Monday, April 12, 2021

More online learning is the answer for students and universities

Ian Bushnell
Ian Bushnell in "More online learning is not the answer for students or universities", suggests the internet "... can be a good servant but a poor master" (RiotACT, 12 April, 2021). He warns that moving courses online is not going to be a financial bonanza for universities looking for new international markets, and can make learning more stressful, dehumanized experience.  However, I suggest that any tool is a danger in untrained hands. Online learning can provide academic and student sanctification outcome as good as a classroom, but this requires trained staff using proven techniques.

Hi-tech rarely solves a political problem, but as I discovered spending years writing IT policy for the Australian government, using technology well can prevent making a problem worse.

I agree with Minister Tudge that online courses are part of the solution to over-reliance on international students from one country. But this will require an understanding of what students in the region want from education and how to provide it, mostly online, but not entirely. This can't be quick, as it takes years to train academics to teach online well and establish international partnerships.

Australian universities may have only months, not years, before the next crisis hits. So the sooner they start, the better equipped with will be to survive. There is no need to start from scratch, as Australian academics have spent years looking at how to provide international online courses to the region, while maintaining the human element.

I have been teaching students online from Canberra for a decade. It is not easy, and took years to learn. It can provide equivalent results, academically, and in terms of student satisfaction, to campus based education, if you know how to do it properly.

This is not to say I don't like teaching a room full of students, when I can. But if that was my only teaching method, many students, international and domestic regional students, plus those with family, community and work commitments, could not attend.

The online lecture can provide a similar quality experience to a face-to-face one. But that is not saying much, as lectures are not a particularly useful form of teaching. I gave up giving lectures ten years ago, for more engaging ways to teach both in a classroom and online.

The danger is that if Australian universities fail to provide education where, and when, the students want it, they will get it elsewhere. It is not just international students who could be lost to overseas competitors, it is Australian domestic students as well. When I wanted to study education, I first looked at courses in Canberra, where I lived. Then I looked around Australia, but ended up enrolling in Canada, which was slightly cheaper, and no further away online.

The campus experience is wonderful, but I suggest can't be relied on as a key driver for student choice. Rather this should be offered as an optional extra for a degree, like leather seats for a car: get em if you can afford it, but this doesn't determine which car you buy.

The logistical issues with online courses around the world were solved years ago. Similarly, digital educators learn techniques to overcome technical problems and to assist student access. Two of the original categories of distance students were prisoners and military personnel on deployment. For obvious reasons, these groups have limited Internet access, but can still be online students.

Online students can have better access to staff and resources than on campus. Students can have high stress levels, both online and on campus if an effort is not make to help them make fiends and feel part of the instruction.

Unfortunately online courses are not a money-spinner for universities, as most of the cost is in staff, which you need online or on campus.

The internet has not changed the idea of the university, which was never a place, but an experience. Unfortunately over-reliance on campuses has limited access to that experience. Before abandoning online courses, I suggest academics and policy makers skim through the very large body of literature which has been published, on what works and how this aids graduates entering the workforce.

Online learning with well trained teachers can replace face-to-face

Professor Andrew Norton
Professor Andrew Norton, in  Online learning will never be a substitute for face-to-face, points out that Australian university student satisfaction hit its lowest point last year. He argues this was, understandably, due to students not having contact with each other. However, I disagree with his conclusion that this requires a return to campus to fix. Well trained teachers, using the right online techniques, can result in successful, satisfied online students. Most students will still benefit from time on campus, but this is not essential, and we should not exclude students from higher education, especially not those from underrepresented groups, just because they could not get to a campus. Doing so threatens the future of Australian higher education.

Results come from the  Student Experience Survey (SES) for undergraduates. Not surprisingly, as Professor Norton points out, it was on-campus students who had the largest decrease in satisfaction from 2019 to 2020.

Professor Norton argues that "A return to on-campus teaching is the obvious way to lift face-to-face contact between students.". However, this is not supported by the evidence he presents. I suggest the students need contact with others students, not necessarily on a campus. and not necessarily in person.

In 1999 I was asked to give a few lectures, and spent the next ten years giving blocks of lectures in conventional campus university courses. But I had the increasing feeling that this was not cutting through to the students. In 2008 I announced my last lecture, and moved my teaching online. 

What enabled me to switch to online learning was training from the Australian Computer Society. This was for delivering courses for working professionals who did not have time to attend class. To my surprise, this was not about video lectures and online exams, but mentored and collaborative online learning.

Over the next few years, I found the same educational techniques I used for working professionals could be applied with university students. Those students studying online got the same results, and were just as happy, as with conventional classroom instruction.

Of course, having on-campus students doing online courses is not the same as having then scattered across the world. The campus students still had peers nearby. To investigate how to provide for remote students, particularly international ones, I enrolled as an international online student myself, studying distance education.  The loneliness of being a distance student stuck me personally. However, I found there were well developed techniques to combat this, which could be applied more widely.

In 2019 I was given access to a new, state of the art, flat floor teaching complex.  So I returned to the classroom, designing workshops for students to do in groups, face to face, in the flexible facility. However, conscious of the possibility that international students in particular could be unable to get to the campus due to a regional crisis, I designed in an online learning option. This allowed the workshops to be held using a video conference in place of the classroom, while leaving the rest of the learning module and the assessment unchanged.

When COVID-19 stuck in 2020, I activated the planned online option. This just required replacing the address of the physical classroom, with a Zoom address. Obviously there is more which could be done to make students feel less isolated online, and if a classroom is available it can be used to supplement the online learning. However, there is no reason why trained teachers using well designed teaching materials can't have successful, satisfied students. 

A return to on-campus teaching is not the best way to student interaction. Universities can put in place resources, forums and activities for students to meet and interact online. Universities can also train their teaching staff online, to learn to teach online, by being a student online, as I did. 

