Digital Learning and the Future of Education

Tom Worthington

Slides and notes:
For ACS e-Learning Special Interest Group, Canberra, 22 February 2017

Description: In January Tom completed a masters in educational technology in North America, studying the design of on-line mobile courses and use of e-portfolios (Worthington, 2016). He will discuss the experience of being an international on-line student and the implications for Australian Higher Education. Tom argues that we can expect 80% of university education to be delivered on-line by 2020 and has produced a book on "Digital Teaching" available free on-line, to help get there (Worthington, 2017).

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Speaker: Tom Worthington

Tom Worthington preparing to depart the USS Blue Ridge by Military Helicopter during Exercise Tandem Thrust 97

Tom Worthington on USS Blue Ridge

After seventeen years working as a computer professional for the Australian Government, I decided to become a private computer consultant in 1999. My job would be short term projects for companies and government agencies, about their computer strategies and policies. This role would involve extended periods of time working alone in my home office.

To give some continuity, I volunteered to help out at local universities and was appointed a Visiting Fellow in what is now the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University. In return for a desk and status as academic staff, I helped out with research and teaching. I found myself drawn to the issue of how to use computer technology for the teaching. It seemed obvious that computers and the Internet should be utilized for teaching computer science students, but how and what?

How to Teach Online

Provide: eBooks, discussion forums, tools for inquiry and assessment.

Pictographs by Carlos Sarmento from the Noun Project (CC BY 3.0 US).

Designing an on-line course is much the same as face-to-face. This is illustrated with the four pictographs by Carlos Sarmento (from the Noun Project CC BY 3.0 US), used on the cover of "Digital Teaching". The instructor needs to:

  1. Provide ebooks and other curated content on the topic;
  2. Facilitate discussion between the students;
  3. Provide tools and techniques for the student to explore the topic; and
  4. assessment, including formative feedback, to help them learn.

The instructor can get away with making up a face-to-face course as they go along, but an on-line course needs to be carefully designed and tested in advance.

Keep in mind that what students like is not necessarily the same as what helps them learn, or what they will actually use. Offered the option of face-to-face lectures, students will say they want them, but most will then not turn up. Students prefer high quality videos, but video quality make no difference to learning.

Digital Teaching Book

  1. Introduction
  2. Instructional Design
  3. Planning and Management
  4. Educational Technology Applications
  5. International Issues in Distance Education
  6. Use of Open Education Resources
  7. Mobile Learning

From MEd DE at Athabasca University

The book "Digital Teaching In Higher Education Designing E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment" is a collection of essays from the work I did for a Masters of Education in Distance Education at Athabasca University.

Case Studies

 ICT Sustainability: Assessment and Strategies for a Low Carbon Future eBook by Tom Worthington
  1. ICT Sustainability
  2. Innovation

Worked on real educational content for the MEd.

Courses of the MEd require the student to work on real educational content. For this I chose to work on my existing online course ICT Sustainability, which was already being run by (ANU and Athabasca University. Also I designed modules for a new course "Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship in Technology".

This allowed me to try out course enhancements on my fellow students and then put them into practice. As an example, I first looked at peer assessment as part of my studies for the MED and then implemented it in practice for the ICT Sustainability course at ANU (where it worked well). The innovation course is yet to be implemented (more on that later).

MEd Structure

Students undertake five core courses and two of 24 elective courses (using Moodle and Mahara). Then either:

Finally, students write up a research thesis, or e-portfolio, for the oral defense.


Capstone with oral defense via webinar

Select 5 artifacts to show 47 competencies in 6 categories:

  1. Problem Solving, Analysis & Decision Making (11)
  2. Instructional Design & Development (7)
  3. Communication Technologies and Networking (5)
  4. Communication & Interpersonal Skills (8)
  5. Research (11)
  6. Management, Organization and Leadership (5)

From: Hoven D. (2015) ePortfolios in Post-Secondary Education: An Alternate Approach to Assessment. UAE Journal of Educational Technology and eLearning, 2015 Jan 7. Edition 1, 11-24. Retrieved from

The Capstone e-portfolio requires the students to reflect on their learning using five artifacts, which usually are a subset of the assignments already submitted in coursework (Hoven, 2015, p. 23). Rather than just leave the student to work this out for themselves, the e-portfolio is structured as a course, with an instructor and deliverables. Students receive feedback from the instructor and provide comment on each others draft e-portfolios.


"Presentation and discussion of e-portfolio. Using Adobe Connect, students present the highlights and low points of their capstone e-portfolio. The instructor will ask questions regarding the composition of the e-portfolio, the learning process experienced throughout the program, and the application of the new skills and knowledge (competencies) within the student's workplace. The presentation/discussion session is limited to one hour and may be attended by other students in the course."

