Learning to Design for International Students by Being an International online Student

Tom Worthington

Slides and notes:
For EdTechPosium 2017, 11:25 am, 30 October 2017, UNSW Canberra.

Description: In January Tom completed a MEd in Distance Education at Athabasca University (Canada) entirely online from Australia. He will discuss what it is like being an international student, with coursework via Moodle, collaborative work using Google Docs and Skype, a capstone-portfolio in Mahara and live defense via Adobe Connect. Tom argues that Dogfooding: experiencing what it is to be a student, is especially important for those creating distance education courses and programs. He will also discuss some of the implications of the availability of international online education for the Australian Higher Education industry.

About the Speaker: Tom Worthington is an independent computer professional, educational designer and an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

A Certified Professional member of the Australian Computer Society, in 2015 Tom received a national gold Digital Disruptors Award for "ICT Education" and in 2010 was Canberra ICT Educator of the Year. Tom previously worked on IT policy for the Australian Government, and in 1999 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy. He is a Past President, Honorary Life Member, Certified Professional and a Certified Computer Professional of the society as well as a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Tom has a Masters in Education (specializing in Distance Education) from Athabasca University, a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education from the Australian National University and a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment from the Canberra Institute of Technology. He blogs as the He blogs as the

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'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

Dogfooding is a term coined by Harrison (2006), for the practice of using the product you are advocating. Teachers need to learn to teach online by being e-learning students themselves.

Trained by Dogfooders

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

On the USS Blue Ridge, Coral Sea, 1997.

I was trained in computing within the Australian Public Service (APS), through what is now known as Work Integrated Learning (WIL). Starting as a Programmer's Assistant in the Australian Bureau of Statistics, I undertook clerical tasks to assist the programmers, while being trained in computing, in small in-house classes with teachers contracted from the computer industry. This format continued through my almost two decades with the APS.

Leaving the APS, I became a freelance computer consultant and part-time higher education teacher. Continuing the Dogfooding approach, my education about education was conducted mostly online and using work-integrated-learning, with the tools I intended to use for teaching.

Being an online Student of Online Education

Lindley, D. (2007, November). Computer professional education using mentored and collaborative online learning. In SEARCC 2007, Proceedings of (pp. 18-19). Retrieved from

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 learning. It seemed apparent that computers and the Internet should be utilized for teaching computer science students, but how and what?

The answer to the what and how came in 2008, when I was asked to design an online course in ICT Sustainability. I was mentored in e-learning design online by David Lindley, using an approach adapted from OUUK (Lindley, 2007). The resulting course was run by ACS, and I attended online instructor meetings with other ACS tutors of the next few years.

In 2011 I took Assessment, Evaluation and Learning EDU5713 and Online Pedagogy in Practice EDU8114, online at USQ, as part of an ANU GCHE.

In 2013 I undertook Recognition of Prior Learning and E-learning for Cert IV T&A at CIT.

From 2013 to 2017 I studied for a Masters in Education in Distance Education online at Athabasca University (Canada).

As I wrote in my MEd ePortfolio "I can now make a more credible case for the use of e-learning for international students, having been an international online student. Also, I can apply this approach, of leading by example, showing I use the tools and techniques I am advocating others should use."

AU MEd Structure

Main campus building of Athabasca University

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.

AU MEd Courses Selected

The DE courses are structured much like those of other "open" universities: 12 weeks grouped in modules of three or four weeks, with three or four major assessment items (some group work) and about 25% assessment for forum contributions. Each course has a cohort of about 25 students at the beginning, with a loss of about 25% of students in the first few weeks. There are one or two instructors. Students are typically mature age teaching staff of colleges, private training providers, and military organizations, mostly in North America or expatriates around the world. Most courses are primarily asynchronous (non-real time), some with a small synchronous component.

The Moodle Learning Management System is used to provide electronic notes to students and for submission of assessment. Paper-based textbooks are proved, supplemented by a reading list of research papers and videos available online. Assessment is by traditional written assignments, as well as multimedia materials (such as course modules produced by students), submitted via Moodle.

These are conventional distance education courses, with the advantages and disadvantages of materials designed through a rigorous process and intended to be used unchanged for several years.