Professor Norton commented that "... it is hard to predict what campus life will look like in two or three years time.". I disagree: it is very easy to predict what higher education will be like. A few years ago I predicted that the typical student will be studying online by 2020. My rule of thumb is that the typical student needs to be in a classroom, or a relevant workplace, for 20% of their study, with the rest online. I have no doubt that is going to happen, the difficult part is ensuring Australian universities are part of that future. 

Unless our universities invest in training and support for educators in online learning, and offer students flexible programs which given them the option of studying online, the students, both domestic and international, will take their business elsewhere, offshore, to other providers.

There are other shocks to the Australian economy and education system which could happen, without warning, in the next few years. Individual academics, and institutions, need to be ready for them. 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Online Education is More Flexible But Not Necessarily Cheaper

David Annand, has asked "How do we make university education more affordable and accessible?". He is a professor at Athabasca University, one of Canada's leading online institutions, but he is not just advocating for abolishing campuses.

Annand suggests face-to-face is needed for some new undergraduate students. He also points out the importance of informal social interactions for these students. However, he questions if this is really worth the cost of the campus and points out that online learners do just as well as face-to-face ones.

I suggest that while online learners do just as well academically, this is missing the point. Study is also a social experience. As an online student of Athabasca myself, I experienced a sense of loneliness. This is despite being a very experienced student, who was also on the staff of a leading Australian university at the time. But even so, online study was a less lonely experience for me than previous face to face study: just because you are on a campus, in a room full of people, doesn't result in social ties.

Athabasca's online courses had forms of group activity built in. Also was not assumed that you would somehow meet other students outside class, with ways to meet people online. 

The assumption that eliminating the campus will make courses much cheaper also needs to be challenged. According to a report for the UK DoE, only about 10% of the cost of a course at a conventional university is the campus (KPMG, 2019). A third of the cost is teaching staff and another third central student service costs. Most of the rest are overheads in running an institution. So eliminating the campus is not going to make courses from a conventional university much cheaper. Ways to provide student services, and reduce other overheads, online might be more cost effective than eliminating the campus. 

Also, even before COVID-19, at least in Australia, most students had voted with their feet and were not attending lectures. Universities campuses were already evolving to be business parks with commercial tenants and leisure centers with fee gyms, bars, and cafes, plus accommodation. The University of Canberra's 2025 plan is an example of this.

Annand points out that there is a high financial and social burden for those remote from a campus. There are also barriers due to child minding and employment. These are the areas distance education, and in its recent form, online education, were primarily developed for and have been delivering to for decades. 

Online students tend to pay about the same fees as on-campus ones, as Annand points out. It did annoy me when a student of the University of Southern Queensland, that I was paying to maintain playing fields which I had never seen, let alone played on. But this was only a small proportion of the fees. As it happens I paid slightly less in Canada, about the amount of the cost of the playing fields. ;-)

Athabasca University has no classrooms, and most staff now work off-campus, Annand points out. However, most teaching at conventional universities was done by part time and casual staff who didn't have their own offices before COVID-19, so their is little scope for savings in this way.

Athabasca University receives a subsidy from the Alberta provincial government, Annand points out, at a rate about a third that of conventional universities. However, those universities may be providing courses where costs are higher, such as medicine. The issue of the applicability of government funding models to online universities is one which has come up in Australia, most particularly at the University of New England (UNE), an institution which has been pioneering distance education for more than 50 years. UNE staff have expressed frustration that the federal funding model limits their ability to provide innovative programs. 

The Australian government did force through a change which increased the cost of less employment related degrees (ironically making some cheaper to provide courses more expensive). So there is some appetite by legislators to use product differentiation for university fees. However, if based just on campus cost, the difference in fees would be small, and the political cost of the reform may not be worth the effort.

Perhaps a better reform to import from Australia would be to provide more funding for shorter programs. In response to the pandemic, the Australian government introduced undergraduate certificates, and  increased funding for graduate certificates. These were focused on areas relevant to the emergency, particularly health, and have proved popular. Universities did previously provided some sub-degree programs, but there was no incentive for them to offer these.

Online universities may do better lobbying government for a different funding model, because they provide superior, more flexible, more vocationally relevant forms of education, rather than focusing on the costs of conventional universities.


KPMG, "Understanding costs of undergraduate provision in Higher Education, Costing study report", UK Department for Education, May 2019, Page 21. URL

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Will the Electric Ute Save the Grid?

Car charger at ANU
On my way to the cafe opposite my office at the Australian National University this morning, I stumbled across a new shed, holding the future of Australian motoring and perhaps the salvation of our electricity grid. The shed holds an electric car charger, as part of a vehicle-to-load (V2G) trial. Not only can an electric car be charged, but the car's battery can be used to store energy, to be fed back to the grid later.

There will be an official launch of the charger later. I liked the very understated, practical and Australian style of this charging station. This is a grey steel shed, unadorned with any logos, and a corrugated steel roof, like a rural bus shelter.

Using a car to power the grid might seem a waste of money: why not just buy a stationary battery? However, range anxiety, along with Australians love of a large vehicle, and business finance, may come to the rescue of the grid.

The average commute is less than 40 km, but consumers are demanding electric cars with ranges of more than 200 km. Drivers worry that they will run out of energy and be stranded (so called range anxiety). Some newer vehicles come equipped for V2L, enabling the same plug to not only charge the car, but also return surplus energy back to the household, or the grid. A medium sized electric car has sufficient battery capacity to power the average Australian home for a day and still have more than enough power for a days driving. This could be particularly useful in Canberra, which has net renewable energy, but no way to store it all.

The question then is, having purchased an electric car with far more battery capacity than needed day to day, can you convince the consumer to make the surplus capacity available for the grid? One of my students is researching how to Cut City Air Pollution Using ICT

The use of V2G is an example of where technology works, but how do you get people to use it? What type of interface will make V2G practical? Does this just need a button on the charger to request a top-up, or does there have to be an app, where this can be scheduled? Could the system check the family's online schedule and predict when the car will be needed? 

