Friday, July 30, 2021

Virtual Reality in the Time of COVID

Generic disposable facial interface
Greetings from the weekly ASCILITE Mobile Learning Special Interest GroupThomas Cochrane raised the topic of how Virtual Reality (VR) can be used within COVID-safe restrictions. Expensive VR equipment has to be shared between students, but then how to do that safely? In response I did a quick search and found "Virtual Reality Head Mounted Display Cleaning and Disinfection Guide" (NSW Health, 2020). This recommended using a wipe-able and replaceable "facial interface" (the pad which goes around the wearer's eyes). Generic disposable facial interfaces look like a costume party mask, with elastic straps to fit over the ears. There are also Custom Disposable Hygiene Covers for specific headsets, such as the Oculus.

Headset Sterilization
The European Space Agency use a 
Phone Sterilizer
hand held UV-C light
 for sterilizing the entire headset, but that may not be safe for use in an educational environment. A few weeks ago I purchased a Phone UV Sterilizer, remaindered at a local store (KMART $2.50, similar units sold online for under $30). This is a USB powered box. The user closes the door and it floods the inside with UV-C for five minutes. A VR facial interface should fit in the box. 

However, I suggest looking at lower cost augmented reality (AR)  equipment which allows students to work together safely. An AR headset is not so closely coupled to the wearer's face. AR applications can also be used on the student's own smartphone, removing the need to share equipment. As well as reducing the risk of infection, this also makes it possible for students to see each other and work together, whereas a VR headset completely isolates them in the virtual environment. It should be kept in mind that social isolation is a threat to the student's health, brought about by infection control measures. There is little point in bringing students together in a classroom, if they are each isolated in their own VR bubble.

There is scope for innovation in the safe use of AR & VR for education. This does not require billions of dollars or the resources of a major technology company. Educators and technologists in schools, colleges and universities can make a useful contribution. They can then promote what works through local entrepreneurial centers. As an example, ANU students can get course credit working on software, hardware and business plans for new education initiatives. Staff and students can get training and business advice to set up a company at the government/university funded Canberra Innovation Center

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Real-time Online Team Formation with 200 Students

Gather Town
Greetings from the Australian National University team formation event, for TechLauncher computer student group projects. Some of the 45 clients are giving one minute pitches to 200 students via Zoom. After that the students can join a client to discuss their project in Gather Town, with support materials in Slack. The list of projects and clients is provided in a shared Google Spreadsheet. The clients include a baker, rocket scientist, doctor, fashionista, financier, insurer, power engineer, and many software entrepreneurs. This is a complex mix of tools and people, but so far it is all going okay.

Before COVID-19 closed the campus in 2020, a large flat floor classroom was used for team formation. The clients would stand around the walls, next to posters. The master of ceremonies would walk up to each client in turn and hand them a microphone. Then students would walk to the client they were interested in and stick a post-it note with their details to the poster. In 2020 this was moved online, first using Zoom and Slack

Remo Conference
Remo Conference

To emulate the physical room, Remo Conference was used for some Techlauncher events. This time Gather Town is being used. Like Remo, Gather shows a two dimensional floor plan or map. Each participant is represented by an avatar. The topics are represented by tables. Participants move themselves to the topic they are interested in, then can talk to those at the table using video, audio and text chat. 

Gather has a chunky 1980s video game look. You navigate your character around using the keyboard like a video game. I prefer Remo's approach where the mouse can be used to move. For the team-building exercise participants were asked to color code their characters, like the crew on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. As teaching staff, I was yellow (the color reserved for aircraft directors).

With more than one hundred users, it was impressive the application worked. There were repeated "disconnected" messages, but then automatic re-connection. Video and audio worked fine, which is also impressive on my slow, high latency wireless broadband. 

While Gather seemed to work, I found the interface, with avatars continually moving in all directions very distracting. It took several attempts for me to be able to cope with Remo's chaotic layout, and it might be the same with Gather. However I suggest there should be the option of a simplified interface suitable for mobile devices and those on low bandwidth connections, similar to Slack, as an alternative. There may be scope for building these type of interfaces on top of Slack and similar text based systems.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Education Video with Synthetic Voice Generated from a Powerpoint File

The tool I have been using for creating educational videos is being discontinued, So I have been trying out Narakeet. In its simplest forum, you upload a Powerpoint presentation and it generates a video, with the slides and narration from the notes in synthetic voice. I produced a 13 slide presentation, with 6 minutes of video (11 Mbytes MP4), in about 15 minutes. One problem was getting the right resolution images. Using the page size I had successfully previously produced blurry slides. I had to make the page size much larger to produce 1080P quality video. 