Athabasca University (2014). MDDE 694: Capstone e-Portfolio Project. Retrieved from

The Athabasca MEd capstone option requires the student to present for an hour, with thirty minutes presentation and thirty minutes answering questions, via a webinar (video conference). During preparation of my e-portfolio I proposed to pre-record the presentation and then take the questions live. This was because I was one of the most distant students taking part in the program, so there were more likely to be communication problems. This option was approved and became a precedent, allowing other students the option to pre-record their presentations. However, in the end I opted for a live-to-air presentation.

After checking that I had three working computers with two separate Internet connections (one wired and one wireless for backup), I felt I was ready for the presentation. However, a few minutes before I was due to start, a pile-driver started up outside my office window, along with an electric saw down the corridor and work removing ceiling panels outside my door. Moving the equipment to a quieter spare office, I found that one computer could transmit sound and one receive, but not at the same time. As a result I gave the presentation with no audio feedback (instead asking the audience to occasionally give me a "Okay" in the text box). For Q&A I had to switch the microphone off, place my head down on the speaker of my laptop, listen to the question, then switch the speaker off and the microphone on to answer. The result was a slightly stilted conversation. This perhaps was an untended lesson in the difficulties of DE.

Lessons Learned


'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. Retrieved from

The most useful aspect of being an on-line student of education is "dogfooding", a term coined by Harrison (2006) for the practice of those who develop a product to use it. In the case of education courses, the designers, and instructors demonstrate that the technology they are advocating works and the students learn what it is like to be a DE student, before being an instructor or designer. Each course reminded me how crushingly lonely being a student can be, especially a distance student and even more so for an international student. As a result, I take additional care now to ensure my course instructions as well as content are very clear and try to avoid cultural confusion. However, the experience of being a DE student can also be liberating, compared to a part-time, after-hours, campus student.

Funding Innovative Education

2015 report warned Athabasca University may be insolvent by 2017.

Review underway by AU and Alberta Government.

Learning House survey of "Online College Students 2016" suggests improving: price, prior credit, m-learning, speed, group work & work skills.

Useful guidelines out soon from Dr Cathy Stone at NCSEHE.

How to fund on-line education remains a problem world-wide. Athabasca University has had difficulty in fitting its on-line education model into the conventional funding structures of government (as have Australian institutions, particularly University of New England).

Athabasca University (AU) and the Government of Alberta have appointed Dr. Ken Coates (University of Saskatchewan), to lead a review into how to make the university financially viable. This follows a report in 2015, which warned of insolvency by 2016/2017.

The report "Online College Students 2016: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences" from cloud HE services provider Learning House, Inc reports on a survey of 1,500 US higher education students. There are no great surprises in the report and the issues which students find important are ones that AU could address: price, prior credit, m-learning, speed, group work and work skills.

Useful guidelines have been drafted by Dr Cathy Stone for the "Opportunity Through Online Learning project" (Dr Cathy Stone, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education

Lecture Attendance Low

"... live lectures are not working. ... attendance declines over semester to around 30% of original signup. ..."

From That Sinking Feeling: Counting the Cost of Live Lectures, Professor Hughes Warrington, ANU, 6 July 2015

Australian universities are introducing lecture recording and learning management systems, allowing on-line delivery of education. However, university academics still cling to the idea that the typical student attends lectures and has the time to sit around the campus having deep intellectual discussions. Also, the assumption is that the average student will want to go on to postgraduate research and obtain a tenured research position.

Less than half of students attend lectures: 30% at ANU (Warrington, 2015).

Students Are Flipping

"The ANU College of Law has recently established a Juris Doctor degree online (JDO), with ANU students expressing concern about its implementation. ... classes will be taught as 'webinars' ... excludes lectures ...

Olivia Sparrow, Juris Doctor (Education) Officer on the ANU Law Students' Society, questions whether 'on-campus students could be disadvantaged with their larger class sizes and conservative teaching delivery'." (Kirpalani, 2016).

Online Juris Doctor elicits student concern, Kanika Kirpalani, Woroni, 22 August 2016

A recent item in the ANU student newspaper, Woroni, expresses concern over a new on-line program. The concern is not that the on-line program is inferior, but is superior to the existing lecture based program, so disadvantaging the campus-based students (Kirpalani 2016).

New Ways of Learning Are Not New

"... On Thursday, July 12th, a meeting was held of some of those interested in the concept of a Learning Exchange in Canberra. ... The Melbourne Learning Exchange has its own newspaper in which items of interest and lists of teachers/potential learners are published. It is hoped that the extra work-load could be avoided by printing the same sort of information in regular spaces in various established community newspapers. ... An article about the Learning Exchange will appear in the CAE paper, CCAESARIAN soon, and also hopefully a feature in the Canberra Times ... For further information ... read the article in the second Woroni of this term."

