Monday, June 28, 2021

A $4 Green Screen for Zoom Background

Tom Worthington
in chroma key body suit,
without hood, so just face shows
For the last year and a half I have been giving workshops from home, via Zoom, for students in Australia, also presenting a series of seminars for educators in North America. The background in my lounge/office is a wall, with a couple of posters, must be getting very familiar to people. Zoom has the option to replace the background with a photo, or even your presentation slides, but this works best with a uniformly colored background. Zoom recommends a green background. 

Tom Worthington in
chroma key body in front of green screen

This techniques is called Chroma key, where a specific color in an image is replaced with another image. While any color works, there are two standard ones used in the video industry, a bright green and a bright blue. If you use the standard colors, you can use props which match and will disappear into the background. An extreme example is having a person disappear.

Tom Worthington
in chroma key body suit
with hood covering face
Chroma key color cloth is commonly available for sale online. Recently I found a green chromakey bodysuit at a secondhand store. This is used for special effects. Covering the entire body, including hands and face, with the matching background, the wearer disappears. This could be used by assistants who need to walk on set or to make objects appear to move on their own. Those running online invigilated exams need to keep in mind the suit could be used to hide someone helping the student.

Tom Worthington
using the green screen
in normal clothes
Apple colored
Top Pop Poplin
from Spotlight
Being impatient to try out a green screen, I went to a local haberdashery store and purchased some green cloth (2 m of Apple colored Top Pop Poplin, from Spotlight, at $2 per m). I then clipped this to my room screen.  With a width of just under 2m and a height of 1.16 m this was enough to fill the background for the camera. This cloth is a little darker than the usual chroma key green, but worked well.

COVID-19 is the end of the in-person lecture: long live the in-person lecture

In "COVID-19 is no excuse to end the live and in-person lecture" Lyndon Megarrity (James Cook University) argues killing the lecture is a bad idea. In the same edition of  Campus Morning Mail (28 July 2021) Dr Rhiannon Lee White of Western Sydney University says that "Teaching: what works on and off campus is different". I suggest they are both wrong: what works on and off campus is the same, but lectures, live or recorded, are not a very useful part of either. I gave up lectures ten years ago and now design for online learning, with optional face to face components.

Lecturers Are Over-invested in Lectures: Students Are not

COVID-19 has forced learning online, but most students were not attended most lectures even before. Research shows that a face to face lecture is no more useful for learning outcomes, than a video conference, or a video, or reading a book. Universities are retaining tutorials, online or face to face, as these provide interaction and active participation from students missing from old fashioned talk and chalk lectures and their modern vid-and-slide equivalents.

There is no conspiracy from vice-chancellors to kill the lecture to save money. Given the sunk cost in the stock of lecture theaters, there are few short term savings from leaving the idle, as compared with mostly empty, as they were before COVID-019.

Lectures can be isolating for students, who sit in a big room with people who all appear to know more about the topic than they do, thus reinforcing the impostor syndrome rampant at universities. Students don't get to know each other during lectures, as they are required to sit still and be quiet while the lecturer talks. If they ask a question they risk ridicule from the lecturer in front of their peers, so most do not. 

The realization which dawns on students at university is that you are, mostly, on your own. Unfortunately university, through marketing materials foster a myth that it is a happy mutually supportive environment, with professors helping each student individually. This worsens the anxiety for the students who therefore feel they must be dong something wrong. With a class of hundreds of students, no professor can give all the students individual attention. There is no substitute for well designed course materials, supported by tools and tutors, to help each student with their study. This ca be aided by group work (which students hate, but is good the them).

It is certainly easier for lecturers if all students are forced to attend lectures on campus. However, even without a deadly global pandemic, there are reasons why most potential students cannot attend a campus, and never could. Forcing students to class is effectively saying: "If you are rich, privileged, live in a city, do not have a job, do not have children or others to care for, or other community responsibility, then sure you can come to university". 

One of the dirty little secrets is that most Australian university lecturers are not qualified to teach and would not be permitted in front of a class at a school or TAFE. Standing up and talking to a class is only a very small part of teaching and one of the lest important and least effective. Lecturers who take the time and trouble to learn to teach will discover there are many more effective ways to do it. 

No Need to Change Learning and Design

As Dr Lee White points out that, as terrible as COVID-19 has been, it provided an opportunity to rethink learning design. This rethink moves the emphasis away from the classroom, physical or virtual, out to the wider world. However, this is a less which those who teach professional skills, such as computing and engineering already knew. While theory can be covered in a classroom, or better still online. Students need to interact with outer students, with experienced professionals and with clients. 

