Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Keeping the best bits of online learning after COVID-19

The third in my Keep Calm and Carry Online Webinar Series, is planned for 10 am 3 November Canberra time (5pm 2 November Mountain Time in Canada), titled this "Keeping the best bits of online learning after COVID-19". This seminar is part of the Maskwacis Cultural College Microlearning Series in Canada, curated by Manisha Khetarpal. It is open to the public and free, but please register to attend.

Recently I was interviewed by John Ross, for Times Higher Education, on the future of the lecture. As I see it, teachers who can have their students feel a personal connection, online and face to face, will make for a quality educational experience. You can continue to call these "lectures", if you want, but they need to be more interactive, and available online, with the classroom an optional extra. I gave up conventional lectures in 2008, and moved my teaching online. By 2019 I had a format suitable for students working in groups in a classroom, and online, just in time for COVID-19.

This series is exploring how individual teachers and universities can better deliver learning through the use of technology on campus and online. These are aimed at the Australian university sector but may be of interest to other educators. 
Poster generated using Keep Calms.

"Keep Calm and Carry Online" a sign on the wall behind me, during webinars from my lounge room for the last eighteen months. So that as the working title for this series of talks. Contributions, corrections and offers of where to present would be welcome.

Keep Calm and Carry Online: Keeping the best bits of online learning after COVID-19

Tom Worthington, Honorary Senior Lecturer, ANU School of Computing

Abstract: Schools and universities made an emergency switch to online education last year due to COVID-19. This was challenging for students, teachers and the education system. What of this should be retained, particularly for more mature school, and university students, as the pandemic is brought under control? Come join Tom Worthington, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Computing, at the Australian National University. Find out how he spent seven years preparing for emergency e-learning, how it went when the pandemic stuck, and how we can continue to use the technology and techniques to make learning for students and teachers.

About the speaker: Tom Worthington is an  Honorary Senior Lecturer, at the ANU School of Computing, an independent computer consultant and educational technology designer. He previously wrote IT policy for the Australian Department of Defence. Tom is a Fellow, Past President and Honorary Life Member of the Australian Computer Society. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Tom has a Masters of Education in Open, Digital and Distance Education from Athabasca University and blogs as the

Keeping the best bits of online learning after COVID-19

Preparing Online for a Global Pandemic

  1. Accessible web page design,
  2. Compatibility with desktop & mobile devices, 
  3. Efficient encoding for fast download on slow networks,
  4. Clear use of language, avoiding large and complex visual material. 

At the Department of Defence, until 1999, I worked on dealing with emergencies, using computers and the Internet. I kept up this interest and delivered a series of student projects, lectures and assignments at the Australian National University on using the Internet a mobile phones for emergencies, including a global pandemic. Also I assisted the Sahana Foundation with free open source software for humanitarian operations. The approach used in all these projects was accessible web page design compatible with desktop and mobile devices, efficient page encoding for fast download on slow networks, clear use of language, avoiding overly large and complex visual material. 

Preparing to Teach International Students Online in an Emergency

"International tensions could disrupt the flow of students to Australia very quickly. Competition from campuses in other countries and DE is likely to increase. I believe that I can assist Canberra's universities to produce quality on-line and blended programs ..." From MEd ePortfolio, Tom Worthington, November 2016

In 2008 I was contracted to design an online professional development course in Green ICT, for the Australian Computer Society (ACS). This used the Australian developed Moodle open sources Learning Management System.  ACS allowed me to place an open access licence on the course. The Australian National University (ANU) also used Moodle, so I was able to copy the course from ACS to ANU, and run it for on  campus and remote students. In 2013 I enrolled in an MEd in Distance Education at Athabasca university as an online international student, to learn how to design courses for online international students (Athabasca were using the Green ICT course I designed). In the conclusion of my capstone e-portfolio, and a series of talks, I suggested Canberra's universities should be ready to switch to online learning if a regional crisis kept students from campus. Also I suggested online learning to better compete in the education market. In late 2019 I delivered an international conference paper describing how to provide classroom group teaching to domestic and international students, in a way which could be moved online quickly in an emergency. This would be needed for a global emergency three months later.


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.