The major problem with V2G will be ensuring vehicles are plugged into be charged. Peak solar power is produced in the middle of the day, when a commuter's vehicle will not be at home. The vehicle could be plugged in at a workplace to charge. The vehicle could be charged at work, then driven home and power supplied to the household and grid, in the evening. However, this would require a different infrastructure of charging stations to those currently being installed. 

It has been assumed that an electric vehicle needs to charge quickly from a high current charger, for driver convenience and to maximize the use of scarce expensive charging stations. An alternative is to provide many low cost, low current, chargers which vehicles are left plugged into all day, to use available solar power. There would still be a cost in installing and maintaining the chargers. There would be also a problem if drivers wanted to use their car at lunchtime, which is the solar peak.

There has been some concern that electric cars would not suit Australia conditions, where large vehicles with long range are needed, as exemplified by the trade's Ute. However, that could prove a solution to the renewable energy storage problem. Larger passenger cars and small trucks (utes) can be electrically powered.

Australia folklore has it that the Ute was developed for farmers to take produce to market during the week and the spouse to church on the weekend. Utes are now used to take a manual worker's tools to the building site during the week and the family to sport on the weekend. What is less well know are the financial reasons for the ute: classified as a business vehicle the farmer could get a business loan for it. So will today's tradie buy an electric V2G, using a business loan, with tax deductions?

Before dismissing the idea of a ute powered grid, consider that Australia leads the world in solar panels on domestic rooftops. While other countries had policies to have large solar farms built, Australia almost by accident, instead had conditions resulting in individual householders installing their own panels. Having shown a willingness to invest in home energy, will the same householders embrace V2G, to the extent needed to support the grid?

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Planning the future of international education in Australia

Hon Alan Tudge MP
The Hon Alan Tudge MP, Minister for Education and Youth issued a media release "Shaping the future of international education in Australia" (31 March 2021). The Minister was launching consultations for the Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030. I suggest a key part of the strategy should be to make international students feel welcome and appreciated. However, the Minister suggested maximizing the long-term benefits of international students for Australia. Unfortunately this may further discourage internaional students from enrolling in Australia, with them feeling exploited, rather than helped. This comes after the Prime Minister suggested that if students already here were short of funds, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they should go home.

The Minister suggested "... the disruption of COVID provides an opportunity to look at the sector and ensure it is working for students and for Australia in the long-term ...". This appears to suggest that international students in some way interfere with Australia students education and are a determent to the Australian economy. I don't understand how this can be the case, given that international students contribute billions of dollars to the Australian economy and also contribute to university intellectual life. Also I am not aware of any other sector where Australian government ministers set out to insult our major export customers in this way.

The Minister also suggested targeting international enrollments to Australia's skills needs. However, I suggest the students may object to being exploited in this way and the nations the students are citizens of may object to this form of reverse brain drain. We should offer education to the benefit of the students and their nation.

The Minister suggests investigating new delivery models in new markets. However, I suggest there is considerable scope for expansion of existing markets with already well understood delivery models. As an example, pre-pandemic, I studied the potential of distance education from Australia to students in our region. Markets which could be expanded are India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. In the last few years I have visited Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, meeting with their academics and government officials,. Australia is known and well regarded. One issue was the need to satisfy national authorities, business and students that online learning was legitimate.

Torrens Building Adelaide,
Photo by Bahudhara, CC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons
One approach proven by Australian universities is a partnership with institutions in-country. An example is the the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT). This private institution is affiliated with several Australian universities. I visited SLIIT in 2013 and it is accredited to deliver programs in Sri Lanaka.

Another approach would be to replicate the Torrens Building Adelaide in countries of the region. This building is shared by multiple international universities, to provide them with a local presence. There may be value in universities using Australia as a brand, while competing for international students. An example of this approach is Open Universities Australia, which provides a single brand for multiple institutions offering online education. That approach could be extended to naming rights for buildings in the region. International students could undertake face to face classes for part of their studies while attending other classes online at the Australian institution of their choice.

Some initiatives from the Australian Government for domestic students may be of interest to international ones. Last year an undergraduate certificate was introduced as a response to COVID-19. This allowed students to receive a formal qualification after only one semester of full time study. Universities could offer this to international students, with the option to go on to a degree. Flexibility to allow for this and online study while on a student visa would also help attract international students. The students could be undertaking work integrated learning, with an Australian employer, while studying at an Australian university.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Providing Students With More Job-Ready Skills

Lynlea Small
University of the Sunshine Coast
Lynlea Small, Amie Shaw and Ruth McPhail asked "1 in 4 unemployed Australians has a degree. How did we get to this point?". They rightly point out that Australian government policy aimed to increase number of Australians with university degrees. That has been a success, however, not all degrees provide vocational skills and a degree is not necessarily the best way to get a job. I suggest students can be encouraged to select shorter more vocationally relevant university programs and those in the VET sector (vocational education & training). A certificate, rather than a degree, from a university or a TAFE can provide quicker, cheaper result for a student looking for a job.

I teach computing and engineering students, where the degree programs are accredited by professional bodies. Major employers came to the campus last week, to recruit the students I teach. These students undertake project based work, internships, group projects for real clients and other forms of work integrated learning. The last assessment task I take students through is to write an application for a currently advertised job, explaining how the skills and knowledge they have gained can be used in the workplace. This makes the students more employable.  However, not all degrees are so vocationally focused and a degree may not be the best path to a career.

Rather than calling on graduates to be "resilient, determined and adaptable", as Small, Shaw and McPhail do, I suggest we need to change the policy. The Australian government has made an attempt to do that, by making degrees which lead to jobs cheaper and also introducing six month undergraduate certificates for high demand job areas. However, I suggest also encouraging more school leavers to take up a VET program. These VET graduates can then contemplate further study, perhaps at university, after they have employment.