As Dr Lee White notes, the key approach for a more hand on form of learning is asynchronous. The instructor explains to the student what they need to do, provides tools and then lets them try to do it. The student then checks in regularly, to see how they are doing. But this is not really about on campus or online, it is about an approach to teaching.

In 2008 I had the good fortune to be asked to design a professional development course on green computing for the Australian Computer Society. I documented the design process in 21 blog posts and a conference paper. The course was first delivered in 2009 and was later offered through the Australian National University,  and Universities Australia. It is currently offered by Athabasca University, Canada. This is in asynchronous mode, with no video conference and no face to face lectures. I still design courses much the same way, but with face to face or videoconferencing, where possible, as an optional extra. 

As an experienced university lecturer, the idea that my lectures were about the least useful part of a student's education was hard to accept. It was only through years of formal training, where I became a student (of education), experiencing alternative techniques, that I really understood what to do. We need to give university lecturers that learning experience. 

Friday, June 25, 2021

Plea for Courses and Conferences to Remain Online Post-Pandemic

This is a request to those planning higher education and professional courses, as well as academic and professional conferences, to retain an online option after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Universities, and most conference organizers, were able to quickly switch to online delivery last year. Many universities are now planning to offer hybrid mode. Many conferences are planning the same. However, some conferences are dropping the online option this year and universities might do the same with courses, when restrictions on travel are lifted. I suggest in the short term this is a risk to the financial viability of these organisations and the safety of the public. It also will prevent many people from taking part. Given that the online option has been shown to be feasible and useful, it can't simply be taken away. 

The difficult task for those offering education and conferences is what to do as, hopefully, COVID-19 is brought under control. If students and delegates can again get to face to face events, can we simply such down the online option? This is a difficult business, ethical and legal question. 

During for the next year or more, as vaccines are made available, there will be more opportunity to travel. However, particularly internationally, there may be limitations. An approach being adopted by most universities is hybrid, or dual, delivery, with some students in the classroom and some online at the same time. Hybrid mode is more difficult that either classroom or online modes. It will require more equipment, skills and staff. It may also lessen the quality of the experience for the students, than either single mode. It will cost more for institutions in the short term. The temptation is to drop hybrid mode as soon as possible and require students to return to campus.

Similarly, online conferences have worked well for the last year.  The lack of informal contact and visiting exotic locations has been compensated for by lower conference costs and easier access. Some organizers are now planning hybrid events. However, some, such as ASCILITE, are uncertain how to price the online option. Others such as HERDSA and ACEN are not planning to offer an online option.

Pre-COVID, most universities and conferences argued that an online option was not feasible. Last year proved that was not true and the online option has been found use not just for those kept away by COVID-19 restrictions. Not every student or delegate could get to a venue in the past, nor will be able to in the future. They may have a physical disability, job, family or community obligations which prevent attending face to face. It may just be that they cannot afford to get to the venue, or simply not want to. Given that online access has been shown to be possible, why take it away?

It should be noted the pure online events and blended ones are not new. I have helped run, speak at and attend such events over the last decade. An example is "Public Sphere #1 - High Bandwidth for Australia", which I assisted Senator Kate Lundy with in 2009. This used video streaming from ANU with Twitter for the back-channel.  

Some events have had a main and satellite venues, and some "follow the sun" formats. With the satellite model, one central authority runs the event and the other locations provide a place for viewing and for speakers to present from. A longstanding event using satellite locations is GovHack. This has had satellites ranging from large university halls, through company meeting rooms, to a handful of people in a cafe, around a laptop. In 2012 I surprised delegates of GovHack by appearing at the opening at the main venue in Canberra, and then at the closing at the satellite in Sydney. 

With "follow the sun" venues in time zones spread around the globe take turns running the event, during their business hours. The 2010 Hacking for humanity, was run from UNSW Sydney, as well as Nairobi, Jakarta, and Washington. The 2012 International Education Conference On-Line Festival has three venues roughly equally distributed around the world: University of Southern Queensland, University of Leicester (UK) and Athabasca University (Canada). 