The "Liam" male Australian accented English speaking voice sounds enough like me to be usable. This still sounds slightly mechanical, and not as good as a live recording of my voice. However, that is not an option. I can produce a video with synthetic voice in a few minutes, so I do and I can make corrections very easily so do. Using a human narration would take hours, as would corrections, and so is not feasible.

Hybrid Learning Happening

I took part in my first hybrid lecture at The Australian National University, for computing students yesterday. This went okay with 10 students in the room, and 70 online. It was a bit tricky with four presenters, three in the room and one remote, for two hours. A further complication was that the resolution of the laptop used for Zoom was too high to connect to the room projector. You would think a stack of computer people would be able to sort that out, but by the time we realized what the problem was it was too late to change the setup. So we had one slide show for people in the room using the built in computer and the same slides on the laptop for those on Zoom. 

The Zoom meeting format was used, rather than a webinar. There was only one instance of an open microphone disturbing the presentation, and the students policed that themselves with someone asked everyone to "mute you mic" in the chat forum. One of the staff monitored the audio quality and the chat questions, via another laptop. Students were invited to ask questions live by audio and that worked fine.

One problem was that because the students in the room were not watching the Zoom session, they could see the remote presenter's slides, but not the presenter. So in that way the remote students had a better experience than those in the room.

The Zoom session was left open after the presentations for further student questions, while other staff handled questions in the room. There were mostly of the "can I still enroll, get into a tutorial group, resister for a project" type.

This was my first hybrid presentation for some time and I had forgotten how stressful it is, but how rewarding it is to be in a room with students and colleagues. Added to the stress of talking to a very bright and demanding audience, is added the complication of making sure you remain in the field of view of the camera, and ensure the slides are working for two audiences. It worked okay, but I still provided students with a recorded video version in advance, in case something went wrong live.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

New Australian Public Service Academy Opens With 113 Courses

The Australian Public Service Academy (APSA) was set up in July 2021, by the Australian Government, for the training of employees. I joined the government as a programmer's assistant ,and retired 19 years later, as a senior IT policy advisor, having been trained mostly in-house, with some courses at ANU (where I am now a lecturer). Ideally  APSA will be able to integrate practical experience with formally accredited education. 

APSA is headed by Grant Lovelock who was previously with the National Careers Institute. Based at old Parliament House in Canberra, there are currently 113 courses listed. Of those listed, 80 courses are facilitated, with 47 of those online (using Zoom), plus another  33 self directed.

The courses are grouped into six categories. Some introductory ones are free, while more advanced course are several hundred dollars. The courses are from hours to several days equivalent. There is no indication who can enroll, but in the past similar programs have been open to state public servants and a limited number of people from the private sector, as well as federal public servants. 

There is no accreditation of courses indicated, credit for vocational or university programs, or alignment with the Australian Qualifications Framework. With the addition of suitable assessment, it would appear feasible to assemble these courses into micro-credentials, and gain credit toward a formal recognized qualification.

APSA Course Categories:

  1. Engagement & Partnership: 9 courses, on building relationships, designing public deliberation, stakeholder engagement. Most interesting sounding is "Influence, Negotiation and Persuasion Skills for Executive Levels".
  2. Implementation & Services: 22 courses, 9 for Comcover on risk management, some "Craft Conversations" general panel discussions, project and financial management, and human centered design
  3. Integrity: Only one course "Integrity in the APS".
  4. Leadership & Management: 24 courses, including "Leading in a Digital Age".
  5. Strategy, Policy & Evaluation: 15 courses, including 5 on data literacy.
  6. Working in Government: 42 courses on decision making and communication skills.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Lighting for Video Conferences

6in. Tabletop Selfie Ring Light

 When using a virtual background with video conferencing, it is important to have even lighting, otherwise part of you may be chopped off, or the real background visible. Any office lamp will do, but there are ring lights available specially for this purpose. The ring lights have a circle of LED lights,and are designed to go around the camera lens.  I find it too distracting to be looking directly into the light, so instead have it at 45% pointing at the wall, behind my computer screen. This reflects a soft light onto the background.