Academics can also play a part in making graduates more employable. They can do this by building practical skills into the curriculum, which help students demonstrate they are "resilient, determined and adaptable". It is not enough to encourage students to undertake extracurricular activities and hope somehow this will make up for the deficiencies in their degree program. It requires teaching staff to learn new teaching skills, so they can provide a less theoretical, more practical form of education, where students learn to solve real problems for real people, by solving real problems for real people

It is not easy to teach or to assess real world skills. But it does help if you have received that form of training yourself recently and have been trained to teach it. It also helps if you have real world experience, and team up with those who have for teaching. I found training in both the VET and university sectors in new ways to teach very useful. Also useful was being able to relate my experience working in the computer industry, designing systems, working in teams and reviewing failed projects. It also helps to have experience of being an international online student, so I can better understand what my students are experiencing.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Training for the Next Emergency at Your University

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet and there are other foreseeable challenges as great in the near future, so perhaps it is time for universities to ensure they have staff qualified in Emergency Management. TAFE NSW National Center for Emergency Management Studies are offering qualifications and training in areas very relevant to higher education, such as Critical Incident Messaging, Working with Spontaneous Volunteers,  Commanding Under Pressure, Political Acumen for Emergency Management, Business Continuity Planning, and Exercise management for emergencies.

An emergency becomes a disaster only if we are not prepared for it. In early 2020 I activated the online option I had built into my learning design. It was still not easy, but much easier if I had not planned for this foreseeable event. 


Thursday, March 25, 2021

University of Canberra Campus Master Plan

Greetings from the University of Canberra Inspire Center, where the latest Campus Master Plan is being launched. The physical plan is by is by Rob McGauran, of MGS Architects. The Vice-chancellor  said they are aiming to build a town center linked to the community, health, research and community facilities. He reflected the unviersitey was built in a quad, surrounded by a moat, which could not be seen from the outside. 

The university is now outward looking and he made an ambit claim to be on a future light rail route to the city. In my view, it is a challenging time to plan a university, with COVID-19, and the prospect for further disruptions to international students in the short term due to regional tensions. There will also be increased competition from online international providers in the next decade, as online education becomes the default option for domestic and international students. 

The VC is looking to partner with the ACT Government, industry and the community. What wan't mentioned, and featured in past plans, were links to vocational education. The UoC 2012 Campus Master Plan, envisioned a polytechnic, as a "practice-led higher education institution with strategic partners delivering employer relevant programs". This was to have 5,000 students accommodated in dedicated premises.

The new plan places more emphasis on industry partnerships for innovation, with more than 18,000 non-university staff in210,000 m2 of office space.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

How do you plan a university campus post-COVID-19?

The University of Canberra will launch an updated Campus Master Plan on Thursday. It will be interesting to see how this differs from the current plan, which was released in 2012. Flexibility, I suggest, should be the priority, with most students mostly studying online, even after COVID-19.

The university planned to have 10,000 full-time equivalent students on campus. Also there were plans for a bridging programs with 1,000 full-time equivalent students, including international ones, operating from purpose-built premises. The plan also designated a health precinct, which has seen the building of the University of Canberra Hospital.

As COVID-19 shows, there are predicable and foreseeable events which can case havoc for institutions which fail to plan for them. Australia's universities now face the prospect for further disruptions to international students in the short term due to regional tensions. There will also be increased competition from online international providers in the next decade, as online education becomes the default option for domestic and international students.

As I pointed out in 2012, the typical university student of 2020 and beyond "... will be on campus for only about 20% of their studies, with 80% on-line away from the campus ...". This has implications for the types of spaces provided. Buildings need to be able to be repurposed and flexible in day to day use. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Australian Government Acknowledges ANU TechLauncher Developing Professionals

 The Australian Public Service Commission has acknowledged the role of the Australian National University's TechLauncher program in "developing the next generation of tech professionals". This is a form of Work Integrated Learning where a team of students undertake a real project for a real client. But is not as easy as it sounds (I help out teaching the students soft skills).

The APSC also have a case study of GovHack on the same page. Hackerthons successfully transitioned to the online environment last year. I helped with some for ANU, ACS, CSIRO, and DoD. There is scope for hackerthons, in both technical and non-technical disciplines, to be used more. Hackerthons could be used as part of the curriculum to give students a short sharp experience of teamwork for course credit, as well as for their usual role of  learning as well as outreach (as with the ANU Singapore Health Hack 2019)?


Delivering for Tomorrow: APS Workforce Strategy 2025, Australian Public Service Commission, March 2021. URL

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Why open pedagogy and learning activities?

These are the notes for a webinar, Wednesday, 17 March 2021, 10 am AEDT Sydney time. This is part of the Microlearning Series at Maskwacis Cultural College in Canada, curated by Manisha KhetarpalPresentation Powerpoint and PDF available.

Athabasca University recently renamed their Master of Education in Distance Education (MEd DE) to be a Master of Education in *Open*, *Digital* and Distance Education (MEd ODDE). Join Tom Worthington, one >of the graduates, to discuss what open education is, what are the benefits and pitfalls and how to do it.

Pre-reading "Use of Open Education Resources", from Digital Teaching In<br>Higher Education, Tom Worthington, 2017. URL

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Webinar on Mental Wellbeing Of Students, 24 March, 4pm

Posimente student well-being tracker

Posimente will be holding a free webinar on "Post COVID-19: Mental Health and Wellbeing in schools"Wednesday, 24 March, 4pm, with Liz Rankin and Jan Lonsdale from Tyndale Christian School. I had a demo Posimente's student well-being tracker and it does much as I would expect it to

Captioned Recordings for Students

Professor Katie Ellis, Curtin University
Kent, Ellis, and Peaty (2017) suggest that captions and transcripts of recorded lectures are of benefit beyond those with a disability they were originally intended for. While this paper was published in 2017, it is very relevant in the COVID-19 era, where lecturers are struggling to communicate to students online. Providing a transcript and captions on videos is an un-glamorous but effective way to improve learning, particularly for students who are not studying in their first language.

ps: I discovered this paper recently because it cites my blog (this blog): Worthington (2015).