There are difficult business issues with offering a blended event. The online option is seen as lower quality and so the customer expects a lower price. Universities are in a stronger position with this, as the student gets the same qualification after on-campus or online study. The costs of providing courses are mostly in teaching and administrative staff, which are much the same online. There will be some transitional cost, where universities have stocks of old, mostly unused lecture halls. 

The issue for conferences is more difficult than universities. The product is much less tangible. At an academic conference the delegate, who is a speaker, gets the same opportunity to present and have a paper published. But the opportunity for informal discussions is less online. If the conference offers an online option, even if it is not for a discounted fee, the delegate's employer may require them to take it to save travel and accommodation costs. That could result in face to face conferences disappearing.

However, it needs to be kept in mind that most academics in the world cannot attend national or international conferences, simply because they can't afford to. The advent of online conferences has allowed many more to attend. Removing the online option excludes most potential delegates from attending.

For the next year, no one will know with certainty when it will be safe to attend a class, or a conference, in person, or when a lock-down may occur. Simply announcing face to face events and hoping for the best is not an acceptable option. In particular, universities and professional societies have an obligation to act in the public interest. For-profit companies also are under legal obligations not to discriminate against particular groups when providing services such as education.

Collaboration Tools Have Limitations with Large Numbers of Users

The ASCILITE TELedvisors and Learning Design co-webinar: Learning design for ePortfolios presented some ideas on portfolio pedagogy  and assessment. However, I found the demonstration of the Miro collaborative whiteboard very confusing. This illustrates the problem of real time online collaboration with a large number of people. 

There were about 40 people editing in Miro simultaneously. On my old laptop with a low speed broadband connection what I saw was trippy, but not very informative.

First some jellyfish floated by, while small tropical fish darted about. It turned out the jellyfish were actually a bubble diagram and the fish were the color coded pointers of the people editing. Later some text appeared which eventually lined up with the bubbles. But I still couldn't work out what this was because there were still pointers darting about and the content constantly changing.

It was only when I took a screen shot to write a commentary on this queasy experience that I could see what I was looking at. It was part of a rubric used for assessing student work. The bubbles where to highlight key points for the students, with lines running off to part of the student's assignment (which was not on screen).

My impression was this was a tool which might work with a small group of a half dozen people, if they had suitably speedy Internet. But I don't know how you would handle accessibility of the freehand drawing for people who can't see the lines.

I have taken part in group activities using document collaboration tools. These cope with a slow link better, as they don't have to transmit hand drawn images. However, with more than a half dozen people editing, it still gets very confusing. Pointers fly around and text appears, disappears and moves in front of your eyes. But with a small number of people it can be very productive. Communicating by audio it is like a multiplayer game: "Okay I am going to tackle the introduction, while you kill that second table...". ;-)

However, as I found, a group collaboration where your technology, or your understanding can't keep up can be intensely frustrating. This is especially the case with students online, who can't simply put up their had to ask a tutor what they should be doing. As a student I had that experience for much of my three years studying online for a graduate degree. For an inexperienced student, this can induce dangerous levels of stress.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Low Cost Lapel Microphone for Webinars

Lapel Microphone with Earphone Jack
The sound with a headset and boom microphone is excellent, but I was getting tired of wearing these after 18 months of heavy Zooming. So I now have a lapel microphone. This differs from the ones normally used for audio recording, as it has a microphone/earphone plug compatible with smartphones and modern laptops. It also has a pop filter and comes with a socket for plugging in an optional earphone. It was on special for less than $AU12 in a local electronic shop.

The sound from a microphone near the presenter's mouth is better from that on a desktop computer. The lapel microphone can be secured to clothing, so it doesn't flap around, like those on earbud cables, being a distraction and making rustling sounds. Some prefer a wireless microphone, but that requires batteries which may fail. Also the cable stops you from wandering out of shot. ;-)

Lavalier Microphone

Headset Splitter Adapter
If you do want to be wireless, you can plug the microphone into your mobile phone and use that for the audio, while the desktop computer is used for video. There are also adapters which allow separate microphones and earphones to be plugged, and earphones with a clip on the inline microphone. Zoom and most other video-conference applications have an option for audio to come from a phone and combine this with video from a computer. It has the advantage that if the computer link is lost, you can keep talking using the phone. 

Most convenient I have found is to put the microphone and earphone cables down the inside front of my jacket, to the phone in a pocket. This way, if I need to I can get up and walk around. This is much as a lecture theater wireless lapel microphone is used, but the range is longer: anywhere the mobile network is available. 