Power-bank with light
Ring lights are available in different sizes with clamps, and stands. Some also have a clamp for a smart phone (and are called "selfie lights). The one I have has a desktop tripod and can be rotated and swiveled. It cost $8 from a local store and plugs into a USB power supply. For portable use, away from mains power, I also have a power-bank, with a built in flood light and USB sockets for ring lights ($19 from a local store). 

Telephoto Lens for Closeup in Zoom Meetings

2x telephoto lens & virtual background in Zoom. 
Tom Worthington, 24 July 2021 CC BY
Web cameras tend to have a wider field of view, than needed for one person attending a video conference. This makes the camera easy to set up, but shows more of the background and less of the speaker. My Logitech C615 webcam has a 74-degree field of view. So I purchased a 2x Telephoto clip on lens.

The clip-on lens is designed for use with a smartphone camera, but works well with the camera in a laptop or stand-alone web camera. The lens is screwed onto what looks like a clothes peg, which is clipped over the camera. It takes some effort to position, but is then held firmly.

198 Degree Fish-eye Lens, 
Tom Worthington,
24 July 2021, CC BY
With Polarizing Filter, 
Tom Worthington
24 July 2021, CC BY
I purchased a kit*, which came with fish-eye, wide, and macro lenses, as well as a polarizing filter. The fish-eye or wide-angle lenses might be of use for showing the general view of a room, but distort the image. The polarizing filter is useful for removing reflections from my glasses, however it can't be used in conjunction with the telephoto lens.

Without telephoto lens.
Tom Worthington,
24 July 2021 CC BY

With 2x Telephoto Lens. 
Tom Worthington
24 July 2021 CC BY
As well as narrowing the view, so less of the room is visible, the telephoto lens also makes the background slightly out of focus. This is useful for concentrating the viewer's attention on you in the foreground. Otherwise they might spend their time reading the titles of the books in your bookcase. ;-)

The narrower view also allows a smaller green screen to be used for a virtual background. In the example shown, I am using a sheet of lime green polyester acoustic pin-board, 1200 mm x 800 mm ($30.50 from a hardware store). 

Most of the clip on lenses sold for smart phone are wide angle. It took me some time to find a telephoto. One online store sent me a wide angle instead of a telephoto. So for the first time, in a long time, I went into a camera store. The kit I purchased is an Apexel 5 in 1 Clip on Lens Kit ($19.95 from Ted's Cameras, Canberra Center). Note that you will only need a 2x telephoto lens and there are higher quality units available separately at a higher price.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Folding Lilac Screen for Virtual Zoom Background

The second hand folding room divider

Lilac folding screen, in Zoom
with virtual background. 

Vertical fold lines visible. 
Photo by Tom Worthington,
 23 July 2021 CC BY
Lilac folding screen,
ertical fold lines visible. 
Photo by Tom Worthington,
 23 July 2021 CC BY
, I painted blue for virtual backgrounds, was too dark to work well with Zoom. So I went back to the paint shop and had a lighter shade made up. This was intended to be a bright blue, and the hex code for the color looks blue on screen (#0061FF). However, the paint looks more Lilac, but works well with Zoom.

QR Code for 
Bright Blue #0061FF 
Taubmans Coloursmith

Australia Should Aim for the Stratosphere with Online Learning

In "Nation-building moonshots and why they matter" Georgie Skipper argues Australia should "aim big", as the USA did with the Apollo program. However, history only remembers the winners of a race, and I suggest we should also learn from the losers. Like the USA, the USSR had a space program shooting for the moon. But their big rocket failed and the vast expense was wasted, placing the country further behind. Australia can't afford all-or-nothing moonshots and should adopt the more cautious approach exemplified by the Chinese space program, focusing on smaller goals and learning from others. I suggest an area which Australia can safely reach the stratosphere, if not the moon, is online education.

China has had success with rockets and automated probes. But because of the risk, time and cost in developing technology for crewed space travel, China instead purchased proven technology from Russia. China's  Shenzhou spacecraft is an improved version of the Russian Soyuz, and China's Feitian space suit is derived from Russia's Orlan-M. Each new Chinese version incorporates more local technology, but starting from a proven base.

