
• co-construction and implementation of an Indigenous strategy;
• attendance incentivisation strategies;
• resources to facilitate learning in the home (eg. a national hotline for parents supporting their children’s learning; TV and radio content; enabling part-time employment for a period with Commonwealth support to sustain full-time equivalent superannuation entitlements); and
• provision to effectively resource and implement Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) safety regimes.
There could be a consideration of regulatory changes to enable final year pre-service teachers to work on Limited Authority to Teach or as Teacher Assistants; and counting those hours worked towards practicum. This group may provide a valuable additional resource for schools.


There are risks and sensitivities in targeting specific groups to attend school as it can be stigmatising and counterproductive. The risk of stigmatisation does not only include students who may be classified as ‘at risk’ or vulnerable, but also children of essential workers, who may be perceived by other parents/children to be carrying the virus.

• States and Territories may resist elements of a national approach. Integrating the communications plan with known positions can mitigate this risk.
• Negotiating a consistent cross-sectoral approach (public, Catholic and independent schools) will alleviate parent and care-giver confusion.
• There is a risk that employers are unable to effectively meet workplace health and safety and other industrial relations obligations on school sites.
• There is a risk of industrial disputes if changed practices are not effectively negotiated and lawfully implemented. ..."
Masters. G. (2020). Ministerial Briefing Paper on Evidence of the Likely Impact on Educational Outcomes of
Vulnerable Children Learning at Home during COVID-19, Australian Council for Educational Research. URL
"Summary points

● Vulnerability in this paper is considered from two interrelated perspectives: social and educational.
● Socially vulnerable children are over-represented among the group of students who are educationally vulnerable.
● The negative impact of educational vulnerability on students’ capacity to learn across all areas of the curriculum is exacerbated by their reduced access to resources at home (e.g., adequate food and shelter, ICT, a quiet place to work, books, learning support from parents), and is associated with social vulnerability. This is, in effect, a continuous cycle of disadvantage.
● While parents play a crucial role in remediating educational disadvantage, the level of education, socioeconomic status, and consequent capacity to provide home learning support and resources for students is lower among parents of educationally disadvantaged students than in the broader community.
● The likelihood of any positive impact of educational programs on vulnerable students will be greatly increased if support is also provided to deal with their basic needs.
● The basic profile of educationally vulnerable children appears to be consistent across students, regardless of their age.
● While this paper focuses on vulnerable students, it is important to note that high proportions of primary-school children are not able to work independently when using technology, and need scaffolding and support. The level of support needed is higher for younger students and those who are vulnerable.
● Schools and teachers play a vital role in supporting vulnerable children. However, most schools do not have the requisite infrastructure to support remote learning, and many teachers do not currently have the confidence or skills to manage remote learning and require support.
● While access to digital technologies and the internet is high in Australia, there is still evidence of a digital divide, with poorer Australians and those in remote locations being relatively disadvantaged.
● Many remote-learning programs exist and may be leveraged to help support the learning of vulnerable students at home. However:
○ the basic human needs of students must first be met in order for education programs to be able to succeed;
○ there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can work; and
○ programs should be tailored to meet the specific needs of vulnerable students."

Clinton, J. (2020). Supporting Vulnerable Children in the Face of a Pandemic: A paper prepared for theAustralian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

 "Executive summary

This paper particularly focuses on factors that will impede access to quality education, of the effects on the more vulnerable groups, and it outlines models of support and recovery that evidence suggests are useful. This brief synthesis draws parallels from literature on natural disasters and school interruptions such as school holidays, teacher strikes, economic downturn, and natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

According to the Productivity Commission, disadvantage in Australia needs to be assessed against three metrics: relative income poverty, material deprivation (inability to afford life’s essentials), and social exclusion. Children experiencing these metrics can include those living very low SES contexts, jobless households, children with special needs either physical or psychological, children with language other than English backgrounds and refugee populations, rural and remote contexts, and Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait islanders. Recently, low digital inclusion has been considered an additional category particularly when this interacts with the other categories.

It is useful to consider the impact of the current pandemic from a Population Life Course perspective which illustrates the determinants of Education and its efforts in in reducing vulnerability. The figure below illustrates the trajectory for those in the existing vulnerable, the potential vulnerable and the protected categories within the population along with those determinants of education that drive the curve up or down.

Australian children living in poverty will experience exacerbated risk as a consequence of the COVID-19 school interruption. For children at risk of missing approximately 10 weeks of in school education, (with the possibility of further disruption over a longer period), given the context in that they live; it’s probable that there will be a significant interruption of learning, access to support for health and well-being, a decrease in the development of individual protective factors, and a lack of surveillance systems to identify issues that school provides.
Subsequently, the equity gap will increase and for many, the chance of recovery from the impact of living in these vulnerable contexts will be diminished. Essentially, there is the probability that across this education life course, the size of the vulnerable group will increase. Those on the cusp of vulnerability will have the greatest movement.