Stanford University Computer Science Zoom Class a Quantum Leap Backwards

Stanford University's large scale Zoom class
I had to check twice to see Stanford University's large scale Zoom class was not a spoof. With this setup the lecturer stands at a lectern in an otherwise empty room. In front of them is a wall of video screens, showing the students, each in their Zoom window. It is not the first time that this idea of replicating the large lecture has been attempted, but is perhaps the worst one. Previous examples were using hybrid mode. This had a small number of students in the classroom, with video screens at the back to make it appear they were in the room.

CSU College of Business collaborative classroom.
Photo by CSU Photography
In 2019, Colorado State University’s College of Business installed 27 high-video screens on the back wall of a classroom. The room also had seating for 37 students, in a semicircle, to give an intimate environment. This is a much better design than that at Stanford. 

There have been video studios for teaching, for at least the last 50 years, with the advent of the Open University. The best of these look like TV studios. That format may be distracting for academics unused to it. However, for those of us who have put in the hours and done the training in how to produce educational video, this is just part of the job.

The Internet provides new and different ways to provide education. Some of these can be used to reproduce features from older education format, such as the lecture. However, we should try to incorporate the good features, not bad ones. 

Education should be designed to cater to the needs of the students, not to make up for inadequacies of the teaching staff. Academics who see themselves as orators to crowds need to be given help to retrain and also overcome the sense of loss of part of their identity. Taking a poor educational format (the large lecture) and making it even poorer online is not an acceptable alternative to good learning design delivered by trained qualified educators.

ps: I suggest this is a quantum leap backwards in education. But in the technical sense of the term quantum: the smallest possible change. ;-)

Essay Mill Website Blocked Under Australia Law

Essay Mill Website Before Ban
Websites which offer to write assignments for students are now banned under Australian law. The first example of such an essay mill, I have seen blocked was offering anything from a one page undergraduate paper to a complete PhD thesis, for about $20 a page. The site now displays in Australia 'The service is unavailable in Australia under the "Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment" law.'. Curiously this does not give the full title of the legislation, leaving out "Prohibiting Academic Cheating". So I think this may be action by the website provider, to avoid prosecution, than by the relevant government agency. 

It is easy enough to get around this for the desperate student. The website provider can they try to deny any wrongdoing. However, the student is likely to be disappointed when, despite assurances of the supplier, their deception is detected, and they are subject to academic disciplinary procedures. Students who are studying for entry into a profession need to keep in mind that there may be very severe legal consequences if they cheat and so are not competent to do their job.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Solving the Big Problems

 Greetings from the Superfloor of the Marie Reay Teaching Centre at the Australian National University, were I am taking part in a planning meeting of the new Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions (ICEDS). This merges three previous institutes, on disaster, energy and climate. The new name also emphasizes finding solutions, not just identifying problems. The Vice Chancellor emphasized this in his opening address, while reminding us of the challenges the university had faced recently, with fire and flood, as well as COVID-19, he suggested a positive attitude for the future.

After some speeches the people from across the university will look at what to concentrate on. There is a list of dozens of potential topics proposed, which needs to be refined.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Teaching Hybrid Mode is More Work But Double

Naaman Zhou and Soofia Tariq have reported that hybrid learning will double the workload of academic staff (Australian universities ramping up ‘hybrid’ learning means double the work for same pay, staff say, The Guardian, 20 July 2021). Also known as "dual delivery", hybrid is where the instructor(s) and some students are in a classroom on campus, while others are remote using a video-conference system such as Zoom. This will take some increased staffing and  new skills, but not many or much. An instructor who has a well designed lesson plan and engages with students will have few difficulties. Unfortunately many Australian academics lack these skills, even for classroom teaching. One solution is to keep the hybrid short, simple, and as much like classroom teaching as possible.

Having to do hybrid teaching is a good problem to have. The low prevalence of COVID-19 in Australia allows a return to the classroom. However, not everyone, particularly some international students, can get to an Australian classroom. So there is still a need for remote education. Also, some students will never be able to get to a classroom due to disabilities, work and family commitments. So remote provision of edition is something which should be routinely provided by all universities permanently.

Alternatives to Hybrid

Hybrid mode is not the only option. Universities could decide for some courses that face-to-face classes are not needed. I designed a course in ICT Sustainability for online delivery in 2008. This course has been run each year for a decade, without ever having a classroom component.