Australia should adopt the same approach, not reinventing what is already available for the sake of being different, but instead adding local unique features. We should choose projects with ambitious, but achievable goals which have real tangible outcomes. We can't afford to build moon rockets in the hope it might lead to a better powdered orange juice. A little symbolism is okay, but better are projects aimed to help people here on earth.

The USA new approach to space may also be useful in Australia. While Elon Musk's Space X private space venture has been rightly hailed, it is backed with funding from NASA and the US Government. The US is funding private space ventures, offering competitive tenders for delivery of people and cargo to orbit, and the construction of a lunar lander. Like the Chinese approach, this takes older proven technology developed by government and updates it.

The COVID-19 vaccines delivered by Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, and Johnson & Johnson are another example of government funding combined with private enterprise. Governments around the world funded fundamental research into vaccines over decades. When COVID-19 hit, governments provided billions of dollars to companies for development. However, this was not a moonshot, this was a measured response to a very real threat to the world. 

History shows that a big bet sometimes pays off, but a slow steady, modest investments can also give good returns. While vaccines have received most attention, there are other technologies, such as online education, which have been key to dealing with the pandemic. Few realise that the Moodle learning management system, used by schools and universities around the world for teaching students online, was developed in Perth, Australia. Australian governments failed to back the development of Moodle, and Australia lost the opportunity to lead the world in online education. Moodle is still based in Perth, but in 2018 announced a new Barcelona headquarters. While Moodle will not say so publicly, this was due to the lack of support from the Australian and WA governments. 

After mining, international education is Australia's major export industry. However, Australian governments have failed to back this industry, in the way they back mining, even though it employs far more people. It is not too late to aim for orbit with online learning, if not the moon. Australia's current international export industry is under threat from new competitors, as well as new technology. We need to invest now to save this industry and see it flourish.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

EduTECHAU is on 17-18 August

EduTECHAU is on 17-18 August
EduTECHAU is on 17-18 August. This is a large scale commercial conference held in Australia and the region, on educational technology. I have talked at it in Sydney, Brisbane & Singapore. It had to move online last year and the organizers have made the best attempt at a commercial online conference I have seen so far. As well as the usual formal presentations, they have round-tables, with a half dozen or so delegates and a host. The round-tables are short and then people switch tables, like speed dating. This allows you to discuss the topic with someone, not just listen to a speech.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Folding Blue Screen for Under $20

Blue folding screen,
with vertical fold lines.
Photo by Tom Worthington,
 20 July 2021 CC BY
The second hand folding room divider , I painted green for virtual Zoom backgrounds, works well but what if I want to wear green? The most common alternative to green, as a chroma key background, is blue. So I painted the other side of the divider blue. This did not work as well with Zoom as the green side.

QR Code for blue, from the 
Taubmans Coloursmith application
There appears less standardization on the shade of blue used, compared to green. I chose Hex color #0047BB (close to PANTONE 2728 C), as one of the most common mentioned in the literature. I uploaded an image this color to the Taubmans Coloursmith application. This produced a barcode, which I took this to the local hardware store to have a sample paint pot made up (less than $10 for 250 ml).

Blue folding screen, in Zoom
with virtual background. 

Vertical fold lines visible. 
Photo by Tom Worthington,
 20 July 2021 CC BY
Zoom was not able to delineate the dark blue background as well as the lighter green. Also the joins in the screen showed more than with green. The paint looked darker, and more purple than blue, when painted on the screen. 

QR Code for 
Bright Blue #0061FF 
Taubmans Coloursmith

The literature points out that a blue screen will need more light than a green screen. But it may be that a less dark shade of blue would work better in an office, where studio lighting is not available. The lightest possible shade of this would be #0061FF
. Another option would be the "Hi C Blue" (#0174b3) which is one of the standard colors of the Taubmans range.