From "LEARNING EXCHANGE", Woroni , Thursday 2 August 1973 in Forsyth, H. (2014). A history of the modern Australian university. NewSouth.

Much of what is proposed under the banner of digital, electronic or on-line learning is not new in concept. Access to ubiquitous digital technology makes it much easier to implement.

Response to Digital Disruption

Plan for E80 Blend: 80% on-line and 20% classroom education

Train all students to teach and be entrepreneurial.

Prepare graduates for multiple careers, where they will be required to sell their skills.

Use flipped, blended, group project based learning, assessed via a portfolio.

"...institutions need to support early career teachers to learn to teach in much the same way that students who are new to higher education are supported: through integrated and intentionally designed transition strategies."

Fraser, K., Greenfield, R., & Pancini, G. (2016). Conceptualising institutional support for early, mid, and later career teachers. International Journal for Academic Development, 1-13. Retrieved from

While much education can be undertaken on-line, not all can. Students need to learn from experienced members of their discipline, learn to work in teams and learn to use equipment not available at home. A reasonable blend would be 80% on-line and 20% in a classroom.

Courses can be designed for on-line delivery and then necessary, or desirable, classroom components can be added.

Fraser, Greenfield, and Pancini (2016) suggest that early career academics need integrated and intentionally designed transition strategies, like those provided for students. I suggest we could go further and teach students to be teachers.

In addition to training in how to teach, students will also need training in how to be entrepreneurs. Graduates cannot expect to have a full time "permanent" jobs, so they need to learn to work in self-managed start-up teams, develop products and pitch them to customers.

ANU TechLauncher

ANU Techlaucher computing group projects:

  1. Six months or one year, or longer projects
  2. Government or industry client, or student start-up
  3. Assisted by the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN).
  4. On-line project management tools are used as well as learning management software

Could be applied beyond IT and for on-line students learning to work in virtual teams.

Last semester I tutored three teams of ANU Techlaucher students in a program devised by Dr. Shayne Flint. This provides a model which could be used more generally for teaching "soft" as well as hard skills to university students. This can be applied to any university program where the students are learning skills which can be applied in the workplace. The use of on-line project management tools allows for teaching of techniques of virtual teamwork and can be used with on-line distance education students.

Can We Teach Innovation Online?

"Learn how to take an idea and turn it into a business proposal and teach this to others. Students undertake practical work as part of an innovation competition, such as Innovation ACT to experience the process first hand. At the same time they explore the theory of commercialization and entrepreneurship to see how this could be incorporated in the training of Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) students. ..."

From "Entrepreneurial behavior", Open University (UK) module quoted in "Introduction to Innovation", April 10, 2015

Student project Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship in Technology, ANU, 2016

There is now a demand for students to learn "soft skills" and "Innovation". But can this be done online? To answer that question I design a student project, to take the materials on innovation I prepared during my MEd and turn them into an on-line, mobile based course. The results should be available in late 2017.

e-Portfolio Driven Degrees

Load the student's portfolio with a template of competences required:

For teaching certification:

E-portfolios provide a conceptual framework for a flexible approach to education. However, learning management systems and e-portfolios provide insufficient support at present to implement this. Systems are needed which allow a template to be loaded into the LMS (such as Moodle) and then competency evidence semi-automatically harvested from the e-portfolio (such as Mahara). Current systems act as little more than a documentation system for the process.

With a more intelligent system university programs could be defined regarding outcomes. When the students selected a degree program, they would be provided with a template to complete, listing competences required. Set activities, such as courses, would have the competencies they provide listed. When a student completed a course, the competences and evidence would be automatically recorded in their e-portfolio.

This approach would also allow for optional certifications to be acquired by the student. As an example, the education, training, and assessment skills, required for any professional role, could be certified in this way. The student could use the courses they are undertaking for their main studies as evidence of their training skills. A reasonable level to be expected would be for a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment with a bachelors degree, Graduate Certificate in Education with a Masters, and Diploma of Education with a Doctorate.

ACS Professional Year and SFIA Self Assessment

ACS Professional Year (PYear) in ICT for International Graduates

mySFIA: self-assessment of skills against the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).

Use general competencies tool for similar certifications: Moodle Competencies plus Mahara Annotation?

ACS (2015). Skills Framework for the Information Age Version 6, Reference Chart, Australian Computer Society. Retrieved from

The ACS Professional Year (PYear) provides graduates with training and an internship to prepare international graduates of Australian universities for the workplace. Completion provides 5 points under the Skilled Occupation List (SOL).