Later I completed a whole degree online in another country, without setting foot on campus, or getting a student visa. However, there are many students and topics which would benefit from face to face activities with other students. Direct contact with a teacher is less important, but also useful. While I was already an experienced online learner, and was studying how to teach online, I still yearned to be in a room with my fellow students and lecturers.

Another alternative to hybrid mode is to offer separate on campus and online classes. This is simpler to deliver, as the instructor doesn't have to keep switching their attention from the local and remote students. However, it requires almost twice as much staff time, as classes have to be delivered twice. Almost twice as much, as the preparation time can be shared by using the same lesson plan for both online and face to face. Also hybrid mode may require more staff for the live delivery, due to the added workload.

Teaching Techniques for Hybrid

The Australian National University has been equipping what it calls Dual Delivery rooms since 2020. However, as the ANU Centre for Learning and Teaching points out, much depends on the way the learning is designed, not the hardware setup. However, I suggest there is little difference between a class in a large room and a hybrid class: both require preparation and  techniques to get students to actively participate.

A major challenge is to get students to attend class at all. Before COVID-19, students would typically attend only about one third of lectures. Of those who did attend, it was difficult to determine how many were actively engaged. The solutions for a room, online, or both, are much the same. Lecturers need to give students a good reason to attend class, such as by linking it to assessment (but not giving marks just for attendance). Students should be given something to do in class, not just listen to a slide show, which could have been prerecorded.

In 2019 I redesigned my learning delivery to allow for face to face, online or hybrid modes. As the design was already blended (a mix of online and face to face components), this was not difficult. This is an approach I suggest is simplest for academics to implement. 

With this online plus approach you design for online asynchronous delivery, then add synchronous or classroom components, as required and where possible. This is essentially an adaption of pre-Internet distance education. With this approach you do not have to change any materials or plans, or divide students into different categories, to change modes.

This approach requires a level of discipline. Course materials need to be produced well in advance of when they are needed. This does not require everything to be pre-scripted. There can be placeholders with just a topic and some general preparatory materials for when the lecturer was to ad-lib. Obviously the recording of what they did say needs to be made available after the live to air event.

Lecturers also need to avoid the temptation to produce broadcast quality video. The quality makes no difference to student's learning. There is no need to edit live presentations.  

MidFlex Minimal Hybrid Format

The minimal format for a hybrid version of a "lecture", I suggest is to have the lecturer present from the lectern. Their voice can be captured both by the room audio system and the videoconferencing system. These systems may be linked, requiring just one microphone. The visuals on the lecturers computer will be display on a room screen and sent out. The lecturer will also see text comments from students on their console.

What is not needed in the minimal format is vision of the lecturer for remote participants. A still image of them at the beginning of the lecture is sufficient. Also, while desirable, the lecturer does not need to see the remote students, and the students do not need to hear or see each other. This minimal hybrid format could be called MidFlex, in contrast to the HyFlex approach (Beatty, 2007).

If there is the capability a hand held or ceiling mounted microphones can be used for student questions to be heard both by those in the room and remotely. However, this requires a well setup audio system, to prevent feedback. Even if the sound is working well the lecturer should still summarize the question or comment, as they would do in a conventional lecture 

If possible remote participants should ask questions with audio. Otherwise the lecturer reads out the comment from the text chat. However, this can be very distracting and ideally there will be another staff member, or a student, monitoring the chat and relaying questions.

When it comes time for group discussion, those in the room should be formed into groups separate from those online. Quizzes and polls can be conducted using the same online system for those in the room using their smartphones and those remote.

Much more sophisticated setups are possible, if equipment and trained staff are available. At the ACT TAFE (now Canberra Institute of Technology) I learned to direct live-to-air TV productions. These had at least three cameras, each with an operator, in touch with a director who would be setting up the shots. However, a university needs to have many hundreds of students enrolled in a class to be worth using this approach. Professor Samuel Richards used it to good effect at Penn State University for his large scale, lively, sociology lectures.

Example of a Good Hybrid Presentation

Dr Fatemeh Vafaee, UNSW, presented a seminar on Big data and AI – driving personalised medicine of the future” at ANU last Friday. This was a good example of the use of the hybrid format. 

The invitation to the event contain a brief summary of the topics to be covered, a link to the speakers lab, a photo and biography. The latter two are often forgotten for regular universality lecturers, with it assumed the students know who the lecturer is. However, students need reminding that lecturers are not just teachers, and are experienced professionals worth listening to.  