Kent, M., Ellis, K., & Peaty, G. (2017). Captioned Recorded Lectures as a Mainstream Learning ToolM/C Journal20(3), 1-1. URL

Worthington, Tom. “Are Australian Universities Required to Caption Lecture Videos?” Higher Education Whisperer 14 Feb. 2015. URL

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

I am now a Master of Education in Open, Digital and Distance Education

Athabasca University have renamed their Master of Education in Distance Education (MEd DE) to be a Master of Education in Open, Digital and Distance Education (MEd ODDE). As I had graduated in 2017, I was able to pay a small fee to have my certificate replaced. This is the cheapest extra two letters I ever got after my name, but does this now make me Odd -e?

Athabasca is the only university I could find which has digital and open in the name of the degree. The use of "distance" seems a bit dated. The second "Education" in the name seems a bit redundant: perhaps "Learning" could replace the second one.

Charles Sturt University have a Master of Leading Online, Open and Distance Education, whereas the The Open University (UK) call theirs Masters in Online and Distance Education (no digital). The University of Sydney offers a Master of Education (Digital Technologies) and University of Wollongong the  Master of Education (Digital Technologies for Learning) with no "open". 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

eXtended Reality Cooperative Research Centre Workshop

A workshop on a proposed Xtended Reality Cooperative Research Centre (XR CRC) will be held online, 1pm, 19 March 2021.

"Six Australian Universities; Deakin University, Charles Sturt University, Curtin University, Griffith University, The Australian National University and University of Technology Sydney, all with research and application expertise in immersive experience and solutions are working on the development of the eXtended Reality CRC (XRCRC) program proposal to Government.

The XRCRC aims to enable our partners transform for the new global environment and manage the impact and opportunity of accelerated digital experience and digital offerings.

With a focus on the integration of people content and technology, XRCRC research and development is relevant where human and digital worlds combine across the following sectors:

Education and Training
Health, Accessibility, Inclusion and Aged Care
Media, Entertainment and Creative
Advanced Manufacturing, Resources and Industrial Services
Architecture and Construction
Emergency Services, Defence, Security, and Public Safety ..."

Loyal Wingman supersonic fighter UAV

ps: One use for XR could be to provide an interface for high performance drones, such as the proposed Loyal Wingman supersonic aircraft. The operator would sit in a flight simulator, controlling the remote aircraft.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Best way to Avoid Zoom Fatigue is Not Have a Meeting

Jeremy Bailenson is founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab
Jeremy N. Bailenson has written a thought provoking commentary on the causes of fatigue from using video conferencing (2021). He suggested Zoom, and similar video conference systems, cause the user to be tired due to: Eye Gaze at a Close Distance, Cognitive Load, An All Day Mirror, and Reduced Mobility. 

As Professor Bailenson notes, "... being on video-conference all day seems particularly exhausting ...". He suggests this is an area for research by social scientists and technologists.

However, I suggest the primary cause of the exhaustion may simply be from spending so much time in video conferencing. In a typical day pre-COVID19, I might attend a couple of face to face meetings. In between the meetings there was at least some break walking from one meeting to another. When I occasionally have had to attend, or chair, all day meetings, I have found this exhausting. Because it is so easy to schedule and attend video meetings, I have found some days in 2020 I go from meeting to meeting without a break. Some conferences which transitioned to online last year acknowledged this and scheduled breaks.

Eye Gaze at a Close Distance

Professor Bailenson identifies Eye Gaze at a Close Distance as a problem, with a video conferencing like staring at a group of people. I haven't noticed this as a problem, perhaps because I frequently have the screen set to display only the speaker, in a small "thumbnail" window. I do this to save on computer CPU and networking resources, but perhaps it also has benefits for the user. 

There are other video conference systems which try to mimic a meeting more closely. Remo displays a floor plan with people represented by small icons around tables. When you join a table, you see the video from just the few people around the table. Some systems attempt to provide a perspective view, showing people near you larger than those further away.

Cognitive Load

Professor Bailenson suggests that having to consciously attend to one's visual communication creates extra workload. However, in a face to face meeting I am conscious of the need to be visible to others and appear to be paying attention. This has been a problem when I am taking notes on a computer, but those around me think I am not paying attention and are using the computer for an unrelated task.

An All Day Mirror

As Professor Bailenson notes, Zoom's default option is to display the speaker on screen. I find this reassuring, but he suggests it is stressful. Perhaps one reason it doesn't bother me is that most of the time I have the video camera turned off and a stock image (taken from the same perspective, wearing the same clothes, displayed. I do this to reduce bandwidth use and also enable me to take notes without distracting other participants.

Reduced Mobility

Professor Bailenson suggest video conferencing reduces mobility because the participants need to stay in view of the camera. This is not the case. Video conferencing is available on phones as well as laptops and so can be mobile. It may be that we need features in the video system to encourage people to use this feature, or explicitly encourage them to do so.

Avoid Zoom Fatigue: Don't Have a Meeting

It may be that I suffer less Zoom fatigue because I was a user of low bandwidth video conferencing before 2020. As such I treat the video as an adjunct to the audio, and the audio as an adjunct to the text chat, and the text chat as an adjunct to asynchronous communication. 

Those who are used to working primarily via face to face meetings, including those used to teaching this way, find video conferencing the closest alternative available. However, this is not necessarily the best way of working. My approach is to try to get the work done asynchronously, as that save the time and trouble of having a "meeting". 

For ten years I was able to run online courses for university students which had no video or audio. Students never saw or spoke to me face to face or online, but were still able to learn and gave good ratings for my teaching. In decades of helping to run the Australian Computer Society I avoided meetings wherever possible, making decisions out of session.

The best way to avoid Zoom fatigue is not through better software design, but by not having fewer meetings.


Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom FatigueTechnology, Mind, and Behavior2(1).

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Australian Universities Were Already Past The Online Tipping Point Before COVID-19

Vector Consulting report on a survey of Australian universities and TAFEs in "The Tipping Point for Digitisation of Education Campuses" (26 November 2020). The study was commissioned by telecommunications companies Cisco and Optus, so it is not surprisingly upbeat about the prospects for the digitization of post-secondary education. But this is a well researched study and, if anything, it is not as pro-Internet some. The study suggests there will still be campuses, with classrooms, but these will be fully integrated with online facilities for research and education.