Currently we can define our major disadvantaged groups, and it is expected that students with the following characteristics (Table 1) are most likely to be affected by the current suspension of normal schooling. We expect that these students will experience an interactive effect of CoVID19 and any prior disadvantage. Specifically, as a consequence of the pandemic, students are likely to experience:
1. Increased stress, social and emotional concerns with possible behavioural issues arising.

2. Struggle with low self-regulation to maintain learning progression, that has been highly dependent on the teacher
3. No access to quality learning strategies and guidance necessary to promote development
4. Less educational resources and activities relative to peers in particular in relation to limited digital engagement
5. Continued and reaffirming experience of past lack of progress in school
6. Will have little concept of themselves as a learner at school, and likely the same at home. Hence impacting on future engagement in schooling such as absenteeism and dropouts
7. Lack of facility in critical reading and numeracy skills to move to the next level, and more likely to become part of the ‘low Matthew effect’
8. Living in homes which are not safe havens (for many of these students, school is the safe haven), there will be an exacerbation of physical and emotional health issues
9. Parents who have low capacity or desire to engage them in the schoolwork at home and who ignore or permit no engagement with schoolwork.

10. Upper high school preparing for high stakes exams will lose the opportunity to engage
The Table below attempts to summarise the depth of ‘risk exacerbation’ as a consequence of the pandemic by indicating with Green for a minimum effect, Orange for a medium effect, and Red, for the greatest level of exacerbation. The figure demonstrates the relationship between exiting risk categories and like area of impact.

Many of these students are likely to be already ‘at risk.’ The absence from regular class, and support suggests that the level of risk and the number of comorbidities is likely to be exacerbated. Hence the recovery will be much more difficult.

It must also be acknowledged that within these categories there are subsets of students who are successful despite the categorisation of some level risk and in fact some will do better as a consequence of the current crisis.

Recovery and Support: what does the evidence suggest? The are many ideas and much rhetoric about recovery, however there is little consolidated evidence on the support needs for vulnerable children and families in times of crisis. The following present a brief over of a number recommendation gleaned from multiple sources.

Recovery takes time There are many national and international frameworks that provide a foundation for recovery after a disaster. The UN Disaster Risk Reduction model (UN, 2015) for example, conceptualises disaster risk relief as a “Build Back Better” system.

This model argues that resilience emerges from a continual, interplaying dynamic cycle between response (immediate) recovery (short-term) and preparedness (medium-term). The domains of action include teaching & learning; capacity and capability; engagement, coordination, and communications; infrastructure; assessment, policy, and planning.

Recovery measures must redress damage & develop resilience-building measures (Shah, 2015).

Disaster response and management has several phases and it is worth drawing on these phases to consider educations response to the current COVID-19 crisis and beyond. In many recovery programs, the government-assisted stage can be separated into distinct but overlapping phases that delineate an early recovery phase. This is important as it stresses the transition from the immediate response to recovery efforts over time, as in the figure below (The Community Recovery Handbook, 2018, p. 32).While the framework below, is based on a community response model it provides a valuable template for the school sectors phased response to the current crisis and particularly for vulnerable students.

Invest in Support community & cultural engagement Evidence based multisectoral approaches Students stay home with contact options and suggestion of activity digital or otherwise.


Understand the context: Successful recovery is based on an understanding of the community context.

1. Recognise complexity: Successful recovery is responsive to the complex and dynamic nature of both emergencies and communities.

2. Use community-led approaches: Successful recovery is community-centred, responsive and flexible, engaging with communities and supporting them to move forward.

3. Excellent diagnosis of every student comparing their expected growth prior to COVID-19, to detect where extra attention and programs is needed.

4. Coordinate all activities: Successful recovery requires a planned, coordinated and adaptive approach based on continuing assessment of impacts and needs.

5. Communicate effectively: Successful recovery is built on effective communication between the affected community and other partners.

6. Recognise and build capacity: Successful recovery recognises, supports and builds on individual and community strengths.

Ultimately, it is important that education recovery operations must draw attention to incorporating “children’s unique mental health, physical health, educational, childcare, and juvenile justice needs into all phases of the disaster life cycle”.


1. Recovery needs a collective response that builds long term relationships
2. Success is dependent on teachers and schools
3. Shift the focus and build adaptive resilience through the provision of services to support socially and emotionally
4. Ensure ongoing communication with vulnerable children and families
5. Support and professional learning for teachers is essential
6. Provision of targeted content
7. Consider the investment in multiple forms and mode of resources for all.
8. Increase digital inclusion
9. Building an evidence basis: Evaluation assessments, monitoring data linking "

Lamb, S. (2020). Impact of learning from home on educational outcomes for disadvantaged children: Brief assessment.