The event was held in Seminar Room 1.33 in the Hanna Neumann Building (145 Science Road). This was equipped for videoconferencing when built. That hardware has now been integrated so it can be used with Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

The room has multiple cameras, but only one is normally used, showing the lectern and space between it and the projection screen. This allows the presenter some space to walk around, while still being in shot. Otherwise not much of the presenter can be seen over the lectern and presentations become very static.

The room's audio system has been integrated with video conferencing, so the lectern microphone and handheld microphones can be used both for sound enforcement in the room and for remote participants.  There is a computer monitor on the lectern to display what the audience sees. 

The master of ceremonies for the event, Professor Steve Blackburn, welcomed the local and remote attendees, gave a rundown of what would happen when. He also explained he would be monitoring the text chat from remote participants and would verbalize questions for the speaker. Steve sat in the front row right in front of the speaker, so he could easily get their attention. He sat a laptop on an empty chair next to him, so he could occasionally glance down to check for questions (a smart phone or tablet would be easier to hold but less capable).

At the end of the presentation, Professor Blackburn reminded participants in the room to wait to be handed the microphone, so everyone could hear.

The microphone has an on/off switch, so that there is a way to mute extraneous sounds. However, apart from that all the controls for the A/V are on or near the lectern, which is ideal for just a face to face presentation, but a problem for hybrid mode, where a second person will be assisting.

Flip Your Thinking

Before COVID-19, about 30% of Australian university students attended lectures. With online learning now proven at scale, and universities set up to provide it, the proportion of students attending on campus could be expected to drop to around 20%. This is not to say that for the 20% students attending on campus this is not important, it will be more so. But universities and academics need to flip their thinking: normal learning is online, and in a classroom is something different. 

It is a waste of resources for universities to routinely book a room for 100 students knowing that about 20 will turn up. It would be far better to accept this reality and provide correctly sized rooms, well equipped for online delivery (where most of the students will be) and a comfortable space for those who can get to campus.


Beatty, B. J. (2007). Hybrid classes with flexible participation options–If you build it, how will they come. 2007 Annual Proceedings-Anaheim: Volume15

Friday, June 18, 2021

Coordinating Reviews of Scientific Research

Greetings from the MLSIG of ASCILITE. The group is considering  undertaking a review of mobile learning research. Members with a medical background suggested registering this with the International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews, better known as (PROSPERO), or the Campbell Collaboration. The idea is to prevent duplication of effort and foster collaboration. It will be interesting to see how this works. 

The review process in medicine it appears to be a far more systematic process, using tools to search for articles, recording which were considered relevant, but also which were not.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

HERDSA mid winter networking & pre-conference meeting in Canberra

HERDSA mid winter networking
& pre-conference meeting
Greetings from the HERDSA mid winter networking & pre-conference meeting at ACU in Canberra. These are previews for  HERDSA 2021 Conference, of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA), in Brisbane, 7 – 10 July 2021.

  1. Gavin  Mount UNSW Canberra: Student wellbeing: A community of practice staff survey.
  2. Carol Hayes ANU: Creating the advanced Japanese tertiary languageteacher’s network across Australia, NZ and Singapore.
  3. Elke Stracke UC: Dialogue in doctoral supervision: The Feedback Expectation Tool (FET).
  4. Fiona Campbell ALIA: Where do new ideas come from? The problem withproblem-solving.
  5. Marie Fisher ACU & Pam Roberts CSU: Innovation or auto-repeat? What inspires me to commit to the long-haul journey on continuous improvement of teaching practice?
  6. Joe Northey UC: Perceived impact of COVID19 on the development of first year university student employability skills
The first conference preview was from Gavan Mount from UNSW on supporting student wellbeing. They have a community of practice on integrating student wellbeing into the teaching, rather than as something done by a separate unit. He said it was important to talk to sessional teachers. One important question he suggests is what are the boundaries for teaching staff in dealing with student wellbeing and the risk of becoming too involved. It was interesting that Gavan did not focus on COVID-19 until the end. This is refreshing after a year and a half of presentations about nothing but.

Carol Hayes, ANU talked on e-learning for language teaching with a teachers network across Australia, NZ and Singapore. They suggest the research findings apply more generally to the humanities, but one finding I suggest is of more widespread significance: differing vies between staff and students as to what an "advanced" course is. It was interesting that some of the student materials were anime and manga.