I called the E-Learning Tipping Point in 2017, as respected Australian universities started offering credit towards degrees for online learning. The Vector Consulting report argues that campuses are changing due to COVID-19, with  fewer people, more "experiential", promotion of "health" and space for industry partners. However, this was happening long before. Universities were replacing lecture theaters with flat floor flexible internet equipped classrooms. There were new entertainment, sport and dining facilities installed. Students were studying more online than on campus. 

An example of this new campus is ANU's Kambri development, opened in 2019, with flexible classrooms, reconfigurable lecture theaters, bars, a gym and swimming pool. The nearby computing building opened a few years before has offices for the Defence Department collocated.

The strategy the report recommends is to first get a secure digital platform, then apply a digital first strategy, apply campus master planning and make use of industry partnerships. The timescale proposed is 18 months, but I suggest any university which is not already doing these things is unlikely to be still in business in 18 months time.

It would be unwise to over-invest in one overall digital platform, as resilience comes from having multiple platforms and layers. At the extreme, a university doesn't need any campus, or any digital, infrastructure of its own, being able to use whatever the staff and students carry around in their pockets. In practice there are likely to be new infrastructure needed as technology and requirements change. Even if many staff still have offices, they may not need telephones, or computers on their desks.

Learning to Reflect Module Version 4.0 the 2021 Blended Edition

"Learning to Reflect" is a module for the ANU TechLauncher program, where students reflect on what they have learned, by writing an application for a real job, as their last assessed task before graduating. This was developed in late 2018 and first run in semester 1, from February 2019. This was designed for blended delivery, with the option of easy conversion to full online delivery. That option was needed for Semesters 1 and 2 in 2020 due to COVID-19. The 2021 version is intended to be run online, with a blended delivery option ready for a return to the classroom and is available under a CC-BY licence.

Two small workshop exercises have been added for a 2% mark each, in place of the quizzes and forums used previously. The first assignment has been dropped, to make the assessment less complex. An optional student logbook has been added, to aid student reflection and deter plagiarism. 

A paper on the design and blended delivery of the module is available:

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Changing Role of the University Campus

Geoff Hanmer, Adjunct Professor of Architecture, University of Adelaide
Geoff Hanmer, Adjunct Professor of Architecture, University of Adelaide, has written a thoughtful two part series on the university campus. Professor Manmer argue sthat WWII was a turning point for universities, convincing governments, not just in the USA, to invest in big science on campuses. Post war new campuses were built on the fringes of Australian cities. Hanmer identifies a more recent trend of migration back to the city for universities. 

While interesting, I would have liked more on the post cold war era, the effect of changes in university enrollment as a factor and the Dawkins Revolution. New ideas of how students learn and changing our campuses, with the demise of the fixed tiered lecture theater, more flat floor high tech classrooms. Upscale accommodation, sport, and entertainment venues has made some campuses more like resorts, or malls, than centers of research and learning.

Also some of Australia's older universities are woven into the fabric of city centers, Oxbridge style. Adelaide has an interesting take on this, with the old stone Torrens Building, in the city center, rented out to multiple online universities to give them gravitas. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Tracking Student Well-being Online

Posimente student well-being tracker
Yesterday Troy Ashton-Martin arranged an online demonstration for me of Posimente, a student well-being tracker. This accepts reports from teachers and others, about how students are doing. It helps plan interventions, involve the teachers and track progress. The system is implemented with Salesforce and has the usual dashboards. There isn't anything exceptional about the application,  and it does much as I would expect it to.

With the sudden shift to online learning last year, I have been concerned about the increased stress on students. As one of those who been an international online student, I was aware of the crushing loneliness, fear, anger and frustration it can engender.  Thus the increased need for applications to help with student well-being. 

One of the benefits of online learning is that it does allow better monitoring of students, giving early warning of problems. With conventional teaching, a student with a problem could remain invisible at the back of the class for months.  One technique I like to use is small frequent online assessed items. These can be automatically or peer assessed so little teacher effort is involved.  This way, each week I can have the LMS sort results in ascending order, and see which students need help.

However, I suggest these well-being monitoring techniques need to be extended to the teachers as well as students. Last year I watched with concern as my university colleagues in Australia, and across the world, who had little training in online teaching, attempted to quickly move their teaching. It took me seven years of formal study at four institutions, three qualifications, mentoring by experts, plus trial and error, to become comfortable teaching online. My colleagues had a few weeks. 

While I tried to provide some simple tips, some lessons can only be learned through practice. Having hundreds of students, who are not there by choice, and are also highly stressed, is not the ideal situation for learning to teach online.

Overall the crash conversion to online learning in 2020 went well. However, some of my colleagues assumed it would only be for a few weeks, then a few months, then a semester, then two. Some are having difficulty accepting that this change is permanent, at least for universities who wish to remain solvent. If all goes well, the COVID-19 pandemic should be over in a few years time. However, most students will continue to undertake the majority of their study 80% online, in blended courses. Emergencies could see them online again for all study, suddenly, at any time. Automated help for monitoring all our well-being would be useful.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Adapting Geoeconomic Competition to Australian Advantage

Adapting Australia to an era of geoeconomic competition by Wilson, 2021
The report "Adapting Australia to an era of geoeconomic competition" (Wilson, 2021) was launched yesterday at the Australian National University in Canberra. I had a ticket to attend, but decided to stay home and participate online. This reflects one of the new realities of Geoeconomics, which threatens the viability of Australia's universities. 

This report defines Geoeconomics as "the application of economic instruments for geopolitical ends" and points out its reemergence in the  Indo-Pacific, between the USA and China. The report suggests that Australia needs to adapt its liberal approach in response.

Wilson points out that education makes up 9% of Australian exports (p. 8), which is much higher than tourism at 5%, with education exports dominated by China (p. 9). 