Responding to the Coronavirus Emergency with e-Learning

  • Crash teaching new tutors to teach online in early 2020,
  • Blended mode switched to full online contingency in 2020,
  • Ready to switch to hybrid mode in 2022,
  • Blogged all this, as well as conference papers.
In early 2020 I was preparing to help teach new tutors at the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, when called to an emergency meeting of staff.  We were told the university faced an "existential threat" from what came to be known as COVID-19 and asked if we could teach and assess students trapped overseas online. Several of us had experience with online learning, and being in the computer science school, we were well equipped, so said "yes". I was able to give the tutors a brief introduction to online techniques for teaching and assessment. As t became clear the situation was not going to get better any time soon, I made small changes to my already blended materials, to make them fully online. In mid 2021, in anticipation of a return to the classroom for some students, I made further small changes, to allow for hybrid mode, with some students online and some in the classroom, linked together. Unfortunately the return to campus was not possible in 2021, and in all I helped teach several hundred students per semester, over four semesters. The hybrid option remains available for 2022. This is documented in my blog, "Higher Education Whisperer", an article on the Athabasca University Website, and conference papers.

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. ASCILITE.

Narayan, V., Cochrane, T., Cowie, N., Hinze, M., Birt, J., Deneen, C., ... & Worthington, T. (2020, November). A mobile ecology of resources for COVID-19 learning. ASCILITE.

Cochrane, T., Birt, J. R., Cowie, N., Deneen, C., Goldacre, P., Narayan, V., Ransom, L., Sinfield, D., &
Worthington, T. (2020). A collaborative design model to support hybrid learning environments during COVID-19.
In S. Gregory, S. Warburton, & M. Parkes (Eds.), ASCILITE 2020: Conference Proceedings. 37th International
Conference on Innovation, Practice and Research in the Use of Educational Technologies in Tertiary Education
(pp. 84-89). Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education.

The X-factor for Student Satisfaction

Gary Martin, CEO, AIMWA
"With university leaders scrambling to regroup amid the operational and financial chaos caused by COVID-19, it has become clear that providing a transformative student experience is critical to attracting an increased shared of the domestic student market, and that for international students once borders re-open.

What remains unclear, however, is exactly how to crack the student experience X factor that delivers the kind of transformative experience students are looking for."

  From Creating an X-factor Experience, Gary Martin, Business News, 22 August 2021

Gary Martin, chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA, recently asked what gave a quality experience for Australian university students ("Creating an X-factor Experience", Business News, 22 August 2021). After scrambling to quickly deliver online courses, universities around the world are asking: what next? Do they return to pre-COVID campus based teaching, provide online courses alongside campus ones, blended learning which has some online and some face to face elements, or hybrid with classroom linked online.

While academics and university executives may think online delivery is still an open question, students now expect courses to be available online as a matter of routine. However, they also want the option of face to face classes, where they can work with others, under the guidance of experts. What will distinguish a course is the quality of interaction provided, with students and staff.

As an online student for seven years I found I could manage to study by following the materials provided, doing the readings and exercises. However, it was a very lonely, frustrating experience. What stood out were the occasions when I met and worked virtually with my fellow students. Events live with instructors were a highlight. The very rare occasions when I met my instructors were a bonus, as they were on the other side of the country, or the globe.

The Sage on the Stage

Prof. Steve Blackburn teaching Structured Programming
with interactive live-streamed lectures
from ANU Manning Clark Hall.

Professor Steve Blackburn and the team at ANU Engineering and Computer Science have shown the X-factor, in the video "Teaching computer science in a pandemic". I suggest, as the video demonstrates, student satisfaction can be improved though personal attention, enhanced with technology. Steve is a distinguished academic, who is also a good communicator, making him a Sage on the Stage. Steve can present, and discuss material in a way which engages the audience. However, he makes it look deceptively easy. Presenting a good lecture to a room full of students is difficult. Projecting your personality to students online is harder. Doing this to both a room and line is even harder. Not everyone will be able to reach Steve's level, but these are skills which can be learned, and practiced.

Guide on the side

Prof. Steve Blackburn & tutor Leopold Zhou

In the video, Steve mentions the role of tutors. Called Teaching Assistants (TAs) in North America, they are critical. While the professor takes center stage, the tutors work with smaller groups of students, assisting in lectures, in tutorials, workshops and laboratories, to investigate topics and practice skills. Here again, tutoring is a skill which takes training and practice, with a extra layer of complexity when carried out online.

Support Crew

Dr Kim Blackmore, Director,
ANU Centre for Learning and Teaching

Backing up the professor and tutors are many other staff. Producing courses, especially online courses, requires educational designers, video makers, and other specialists. Ed designers work with the subject matter experts to structure the learning and assessment, video makers and others polish the materials.

The Australian National University has a Centre for Learning and Teaching, headed by Dr Kim Blackmore, as well as staff in the colleges. These staff have been busy during the pandemic, with a crash program to move courses online. But they are always busy, so if you need help, give them plenty of notice.