Elke Stracke UC presented on a tool for dialogue in doctoral supervision. Elke said there was not much research on pedagogic practice of research supervision, which I found surprising, given the number of advanced degree research students, the cost of their training and importance to the economy. The tool is a one page questionnaire for students and supervisors, where they agree or disagree with statements about the role of each. 

Something which struck me was that many of the questions were procedural and perhaps should be answered by the institution. However, even in areas where the answer should be clear, I suggest they can be changed for learning purposes. As an example, I should and usually know the deliverables and deadlines for student work, but I still ask the student what they are, so I know that they know. A paper has been published (Stracke & Kumar, 2020).

Fiona Campbell ALIA/UTS explained the presentation is based on her PhD on creativity: how do we develop cognitive flexibility. I must admit to doubts as to if you can teach creativity. In helping teach innovation at start-up centers and in hackerthons I am not so much teaching how to be creative as to direct the person's creative ability to a useful end.

Robert Kennelly talked about "TATAL: Talking about teaching and learning". I went through the TATAL process, around the same time as that for the Higher Education Academy, and  CMALT. Robert invited people at the meeting to talk about their TATAL experience. I explained that I was attempting to obtain multiple teaching accreditation and having difficulty with the required reflection. Attending TATAL meetings with people also going through the same challenges helped me with HEA Fellowship, although I abandoned attempts at CMALT and HERDSA Fellowship.

Joe Northey UC pointed out that researching the impact of a pandemic on employability skills was not planned. He quipped that nobody planned for a pandemic (I quipped back that I did). Very relevantly Joe is from a health faculty. He described how the first year was revised with a professional core. Each students starts their study with a unit on professional practice. This sounds like something which could be applied to my area of computing , to form the graduate's identity as a professional. Joe described creating a tool to help the students by having them rate themselves on employability skills. This started in 2019 and the pre assessment was one face to face in 2020. The shift to online learning provided a natural experiment. Obviously the inability of students to develop f2f skills was a factor. Some students found the online tools useful.

Pam Roberts talk about professional development for academics and what happened during COVID-19.


Campbell, F. C. (2018). Flow, resistance and thinking: a phenomenological study of creativity (Doctoral dissertation). URL

Schonell, S., Gilchrist, J., Kennelly, R., McCormack, C., Northcote, M., Ruge, G., & Treloar, G. (2016). TATAL: Talking about teaching and learning: Teaching philosophy workbook. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia. URL

Stracke, E., & Kumar, V. (2020). Encouraging Dialogue in Doctoral Supervision: The Development of the Feedback Expectation Tool. International Journal of Doctoral Studies15, 265-284. URL

Monday, June 14, 2021

International higher education forked at COVID19

Nicholas Mutton / A fork in the road
A fork in the road,
by Nicholas Mutton / CC BY-SA 2.0
In "International higher education at a crossroads post-COVID" Philip G Altbach and Hans de Wit argue that international education will return to normal in the next few years(University World News, 12 June 2021). However, the illustration for the article is not a crossroads, but a fork. That perhaps is a metaphor for how university have been getting higher education wrong: not so much making the wrong choices, but not understanding what the options are. I suggest we are already past the fork in the road: universities chose online education and there is no turning back and they should take the opportunity to make a better world with it.

Higher education has changed fundamentally. Distance education has been popularized, or perhaps more accurately proven feasible, but unpopular. ;-)

Research collaboration has been shown possible online.

Before COVID-19 I spent ten years teaching online, while studying how to do it better. My colleagues looked on this as an amusing quirk. With lock-downs, they suddenly wanted to know how.

Similarly with online research I had the occasional collaboration. But last year I worked with a much larger team online and we were much more productive. I produced two papers instead of one and helped present them at a virtual conference, instead of flying to the other side of the world.

Education will be radically transformed, through distance technology. One lesson I learned from studying practices at online university (which have existed for decades) is the discipline this imposes. Because of the limitations of the online format, better design, planning and systematic implementation of courses and research is needed. Some spontaneity is lost in the process, but much more is gained.

One area where more innovation is needed is in hybrid instruction. Universities and individual academics, are thinking that online learning went okay up until now, so how hard can hybrid (some in class, some online) be? The answer is that hybrid is much harder and will take more resources and skill than classroom and online teaching.

The pandemic showed that a campus is not needed for education.However, much work needs to be done to facilitate student to student, student to academic and academic to academic interaction online.

