The Hub Responding to the Coronavirus Emergency with e-Learning
Transforming Lives: Moving Beyond

Responding to the Coronavirus Emergency with e-Learning

By: Tom Worthington

Transforming Lives: Moving Beyond is a testimonial series written by AU students and alumni who want to acknowledge how AU has helped shape their lives.

It’s a space for those who want to thank the people who have helped to support and transform their AU experience to achieve their greatest successes; all while looking forward to their future educational and personal potential.

Their story is worth shouting from the rooftops! Have an inspiring story of your own to share? Email us! We’d love to hear it.

I was a bright student, but never a good student.

In high school, I managed to get good grades in maths and science, but not languages. At university I had a good time, but did not know how to study. Instead I learned on the job, showing an aptitude for computer programming. I earned the respect of my colleagues, becoming the President of the Australian Computer Society (ACS), while working as a senior information technology policy adviser to the Australian Department of Defence.

After a career in government, I left to be a computer consultant, and a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University (ANU). My professional body wanted people to teach short professional courses online, and I found I liked this form of teaching.

ANU needed new courses, so with the blessing of the ACS I adapted a course I had designed for them, to be delivered to graduate students. As this was an online course, it attracted not only the usual computing students on campus, but those in other disciplines, around the world.

Learning to teach online

While I was teaching a successful online course (it won two industry awards), I felt I needed to know more about how to teach, and how to teach international students online in particular. I wanted to provide courses for people like me, who had never been conformable with the usual lecture based classroom courses.

I took some short local courses on teaching, but there was not much available about teaching at the university level. My search widened and at this point I realized that I would be studying online, and so could look to the world. If I wanted to teach international students online, then perhaps I should become one.

After considering several of the online universities of the world, I settled on Athabasca University (AU). This was in part because one of my former students had adapted my course. This is still being offered as Green ICT Strategies COMP635.

Although I did not have a bachelors degree in education, I was admitted to the Master of Education in Distance Education program (MEd), based on short courses, experience, and references. Despite my experience, study was hard work, and there were setbacks. It took me just over three years to complete, and there was not a week when I did not consider giving up. But I kept going with the help of my instructors and fellow students.

The AU MEd requires students to already be actively teaching. Like most students, I was applying what I learned immediately, not waiting for graduation. No sooner had we learned something, than we could apply it in our teaching. I did this for ANU and ACS courses, as well as industry training.

Teaching international students online

One area of particular interest for me was how to provide online university courses, from Australia, to students in India and China. International education is Australia’s third largest export industry. However, that industry depends on students coming to Australia to study. If students were unwilling, or unable, to come to Australia, that multi-billion dollar industry was at risk. There would also be benefits for the students being able to study from wherever they were located.

In my Athabasca studies I looked at the technical, educational, and regulatory issues with delivering education online internationally. My assignments on this received reasonable grades, and I delivered some papers on it in Australia and internationally, at industry and academic education conferences.

In my study I looked at the technical ways in which online courses could be easily prepared. For this I could apply my experience with Internet and web applications for the military. Much more difficult to address were the perceptions of online learning, which is seen as inferior to face-to-face learning. This was despite the research I read, and conducted, which showed that online learning was challenging, but could provide learning at least as good as a classroom.

In late 2016, I prepared for the final hurdle before graduating. Students of the MEd are required to give a presentation on their work and answer questions. The additional challenge is that this is conducted online. I felt I was prepared, with two computers, two Internet connections to link to Canada, and a sign on the office door saying “Do Not Disturb”. But a few minutes before my presentation, the building started shaking, with a “boom, boom, boom!”

A pile driver had started in the adjacent building site, then a circular saw down the corridor, with a high pitched whine, and two workers tearing the ceiling out of the corridor outside my door. I fled down the corridor with an armful of computers, to an empty meeting room and set up to deliver. I found that I could speak via one computer to Canada, but not hear, and hear via the other, but not speak. So I gave the presentation hunched over a jury rigged setup. The examiners were understanding, and I did okay.

Responding to the Coronavirus Emergency with e-Learning

In late January 2020, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency over the Novel Coronavirus. Shortly after, I was called to a meeting of staff at the ANU. Thousands of our students were in China and delayed returning to Australia due to the outbreak.

The university had committed to helping students in any way they could, with the full support of the Australian Government. One option was to provide more online education: but how can this be done quickly in difficult circumstances? It was with much trepidation, and a little pride, I told the meeting: “I have been trained to do this. How can I help?”. A room of very senior academics turned to me, with some relief, a little skepticism, and started bombarding me with questions. I didn’t have all the answers, but was able to reassure them: “We can do this!”

In the months since the Coronavirus started I have been advising my colleagues on how to replace lectures with recordings, tutorials with webinars, and to use different forms of assessment. Some of this advice has been hard to give and hard to accept. People who have the job title of “lecturer” do not like hearing that recordings are just as good as their live lectures. The very planned approach required for online learning does not sit well with many academics. But the ANU teaching year started on schedule, for both on-campus, and remote students, with most of the technology working fine. I have been providing some tips for others, via my blog “The Higher Education Whisperer.”

All of the worlds educators, at schools, colleges, and universities, are facing this challenge of teaching online. Australia’s institutions have had a head start, providing for our international students. However, we must all now plan for the possibility that campuses will remain closed for a much longer duration than was previously thought due to the Coronavirus. Thanks to my experience as a student of Athabasca University, I know this is a challenge we can meet.

Tom Worthington has a Master of Education in Distance Education from Athabasca University. He is an independent computer consultant, and Honorary Lecturer in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University. Tom has received two Australian industry awards for ICT Education. He is a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society and the Higher Education Academy, a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Tom is the author of books and papers on computing policy and education. He blogs as “The Higher Education Whisperer

  • April 17, 2020
Guest Blog from:
Tom Worthington