QR Code for green, from the 
Taubmans Coloursmith application
I also used the Colorsmith application to make Chroma Key Green. This looks almost identical to the Dulux Zatar Leaf color I had made previously.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Folding Green Screen for Under $20

Green folding screen,
with two vertical fold lines.
Photo by Tom Worthington,
 17 July 2021 CC BY
The low cost photographic backdrop sheet I purchased, for making virtual Zoom backgrounds, works well but takes time to hang. I found a folding room divider screen at a charity store for $5. These type of screens are available online for under $100. I decided to paint it chroma key green. I tried the local hardware store, but they had never heard of chroma key.  The friendly staff at the I inquired via the Dulux website advised that the closest color in their consumer range was Zatar Leaf, or if I wanted the exact color it could be mixed at their trade store. So I went back to the hardware store and asked for a sample pot of Zatar Leaf (less than $10 for 250 ml).

Green folding screen,
with virtual background.
Fold lines are hidden by Zoom.

Photo by Tom Worthington,
 17 July 2021 CC BY
The screen is covered with canvas having a large photo mural on it. I painted over one side of the screen with a small roller. I also painted the sides of the screen. For the screen to stand it has to have the panels hinged in slightly. I placed the screen just behind my chair. As you can see in the photo, the joins in the screen are clearly visible as two vertical lines. I thought I would have to cover these with green tape. However, when Zoom's virtual background is switched on the lines disappear. 

This screen is only 1200 mm wide and has to be so close to fill the view, it is a bit cramped in front. I could use a camera with a narrower field of view, but a screen with four, rather than three 400 mm panels would be more practical.

I am considering painting the other side of the screen with chroma key blue. An alternative is to leave it with a decorative pattern, so I can put the screen in front of the desk when not in use so the room looks less like an office.

Virtual Graduation Cermonies

CECS graduates contest (video), ANU 2021

Last week I was asked to stand in front of a green screen in academic regalia, and go though the motions of congratulating the students I have been teaching at ANU. The invitation came from Eric Byler, an award winning American film director, now working at ANU videoed me in front of a green screen (with a version for students in China also produced). 

Standing in front of green screen
Mine was not exactly an academy award performance, but I stood there, shaking hands with no one, handing over certificates and giving a speech. The idea is that a student who can't get to gradation due to COVID-19, can video or photograph themselves and then can be inserted into the photo, with the university digitally inserted in the background, for a digital ceremony. Graduates of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science have been offered $100 for their best selfie.

There are, of course, reputation risks with virtual graduations. If the video was made widely available, Eric worried some student would paste me into a war zone or zombie attack. But then when working at the Department of Defence I helped prepare for the end of the world on 1 January 2000, not unlike a zombie attack. Also in a borrowed uniform I went on an exercise with the US Navy and so would not look out of place in a war zone.

What worried me more is the possibility of a non-graduate using the video to help build evidence around a fake degree. The ANU is one of a few universities which now issue digital certificates to graduates and has an online facility to check if someone actually graduated.

There are technical ways to counter fake photos, for example, applying a digital signature to the images and video. As it happens Dr Sabrina Caldwell, is an expert in detecting fake photographs and is on the JPEG committee.

Universities should be cautious about using "security by obscurity". Placing a photo online and then telling hundreds of people the web address is not a good form of security. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

Insights into the Student Experience in the Novel Life After Truth by Ceridwen Dovey

"Life After Truth", by Ceridwen Dovey
After reading "Life After Truth", by Ceridwen Dovey (2020) I understand a little better why North American students appear obsessed by Grade Point Averages (GPA). The novel is about a reunion of students at Harvard University. While fictional, Dovey studied at Harvard after completing school in Australia. The work ranges over the issues someone fifteen years out of university faces, in terms of life choices made, when confronted by those who made different choices at the reunion. At one point a character who decided to take a socially worthy, but low paying job, reflects on how top NY firms would headhunt Harvard graduates, based solely on their high GPAs. The novel is at times wistful about college life, at times savage about human vanities.

My experience of university is not quite on par with Dovey. But I did complete school in Australia and eventually studied in North America. My study was at a much less prestigious institution, but even so there seemed an unhealthy obsession with grades and GPAs. I understood I needed a specific minimum grade in each course to be able to graduate, but beyond that, what did it matter? Out in the real world, no one looks at grades you got in specific courses, they just check you have the appropriate qualification for the job. There are other measures of how good you are at some task. Perhaps it is different for recruiting by NY headhunters, but none of them is ever going to look at me anyway, so why worry?