"The situation for indigenous Australians also presents challenges. ICT inclusion of indigenous Australians remains lower than the national average and while it has risen in the past year, the rate of this rise is slower than the national average (Thomas et al., 2019). Indigenous students tend to have less experience with ICT, with only 37 per cent of indigenous students reporting more than seven years of computer experience, compared with 51 per cent of non- Indigenous students (Fraillon et al., 2013). Fewer indigenous students report using computers at least weekly at school compared with non-indigenous students (ACER, 2013)"
Drane, C., Vernon, L., & O’Shea, S. (2020). The impact of ‘learning at home’ on the educational outcomes of vulnerable children in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"... Globally, while some countries have opted for a mass school shut-down, many schools remain open for more vulnerable students (UNESCO, 2020a). This "partial closure" is not only to enable learning in smaller targeted groups but also to offer a "safe" sanctuary for those who desperately need a regulated and secure environment including the provision of "free" hot food and also, company.

In summary, currently within Australia if there were mass school closures there is potential for around four million students to be affected: 
  • In 2019, there were 3,948,811 students enrolled in 9,503 schools, with 2,263,207 primary students and 1,680,504 secondary students.
  • If 20 per cent of these young people are living in financially disadvantaged or low socioeconomic status (SES) communities and are required to study off campus then around 800,000 will be subjected to a range of barriers and/or risks including:
    • long-term educational disengagement
    • digital exclusion
    • poor technology management
    • increased psychosocial challenges.

UNESCO (2020b) have developed 10 key recommendations to ensure that learning remains uninterrupted during the COVID-19 crisis (see Appendix One). There is global evidence of countries adopting, to some degree, at least seven of these recommendations during mass closures, which include:
• examining the readiness of the school for closure (including the technology available)
• ensuring distance learning programs aim for inclusivity
• prioritising solutions to address psychosocial challenges before teaching
• providing support to teachers and parents on the use of digital tools
• blending appropriate approaches and limiting the number of applications and platforms used
• developing distance learning rules and actively monitoring students’ learning process
• creating communities that enhance connection."

Combating Zoom Fatigue

Most face to face meetings, administrative or educational, are a waste of time, so replacing them with pointless video conferences is not an improvement. Most of these meetings can be replaced with asynchronous decision making, development and learning techniques. As well as saving you time, that will produce a better outcome.

There are ways you can reduce meeting fatigue: real and virtual. First decide what the meeting is for and if this could be accomplished another way. If the intention is to make a decision, then first poll the invitees: if they agree, then there is no need for a meeting.

It is possible to get even academics to agree. The approach I have used for deciding who gets an award, is to separately have each participant rank the candidates in order. Usually there is a large majority in favor of the same candidate, and the minority and willing to go along with this, if it means avoiding a meeting.

If you need to produce a large complex document, such as a policy, or working paper, then have an initial meeting so everyone can get to know each other. After that use an online tool which tracks the contributions from each person, and records comments. Shortly before the deadline, have a meeting to agree the final draft (the deadline provides pressure for agreement).

You don't need to replace every hour of face to face classes with an hour of video conferencing. Traditional distance education had no real time interaction at all: the student is sent a brick of readings, writes an assignment, and the tutor sends comments back later. In the age of paper mail, this process took weeks, or months. With the Internet this can be a little more interactive, but remember, it is your job as a teacher to get the students to work, not do the work for them. Provide readings, supplemented by recorded videos, supplemented by some real time events.

Don't use the precious face to face (or online) time giving a "lecture": ask questions, or get the students to ask each other questions. Use the marking scheme to force students do the required study before the live events. It only takes 1% for some study activity to get most students to do it. But don't award marks for attending or just reading something, have a test of the knowledge or skill. These small tests can be automated, or peer assessed, reducing your workload.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Responding to the Coronavirus Emergency with e-Learning

Athabasca University sent out a request to alumni for short articles on how study had changed their lives. So I quickly wrote "Responding to the Coronavirus Emergency with e-Learning", which has now been published. As part of my studies in distance education I looked at how e-learning could be used by Australian universities for international students. This included proposing online learning as an emergency measure in the event an international crisis prevented students getting to campus. Having considered the policy, tools and techniques for this, has proven useful in dealing with COVID-19.

Advocating elearning be ready in case of a crisis has been frustrating. Some academics were horrified by the idea of distance education, and did not believe my warnings in 2016 and 2017 that an international crisis could stop students getting to campus. Just three years later, with COVID 19, some of the same people said this was a Black Swan Event, which could not have been anticipated, or prepared for. But at least, when faced with an existential threat to their teaching, and their lives, they were prepared to at last take action. 

ps: I am not Nostradamus, I feared a military confrontation in the region would keep students away, not a virus. Although I did teach students using the web for dealing with a pandemic.

This presentation contains images that were used under a Creative Commons License. Click here to see the full list of images and attributions:

Adapting Classrooms to Reduce the Spread of COVID-19

It is time to plan a return to campus. Previously I suggested this could be gradual using blended learning. However, social distancing* will still be required. This will require changes to campuses and classrooms, similar to those now employed in stores. This requires a smaller number of people indoors, and kept further apart than is usual in classrooms and offices. One way to do that is to continue to schedule online classes, so the physical space can be rationed. Some minor changes to physical layouts may also be possible, and perhaps this could be a topic for the EduBuild Australia and Asia conference series.