The report singles out China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as an "archetypal geoeconomic strategy" (p. 23), for economic development and international political influence. However, as well as targeting trade and heavy industry, the BRI also has an Education component which Wilson doesn't mention. This is similar to the Colombo Plan which Australia and western allies implemented during the cold war (Worthington, 2014). However, online learning considerably increases the scope for education as part of geoeconomic strategy.  Guthrie et al. (2021) predicts onshore international students at Australian universities will drop 60% by 2030 due to competition from China.


James Guthrie, Martina K Linnenluecke, Ann Martin-Sardesai, Yun Shen, and Tom Smith (January 2021). On the resilience of Australian public universities: Why our institutions may fail unless Vice-Chancellors rethink broken business models, Macquarie University Business School working paper. URL

Wilson, p. (January 2021), Adapting Australia to an era of geoeconomic competition, Perth USA Center. URL:

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.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

AI to Generate Marketing Content

Craig Thomler, Co-Founder of SimpleMarketing.AI gave me a quick online demonstration of the product today. He asked for a few keywords, entered them into the AI tool and it generated a blog post. The style was chatty, if a bit wordy, but very readable and not that different to marketing material I am sent every day. The same keywords produced something shorter, with hashtags and icons, as suits a tweet. The idea of the product is that small business people who are not marketing specialists, and can't afford to hire any, can quickly create material for people to read. I was skeptical, but the output is remarkably readable, using a Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT-3).

Such a product could be useful for STEM entrepreneurs, who go though the start-up process, finding inventing the product easy but marketing it hard. It would be interesting to feed the text from Simple Marketing's tool into Vidnami, which turns text into videos.

However, this technology has the potential to cause difficulties for teachers and academics, if students and researchers use it to generate plausible assignments and papers. There have already been instances of AI generated papers being accepted for publication. It is acceptable to use a program to check your spelling and grammar, but how much can the algorithm do, before it is not your work?

Sunday, February 14, 2021

ANU 2025 Strategic Plan

The Australian National University has invited comment on its ANU 2025 Strategic Plan. Like previous consultations, for the ANU Strategic Plan 2017-2021, this is a very broad invitation to the community, not restricted to staff and students.

In suggestions for the 2017 plan I wrote:

"... a campus should be seen as a supplement to the primary way universities already carry out their mission: in the digital realm. This allows greater equity, with those of limited means able to work, research and study at university without having to leave their community. ..."

By 2021, I suggest the typical Australian university student will still attend classes, but for only 20% of their program, with the other 80% on-line. .."

The prediction online working came true a year early, regrettably forced by COVID-19.As many universities found, it was feasible to move from blended to pure online working (Cochrane et al., 2020).

However, it should not be assumed that the COVID-19 pandemic will end soon, or that other situations will not keep students from campus. It will therefore be prudent to design an online option into every course, even after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Also it would be prudent to design research and work procedures so most staff need not be on campus.

Previously, I had suggested ANU invest in flexible classrooms and lecture theaters with retractable seating. This was done with the Kambri development at ANU, which opened in 2019. This worked well before the pandemic (Worthington, 2019) and was useful for implementing social distancing in response.

However, Australian universities now face a much larger threat than COVID-19, with onshore international student numbers expected to drop 60% by 2030, due to international competition (Guthrie et al., 2021). I suggest a flexible blend of quality onshore, offshore and online learning to remain competitive. Online courses with a mix of domestic and international students have worked, as envisioned (Worthington, 2014).

The main challenge with a blended approach is having staff who are sufficiently skilled to implement it. As well as support staff, this requires tutors and lecturers who are trained and qualified both in their primary discipline and in teaching. I suggest this be addressed by offering teacher training to both undergraduate and postgraduate students, as part of their degrees. The same training can be offered to external professionals, and staff, as micro and short credentials.


Cochrane, T., Birt, J., Cowie, N., Deneen, C., Goldacre, P., Narayan, V., ... & Worthington, T. (2020, November). A Collaborative Design Model to Support Hybrid Learning Environments During COVID19. InProceedings of the ASCILITE 37th International Conference on Innovation, Practice and Research in the Use of Educational Technologies in Tertiary Education, Armidale, Australia(Vol. 30). URL

Gwilym Croucher, Kristine Elliott, William Locke and Edward Yencken (0 Mar 2020)Australia’s higher education delivery offshore and online – trends, barriers and opportunities, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. URL

James Guthrie, Martina K Linnenluecke, Ann Martin-Sardesai, Yun Shen, and Tom Smith (January 2020).On the resilience of Australian public universities: Why our institutions may fail unless Vice-Chancellors rethink broken business models, Macquarie University Business School working paper. 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.

Worthington, T. (2019, December). Blend and Flip for Teaching Communication Skills to Final Year International Computer Science Students. In2019 IEEE International Conference on Engineering, Technology and Education (TALE)(pp. 1-5). IEEE. URL

Thursday, February 11, 2021

How to Teach Online as Part of a Team

These are the notes for an extra webinar, in addition to the four on "Engaging students in the online environment", Wednesday, 17 February at 11 am AEDT Sydney time (Tuesday, 5 pm MST in Edmonton). This is part of the Microlearning Series at Maskwacis Cultural College in Canada, curated by Manisha Khetarpal. Please register for the webinar and send your suggestions. Presentation Powerpoint and PDF available.

Manisha suggested an additional webinar to explore issued raised in the previous ones. In particular,  how can teaching staff convert courses for online delivery, while continuing to teach and carry out other responsibilities. This is an issue confronting educational systems, institutions, and individual teachers.

The Australian National University recently invited comment on its ANU 2025 Strategic Plan. As with the previous 2017-2021 plan, I suggest the major issue is the transition to online working. However, this has to be done while keeping the day to day teaching and research happening. 

There may be educational designers and educational technologists brought in from a central pool, or contracted companies, to help convert courses. However, teachers need to do a considerable amount of work to collect teaching material, discuss online learning options, evaluate proposals, review drafts, alpha test designs, beta test with students, collate test results and recommend changes. 

As an IT professional and educational designer, I have decades of training and experience in design, test and delivery of such complex systems, but it is still not easy.  Many teachers have no formal training in online education and don't have years to do it (or the tens of thousands of dollars this education cost me).