But even now, today, during a pandemic and a North American heat wave, I am reading heart wrenching social media posts from students worrying about getting high grades. Why worry about this, when viruses, and the planet itself, is trying to kill you? Perhaps educators are at fault for part of this, by focusing students on grades. Perhaps I am guilty of that myself.

I recommend Dovey's "Life After Truth". But it does get a bit slow in the middle, with a bit more on child rearing and the problems of couples than I really wanted to know. Also the death of a character briefly mentioned at the beginning is too hastily resolved at the end.

I never went to university with anyone rich, famous, or infamous, as Dovey apparently has. I did not live on campus and was not part of a student club. For that I am grateful, as it all sounds an awful experience.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Submitting Assignments on Paper No Protection for Students

Senator James Paterson
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, has been conducting an Inquiry into national security risks affecting the Australian higher education and research sector. Committee Chair, Senator James Paterson is reported to have suggested allowing international students to submit assignments on paper. This is to prevent security agencies in their home countries reading their essays. However, a student doesn't just write an assignment off the top of their head, they conduct literature searches, talk to their tutor, and fellow students. These days much of that is done online. Even if the final document is printed on paper, it would leave a long electronic trail, which would indicate what the completed work was about.

Also it is not just international students who have to worry about intelligence agencies. Students who may go on to important jobs in government and industry (or already have them) can expect to be under routine online surveillance by agencies of Australia's potential foes, and friends.

Australian academics need to keep in mind that what they ask their students to study could place them at risk. Universities can seek to secure their electronic systems, but that is not foolproof. Also It will not protect students from old fashioned HUMINT: the collection of information by people.

ps: But perhaps I am a little paranoid, because I used to work for the Defence Department. ;-)


Protecting international students: get essays on paper, Campus Morning Mail, July 12, 2021

Friday, July 9, 2021

Include a Global Power Grid in the Australian Energy Transition Research Plan

Greetings from the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) Australian Energy Transition Research Plan webinar. Professor Ken Baldwin of the ANU,  used the often repeated phrase that solar power is only available "when the sun shines". It occurred to me that perhaps we should be bolder in our ambitions. The sun actually shines all the time, it is just the rotation of the earth shades part of the planet, plus local clouds. A cable around the world could distribute power from where the sun is shining to were it is not. This would be similar to Arthur C. Clarke's promotion of geostationary satellites for communications. Before this it was assumed satellites would have limited use for communications,  as they would only be over a point on the earth for a short time. It took considerable time, and investment, for the geostationary satellite to be a reality, but the concept helped legitimize satellite communications. A bold concept of a world-circling power grid might have a similar effect.

Professor Sue Richardson expressed concern about the capacity to train enough people for the renewable energy industry. However, we have the capacity to do such training online, which has been boosted by COVID-19 forcing both vocational and university education online. One of my ANU students was in a hurry and completed my 12 week green computing course in 4 weeks. ;-)

Thursday, July 8, 2021

What learning designers should learn

Keith Heggart
Camille Dickson-Deane
Keith Heggart and Camille Dickson-Deane have published an important paper on the rationale behind the UTS Graduate Certificate in Learning Design (Heggart & Dickson-Deane, 2021). This is valuable, as the authors not only make the case for there being a need for a course in learning design, but also show they applied a rigorous, systematic process to design it. This is not one of those depressingly common examples of academics telling others to do something, these are practitioners actually doing what they say: an excellent example of dogfooding (Harrison, 2006).

The authors point out that while learning designers are in demand worldwide and in Australia, it would help to clarify what they actually do. Also they point out that COVID-19 has promoted universities to make their teaching more efficient. However, I question if this result in a demand for staff who have specific digital and learning design qualifications. While the vocational sector routinely requires formal educational qualifications of staff, Australian universities have not.

The authors discuss the differences between a learning designer and a teacher. It seems to me that teachers and learning designers are both educators. It is likely a typical learning designer will have some teaching experience and qualifications. It terms of design skills, I have found that learning design has much in common with the design of computer software. There is the same need to collect user requirements, undertake a systematic process, do tests and provide maintenance.

The authors claim there were no programs explicitly addressing learning design before theirs. That is perhaps overstating the situation, as there have been many graduate certificates and masters programs in education, which offered learning design as a component (I did one at ANU including content from USQ). 