Transparent Partitions in Classrooms

Some Saudi-Arabian universities use partition-rooms to separate female students from male teachers. The teacher is behind a glass wall,  and has a separate doorway to the outside of the building, so they are  never in physical contact with students. However, that would require extensive building work, for limited return.

A simpler measure would be the type of transparent plastic screens now installed at supermarket checkouts. These have been used not only in front of human cashiers, but between self-serve checkouts. The same could be done in lecture theaters, with a screen in front of the lectern.

Room in the Computer Science and Information Technology Building, Australian National University, set up with temporary screens and computers for a computer based examination.  Screen design  by Bob Edwards. Photo by Tom Worthington
In laboratories, a screen could be placed between each student. Removable screens have already used in the Australian National University's computer labs for examinations. The difference would be that the new screens would be transparent.  It may be possible to design a screen which is partly transparent so it can server both purposes: part of the partition would be transparent, so the student could see the person next to them, and the instructor. But part would be opaque, louvers, lattice, or translucent, so the student could not see what was on others desktops and computers.

Online Educaiton Works

However, before investing in new measures to bring all students to campus, it needs to be kept in mind that distance education online is generally as effective as face to face instruction. There is a body of literature on this "No Significant Difference" phenomenon. So it should not be assumed that students education is being harmed.

School systems and universities already had online distance students, so had content, tools and techniques. The problem was to familiarize the teachers and students with these, and provide access. That is relatively simple, compared to rebuilding classrooms.

This is not to say online study is the same as face-to-face, and benefits everyone equally. Dr Cathy Stone from University of Newcastle has produced National Guidelines for Improving Student Outcomes in Online Learning.

My online students do as well online as as in their face to face courses. However, these are students who chose to study this way, using techniques developed to keep the students studying, with courses designed for this, and an instructor trained to teach this way.

The world is, in effect, conducting a large scale experiment, to see if students forced online, with teachers having only a small amount of training in this mode can produce comparable results. So far it is going well where I teach, but that is a very well resourced university, with a cadre of experienced online educators, and some of whom spent years preparing for this emergency.

Simplify Assessment

Perhaps the most useful thing which could be done right now is simplify the assessment system to try to counter the obsession which students, parents, and universities have with grades. Outside the education system, in the workplace, how well you did at school, or university, doesn't matter, as long as you passed. The vocational education system has long used an approach were students are assessed as "competent", or "not yet competent".

* ps:  While "social distancing" is the term in common use, I suggest "physical distancing" would be better, as we want people to be socially close, while physically isolated, for their own mental health, as well as to be as economically productive as possible.

My First Video Workshop

Yesterday I ran a video workshop for the ANU TechLauncher computer project students. Last year these were run in a purpose built building of flat floor classrooms. But due to COVID-19 all workshops are now online. One of the privileges of being a lecturer at a leading university is that you get to decide for yourself how you teach, as well as what you teach. Many advanced video technologies were suggested, but I decided to just use a Zoom video-conference, as it has been mostly working over the last few weeks, and it mostly worked this time.

I had prepared for the workshop, with two computers, and two Internet connections in my home office. There were also two colleagues authorized as alternate hosts to take over if something went wrong. Everything was working fine, up until the time for the workshop, when the cabled network connection stopped working. So I had to use WiFi, and at that point my wireless modem's connection to the mobile network also slowed down. But it was still fast enough for audio, and screen sharing, which is all I needed, and the video was also okay.

One of the problems with a live online session is not knowing how well it is working. What I realize now I should have done (and tell others to do), is to log the second computer in as a participant, so I could see how it looked.

However, my colleagues told me it was working fine. Most of the time screen-sharing was used. This reduces the video of the presenter to a postage stamp size, just to reassure the viewer. One problem at my end was that I then could not see participants or the text chat window (relying on colleagues to point out text questions).

I used the option of recording the video to the cloud (actually on the university AARnet system). The video was recorded at 1920 × 1200 pixels WUXGA resolution. I downloaded the hour of video (554 Mbytes, or about 10 Mbytes a minute), and then uploaded it to the university's Echo 360 video system. The video was then converted to the more widely used 1080p (1920 × 1080 pixels HDTV format), which took several hours. Echo 360's own editing tools were then used to trim the video. The editing was quick, but it then took several more hours for the video to be re-rendered. The video I then linked from the university's Moodle Learning Management System, and it loaded very quickly.

It would give a better result if I could skip the conversion step to change from WUXGA to HDTV. As well as making for a clearing recording, that should speed up the process. Perhaps I can set my monitor to HDTV resolution.

Also I have been using an online tool to create video slideshows with synthetic voice. It might be interesting to mix some of that content into the live videos. The idea would be to take the live recording and insert the slideshows at points where students had difficulty with a concept.

