The future of the past-university online

After a tumultuous time in higher education over past months, particularly in the EdTech and online learning spaces, it may be time to reflect, re-energise, and critically appraise. The past is full of junctures and upheavals, turning points and divergent paths, and it is the historian’s job make sense of significant events and attempt to bring them together into a coherent whole. There are several competing narratives around higher education now, each competing for their historical moment. I will offer a high-level outline of two key themes that I have distilled from the numerous online conferences and forums that I have attended over recent weeks.  This is meant as a general observation to provoke refection and imagination, rather than a deep dive into nuanced areas of debate.

The future will be online

During the Cold War, the Internet was designed as a post-apocalyptic command grid. In the event of a nuclear attack, that destroyed the communication systems of the Capitalist West, the survivors could send messages to each other to launch missiles to destroy the Communist East.  The logic of the Internet, to survive an apocalypse, was not a rosy picture of the future (and computing’s role in it), but a historically embedded response to the reality of the day, and this reality was not pretty.

Today’s reality is perhaps not that far removed from the original idea of the Internet; to survive an apocalypse. Most countries of the world are in some sort of COVID-response lockdown with mass-education systems now operating entirely online. This reality was unimaginable only a few years ago and indeed would not have been possible without the hard work of the innovators in online learning.

It is thus perhaps not surprising that many employed in the online learning space, that have done all the heavy-lifting to keep the lights on in higher education in recent months, see the future of education as online. In recent weeks, this optimistic affirmation has come up again and again, by senior university administrators, to EdTech entrepreneurs: it is taking today’s historical moment and projecting it into the indeterminate future (and if the 1960s future-vision was correct, then we would all be glowing in the dark by now).

The future of online may be quite different to what it has been in the past as it may not be a simple matter of scaling-up the hard work and innovation that has already been done (indulge my speculation here). The online education space is predominantly focussed upon courses that deliver skills and knowledge acquisition, primarily for younger students that require flexibility, or for older professionals already in good jobs wishing to reskill or change professions. This is a reasonably defined area of education and something that online does incredibly well (and some universities do better than others).

But I am not sure if this can be scaled to all or even most of higher education without confronting thorny issues of ‘academic scale’. What I mean by this is that ‘constructivism’, for instance, that has become prevalent over the past twenty years or so in online learning design may be inadequate to scale to other or all higher-education publics.  For instance, the constructivist ideal of ‘student-centred learning’ has been around for an awfully long time, close to 100 years if aligned with John Dewey’s early, ground-breaking work. But constructivism supports a particular type of industrial society and even a particular type of social realism typical in the early 20th Century US and Britain. Sure, it has been adapted and refined to the needs of contemporary education both on and offline. Still, perhaps it is time to give something else a crack as the student may have moved to some other centre. (I am thinking something much more minimalist, less prescriptive to provoke creativity, combined with a ‘real-world’, ‘experientialism’ in group contexts, something like the Minerva Schools at KGI ). I will leave this idea open, as I have not entirely thought it through. Still, my point is that if online education is to scale from its strong constructivist roots, learning design must appreciate that higher-education is embedded in other at times divergent cultural contexts with different educational needs and long epistemologically rooted world-views (i.e. the creative industries, humanities and social sciences, and pure science).

Lifelong learning will be the norm

Another fundamental affirmation reinforced over recent months in several forums is that lifelong learning is the new norm.  Lifelong learning is something that is facilitated incredibly-well online; this is, provide flexible micro-credentials, short-courses, and re-skilling-degrees for students at different stages of their life. Services such as LinkedIn Learn, Coursera, Futurelearn, edX and Practera are invaluable to a professional workforce wishing to remain current, or simply learn something new (that may send students in some fruitful lateral journeys).

The provision of lifelong learning products and services has indeed blossomed, evident in the recent Melbourne EdTech Summit (September 2020). There is a plethora of terrific work being done in experiential learning (Practera), assessments (Cadmus), Open learning and training platforms (Open Learning), and (G01). There is also a lot of innovative thinking about ‘packaging’ and ‘credentialising’ lifelong learning so that it is relevant to individuals at different life stages and work contexts. However, the lifelong learning conversation again lacks clarity when it is considered at scale. There is already an assumption in some degrees (i.e., the humanities) that learning is already forever once you ‘learn-how-to-learn’ (except how to code; this is hard). Lifelong learning is also less clear with post-graduate research-based degrees are considered, as the emphasis on research degrees is finding-stuff-out-for-yourself, and if you have done this once or twice, you could probably do it again.

That aside, there is stacks of ‘lifelong learning ‘happening right now; people re-skilling due to mass-unemployment, people stuck at home looking for things to do, unable to go to the local pub with their mates. There are terrific courses out there, literally thousands of them on dozens of platforms and heaps of topics. But still, the micro-credential scene seems a little ‘Kevin from HR’ in that they generally emanate from a particular historical context that may not scale well to all aspiring life-long-learners (sorry Kevin).

