Quickly developing online versions of learning materials for graduate students

Tom Worthington

Research School of Computer Science, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

For Roundtable Discussion at the Office of Scholarly Communication, Cambridge University, UK, 22 July 2015
Repeated at ICCSE 2015, 23 July 2015, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, UK.
Repeated at ACS Canberra Branch 2015 Annual Conference, Canberra, Australia, 9 September 2015 as "How ICT is Changing the Learning Landscape"
Slides and notes: http://www.tomw.net.au/technology/it/graduate_elearning

Abstract: Tom Worthington, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Research School of Computer Science, Australian National University (ANU) The University of Cambridge has been using the same Australian developed "Moodle" Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) as ANU since 2014. Tom will provide some lessons learned from teaching graduate students using Moodle at the ANU since 2009. He suggests shortcuts for moving learning materials on-line using e-books. Tom will also outline new work at ANU to integrate the "synchronous" features of products such as Adobe Connect, with the "asynchronous" features of Moodle.

Note: These were the notes for an invited presentation at the Office of Scholarly Communication, University of Cambridge (UK). They were not used and a round-table discussion was held instead, with notes of that discussion with Tom available from Cambridge University in "Tips for preparing and presenting online learning" (Kingsley, 2015). Some of that discussion is presented here. See also: "Open, Mobile Online Education", Sydney Linux User Group (SLUG) meeting at Google Sydney, 31 July 2015.

Keywords: eBooks; Asynchronous Learning; Synchronous Learning; Electronic Learning; Web Conference; Videoconferencing; Pedagogy; University of Cambridge

These are the notes for the presentation using HTML Slidy. If viewing the slides you can press "A" to display these notes (and press "A" again to hide them). To advance to the next slide, press "page down", or click the left mouse button.

Tom Worthington FACS CP

Tom Worthington

Tom Worthington is an IT consultant and course designer for vocational and postgraduate university courses. In 2010 he was awarded Canberra ICT Educator of the Year by the Australian Computer Society, for his work on sustainable e-learning. Tom is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University. In 1999 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy and previously worked for the Australian Government. 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.

About Scholarly Communication

A revolution has taken place in how scholars communicate. But electronic publishing and social media for serious communication does not com naturally to scholars: these are skills they must learn. On-line courses are an appropriate way to teach these skills.

Adapting Traditional Courses for Online Use: e-books + social media

 ICT Sustainability: Assessment and Strategies for a Low Carbon Future eBook by Tom Worthington

Apply traditional synchronized asynchronous pedagogy:

  1. Books: Course content provided in a down-loadable standalone structured modules (textbook), using existing e-Book formats (HTML5, eBook IMS Content Package).
  2. Formative Feedback: Short tests can be used to aid learning by student (SCORM/HTML5).
  3. Groups: Students can be formed into groups for mutual support on-line.

The problems of adopting on-line learning can be reduced using traditional synchronized asynchronous pedagogy. On-line courses tend to present material in small chunks which the designer decided on. These present problems for the learner in terms of context and control. They also place demands on the server and communications network performance and reliability. The format of a traditional textbook, translated to an e-Book (such as ICT Sustainability) provides a carefully structured set of materials for a course, which can be used off-line. Existing e-Book formats can be used (HTML5, eBook IMS Content Package).

Formative Feedback and much of the interaction for the course can also be provided off-line using existing formats (SCORM/HTML5). Plug-ins and upgrades can be provided for existing LMS software, such as Moodle (and e-portfolios such as Mahara), to allow modules to be downloaded and used offline, with students checking back in later with their progress. This will greatly reduce the loads placed on these systems, allowing for millions of students. Software for large scale e-learning can be quickly developed by using existing e-learning and e-book standards (web, Moodle Book Module, EPUB, IMS Content Package, SCORM Package). Of-line support can use the features already built into HTML5 and also features for support of mobile devices.

Open Source e-Portfolio software

The Australian Computer Society (ACS) uses e-portfolios and mentors alongside on-line postgraduate courses in the ACS Computer Professional Education Program (CPEP). The ACS also uses e-portfolios and on-line examinations for Migration Skills Assessment, on behalf of the Australian Government.

Using e-portfolios requires new skills of the student and also of the assessors. These skills will be required of professionals in the workplace and so should be included in postgraduate professional programs.