A fun idea would be to turn the live audio into text using a speech-to-text system, then paste that text into the slideshow tools automatic content search,  and insert the resulting stock footage into the live video recording. This would emulate an approach I use when chairing a live, or online session. When the speaker has no slides, and the audience seems to be getting bored, I search the web for relevant content and put it up on the screen behind the speaker (usually without consulting them first). It would be possible to have a system which did this live during a video conference.

Friday, April 17, 2020

What to wear on a video conference

I am spending a lot of time on videoconferencing. Following the example of the ANU VC, I have been wearing my university hoodie. However the logo on the hoodie is a bit too low down to appear in shot on the video camera. I could wear my bucket hat, but it is not comfortable with headphones. So I suggest a turtleneck shirt, and baseball cap.

NYPD turtleneck initials
A turtleneck shirt with initials on the neck, like the NYPD, where it can be seen easily.

Machinist’s Mate 2nd Julia Schoonover,
USS Blue Ridge
(U.S. Navy photo by
Mass Communication Specialist
3rd Class Don Patton/ Released)
The USN wear baseball caps on board ship, as these can be worn with headphones (I got one when onboard USS Blue Ridge).

Thursday, April 16, 2020

EduTech Asia with Avatars

Eric Hawkinson's avatar
In 2018 I talked on flexible classrooms and energy use at EduTech Asia in Singapore. It is not certain when the next face to face event will be held due to COVID-19. But a series of free video conference based sessions are being held. At the moment there is one on immersive technology (also known as eXtended Reality), combining augmented, virtual reality. Eric Hawkinson got my attention. After talking about avatars, Eric's  live video image was suddenly replaced by an animated cartoon character, who's month moved to match what he was saying.

Something I did not expect is that EduTech sent me a signed certificate of attendance.  I guess I can use this towards the 30 hours Certified Professional Development I have to do to keep my Australian Computer Society status.

ps: I prepared a talk for EduTech 2020, but don't know when, where, or how, I will get to present it:

Coronavirus Response with Flexible Learning

Images used under a Creative Commons License.

In 2016, as part of research on higher education, Tom Worthington identified the risk to Australian universities from a sudden disruption of the flow of international students to Australia. To mitigate this risk, he developed an approach combining blending e-learning with flexible classrooms. This was trialed during 2019 in the new Marie Reay Teaching Centre at the Australian National University, and is now being implemented in response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus. All students access the same e-learning materials, including e-books, videos, quizzes, and discussion forums. There are then on-campus workshops in classrooms which can be quickly reconfigured for different teaching formats. Students who are unable to get tho the workshops in person, have the option of participating online. This approach allows one course design and one building design to be used for classes mixing on-campus and remote students.
pps: This also allows  for a gradual return to the classroom after a COVID-19 outbreak. It is not feasible to set a deadline when all classes return to "normal" campus-based teaching. Rather than having all students stop online learning at once and return to campus on the same day. On-campus components can be gradually added. However, the online components can be retained, in case of future emergencies, and to cater for individual student needs.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

China Pivots to International e-Learning: Should Australia Follow?

China has announced that universities and colleges will offer online courses in English to international students due to COVID-19. This is a significant pivot for the little known Education Action Plan for the Belt and Road Initiative. This Plan is about boosting China's trade, but also has similarities to the Colombo Plan. During the Cold War, Australia provided free education to students from the region, as a form of soft diplomacy. Australia's Government, and universities, have so far made only tentative moves with international education. That may now have to change, as I suggested in 2017.

It would be tempting for Australian universities to assume that  online courses from China in English would be of low quality, and so not direct competition for on-campus Australian courses. However, Chinese institutions have been adapting the online techniques used by some of the world's leading universities. Also research over decades shows that graduates of online courses are at least as employable as those from on-campus.

Australian universities might decide to concentrate on quality advanced degrees, conceded the introductory and first degree market to online overseas institutions. However, graduates make very good online students, and someone who has done an introductory online course will think an online first and second degree perfectly normal.

The Australian automotive industry  assumed that Japan, and later Korea, were not a threat due to poor quality products. However, the quality improved, and we do not now have an Australian automotive industry. Australian universities need to not make the same mistake.

For several years I have been attending international technical education conferences run by, or with large attendance of Chinese academics. They reported steady progress with scaling up offerings of education in China to international students from developing nations.

As well as students studying in China, the Plan also envisaged campuses in the student's country, built and staffed with Chinese help. While China has some large online universities with decades of experience, online learning was not mentioned in the Plan.

Here is what I suggested in 2017:
"Education is Australia’s third-largest export and the government's "National Strategy for International Education 2025" points out that Moodle is an Australian product serving a global market and identifies on-line learning as an area for growth (Australian Government, 2016). However, Australia's universities are predominantly set up for students traveling to Australia to study on campus, and the government strategy provides little practical guidance for changing this. International tensions could disrupt the flow of students to Australia very quickly. Competition from universities in other countries and DE is likely to increase. We can produce quality on-line and blended programs to remain competitive, based on demonstrated success and research results." (Worthington, 2017).


Mo Jingxi, Millions to benefit from online vocational training, Apr 14, 2020, China Daily, State Council, China.