Both classroom based and online learning also require technical support personnel to keep the audio visual systems, software and networks working. The last decade has seen new software to delivery learning developed. When working properly, and used as intended, these systems lighten the burden for students and teachers.

Tool Up

Home office webinar setup, Tom Worthington, CC BY, 2 September 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that we need to be ready to deliver learning from and to, anywhere at any time. As a technology teacher I routinely carried everything I needed to teach in my briefcase. Here is a photo of my home office, upgraded with second hand equipment for lock-down teaching. I made a point of using low cost equipment to show that it is technique which makes good teaching not the hardware. I can make do with just a laptop, or even a smartphone, but the other equipment makes the job easier, and if all else fails, I can just use my voice and a plain old telephone service (known as "POTS" in telecommunications jargon).

Global Design

Holly Hapke
University of Kentucky.
3-in-1 Hybrid Learning:

1. Online asynchronous course, 
2. Add synchronous events, 
3. Add classroom events.

From Hapke, Lee-Post, and Dean (2020).

One way to avoid the idea that online learning is a poor quality cut-price experience is to bundle it with a campus offer, as hybrid learning. A good example is Hapke, Lee-Post, and Dean (2020), with their 3-in-1 Hybrid Learning. Rather than divide students administratively into distance and campus based, they receive the same online course, supplemented with synchronous events, either in the classroom or online, at the student's discretion.

The hybrid approach is more difficult for the instructor, than just online or face to face. However, it does provide them the opportunity to still be the "sage on the stage". The student has the sense of getting a full university experience, even if they enter a classroom. The institution can continue to market courses using images of ivy covered stone buildings, even if most students never set foot on campus (much like a gym membership which is never used). 

Over the last eighteen months, we have seen heroic efforts to rapidly convert campus based classroom courses for online delivery. Now there is discussion of a return, via hybrid, to the classroom. But it does not need to be this hard. Keep in mind that students value the personal interaction with each other, and with you, the teacher. Don't let a lot of content get in the way.

A typical course has more content, assessment, and activities, than needed. You can start by paring it down to what it is reasonable for a student to do in the time available to them. As an example, most courses have far more readings than a student could possibly read. I use a  estimate how long it will take a student to read reading speed of 80 words a minute for a student at IELTS 6.5 (McEwan, 2012, p. 80).

Design your courses as if they were to be delivered as old fashioned distance education, with no real time interaction (that is asynchronous mode). Provide the materials and activities for each week. Offer students ways to interact with you and each other, online. Make the deadlines generous, and don;t assume they can all do this at the same time. Then add synchronous activities which can be done online. Then add to that the option of those same activities in a classroom. Don't make the assessment synchronous, unless there is a compelling reason to do so. 

With this approach there is no need to make special provision for an emergency: one, more, or all students can study online at their own pace, if they can't come to class.

Students like this approach, but academics, and university administrators have difficulty with it. A "lecturer" who has built their sense of self around lecturing has to learn new skills and build a new identity. A university which has marketed the campus experience has to avoid the idea that are now just offering cheap, online video courses. 


Hapke, H., Lee-Post, A., & Dean, T. (2020). 3-IN-1 HYBRID LEARNING ENVIRONMENT. Marketing Education Review, 1-8.

McEwan, M. (2012). Evaluating and enhancing the feedback process: an international college case study. Practice and Evidence of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education7(1), 79-95. Retrieved from

Dogfood: Be an online student of teaching

- You don't know how frustratingly hard it is, until you try it.

ANU TEL ED HE Certificate awarded to Tom Worthington- Enroll in an online course in how to teach. It has to have deadlines, and assessment, to make the experience real.

- If you find study frustrating, conflicting with family and work commitments, then you know what it is like for your students.

- Start with something easy, like the ANU Coffee Courses, work up to an international online graduate course. Take the good meal challenge.

As an online student of e-learning, at Australian and North American vocational colleges and universities, I learned much about how to design and deliver courses. However, one of the greatest insights was how hard being a student was, how frustrating being an online student was, and how lonely being an international online student was. Being a part time student with work and family commitments, just makes it harder still.

Academic staff, I suggest, need to be reminded what being a student is like, and many, like me, had never been an online student before they started teaching online. So I suggest some dogfooding:

'Back in the 1980s when actor Lorne Greene served as the pitchman for Alpo dog food, the TV commercials were careful to point out that he indeed fed Alpo to his dogs. Consequently, the idea that someone would use the products they were making became known as "eating your own dog food.'