The authors also suggest universities could not quickly train learning designers. However, while they may not have programs called "learning design", they could easily assemble one, if needed, from existing components. Australian universities could follow Athabasca University's example, and  re-badge their existing education qualifications. In 2017 I completed a MEd in Distance Education at AU. This year they decided to add "Open, Online and Distance Education" and I paid a few dollars for a new certificate. Australian universities could similarly add learning design, to their Grad Certs and MEds.

The authors have detailed an approach to designing a program for learning designers which I suggest could be a good model for other Australian qualifications. In particular an emphasis on "Flexibility in delivery and progression". Unfortunately Australian universities have offered program mostly on the assumption the typical student is studying full time, with no other commitments. Part time students are treated as a special case. As the authors suggest students "have a number of competing life commitments, (e.g., work and caring responsibilities).". Even with COVID-19 forcing learning online, and students to extend their studies, many academics and administrators appear to be longing to return to a simpler time, when they did not need to bother worrying about the messy details of student's lives.

Another point the authors make is the importance of "communication and collaboration skills". As a student of education I feared communication exercises and especially group work (my students also don't like it),  but these are necessary skills which you can only get through practice. 

The authors also have tacked the difficult issue of microcredentials. In this case a program has been assembled from components half the usual size, each badged as a microcredential of  60 to 75 hours  learning. This I suggest is a very workable strategy. It should be noted that this is not a case of saying that students can just do any random collection of micro-credentials and that makes up a program. The students have to choose from a specific set, designed to form a coherent whole.

One point I disagree with is the authors assertion that the reflective portfolio undertaken could be presented to employers. As a student I have had to undertake reflective portfolio exercises several times (using Lego, as well as portfolio software). But these portfolios have never been of use for employment. I still have a large physical folder with examples of my work, from a pre-computer portfolio exercise. I now teach students using portfolios and also assess portfolios for one of the international recognition schemes, but these portfolios are no of use for more than this assessment task. The one exception is the ANU Techlauncher program, where the student is explicitly instructed to choose a a real job advertisement and then write their portfolio in the form of an application for that job.


Harrison, W. (2006). Eating your own dog food. IEEE Software, 23(3), 5-7. Retrieved from

Heggart, K., Dickson-Deane, C. What should learning designers learn?J Comput High Educ (2021).

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Tools for Creating Educational Videos With No Video Editing

From my arrival in academia, 20 years ago, I have been looking for a way to create multimedia educational content without having to record and edit video. In the early days video took a lot of bandwidth. The networks have become faster and the compression technology better, but this can still be a problem for some students (and staff). Also video take considerable time and skill to produce. I don't lack the skill (I learned video production for training at the Canberra Institute of Technology, back when it was ACT TAFE). But I do not want to spend my time lining audio up with video clips. What I have aimed for was something like slides with an audio commentary. 

As an early attempt I used a system which would play an audio file and synchronize this with  HTML content. That works but was not really stable enough to be usable.

For the last two years I have been using Vidnami, which appears to have been developed more for marketers, than educators. With this I provide a script in the form of plain text and the system finds suitable stock video and images, creates synthetic audio, an option music track and makes a video. Normally I would substitute my own presentation slides for most, or all, the stock footage (which can be a bit silly at times).

I use the synthetic voice videos to supplement text based notes and live events. This works well for the flipped classroom. I can easily produce a video to accompany the notes for students to study before a live class (be it face to face, online or a hybrid of both). A video recording is also made of the live class for later review by students and for those who could not attend.

However, Vidnami has been sold for integration into GoDaddy Studio. So I have been looking for an alternative.  Vidnami helpfully provided a list of video product suggestions, but as they say, these don't quite do the same thing. 

There are many text to speech systems available, some which integrate into Powerpoint, but most sound like robots. And with standalone systems, you still have to manually add the images, which is very tedious.

One product I have come across which looks interesting is Narakeet. It is a much simpler product than Vidnami. Narakeet takes a Powerpoint file and narrates whatever is in the Notes to make a video. There is optional background music and ways to enhance the narration, but no live video. This might be good for simple talking slide shows. There is a male Australian accented voice which sounds like me.