Education Action Plan for the Belt and Road Initiative , Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, July 2016

Worthington, T. (2014, August 23).  Chinese and Australian Students Learning to Work Together Online: Proposal to Expand the New Colombo Plan to the Online Environment. Paper to be presented at the 9th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (ICCSE). Vancouver, Canada. URL Preprint available at:

Worthington, T. (2017). Digital Teaching In Higher EducationDesigning E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment (book).

Time Zones for Online Events

Map of current official time zones,
US Central Intelligence Agency 2012,
Wikipedia, Public Domain
One of the frustrations of being an on-line student is working out when events and deadlines are scheduled. With more students online away from campus due to COVID-19, there will be more confusion. Courses which have most students spread out across the world may adopt Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), for simplicity. However, if most students are in the same timezone as the campus, it is simpler to use that time zone, and to explicitly include the city in announcements: 6pm AEST (Canberra Time).

I undertook an MEd in Distance Educaiton on-line in Canada. Some tutors would assume everyone knew what time zone was being used and leave it out. Some would say MT, but what is "MT"? It turns out this is Mountain Time. But then there is the problem of daylight saving time where the campus is and where the student is. There is also the problem of the time set in the learning management system, and the adjustments it offers. I missed a deadline when I thought I had set Moodle to work in AEST, not MT, but it was actually using UTC.

I tried explaining this problem to another North American organization, but they could not understand what the problem was. Here is the answer I got: "Hi Tom, excellent point. We are in the process of scheduling additional talks outside ET. Please stay tuned.". But I didn't want the time of the events changed, just how it was described.

ps: There can also be confusion with things as apparently simple as page size. If an assignment length is specified using page size, the the size of the page should also be specified. My tutors were a mix of Canadians and Americans, the Canadians assumed everyone used international paper sizes, and some of the Americans assumed American, but neither told the students. To add to the confusion, I found Canada has its own weird hybrid paper size "Canadian P4", which I used to submit my first assignment, but apparently no one in Canada uses.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Online Graduation Ceremonies

Tom Worthington with MEd
at a DIY ceremony
One issue which has been raised by both university administrators and students is how to conduct graduation ceremonies while maintaining social distancing for COVID-19. This may seem trivial, but it is important emotionally, and practically for students. In 2017 I conducted my own remote graduation ceremony. I was awarded an MEd in Distanced Education by Athabasca University. Appropriately, I studied entirely online from Australia. On graduation Athabasca mailed me a masters hood in an envelope. I added the hood over a standard black academic gown from my last graduation, and wore them in the academic procession at the institution where I teach in Canberra. Then I paid to have my photo taken along with the local graduates.

1. Award Degrees As soon as Students Qualify

I suggest adopting the practice of online universities, where degrees are awarded as soon as the student meets all requirements. The student has the option of attending a ceremony later. Awarding of degrees should not be delayed for ceremonies, and there should not be just a one off special case for COVID-19.

2. Send Students a Certificate and Ask for a Photo

Send the graduates their certificate, and something to wear or show.  Encourage students to conduct their own local ceremony, where their parent, or loved one, presents them with their certificate. Where social distancing rules allow, they could have a local ceremony with students of other institutions, conducted by a local dignitary. Have the student send a photo to the university to be used in their ceremony.

3. Stream an Academy Awards Style Ceremony Online

I suggest the university conduct an academy awards style ceremony streamed online. This would have speeches live, recorded videos from major award winners, and the rest of the graduates appearing in a montage of the images they provided.

4. Digital Certificates

This would also be a good time for universities to introduce digital certificates. Prospective employers will be reluctant to accept paper certificates from candidates, for health and logistical reasons. Applicants who can provide digitally authenticated evidence of their qualification, rather than just an easily faked paper or scanned copy, will have an advantage in the job market. As well as providing digital certificates, universities should also put in place procedures for accepting them.

5. Standing Invitation to Later Ceremony

Universities could invite students who can't get to that year's graduation ceremony to attend one next year, or any time in the future, even decades later. In my case I could not afford to fly 13,000 km to attend, but if I happen to be on that side of the planet some time in the future it would be nice to have some pomp and circumstance.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Australian Higher Education Relief Package for COVID-19

The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Education
The Australian Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, and the Minister for Employment, Michaelia Cash,  announced a Higher Education Relief Package, in response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus, 12 April 2020. Overall the intention of the package is good, but some of the details will need considerable work. Andrew Norton has produced a very useful commentary on this, but here are some additional comments of my own.

The package envisages Australians studying online to improve their job skills, while waiting for pandemic control measures to be reduced allowing a general return to work. Areas of study mentioned are nursing, teaching, health, IT and "science". Short, online courses, from universities and private providers will be subsidized, from May for six months (initially). Strangely missing from the list of areas of study is any specific mention of engineering, or manufacturing, given the need for Australia to rapidly produce strategic products to meet the current emergency.

