Artifact 1: Design a New Distance Education Organization

In the introduction, I discussed how I came to be an Australian computing educator studying on-line in Canada. In this first reflection, I continue the story, looking at my first course for the MEd, the experience of being an international student and how that informed my teaching of international students in Australia.

Introduction to Distance Education and Training

Why Selected

Being an international student prompted me to consider the experiences of my students from China and India, studying in Australia. One way for me to explore these issues was to write a proposal for teaching students from different nations on-line together.


Assignment 3, course MDDE 601, Introduction to Distance Education and Training, "... proposed new distance education organization and discussed various aspects of its design ...":

"The Australian Government's "New Colombo Plan" provides $100m funding for Australian university students to undertake part of their studies at universities in the Indo-Pacific region, to foster greater cultural understanding, technical and business links between Australia and the region. This paper first looks at the aims of the origins and aims of the original Colombo Plan, at the new Plan, then at the application of Distance Education in the computer science and engineering disciplines in Australia and China. Lastly the paper proposes how to bring these elements together to teach Australian and Chinese students together, as part of degree programs. Courses could be offered by one Australian university, a consortium, or jointly by universities in both Australian and China."

From Chinese and Australian Students Learning to Work Together Online: Proposal to Expand the New Colombo Plan to the Online Environment, 12 April 2014.


6. Management, Organization, and Leadership

6.1. Analyze the current and future climate of the distance education and distance learning industry, and formulate strategies to respond to that climate

6.2. Describe and analyze the business and administrative functions in distance education organizations and critically discuss how business decisions affect financial and non-financial work results

6.3. Make considered recommendations regarding the selection of appropriate learning technologies and assure that these selections meet organizational needs

6.4. Outline and critically compare the relative costs of appropriate technology-based communications methods in distance education and ensure that the organization is receiving a good return on investment

6.5. Manage workload, other commitments, and information needs within time and structural constraints (in both personal and team management situations).


In this paper I looked at the current and future climate for DE  and formulated a strategy (6.1), reinvigorating the Colombo Plan, current business and administrative functions in DE (6.1), the fragmented approach to vocational education, the selection of learning technology (6.3).

Sri Lankan drummers at the opening of conference (Photo by Tom Worthington, CC-By 3.0 2013)My interest in the Colombo Plan may have been sparked in part by a visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka (where the plan was launched), the year before. I was attending a conference on computers and education, which included a site visit to the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT). This private institution uses e-learning modules from Australian and UK universities, combined with face-to-face classes by local staff. Also I visited IT outsourcing company Virtusa, which employs thousands of computer graduates at a hi-tech campus in Colombo. I noticed that Virtusa placed great emphasis on compliance with global standards, including for education, while making accommodation for local conditions. This global/local blend was one I explored in the assignment.

In finding my feet as a new student, I came across this reflective question in the course:

Athabasca University uses the phrase “Canada’s Open University” in its promotional materials. However, education is provincial matter in Canada. — What do you think of this claim? In what ways can AU be seen to be open and/or to serve the nation?

From: Unit 1. Foundations of Distance Education: The Faces of Distance Education.

My answer:

"... Athabasca University is a Canadian university and has similar processes to the UK Open University, as described in Walter Perry's 1988 book "Open University: A Personal Account by The First Vice-Chancellor." Like UKOU, Athabasca accepts students with a wider range of educational qualification and provides distance education. As students can enroll across Canada, it could, therefore, be reasonably claimed that Athabasca is "A Canadian Open University."

Posted on: Monday, 13 January 2014, 9:52 PM 

With this paper I overreached: it was an attempt to analyze current and future distance education formulate strategies (Competency 6.1). In retrospect, I did not know as much about the topic as I thought I did, as suggested in the feedback from the instructor (and poor grade). However, by looking at the issue of providing education in a regional context, I did carry out "Problem Solving, Analysis, & Decision Making" (Competency Cluster 1), including the issues of:

The question then was if e-learning would provide a satisfactory substitute for campus work (the literature suggested this would work better in India than China).

Dealing with Different Expectations of an International Cross-discipline Student

When I enrolled at Athabasca, I assumed there would be minimal differences to an Australian university, as the two countries share a common language and culture, as former British colonies. However, there are subtle differences between language and practice. Some of these differences are amusing, such as one group of students were labeled "loons" by the instructor, which I thought inappropriate until I discovered this was a reference to a Canadian bird, not slang for the mentally ill. More seriously, differences in grading and assignments caused difficulties in the early stages of my studies and throughout the program.

Not knowing what was a "good" mark at a Canadian university, or what was expected in assignments, gave some insights into the problems my international students have in understanding what is expected of them. Rules which seem very clear and objective to the instructor were confusing and arbitrary to the student from a different educational system.

One way I tried to overcome differences was to read the literature of the discipline I was studying. Not only was I studying in a different hemisphere, but in a different discipline. I read all the textbooks provided before the term started (it is good to still have "books" in an on-line course), then read all the readings at the scheduled time and then search for additional papers (using Google Scholar). One useful source was the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL), which provides digital audio versions of papers. I listened to the synthetic voice readings of IRRODL the on the long drive between Canberra and Sydney. I would then write brief notes about the papers in my Mahara journal, cite the best of these in my assignments and also try to emulate their style.

E-portfolios for Competences Beyond the Course

One approach proposed in the paper was the use of e-Portfolio for concurrent learning and assessment (an example of Competency 6.3. "... recommendations regarding the selection of appropriate learning technologies..."). Many programs use an e-portfolio as a capstone, at the end for students to integrate what they have learned and to show evidence of required competencies. However, as preparing this e-portfolio for the MEd is proving to be, to do this at the end of a program is a very complicated process. An alternative would be to use the e-portfolio as part of each course and to show competence beyond the courses, progressively throughout a program. This is an an approach I am not exploring for use in my teaching, aided by new tools in Learning Management System Software, such as Mahara SmartEvidence and Moodle already has "Competencies". It may be possible to use these together, with SmartEvidence the reflective development of higher-order skills across a program, and Moodle Competencies for low level skills within a course.

One issue which repeatedly arose through the early courses of the program was Competency 6.5: "Manage ... within time and structural constraints ...". The problem was that not knowing what was expected of an Athabasca University student; I would over-analyze the questions presented and expend far more effort than needed on unimportant parts of the problem, such as what size page to use for assignments.

Lessons Applied to My Teaching

The need to make requirements clear to students is a lesson I used in my work as a course designer and instructor. As an example, I started including page sizes and word limits in assignment descriptions. Also, I check the words used in course materials, to avoid Australian specific terms and use international English as much as possible. Ideally, in future course design, I would like to coordinate the language used with others creating courses for a program.

One useful lesson from the MEd is the importance of personal communication. Having a human instructor and administrative staff to communicate with lessened problems with course materials and procedures. As a result, I have learned to be wary of proposals for Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCS), where these are just being used as a way to cut staff costs.

Deciding to Continue with the MEd

One misunderstanding which occurred with the MEd, was my assuming that MDDE 601 would be the only core course I would be required to undertake. I had already completed a graduate certificate in education in Australia and had experience in designing courses for higher education. Therefore I assumed exemption would be granted for all the remaining core courses, and I could move straight to research. However, this was not the case, and I was faced with double the length of studies I had anticipated. At this point, I considered withdrawing from the program but decided to continue and with following core courses. I found there was much more I had to learn about e-learning.

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan drummers at the opening of conference (Photo by Tom Worthington, CC-By 3.0 2013)
Sri Lankan drummers at the opening of conference (Photo by Tom Worthington, CC-By 3.0 2013).