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

I suggest starting with something simple, such as an ANU Coffee Course. These are intended to only take as much time as you spend on a coffee break, each day for a week. But even that commitment of time can be challenging. See if you can do ten and then reflect on the experience (although I don't know if ANU are still handing out certificates).

To have skin in the game, take the good meal challenge: hand a friend enough money for a good meal for two. Tell them that when you complete your study on time, you will share a meal with the funds. If you don't produce the certificate on time, ask them to give the money to charity.

ANU EFSInformation Sessions
14 September
For something harder, there are programs such as the ANU Educational Fellowship Scheme (EFS). But it is not all hard work, you also get to meet, if only virtually, people going through the same thing you are. This is also one of the key lessons I got from study: the importance of getting to know your fellow students.


Responding to the Coronavirus Emergency with e-Learning, Tom Worthington, Beyond 50 Series, Athabasca University, April 17, 2020

Build the course around the assessment

- Set the learning objectives
- Select assessment to cover the learning objectives
- Provide support to obtain the knowledge and skills needed for the assessment
- Have many small regular assessment items and a few big ones

Students worry about assessment, so tell them what it is, and how each learning activity supports it. Delete activities, readings and materials which don't relate to assessment. Have small assessment tasks every week, to keep the students engaged (1% or 2% a week will do). Have a best of assessment scheme, so students can have multiple attempts. Provide results with feedback each week.

By clearly linking content and activities to the assessment, you can remove the frustration of students asking what will be assessed, as everything will be assessed

Team Teaching in ANU TechLauncher

Careers Consultant
Four workshops per semester for ANU Computer Project students, preparing a capstone reflective portfolio. 

Designed for hybrid mode.

The team:
  1. Course convener: Dr Charles Gretton, sets the context
  2. Subject matter expert: Tempe Archer, delivers the workshop.
  3. Instructor: Tom Worthington, manages the students
  4. 200 Students: Peer review.
  5. 13 Tutors: Assess their student’s portfolios.
An example of team teaching are the hybrid workshops, for the Australian National University Tech-Launcher program. Workshops are provided each semester for Computer Project students, to help them prepare a capstone reflective portfolio.

This module was designed with an online asynchronous core, to accompany the face to face workshops (Worthington, 2019). Provision for delivery fully online was included, in case an emergency kept students away from the campus. This contingency was activated in 2020, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, by replacing the classroom with Zoom videoconferencing. For 2021, a hybrid option was added, allowing for students, both in the classroom, and online.

At each workshop, the Course Convener, Dr Charles Gretton, sets the context. Tempe Archer, from ANU Careers, is the "Sage on the stage", presenting the material she is expert on. I am the "guide on the side", putting the students into Zoom rooms for group work, relaying questions, and administering the accompanying assessment. There is also a team of tutors help the hundreds of students with their individual challenge of building a portfolios by the end of semester, and assess them on it.


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.

The Lexus and The Learner: Engineering Quality Education

2007 Toyota Camry and Lexus ES, built on the same car platform (Wikipedia, 2021)

Universities across the world are now struggling to come up with a post-COVID education strategy. On the one hand online learning has shown education can be provided efficiently anywhere, on the other there is a desire to provide a personal experience. Thomas L. Friedman explored a similar dilemma in "The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization" (1999). Lexus motor vehicles represented the desire for the products of globalization, and the olive tree local tradition. Friedman argued that globalization would win out, but I suggest it is possible to have both.

Engineering a car for global standards takes hundreds of engineers years and billions of dollars. So makers such as Toyota design a common "platform" for a range of models, from low cost to luxury ones. Luxury models are hand finished with some premium components, to give a luxury product.

The approach of an engineered platform, with personal touches added, can be applied to learning. A course can be created by a team of educational designers and subject matter experts, for delivery world wide, to meet formal government and professional standards. The basics of the course can be provided online, with personal touches added by teaching staff, live online and face to face. This way the student gets the benefit of quality design, plus the human element.
  1. Higher Education After COVID-19, six webinars from August 2020, by Tom Worthington, for the Microlearning Series curated by Manisha Khetarpal at Maskwacis Cultural College, Canada
  2. Engaging students in the online environment, five webinars from February 2021, by Tom Worthington, for the Microlearning Series curated by Manisha Khetarpal at Maskwacis Cultural College, Canada
  3. Learning to Reflect Module Version 5.0: Hybrid Edition by Tom Worthington, for the  module for the ANU TechLauncher program, 2018 to 2021.

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