The announcement refers to the short courses being from "world-class universities", but presumably that is a rhetorical flourish and the intention is not to limit the program to the top half dozen Australian research universities which rank highly internationally. That would be unfortunate as it is the lower ranking regional teaching universities which have more expertise and experience with online learning in Australia. I studied how to do online learning (via online learning),  at the University of Southern Queensland, which while providing good courses and is highly regarded in that field, is not a "world class" university.

In addition, government funding for universities will be "at current levels, even if there is a fall in domestic student numbers". There is no offer of government funding to make up a shortfall in international student fees.

How the new funding for short courses will be administered is not detailed in the announcement. It should be remembered that previously about $2.2B was paid to private trainer providers for courses of dubious quality, or in some cases, not delivered at all. While "innovative micro-credentials delivered flexibly online" is a worthy goal, there are no agreed definition as to what a micro-credential is. Micro-credentials are not currently part of the Australian Qualifications Framework, and some have formal coursework, while some do not. Short courses can range from one hour's study, to about the length of a typical university unit (about 100 hours).

I have worked in this area of education for ten years, designing and delivering short online courses. I have been involved in several micro-credential projects and on professional standards bodies overseeing these, presented papers at international conferences, given evidence to a Senate inquiry, and  blogged on the topic, but I am still not sure what a micro-credential is. Or it may be that micro-credentials mean many different things to university, and vocational providers. 

I suggest universities should take a cautious approach to micro-credentials, due to the high reputational risk from over-promising. As an example, it is common for universities to offer short courses which do not count for credit towards a degree, are not aligned with the AQF, and are not specific to a job. However, a "micro-credential" is clearly intended to be a type of credential: that is a qualification. In the context of the government announcement, by issuing this qualification, the university has certified the holder has the skills needed to undertake a specific workplace task. Universities cannot use disclaimer to say the credential is not a credential, and those so qualified are not qualified.

One way I suggest universities can navigate this legal and ethical minefield, is to integrate short courses in existing AQF qualifications. As an example, in 2016 I set out to design a teaching course for IT professionals. Teaching is a recognized skill in the computing discipline internationally. Australian universities are accredited to provide degrees under well established national procedures. So what I proposed was to create a teaching course within that framework. This way the familiar quality controls of the university system and professions could be applied.

To make a university course into a set of "micro-credentials" I proposed dividing it into three or four parts, with each part aligned with a set of externally defined skills. A student would receive a micro-credential for completing each part. Those who completed all the micro-credentials would receive one course credit towards a degree.

None of this will be new to the vocational education sector, which has been routinely producing nationally standardized job relevant short courses for decades. However, this is a new skill for many university educators (some of us are dual qualified in by VET and university sectors).

COVID-19 is not the end of schools

Professor Julian Sefton-Green asks "Will mass schooling-at-home lead to the death of schools?" in EduResearch Matters (13 April 2020). I suggest not. School and university students are studying at home in numbers not see before. This is challenging for teachers and lecturers, the students, and their families. It will also introduce many to the benefits of this form of education. However, distance education is not new or unknown, at least not to some of us. School and university campuses will still be needed, at least for about 20% of the average student's education.

Most teachers and lecturers have received little format training in distance education, but may have some experience of it as a student. There is the problem of becoming familiar with the technology used, but this is minor compared to the need to make a personal connection with students over a relatively impersonal medium.

However, distance education is not new and unknown to the education discipline. There are decades of experience on the use of online learning at school and university for millions of students. There are research journals and conferences devoted to the subject, as well as courses and whole degree programs. For ten years I have been part of this subset of the education discipline, studying, teaching online, presenting papers at national and international conferences, writing books on the topic and refining the techniques though teaching students around the world. sharing the frustration with my colleagues that the rest of the world just doesn't "get it". That has now changed, but there is a risk of over-promising what distance education can deliver.

As teachers learn to teach online, materials are developed and students settle into it, governments may be tempted to see an opportunity to reduce costs. If students just need a computer to study, why have we been spending money all these years on expensive schools? The answer is that there is more to learning than what you can do through a computer, and teachers are still needed.

Professor Sefton-Green worries that we may see a move to
concentration of education, with the computer as a conduit for a national curriculum. At least in Australia, moves for national standards have been resisted due to the decentralized nature of our governments. I suggest that of more conern is a move to cost cutting.

As parents are no doubt discovering, delivering education is hard work, the more so the younger the child.  Also social skills require a social environment, with students learning to work togehter. This does not only apply to the youngest students. When studying education, as a graduate student, I was required to work in teams. I did not like it, but I had to do it. Now I help university students learn this way. It is possible to have students in disciplines, such as computing (which I teach), learn to work together online, but this is a very difficult skill to learn.

Post-COVID-19 we will still need school and university campuses. But there could be the opportunity to use them, and teachers better. University lecturers perhaps need to learn the benefits of teamwork themselves, while parents and governments could learn to value their school teachers more (and pay them more).