The ACS provides the mySFIA web-based application for applicants to self-asses against the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).

A graduate is likely to need a collection of certifications for employment. A general e-portfolio tool tracking competencies might be used to support similar industry schemes and certifications. For example, Moodle Competencies plus Mahara Annotation.

SFIA Education Skills

SFIA Category Skills and quality:
Subcategory Skill Code Levels

* SFIA Version 6 definitions from ACS (2015)

Skill management Learning and development management ETMG --34567
Learning assessment and evaluation LEDA --3456-
Learning design and development TMCR ---456-
Learning delivery ETDL --3456-
Teaching and subject formation TEAC ----56-
People management Professional development PDSV ---456-

SIFA includes training and education skills for computer professionals. One of the six SFIA categories is "Skills and quality". This includes six skills definitions, with five from the "Skill management" subcategory and one from "People management".

The SFIA Skills Definitions (Assessment Portal, 2016) would not on the face of it appear to relate to what the typical computer student learns or does in the workplace. However, many of the basic skills, such as preparing documents, giving presentations and collecting feedback, are common to IT development and education. A small component of training specifically on learning skills should be sufficient for the typical computer degree graduate to meet the SFIA Level 3 requirements. However, preparing the documentation for this, without the use of a tool, could be onerous.

Education Related Skills Definitions in SFIA Version 6

Category Skills and quality

  1. Learning and development management (ETMG): The provision of learning and development processes (including learning management systems) to develop the professional, business and/or technical skills required by the organization.

  2. Learning assessment and evaluation (LEDA): The assessment of knowledge, skills and behavior by any means whether formal or informal against capability and qualification frameworks such as SFIA. The evaluation of learning or education programs against defined outcomes.

  3. Learning design and development (TMCR): The specification, design, creation, packaging and maintenance of materials and resources for use in learning and development in the workplace or in compulsory, further or higher education. Typically involves the assimilation of information from existing sources, selection and re-presentation in a form suitable to the intended purpose and audience. Includes instructional design, content development, configuration and testing of learning environments, and use of appropriate current technologies such as audio, video, simulation and assessment. May include third party accreditation.

  4. Learning delivery (ETDL): The transfer of business and/or technical skills and knowledge and the promotion of professional attitudes in order to facilitate learning and development. Uses a range of techniques, resources and media (which might include eLearning, on-line virtual environments, self-assessment, peer-assisted learning, simulation, and other current methods).

  5. Teaching and subject formation (TEAC): The specification, design, development, delivery and assessment of curricula for computing and for information technology (including electronic communication), at any level of the education system from primary through to tertiary (all age ranges) and in the workplace. The topics addressed are those of the fundamental and more advanced areas of computing and the common skills needed to make productive use of computers and IT systems for both computing and IT professionals and competent users of IT based systems including the ideas of computational thinking and the application of computational concepts to everyday and professional life. Special attention is paid to the methods, techniques and pedagogy (the study of being a teacher, tutor or lecturer, and the process of teaching) of computing & IT education.

  6. Professional development (PDSV): The facilitation of the professional development of individuals, including initiation, monitoring, review and validation of learning and development plans in line with organizational or business requirements. The counselling of participants in all relevant aspects of their continual professional development. The identification of appropriate learning/development resources. Liaison with internal and external training providers.

SFIA Skills Definitions from: Assessment Portal (2016). Retrieved from:

Kerry Webb

Kerry Webb

Digital Distribution in 1990s Government

Tony Barry, ANU Deputy University Librarian, inspecting computerised library system in 1986

Tony Barry

Government publishing moved to the web in the 1990s:

"For people like Kerry Webb from the National Library of Australia and Tony Barry from the Australian National University, Australia's first on-line budget was like the first step on the moon. As key players in a 'cabal' of Canberra academics and bureaucrats with a passion for the Internet, Webb and Barry have managed to convince a somewhat reticent bureaucracy to get its information out to the world."

Communications Update. (1995). The cabal that connected Canberra. Communications Law Centre. UTS, Sydney. Retrieved from

A similar process for e-learning?

Academics, including at the ANU, assisted the Australian Government to move from providing information via print to on-line in the 1990s. This was a largely informal process. A similar process, where those from academia, government, and industry loosely coordinate can be used to help introduce the changes needed in Australian Higher Education.

More Information

  1. The presentation notes are at:
  2. Slides for these notes are also available
  3. Digital Teaching In Higher Education: Designing E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment (book), 2017
  4. Tom Worthington

Version 0.1, 20 February 2017, Tom Worthington

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