Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Webinar on Tools to Engage Students Online, 8am Wednesday

I will talk on "Tools to engage students online" Wednesday 19 August, 8-9 am, AEST (Canberra Time) as part of the Microlearning Series curated by Manisha Khetarpal at Maskwacis Cultural College in Canada. This is the third of six weekly sessions. Free, register now.

Higher Education After COVID-19

  1. Responding to the Coronavirus Emergency with e-Learning
  2. Open Content for e-Learning in Response to the Coronavirus
  3. Online Assessment with e-Portfolios in Response to the Coronavirus
  4. Tools to engage students online.
  5. Mentoring student group work online.
  6. Higher education after COVID-19: Not business as usual
These are online, open to all and free. Suggestions are welcome.

Part 4: Tools to engage students online

Due to the risk of COVID-19, universities are using online delivery of courses. But "delivery" suggests students are passive recipients of knowledge, a view reinforced if all students get are recordings of lectures, or a live lecturer who drones on and on in Zoom. Students learn best when they are doing things and there are many techniques developed for getting students active in the classroom which translate online easily. These and be used with the basic learning management system (such as Moodle) and video conference system (such as Zoom). There are also specialized online tools for individual and group activities, such as: Slack, Piazza, GitLab, Padlet, and trello. These will be discussed in this webinar and participants asked to contribute their experience. Here are some questions to get started:
  1. What tips, tools and techniques do you use to get students actively engaged?
  2. Do you do this differently in online, if so how?
ps: You can read through the notes for the ANU Coffee Course "Engaging Students Online" (Katie Freund, 2017).

Students learn best when they are doing things

Dr Katharina Freund

  1. What is engagement, and how does it work online?
  2. Creating social presence in your course
  3. Communicating effectively with students
  4. Critical perspectives on engagement and participation
  5. Creating engaging online activities
  6. Reflection and final thoughts
Daily topics, from  Engaging Students Online, Coffee Course, Katie Freund and Janene Harman, ANU, 2017.

The Australian National University (ANU) has been running online teaching courses for several years. These are named "Coffee" courses, as they are designed to do the study while having a coffee each day, for around one week. One course is on Engaging Students Online (Freund & Janene, 2017). The course doesn;t tell experienced educators anything they did not already know. The major insight is that techniques for getting student's attention work just as well online as they do in the classroom. The online teacher has to be more explicit in explaining who they are and what they want students to do, but the techniques are the same.

Asynchronous Mode: Moodle Example

ICT Sustainability Course Moodle Page

 This example of a Moodle course page shows the tutor's name and photo, so they are more than just an anonymous entity. There is a link to their bio and a link to contact them. Official information about the course is provided by way of an announcements forum and an e-book, but there is also a chat forum. What the student is expected to do is provided, along with a quiz to try. The  Tutor Notes for the course suggest providing a welcome message in the forum and inviting students to introduce themselves in the chat room.

Synchronous Mode: Zoom Example

ASCILITE ML SIG video meeting

Video conferencing is decades old and the tools have not changed much in that time (I observed a ship to shore video conference while onboard the USS Blue Ridge, in the Coral Sea in 1997). Key to using video conferencing for education is to have a purpose to the session, introduce the participants and the topic, much like a face to face class. More planning and structure is needed due to the limitations of the technology.

Messaging: Slack, Piazza

  • Slack: threaded text based chat, but also does video conferences
  • Piazza: simpler text based chat for courses
Both used by the ANU TechLauncher Project

Slack and Piazza are two text based tools which can be used for communication with and between students. Piazza was specifically designed for education, and provides a forum for each course, where students can post questions to be answered by teachers, or preferably, other students in the class. 
Slack was designed for IT development teams to communicate and provides or discussion under topics. Slack also allows for video communications in a team. The ANU TechLauncher project uses Piazza for routine course announcements and student questions about deadlines and marking. Slack can be used by teams of students working on a project.

Teamwork: GitLab, Padlet, and Trello

Padlet Example from ASCILITEMLSIG, Webinar 12 June 2020,


Tools, such as GitLab, Padlet, and Trello allow students to work togehter in teams online, over minutes, hours weeks or years. Thom Cochrane convenor of ASCILITE MLSIG
the education Mobile Educaiton Special Interest groups, used Padlet to collect ideas during, and after, a video conference session. Participants can type in contributions under prepared headings, or create new headings themselves. Trello, now owned by Sydney company Atlassian has a similar interface, but specifically for teams to arrange tasks. GitLab provides a repository of digital documents with version control, for a complex project.

Use Synchronous and Asynchronous Tools to Flip

  1. Moodle (asynchronous) for preparation
  2. Everyone meets in Zoom (synchronous) and make notes in Padlet (asynchronous)
  3. Save notes to Moodle for later

E-learning tools and techniques are usually classified into two broad categories: synchronous and asynchronous. These are complementary and can be used in combination. As an example I have students study material in Moodle and do a quiz, to prepare for a Zoom conference. They can use Padlet during the conference and paste results to Moodle for later use. 



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


 ZeroCO2 Hackathon 2020 

Each team will occupy a table on the Remo virtual conference floor.


Canberra's ZeroCO2 Hackathon 2020 runs online over two-weeks, starting 18th August and is open for registrations. Teams will work on business ideas to reduce domestic and commercial carbon emissions, with $10,000 in prizes. I mentored teams in the 2019 competition and have volunteered again. 

Due to COVID-19 this years event is entirely online, whereas last year we were all at the Canberra Institute of Technology's excellent renewable energy training facility. However, this will be my fourth time helping with an online hackerthon this year, and the activity has easily translated to the online format.
Like the Fighting Pandemics hackerthon I helped with recently, this one is using Remo Conference. Each team will occupy a table on the virtual conference floor. Mentors will move from table to table with a double click. The organizers will keep tack of time to tell us when to move. It will be interesting to see how this works virtually, as it is usually a bit chaotic in a real room with hundreds of people.

Legal and Ethical Issues with Online Tools

"If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold."
From Andrew Lewis ("blue_beetle"), Post to MetaFilter, August 26, 2010

Teachers, and educational institutions, have a legal and ethical obligation to protect their student's privacy.  This can be difficult with online tools. A traditional Learning Management System, such as Moodle, would have been run on a computer at the campus, thus under the control of the institution and withing the same legal jurisdiction. However, tools are now commonly hosted externally.

If the tool you are using is hosted in another country, that country's government authorities may have access to the student data, with or without, judicial oversight. Governments may wish to spy on foreign students for national security purposes, as well as their own students studying abroad for internal security reasons.

Perhaps of more day to day concern is using "free" commercial online tools. These tools are free because the company providing them wants to up-sell you or your students, a more advanced subscription service, or they want to sell your details, and those of your students, to advertisers.

You need to consider who will have access to your student's information, and what they might do with it. Most commercial companies will look to make a quick return, and so older students with more money will be an attractive target. However, private criminal organizations, and government intelligence agencies, can find information about the children of their targets useful for Phishing attacks.

 Fake Sites to Collect Information

Screen image of the web page for the fictional Concinna Day Care Centre
Fake child care center website, 2013

In 2013 invitations to apply to a government endorsed child care center were sent to employees of a Government intelligence agency in Canberra. The center did not exist and was designed to collect personal information which could be used for sending fame messages to staff at the agency to trick them into revealing secrets.  (Page & Jean, 2013).


Page, F., & Jean, P. (2013, April 16). Free childcare scam aimed at intelligence staff. Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from:

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