To try Narakeet I created a three minute video "Designing for Online, Blended and Synchronous Learning", from nine Powerpoint slides. This produced an 8.4 Mbyte MPEG4 file in full HD (1080p). I set the narration to Australian English "Liam" accent, slow narration, with soft background music. The free trial of Narakeet has a 10 Mbyte limit on the Powerpoint file used. My file was 2 Mbytes, for 3 minutes of video, so it should be possible to make a 15 minute video (and training videos should not be that long anyway).

With Vidnami, Narakeet and similar systems, you don't use video editing software. To change the video you edit the script and the whole video is rebuilt. That takes less skill and effort for the user, but it can still take a considerable amount of time for the video to be rendered (minutes or an hour). Simple corrections of a few words, or updates for a new semester can be made to the script, and the rebuilding left to run while I do something else.

Start-up Pitches by Smartphone

Automed Battery
Powered Medication Delivery

Greetings from First Wednesday Connect at the the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN). This was planned to be in the foyer of the ACT Government's new HQ, but has been moved online due to COVID-19. CBRIN kept the format the same: informal discussion, followed by 60 second pitches, but moved it online using the Remo platform. In the past I have had difficulties getting Remo to work on my old slow computer, but have found it works much better on my newer smartphone. One of the startups is Automed, with a livestock medication system. One of the participants commented that perhaps this could be used for COVID-19 vaccinations. It is not such a silly idea, to use a computerized powered injector which links to a database. That would not only allow injections to be given faster, it would reduce the time spent manually recording details. But a patient QR code might be used for identification, rather than an ear tag. ;-)

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

$13 Green Screen for Video Conferences

To get a better Zoom virtual background, I purchased a 2 x 3 m photographic backdrop sheet, online for $12.99 (including postage). This is chroma key green colored, almost the same as the $4 sheet of apple green cloth I purchased from a local store. The professional cloth has the advantage that it is twice the width and so when hung landscape mode is the right size for a video conference backdrop.

The sheet came with four clips and wall anchors to hang it. I used the clips to secure the sheet over a freestanding folding room divider. about 150 mm behind my chair. With the ends of the screen curved in slightly on each side, this fills the view from my screen mounted web camera.

The sheet requires even soft light. Direct sunlight, or a spotlight will cause bright patches, and shadows which the virtual background setting can't handle. I was a little disappointed that the sheet did not have a loop sewn in one side so a pole could be passed though it, as depicted in advertisement. A bed sheet with a sewn edge, which a pole can be threaded through to hang it, might be a better option.

There are many types of Chroma key color cloth offered for sale online. Check the size, as these tend to be advertised showing the larger 2 x 3 m sheet I purchased, but with the price of a smaller 1 x 1.6 m option. Also the sheets are shown on specially designed stands held with clips. However the stands are not normally included in the price and the clips may not be either.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

New Teaching Skills Standards Defined

Work is underway on Version 8 of SFIA (now in Beta), which proposes new skills for Certification Scheme Operation and Subject formation. The Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) is a set of skills definitions for computer professionals. This is used in Australia by the Australian Computer Society, and some government agencies, to categorize the skills professionals have, and those they need for a job. While mostly about technical skills and the management of projects, there is a set of education skills described as "Skills management", for those who teach computing. 

New Skills management Skills 

It might be argued that running a certification scheme is much like running any education so comes under the existing skills definitions. But there are some differences, for example in Australia how a vocational institution does assessment (which is more like certification) versus a university. The vocational sector is more interested in of the applicant has the required level of skills and knowledge, not how they got them, or how well they do them. Similarly, Subject formation might be seen as part of the existing Learning design and development, but it appears to be intended to apply at a higher level, rather than the details of a particular lesson.

The Skills management skill in SFIA Version 8 (Beta) has:

  1. Learning and development management (ETMG) 3 4 5 6 7
  2. Learning design and development (TMCR) 3 4 5
  3. Learning delivery (ETDL) 2 3 4 5
  4. Competency assessment (LEDA) 3 4 5 6
  5. Certification Scheme Operation - new (CSOP) 2 3 4 5 6
  6. Teaching - restructured (TEAC) 2 3 4 5 6 7
  7. Subject formation -new (SUBF) 4 5 6 7
The codes in brackets are used for referencing the skill (there are hundreds of these codes). The numbers are the level the skill is defined at, from 1 low, to 7 high.