Friday, September 11, 2020

Flip Australian Higher Education Before the Next White Swan Event

Many recent discussions of Australian education I have taken part in  have  the theme of what to do after COVID-19. The sense is that things have been bad, but under control: what of the changes brought in as an emergency measure should be kept in the long term? However, I suggest Australian universities should not  assume there will be a period of stability in which to gradually introduce changes. COVID-19 is just a foretaste of far more difficult challenges to come in the next few months and years, with technology, and geopolitics forcing changes to how, what, where and who we teach. There can be a larger sudden interruption to international student access to Australian campuses in the next few months, and in the next few years new alternatives to studying in Australia for both domestic and international students (Worthington, 2014). 

Australian universities should now flip their educational offerings, along with their teaching. With flipped learning students are encouraged to study material online before attending a class. In the same way, students should be offered online study, before attending a campus. Universities do not have to abandon the campuses they have invested so much in recently,  just make minor tweaks to boost online learning

E-learning has been proven over at least a decade. It has been shown possible to produce high quality, active learning courses and blend them with campus instruction. This has been done with mixed teams of domestic and international students, undertaking practical projects online together, to meet professional accreditation requirements. It is possible to teach staff how to do this across the Australian HE sector.

I have been teaching online since 2009. Most of my students were happy with this model and get similar results to their classroom courses. However, many academics are reluctant to undertake the training required to teach this way and students have been reluctant to sign up for online courses, seeing them as inferior.

One way to make online learning more attractive is to offer it as part of a package, with campus instruction. As an example, for computer project students last year I designed a learning module with asynchronous delivery. This has automated quizzes, discussion forums, videos, ebook and peer assessment. But added to this are face to face workshops, held in a purpose-built flat floor classroom  (Worthington, 2020).

The blended model ran for two semesters in 2019. When COVID-19 struck in 2020, the workshops were moved to Zoom. There was no need to change the course materials, activities, or assessment, as an emergency online contingency had been planned for (Worthington, 2014 & 2016). There is the option of using a hybrid model in the future, with some students in the classroom and some online. Also recent online hackathons I have helped mentor for the Australian National University, Australian Computer Society, and the Australian and NZ Defence Forces show promise.

Academics' reluctance to learn to teach online can be addressed by offering teacher training part of a degree, before they become academics. Rather than being seen as just a training course, teaching can be promoted as part of the skill-set of every profession. Our tutors can study teaching as part of their degree program and pay the usual course fees to do so, at the same time they are paid to tutor. Tutors not enrolled in a degree can receive a micro-credential.

The key, I suggest, is not to focus on moving courses online, as that is a relatively simple task. A bigger challenge is to have programs that are more than just a collection of "courses" and offer students vocationally relevant training, with flexibility. I discussed this last week in my last talk in Canada on "Higher education after COVID-19". In my last talk I described COVID-19 as a White Swan event: one they were warned of but failed to prepare for. Some may dispute they were warned, but after COVID-19, all universities must understand that the flow of international students to Australian campuses may suddenly stop again in the next year. In the longer term, there will be new international competition both for Australian domestic students and international ones.

The Australian Government and university leadership may not act in time, so I suggest individual university academics should individually prepare for the new higher education environment. They can ensure they gain skills to teach in in new ways, which may require they spend their own time and money learning. Also academics should look to set up new companies, and encourage their students, to provide educational services. This can be done in the startup centers set up on and around our campuses. Some might argue that our academics should concentrate on their day jobs, but most of those are going to disappear as the business of education changes over the coming months and years.


Worthington, T. (2012, July). A Green computing professional education course online: Designing and delivering a course in ICT sustainability using Internet and eBooks. In 2012 7th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (ICCSE) (pp. 263-266). IEEE. URL

Worthington, T. (2014, August). Chinese and Australian students learning to work together online proposal to expand the New Colombo Plan to the online environment. In 2014 9th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (pp. 164-168). IEEE. URL

Worthington, T. (2017). Tom Worthington's MEd(ED) ePortfolio: Conclusion, Athabasca University. IEEE. URL

Worthington, T. (2020, June). Blend and Flip for Teaching Communication Skills to Final Year International Computer Science Students. Paper accepted for the IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment and Learning for Engineering (TALE), 10-13 December 2019, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. URL

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