"Blended and Online Learning Design" from UCL through Future Learn

The first step I suggest is for the teacher to experience being an online student in a short course about teaching online. Such dogfooding is useful in showcasing good online teaching techniques, building the teacher's confidence and giving them the sense they are not alone by participating in group exercises with other teachers. There are many courses of a few hours, to a few days, duration available free online. One I tried out recently was "Blended and Online Learning Design" from UCL through Future Learn (set up by the UK Open University).


Live Discussion on Hybrid Learning at ASCILITE 2020 Conference

Teachers should look to their professional associations, both teaching and discipline based, for guidance and support with online learning. As an IT professional who teaches I am a member of IT and education bodies which provide training, advice, and someone to listen. This is not just about the technical aspects of teaching, but of being a professional. It is useful to remind teachers that being a professional is not about working long unpaid hours, it is about deciding what is most important to do with the resources available (especially your own time). 

When given an impossible workload, the responsible professional makes recommendations to their boss as to what should be done and not accept the reply "do everything!". Where given no workable set of priorities, the individual professional must apply their own judgement. Attempting to do everything, knowing this is impossible is bad for the teacher, for their students, and ultimately for the community. Professional associations can be useful in seeking guidance and getting support in this situation.

As an IT professional I am a member of the Australian Computer Society (which is affiliated with the Canadian Information Processing Society). As I teach at a university, I am also a member of education bodies, such as the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE). Last year I attended weekly online meetings of ASCILITE's Mobile Learning Special Interest Group, then help write and deliver some papers at the annual conference, with some of the group.


Mapping SFIA skills to public service levels

Online learning lends itself to the use of standards. Rather than trying to invent everything from scratch, the teacher can apply a standard set down by international, national, local, discipline or professional bodies. When designing industry training or a university course I look for some defined skill definition to base the learning on. This might be set by the institution, or the profession. They then can look for pre-prepared learning materials, including free open access ones, to use. This can include electronic versions of old fashioned text books, as well as videos, interactive materials, and educational games.

As an example of standards the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) has a set of skills definitions for computer professionals. The Queensland State Government in Australia has mapped the SFIA Skills to public service levels. If designing a vocational course, this provides a useful shortcut (once you have found your way around all of SFIA's levels).


Unit of competency details CPCPSN3011 - Plan the layout of a residential sanitary plumbing system and fabricate and install sanitary stacks

The teacher needs to keep in mind the aim is to provide skills and knowledge for their students. The best way to do this may not be to teach everything which was in a face to face course, or test it the same way online. Often courses have accumulated content which someone thought a good idea in the past. If the content is not going to be tested, then it should not be included in the course. If there is no way to test it, then there is no point in teaching it. Online communication offer new options for teaching and testing. The student can learn using simulations, or in a real workplace, with their performance of the task as the test. This approach works for plumbers and programmers. As an example in the Australian vocational education system, a prospective plumber needs to plan the layout of plumbing, to show they know how to do that.

Loose Integration

Robert Lester and satellite communications for K95
Tom Worthington updating the K95 website at Mallacoota

Online courses delivered to thousands of students have to be tightly integrated for maximum efficiency. The learning materials guide each of the thousands of students through the steps required. However, this requires a large team of highly skilled staff to design, test and maintain. This is not something a teacher can do part time on their own. Instead they can design an online shell which tells the student what the steps required are and provides pointers to the materials needed. The materials can be in many different formats on different online systems. The student will need more frequent help from a teacher with this, and there will be more manual work for the teacher to do. However, this is much quicker to set up, and allows greater flexibility.

As an example of loose integration providing flexibility, in 1995 I was on holidays on the Australian south east coast. At the same time I was updating the website for an Australian Defence Force exercise taking place at the other end of the continent. The defence media people would send me reports by email, which I would then add to the website. I did not have to speak to the media people, or have any video conferences, just collect, post and reply.

Senior Science TeachMeet, February 21

"meriSTEM are hosting a simple online TeachMeet for the meriSTEM Teacher Community. Whether you’re perfectly organised for the year or wildly rushing about the staffroom, take an hour to reflect, inspire and invigorate your lessons for the second half of term." 

From meriSTEM (modular educational resources in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), The Australian National University, 2021

ANU's meriStem provides science teachers with free teaching materials, plus forums on how to better teach science.

ANU Coffee Courses on Teaching & Learning with Technology

"The coffee course is equivalent to a one-hour or two-hour training session, but broken down into small pieces. Grab a cup of coffee (or tea) while you do a short reading or activity at morning tea time, at your own desk. It should take about 15 minutes a day, over one week. You just need to subscribe to the ANU Coffee Courses blog to get the updates as they happen, and join in at any time.

We often also schedule an optional face-to-face catchup to discuss the topic over coffee." From "ANU Coffee Courses on Teaching & Learning with Technology", ANU, 2021

There are longer online teaching courses provided free though consortia such as edX. Canadian examples are "Teaching With Technology and Inquiry: An Open Course For Teachers" from University of Toronto, Blended Learning Practice and Learning to Learn Online  from Athabasca University. 

ASCILITE Open Educational Practice SIG

"This webinar was presented by the ASCILITE Open Educational Practice SIG on 24 September 2019 and presented by Jay Cohen, Associate Professor Transform Online Learning at Charles Sturt University. The SIG convenors are Adrian Stagg (University of Queensland), Carina Bossu (The Open University UK) and Michael Cowling (CQUniversity).
The session detailed how Charles Sturt University’s Transforming Online Learning (TOL) project has incorporated an agile approach to online subject development so that learning design for an online cohort of students can occur at scale, by presenting the experience of a pilot within the Business Faculty. Agile is an iterative approach to project management that, in this instance has afforded learning designers the opportunity to develop online learning subjects at scale more quickly quicker and with fewer errors." From: ASCILITE OEP-SIG webinar "Scaling Online Education" by Jay Cohen, CSU 24 Sept 2019