Most older school students and university students do not need to spend much time in a classroom listening to a teacher talk. Instead they need to be working together, with a team of teachers in support. Most of their learning can take place off campus, online. But there are valuable skills best learned interacting face to face in a team. My rules of thumb is that the average  students will need to spend about 20% of their time (one day a week) on campus, or in some other location, together with other students, and perhaps a teacher.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Online Tools for Education: Piazza Student Forums

Piazza provides forums for students. When helping with teaching this has been typically used for teachers to send out announcements, and for students to ask questions, typically about administration of a course, rather than the content. Like Slack, Piazza can be confusing, with messages popping up in different forums. A particular annoyance are the semi-anonymous posts. This is used so that students do not feel so reluctant to ask a question. However, I am training professionals, who need to learn to seek information from colleagues.

Online Tools for Education: Discord for Harmony?

Discord is an audio chat system intended for video gamers. The idea, as far as I understand it, is that you play a game together, while talking via Discord. About the only useful feature I can see, from an educational point of view, is that Discord allows for telephone quality speech, which uses much less bandwidth than the video conferencing systems.

Online Tools for Education: Slack is Demanding But Usable

Currently I am mentoring a team in the  Australian Computer Society's Flatten the Curve hackathon, to develop prototypes in 48 hours to counter the  COVID-19 Coronavirus. Participants have until 6pm, to demonstrate a working product, or at least an idea of what it could do. This is the first purely online hackerthon I have been involved with. Previous ones have been at one venue, or at a number of networked venues. It is challenging to work with organizers, fellow mentors, and a team, who I have only ever see on screen.  The primary tool being used is Slack, an instant messaging platform. This is the largest scale use of Slack I have been involved with. 

Previously I have helped teach teams of ANU TechLauncher students who use Slack to coordinate their project. But there each team operates independently. Here Slack is being used by all teams and organizers. There are almost a hundred channels, and I am following a dozen of them. I have to be careful who the audience is in each channel, as there are ones just for mentors, and others the participants read.

One surprise was that Slack, usually text based, also does video conferences. The audio quality is not as good as I have found with Zoom, and it seems to use twice as much bandwidth, but it is conveniently integrated with the forums. I got so comfortable with the integration that I was sitting in Slack wondering where everyone was, and then realized this particular meeting was happening in Zoom. I then had to scramble to find the details.

Online Tools for Education: OBS More Than I Need

One of the tools it has been suggested I use for streaming education in response to the of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, is Open Broadcast Software (OBS). Before I could install the software I had to upgrade the operating system on my laptop, which proved a challenge. But with that done, OBS was easy to install. What was harder to do was work out exactly how to use it. OBS handles video for recording, or as a front end for streaming, but doesn't actually do the streaming. Instead OBS has to send the video to a streaming service such as Twitch. OBS ran a test of my setup to see what I could stream and came up with a recommendation of 767 x 431 pixels, at 30 frames per second. The video would be sent from my computer, and recorded at a higher Standard HD resolution (1280×720 pixels), but then down sampled for streaming. I suspect that OBS is intended a more complex problem than I have, and I would be better off with a video conference  system, such as Zoom.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Typical Day on Video Conference

It is surprising how quickly video conferencing from home has become normal.Here is what my normal day looks like in the era of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. This a screenshot from an ASCILITE Mobile Learning Special Interest Group meeting by video conference. However, only one of us appears to have used a mobile device (the portrait format image in the middle). ;-)

I have attended video meetings occasionally for decades. I chaired the first Australian Computer Society national council meeting by video, and occasionally was on the periphery of some at the Defence Department (including on a US Flagship at sea).

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Blended Learning Challenge for the ACS Flatten the Curve Hackathon

The Australian Computer Society is running a Flatten the Curve hackathon, to develop prototypes in 48 hours to counter the  COVID-19 Coronavirus. Registration closes 3:30 pm 9 April, and the event starts at 9pm. The challenge I have submitted is Blended Learning for a gradual return to campus, and so if there is a further outbreak of disease online learning can be quickly implemented. This will require tools, teacher training, and changes to government policy.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Transforming the Australian University System After COVID-19

Professor Brian Schmidt, Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University has predicted universities will be transformed by the COVID19 emergency. He has asked what domestic courses should look like and how do universities make themselves less dependent on international student income. I suggest planning for a gradual return to the classroom with blended learning. The distinction between on-campus and online students should 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. In any case Australian institutions should include online learning, as part of permanent contingency planning.

International and Australian Students Working Together Online

UBC: Venue for ICCSE 2014

As it happens,  in 2014, at the ICCSE international technical education conference I proposed international and Australian students could learn to work together online. That is now happening, with computer project students I help teach working in online teams, using a learning module I designed for this purpose. Rather than treat this as a temporary measure, for exceptional circumstances, it could be made routine for all students who learn teamwork. This online way of working was already common for computer professionals, and many other disciplines, before COVID-19. It should be part of training of professionals. Australian universities an offer options where international students start their education in their own country studying online, before coming to Australia.

Policy Change for Blended Study

The Australian Government should change policy 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.