Up until now, universities have tended to use paper based forms, word processing documents, or bespoke computer applications to record student progress. An example of this evolution is the Student Practice Evaluation Form (SPEF) system. This is currently a paper based system used for recording the progress of occupational therapy students at Australian universities. It is being implemented as a web based application.

Mahara is a free open source e-portfolio package widely used alongside Moodle. This combination can be used assist with recording progress with skills which do not fit neatly into discrete courses.

It should be noted that free open source software can be hosted on a server at the educational institution, or remotely (in "the cloud").

"Free" On-line Course in ICT Sustainability

Computers > electricity > fossil fuel > CO2 > global warming.

1.52% of Australian carbon emissions in 2007 due to ICT

Australian Computer Society (ACS) commissioned a course in 2008 on how to measure and reduce ICT CO2:

  1. First run by ACS, February 2009: Green ICT Strategies
  2. Graduate program of Australian National University (ANU) from July 2009 as Green Information Technology Strategies (COMP7310)
  3. Adapted by Athabasca University, Canada in 2011: Green ICT Strategies

Computers and telecommunications (ICT) equipment is powered by electricity. If the electricity is generated by burning fossil fuel, this releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. The CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which traps sunlight, causing global warming.

A carbon emissions audit for the the Australian Computer Society (ACS), reported in 2007 that 1.52% of Australian carbon emissions were attributable to computers and telecommunications equipment. In response, the ACS, commissioned Tom Worthington to design an e-learning course in “Green ICT Strategies”, to train professionals in how to measure and reduce CO2 emissions. It was first run as part of the postgraduate masters level program in February 2009.

The course was first run by ACS, in February 2009 as "Green ICT Strategies" (later renamed "Green Technology Strategies"), with students who are working in the ICT industry. The course was then modified slightly are run by Tom Worthington in the graduate program of Australian National University (ANU) from July 2009 as Green Information Technology Strategies, COMP7310 (later renamed ICT Sustainability). A North American version of the course was developed by Brian Stewart for Athabasca University (Canada) in 2011 as "Green ICT Strategies".

Rationale and Format

Designed for the ACS Computer Professional Education Program

ICT Sustainability Elective

The course was designed as part of the ACS Computer Professional Education Program, which uses a Constructivist e-Learning approach, derived from that of the UK Open University.

The course objectives and assessment items are based on the skills definitions for “Sustainability Assessment” and “Sustainability Strategy” at level 5 of the Skills Framework for the information Age (SFIA).

Use of Open Access Material

See: “Ideal Characteristics of an Assessment Tool”, National Quality Council

The course notes used by ACS students were released under a Creative Commons open access license. This allowed the material to be revised for use at the Australian National University in July 2009. This version was then further revised and used for ACS students in the next semester. This approach allowed the more rapid revision of material than would be possible with a a conventional textbook, and with more resources available than if the notes were just used by one institution.

As the notes evolved, it became clear that some of the administrative procedures would need to be separated from the subject content. As an example, different educational institutions use different assessment procedures, such as grading scales and proportion of marks for weekly work and assignments. The use of the Learning Management System (LMS) made it possible to remove the administrative detail from the course notes and rely on them being available from other documents in the system. This also removes some burden from the student to have to read through the same standard material for each course they are undertaking: if the student can see it is the same link from the LMS for all courses, then they need read it only once.

While it may seem useful to have requirements for an assessment to be as detailed and specific as possible, this may not be the case. Courses which are part of an overall program should have consistent requirements. Thus it should not be necessary to restate the details common to all assessment in every assessment item or in every course. This is particularly the case where a LMS is used. The National Quality Council's “Ideal Characteristics of an Assessment Tool” include the details of how assessment is to be recorded, which can be dealt standardised by the institution by using an LMS.

Published Course Notes

Course notes prepared in web format using Moodle:

The course was originally prepared using the web based course authoring tools in the Moodle Learning Management System (MLS). The ACS, ANU and Athabasca University all use the same LMS, allowing simple transfer of the course-ware between systems, via the Moodle backup and restore function.

The first version of the course used a separate web document for each of the twelve weekly topics in the course. However, this created a maintenance burden and was confusing for the student. The materials were therefore all consolidated into one web based eBook, using the Moodle “book module” function, with one chapter per topic in the book.

The course content was exported from Moodle in HTML format and converted to Amazon Kindle and Apple and ePub eBook formats, as well as PDF, a standalone web site and a print-on-demand paperback book. However, provision of the notes within the LMS has proved more popular with students and simpler to maintain.


