Friday, March 25, 2022

Some Thoughts on Learning and Teaching Strategies

Hot Air Balloon Over Canberra,
Photo by Tom Worthington CC-by 3.0 1996
Some thoughts on Learning and Teaching Strategies:

Don't Fight the Last War

A well-known saying in the military is "Fighting the Last War". This is the tendency to make plans around whatever challenge was last. There is much talk of universities learning the lessons of COVID-19. However, those lessons were known before COVID-19, many were not learned then, and in any case, may not apply in the future.

Australian universities knew the risk that the flow of international students to Australia could be interrupted. As one of many, I warned of this (Worthington, 2017). Rather than practice teaching online in an emergency, as the National University of Singapore did in 2014, most of Australia's universities chose to instead hope this never happen, and when it did, claimed no one could have anticipated it.

Universities faced COVID-19 in an otherwise relatively benign environment, which can't be assumed to be the case in the future. An example of an upcoming challenge is high levels of cyber-attacks, which could commence without warning, and persist for months or years (Whitehouse, 2022). A longer-term challenge is increased online competition from international universities, and  institutions associated with China's education plan for the belt, and road program (Worthington, 2014).

Balance Research and Education

While useful for marketing, a university's research activities are of little practical value for student learning, if anything they are an impediment. Staff selected, and promoted, on their research record are not necessarily good educators, nor do they have an incentive to become skilled. Governments could solve this inherent conflict by un-Dawkinising Australian higher education, again splitting research, and education into separate institutions. Research universities would then only teach a few research students. To avoid that drastic solution, universities need to raise the status of teaching, with specific recruitment and promotional practices.

We already knew how to teach better before COVID-19

COVID did not bring disruption to those of us already trained and qualified in teaching, who were providing online, flipped, and blended learning. Some even had a contingency for online teaching in an emergency in place, activated for the pandemic.

The challenge for universities is not in imagining what learning, and teaching could be as that is already known, but how to provides incentives for our academics to skill-up to do it.

We already knew exams were a bad idea

Apart from being administratively convenient, examinations have little
to offer
in terms of quality assessment. Alternatives are well developed
and proven. The challenge is to train staff in modern assessment techniques.

Large classes are manageable when broken into small groups

There are well-established techniques for large classes. These involve the use of group work, peer feedback, and projects. The challenge is to train academics in how to use these techniques in a team, with educational specialists. ANU Techlauncher is one model for this approach.

Learning and teaching support

The key to systematic uplift of digital, and teaching skills is through the university's major teaching asset: tutors. These most marginal university employees, like non-commissioned officers of the army, are on the front line with students. They are also easier to influence in their teaching practices. While convincing a tenured professor to learn digital teaching techniques is difficult, it is much easier with tutors. Courses for tutors can be re-imagined as showcases of modern teaching techniques. The tutors would learn these techniques, by using these techniques.

Learning Spaces with flat floors and furniture on wheels

The flat floor classrooms of the ANU Marie Reay Teaching Centre provide a suitable model for future learning spaces (Worthington, 2019). These can be supplemented with some tiered spaces similar to ANU Manning Clark Hall.

Lifelong learning

Lifelong learning can be addressed through micro-credentials offering credit in certificates, nested into diplomas, and degrees. The major challenge here is to have staff with the needed skills in the design, delivery, and assessment of this form of education. There is much to learn from the VET sector, but academics are very reluctant to do so.

Development, and reward of teaching

There is no easy solution to getting academics to take the time, and effort needed to become skilled in teaching. One way is to get them when they are new, requiring new staff, especially early career academics, to undertake training.

Universities can offer courses, micro-credentials, certificates, diplomas, and degrees in education to both their staff, and students. This would signal that the sector is taking education seriously, and imposing discipline on those delivering it. Tutors who are students could be offered credit for their studies in education as part of their programs. As an example, education is recognized internationally as a skill for computer professionals, under the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).

Flexible for a sustainable future

One way sustainability can be improved is to build flexible options into educational offerings. By default, programs should be offered in blended mode, with the option of students studying entirely remotely online. While the typical student could be expected to be on campus for 20% of their studies, the option for this to be 0% should be built-in. As well as providing flexibility for individual students, this allows for future emergencies, which keep students from campus (I suggested Canberra's universities do this in 2016).

Some Frequently Asked Questions

What Should our Digital Infrastructure Look Like?

There is enough free open source educational software for universities, such as Moodle, and Mahara. What is needed is the training in education, and technology, for staff to use it effectively. Changing the LMS would be treating the symptoms, not the problem.

What does a Good On-campus Experience Look Like

ANU's Kambri is a good example of a lively modern campus experience. It looks like an entertainment center, but there are quality teaching spaces behind the bars, cafes.

How Can We Respond to Student's Concerns

Train, the teaching staff to teach, with an AQF qualification in education.This could be at a level somewhere between the certificate VET teachers must have, an the Masters for school teachers.

How can we make teaching easier in large classes?

Train, the teaching staff to teach, with an AQF certificate in education.

How can we make the experience of learning meaningful to students?

Train, the teaching staff to teach, with an AQF certificate in education.

Then teach the students to be professionals, who take responsibility for their learning. Have them undertake group project work from their first year.

How can we provide students flexibility?

Offer all courses in blended mode, with a pure online option. Eliminate
traditional examinations.

How do provide digital equity?

Include digital skills introductory courses. Ensure that course
materials meet accessibility requirements and will work over low
bandwidth broadband to a mobile device.


Act Now to Protect Against Potential Cyberattacks, The Whitehouse, US Government, March 21, 2022

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

Worthington, T. (2017). Digital Teaching In Higher Education: Designing E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment. ANU Open Research Repository

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.

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