MEd E-Portfolio

Capstone e-portfolio 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

My online studies were mostly of a conventional nature, with course design which would have been familiar to the last century distance education designer. Courses relied on textbooks (paper or electronic), downloaded text-rich notes and readings from academic books and journals. Courses were administered using a Learning Management System (LMS). ANU, USQ, CIT and Athabasca University all use the Moodle LMS. Students had limited interaction by asynchronous Moodle based chat forums. Most assignments were individual, with some group-work and most material was submitted as a word-processing document. Exceptions were courses on mobile learning and learning technology, which used a range of tools and techniques.

The most significant and different learning experience was the last: the Athabasca University MEd capstone portfolio. 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 twelve-week course in the student's last term (I took this concurrently with my last course). There was an instructor, and the student completes the e-portfolio in sections. Students receive feedback from the instructor and provide comment on each others draft e-portfolios. The last task is for the student to present an hour-long defense of their e-portfolio: thirty minutes presentation and thirty minutes answering questions from staff and students, via a webinar.

A copy of my Capstone e-portfolio is available. An extended version is available as a book: Digital Teaching In Higher Education: Designing E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment.

My E-Portfolio


MEd(ED) ePortfolio

Export generated for Tom Worthington on 06 December 2016, 3:23 PM, from their portfolio at Athabasca University e-Portfolio

For background, see "Pioneering Global Open Education at Athabasca University".

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).

In studying education, I have read many theories and techniques for distance education. One conclusion from my studies is that designing an online course is much the same as face-to-face. However, there is not the time or resources to teach all of this to the tutors and lecturers who do the teaching at universities. Something simpler and quicker to teach, understand and implement is needed.

The cover of my book "Digital Teaching" is illustrated with the four pictographs by Carlos Sarmento (from the Noun Project CC BY 3.0 US). This summarizes an approach with four steps:

  1. Provide eBooks and other curated content on the topic;
  2. Facilitate discussion between the students;
  3. Teach tools and techniques for the student to explore the topic; and
  4. Assess, 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 online 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 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 makes no difference to learning.

Blended Learning is Now

ANU Union Court Redevelopment

New ANU Buildings (artists' impression).

ANU Students attend less than half of the lectures

ANU is demolishing the central lecture theaters

Replacement buildings are for flexible learning

I suggest (not current ANU policy):

  1. An "on-campus" student will be in "class" 10% of the time
  2. Flipped-learning will halve the formal teaching space needed

Five years of online study made me appreciate the value of classroom teaching. The typical university student will still want to meet face to face with other students and an instructor. However, this time should not be wasted on lectures, or tutorials, where the student sits passively.

ANU found that after the first two weeks only 30% of students attend a typical lecture. In a semester, that works out to less than 50% attendance.

ANU is demolishing the central Manning Clark Centre lecture theaters in late 2017, to be replaced by "a number of multi-purpose, multimodal, flexible learning spaces which will be embedded with new digital infrastructure".

No preferred learning approach has been set centrally by ANU. However, I suggest replacing lectures with a flipped classroom, will provide a better learning experience while halving the teaching space required. A typical "on-campus" student can be expected to be in "class" for no more than 10% of their study time. For a full-time student studying 40 hours a week, this would be 4 hours. A full-time student might spend as little as one day per week on campus, a part-time student, one day a month.

Improving Engagement of online Students

UBC Irving K Barber Learning Centre

UBC Irving K Barber Learning Centre, Photo by Tom Worthington CC-By 3.0 2015

online students are less engaged, less likely to complete and less satisfied,

Need to design engagement with university & other students into the assessed curriculum.

This engagement will also help notionally "on-campus" students.

online students are more focused on each course and each assessment task. This is partly due to their being physically remote from the university. The student does not perceive the "university" as more than an administrative entity. Also, online students are more likely to be older, part-time and undertaking studies for work purposes. As a result, these students are focused on completing the assessment. The result is isolated, unhappy students.

The solution is activities to introduce the students to the online services the university provides and getting the students to help each other. These have to be compulsory, formal, assessed, for-credit activities. It is not enough to have optional extra-curricular activities, as the task-driven online student will not do these. It is also not enough to have one introductory activity, as the student will revert to their previous isolated behavior.