Assessment is by contribution to weekly forums and two written assignments: mid semester and at the end of the course. The weekly forum questions are at the end of each week in the course book. The assessment scheme, assignment questions and rubrics are in the assessment appendix of the book.

The tutor is key to this form of e-learning. In the introductory posting for the course, the tutor is required to point out where the assessment items are and explain that the rubric are based on the generic one of the institution: weekly forum assessment is a limited fail, pass, credit scale and the assignments the full scale. Each week the tutor should post each question for that week as a forum topic, so the students can post their answers in that thread of discussion.

In the weekly forum posting for the course, the tutor should provide an example of a good posting, suggest areas for general improvement. The tutor should also remind students how many weeks there are to the next assignment being due and that the weekly forum questions are designed to be used in the assignments.

In the weekly individual feedback to students (via the Dialogue tool of the LMS, not email), the tutor must provide a mark for that week and at least one example of a good posting by the student and one suggestion for an improvement to a posting. If there are no postings from a student for a week, they should be reminded by the tutor that participation is compulsory and after two weeks, the program supervisor should be advised.

The assignments are marked with reference to a rubric, first determining what grade is warranted and then the mark within the grade. Marks are not allocated to individual aspects of the work and no summation is carried out. The examiner can use a copy of the rubric as feedback to the student, with relevant comments indicated by highlighting phases in the rubric (this can be done with an electronic document returned via the LMS).

Making Students Pay Attention to Feedback with Assessment

Students pay attention to weekly tutor feedback, as it is accompanied by marks.

A weekly mark of 2% is sufficient to have the students pay attention.

Conventional educational theory suggests that formative feedback should be provided to students to help them improve. This should be in addition to summative assessment for the final grading for a course. However, students pay far closer attention to marks than they do to tutor feedback. The practice experience of this course is that a weekly mark of 2% accompanying the feedback is sufficient to have the students pay attention to what they are being told by the tutor.

Authentic Assessment Tasks

Gulikers, Bastians and Kirschner define an authentic assessment as:

"... one which appropriately reflects the competency that needs to be assessed and that it represents real-life problems of the knowledge domain being assessed and that the thinking processes that experts use to solve the problem in real life are also required by the assessment task."

The course requires students to prepare reports typical or a workplace setting. This contrasts with the multiple choice test used by the British Computer Society for their “Foundation Certificate in Green IT. An IT practitioner is unlikely to be asked multiple choice questions as part of their daily job.

Students are encouraged to answer all assessment items from the point of view of their workplace (or one they are familiar with), making them more authentic to the student. The assessment items are based on official international skills definitions from the professional body, and so are similar to real tasks. The student as are required to make real calculations based on a real world situation, requiring the students to demonstrate mastery. As both the course content and assignments are based closely on skills definitions and practice standards, there is a clear alignment between learning outcomes, course content, assessment and professional knowledge. Workplace skills are integrated by the student being encouraged to submit a real report from their workplace, in consultation with their supervisor. The weekly questions and feedback are intended to show how the assessment helps with learning.

Future of education: MOOCs, Books and e-Learning


Wikipedia-Books Project:

Example: Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship: Technology, Business and People (Wikipedia eBook)

Perhaps if the Wikipedia looked more like a traditional book, it would be more accepted by academics. The Wikipedia-Books Project allows a teacher to select a set of Wikipedia entries and render them as a PDF eBook. The Wikipedia entries in the eBook do not update automatically, the user has to re-render the book. This is an advantage for an educational setting as the teacher knows the content of thier "edition" has not been changed maliciously. An example is the eBook "Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship: Technology, Business and People" prepared for "Designing an Innovation Course: Part 3 - Introduction to Innovation".

Sync and Async Techniques

Synchronous and asynchronous learning modes are assumed distinct:

Can Synchronous and Asynchronous be combined?

A Brief Survey of edX Users

But learners cannot ask a question of a pre-recorded video.

Worthington & Wu (2015)

Can E-learning Provide a Quality Education?

A Better Webinar Tool For Teaching

See also:

  1. MOOCs with Books - Technology Plus Traditional Teaching for an On-line Education Revolution
  2. Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship: Technology, Business and People (Wikipedia eBook)
  3. Time-shifted Learning - Merging Synchronous and Asynchronous Techniques for E-Learning
  4. Overview of Moodle at University of Cambridge
  5. University of Cambridge Moodle Training

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graduate_elearning by Tom Worthington is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.