Interactions did not happen naturally on campus. Architects and administrators have been designing and refining campuses for hundreds of years to make interaction happen. The report "The Cambridge Phenomenon" described how this happened at Cambridge University to promote commercial spin-offs and universities have been creating the same conditions ever since.

International student choices are not going to return to "normal". The large numbers of students choosing to abroad up to 2019 was an aberration and this golden age for universities will not return. Now that students know they can study online they will choose to do so, at least for part of a degree.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Education for a Better World

Yesterday, President Biden announced that "The United States is rallying the world’s democracies to deliver for our people, meet the world’s biggest challenges, and demonstrate our shared values". I suggest part of this could be an online education program, to complement, rather than confront, China's Belt and Road Education Plan (Worthington, 2014 & 2018).

Expanding infrastructure in low and middle-income countries will required trained workers. The Build Back Better World  (B3W) program aims to invest trillions of dollars in developing countries infrastructure. That will require millions of trained professionals, in the fields of energy, health, digital technology, and education. 

I propose Australia be the lead partner for B3W Education, in the indo-pacific, but world wide. We can mobilize our decades of expertise in higher education. In doing so, we can create new opportunities around the world, as well as jobs at home.


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. (2018, December). Blended Learning for the Indo-Pacific. In 2018 IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering (TALE) (pp. 861-865). IEEE. URL

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Academic Comics Accessible?

Helen Kara has written an academic journal article in comic form. While innovative, as the text is part of the image it is not searchable, nor can it be turned into synthetic speech for someone who is blind. How can alternate text be provided for such an article? Do academic ethics require this? Does the law require it? Who's responsibility is it: the publisher, the author, or both? 

Timber-Frame Building Conference on top of a Six Story Timber Teaching Building

ANU Marie Reay Teaching Centre

WoodSolutions are holding a free half day conference on lightweight timber-frame and mass timber construction at the in Canberra, 23rd June. This will include a presentation on the venue for the event, the six story, timber framed, Marie Reay Teaching Centre,  by Architects BVNat the Australian National University. CPD certificates of attendance will be available for building professions. 

While this conference is aimed at building professionals, it is also an opportunity for education professionals to see to see this groundbreaking building in use for an event. I attended the previous conference and found it of great interest. University education in Australia is changing and not just temporarily due to COVID-19. This will require new building designs for new teaching methods and require them to be built quickly (Worthington, 2019).


12.00   Registration
12.30   Welcome: WoodSolutions

  •             Marie Reay, International and Damaru House:  Lendlease
  •             Prefabricated Timber Component  Cassette Floors and Stairs: Meyer Timber
  •             Timber Design and Occupants Wellness: PlanetARK
3.00     Afternoon Tea
3.30     NIOA Mass Timber Office Building Cast Study:  XLam Australia
            Understanding NCC\u2019s Performance-based design brief  - TDA
            Passive House principles for Timber: Raico Pacific
5.00     Finish


  •     Sean Bull, XLam Australia
  •     George Dolezal, Meyer Timber
  •     Andrew Dunn, TDA Andreas 
  • Luzzi, Raico Pacific
  •     David Rowlinson, PlanetARK
  •     Jeremy Tompson, Lendlease


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

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Why Are COVID-19 Vaccination Booking Websites So Difficult to Use? Webinar 2pm 9 June

There has been concern about the slow take-up of COVID-19 vaccinations. The Australian federal, state and territory governments and non-government clinics are providing website for eligible members of the public to book. 

In this seminar I will explore the questions:

  1. How hard are these websites to use? 
  2. How could this be made easier?
The content will be based on the blog post "Why Are the Federal & ACT COVID-19 Vaccination Booking Websites So Difficult to Use?" and and developed further here in this blog (contributions welcome). The draft presentation slides are available and a video presentation.

Topic: Why Are COVID-19 Vaccination Booking Websites So Difficult to Use?

Speaker: Tom Worthington, Honorary Lecturer, Computer Science, ANU

Time: 2pm Wednesday 9 June 2021, UTC+10 hours

Location: Seminar Room N101, CSIT Building, Australian National University, Canberra & via Zoom

Biography: Tom is an ANU honorary lecturer and former IT policy adviser to the Australian Department of Defence. He helped with the design of the humanitarian award winning Shana emergency system. Tom has lectured at ANU on the design of pandemic websites, as well as to emergency forums globally. He is a Past President and Honorary Life Member of the Australian Computer Society.