Educational designers who know how to produce such activities for students. The challenge is to convince discipline specific academics to make room in degree programs for these "soft skills".

While the problem with engagement has been seen with distance education students, the use of blended learning on-campus will see the increase in the same problem. The same techniques can be used to help engage these students.

With this approach, the soft-skill activities wrap around the classroom time, much as the new glass and steel of the Irving K Barber Learning Centre, wraps around an old stone building at the University of British Colombia.

The Real University is Virtual

"...the real university exists not as the physical campus, but as a body of reason within the minds of students and teachers ..." From Chapter 13, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, 2006

Teaching-Research Nexus?

"Part of the rationale for universities undertaking both research and teaching functions is the ‘teaching‐research nexus’ — the theory that close proximity to world‐class researchers makes students more engaged, develops their critical thinking, aids their research skills and keeps them up to date with the latest research findings."

... skills and attributes can be nurtured by high-quality teaching-only academics as well..."

From Shifting the Dial" (Australian Productivity Commission, 2017

The Australian Productivity Commission's review "Shifting the Dial" (2017), into the Australian economy, discusses "The teaching-research nexus".

This was part of the reasoning behind the late 1980s Dawkins reforms, merging the colleges of advanced education with universities. As the Commission points out, there is a lack of evidence that research helps with teaching.

The Commission stops short of recommending action, but observes "There is no compelling policy rationale for requiring high‐quality providers to research in order to be able to label themselves as a ‘university’." This may be correct in a very narrow technical point of view, but I suggest shows a lack of understanding of today's global education marketplace.

Australian university education is a significant export industry. The research reputation, as measured by international ranking systems, attracts international students. These ranking systems have little, if anything, to do with the quality of the education provided by the universities. However, students and their parents use these rankings to select a university and employers judge the quality of students partly based on these rankings. Australian universities are understandably reluctant to do anything which will jeopardize their research rankings.

As it is, Australia has some universities with a research focus and some education. The Australian Government has encouraged universities to pair up to learn from each other, an example is the Digital Future project undertaken by USQ, ANU and UniSA, under the Collaborative Research Networks (CRN) program (Murphy & Farley,  2012).

Rather than suggest teaching-only universities, or the reintroduction of pre-Dawkins colleges of advanced education, the Commission suggests work relevant "... skills and attributes can be nurtured by high-quality teaching-only academics as well...".


Murphy, A., & Farley, H. (2012). Development of a framework for evaluating the impact and sustainability of mobile learning initiatives in higher education. In Proceedings ASCILITE 2012: 29th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education: Future Challenges, Sustainable Futures. Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE). URL

Learning-Teaching Nexus

 ACS Certified Professional and Technologist, plus Cybersecurity Specialism

The Teaching-Research Nexus discussed by the Australian Productivity Commission is of little relevance, even if it does exist. Removing research responsibilities from academics will not, of itself, improve the quality of education provided by universities. Teaching-only academics will not necessarily improve the quality of education: what is needed are academics with teaching skills. Academics who spend part of their time as a researcher can still make excellent teachers, but they need to learn how to teach.

One simple way to improve the quality of teaching at Australian universities, I suggest, would be to encourage (or require), academics who teach to be qualified to teach. This could begin with a qualification at the level of a vocational education teacher: a certificate  (graduate certificate). Specific disciplines may have their own forms of certification, such as the Australian Computer Society's Certified Professional, which could have a teaching specialism added (as Cybersecurity was recently). The ACS accredits Australian university degrees and so could encourage, or require, academics teaching those courses to be formally qualified to teach.

More Information

  1. The presentation notes are at:
  2. Slides for these notes are also available
  3. Blog post about being a student
  4. MEd Capstone e-portfolio
  5. Digital Teaching In Higher Education: Designing E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment (book), 2017
  6. Training Tech Professionals to Teach: Parts 1 to 7, 2016-2017
  7. Tom Worthington

Version 3.0, 25 October 2017, Tom Worthington. Updated from "Dogfooding: Learning About Teaching by Being an online Student" presented as an ANU Human Centered Computing Seminar, 15 May 2017.

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Dogfooding: Learning to Design for International Students by Being an International online Student by Tom Worthington is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.