Right now, there are lots of unemployed creative people in Melbourne, and creativity is at the heart of all innovation and is equally the lifeblood of Melbourne’s much-prized liveability. Perhaps micro-credentials on dancing at work, guitar playing, digital ethics, historical storytelling, drumming, and ‘psychogeography’ (or something like this). The humanities and social sciences have an enormous role to play in online education because there is not only a skills deficit in some areas of Australian industry there is also a gaping ‘meaning deficit’ (these are existential times). With a bit of creativity, we could bridge that divide as humanities skills are timeless, knowledge-based, employability skills that are even more powerful when combined the hard-and-fast skills needed to solve the problems of an advanced knowledge economy. (And Northeastern University in the US is doing some great work in terms of combining humanities and social sciences majors with other degrees, and in experiential learning in arts and industry-based settings, with the help of the Australian-based company Practera).

Future angst

Optimism is an impoverished means to navigate the ambiguity of an uncertain future, and indeed it was not a culture of optimism in which the Internet was developed during the Cold War. It was a realistic and pragmatic response to the significant external threat of the moment (before higher education took the Internet in another direction). There are enormous challenges ahead for higher education requiring great captains at the helm. Still, I doubt that online education is the central longer-term solution to many of the problems unless reimagined to encompass more educated publics. There are many creative solutions now, micro-credentials, single post-graduate subjects, mixing of programs from different providers, flexible course starting times (not sure how this works), and terrific ‘non-credentialised’ courses (thanks to General Assembly). But still, something is lacking in this uncertain landscape, and this is the awareness that there are going to be less people employed, fewer students, less budget to pay for EdTech, and uncertain policy and political landscapes. Creativity is no stranger to adversity, and when we emerge from behind our screens, there is an enormous opportunity to respond in an informed, critical and realistic way and meet the needs of our times. As long as there is creativity in the word, the online project will never be completed.

Is there a beyond in Constructive Alignment?

Next week at the ASCILITE conference, I will be conducting a debate about the pros and cons of ‘Constructive Alignment’ in higher education, especially as it relates to digital learning tools.  Debates are a really good pedagogy in terms of outlining the pros and cons of a topic and building the soft and hard skills of participants.

The great debate at the ASCILITE Conference 2018. Beyond Constructive Alignment

Constructive Alignment has been with us for quite some time. From its origins in education theory in the 1990s, partly as a means to address some of the pedagogical challenges of scale in mass, higher-education, it has now become the dominant pedagogy in Australian higher education. Originally intended as a means to consistently and holistically design syllabi around learning outcomes and delivery and assessment methods (Biggs, 2003), it is now—as claimed in a recent book on the subject—an overly mechanistic, industrial process that may stifle innovation and creativity, some of the key skills of a 21st Century workplace and society (Nelson, 2018).  This is because of its slavish, uncritical application and lack of imagination regarding refreshing and building upon its significant legacy. Is there a Post-Constructive future and what may this future look like? And what does this mean for digital education, in its various guises, one of the more transformative areas of higher education? In this debate, we will survey the various applications of Constructive Alignment and perhaps imagine a Post-Constructivist future!

The great debate at the ASCILITE Conference 2018. Beyond Constructive Alignment

Significant efforts have been made to integrate constructive alignment principles in all aspects of the learning process. From writing the subject outline, the inclusion of subject content to align with the learning outcomes, the methods used to engage with the students and communicate the subject content, and the methods used to assess students through rubrics and fine-grained quantification. As a means to explicitly delineate the architecture of learning, it is, at times, a useful solution; however problems arise when this architecture becomes too rigid, reductive and pragmatic, as it engenders conformity, passivity, and a strategic, instrumentalist approach to education that undermines the independence, judgement, curiosity and creativity of both educator and student (Nelson, 2018).  

Digital mediated education, one of liveliest area of innovation in higher education, has a lot to lose from the uncritical embrace of Constructive alignment as computer technology can easily be co-opted for instrumentalist, industrial processes. It is rigid architectures that we must resist in designing our education as it was flexibility, creativity, risk, and imagination that brought us computing technology in the first place.

The great debate at the ASCILITE Conference 2018. Beyond Constructive Alignment

Is it possible to imagine a Post-Constructivist future, one with fewer rubrics, fewer criteria; with fewer pre-packaged learning outcomes and with more independent learning and creativity? Is there a limit to the extent of ‘constructive alignment’ that a topic may bare; the more fine-grained the rubric, it seems, the more it privileges the actual creator of the rubric, rather than the creators of knowledge that it seeks to quantify. Can we imagine something beyond Constructive Alignment; a scaffolding of the learning process in a less mechanistic, less prescriptive, and less reductive manner? Constructive Alignment may become the uncritical and unimaginative deference for an emergent generation of followers rather than leading creatives and innovators.

Can we revitalise Constructive Alignment or can we imagine a Post-Constructivist future?


Biggs, J.B. Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment, Higher Education, 32(3), 347-364.  1996.

Biggs, J.B. Teaching for Quality Learning at University. What the student does. Second Edition. Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press 2003.

Mimirinis, Mike. ‘Constructive alignment’ and learning technologies: some implications for the quality of teaching and learning in higher education, Seventh IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT 2007)

Nelson, Robert, Creativity Crisis: Towards a Post-constructivist education future, Melbourne, Monash University Publishing, 2018.

What are Open Educational Resources?

As the name suggests, Open Educational Resources (OER) are freely available resources for learning and teaching; such as documents, videos, syllabi, software, and images. The advantage for educators is that these resources may be deposited, shared and re-used thus saving time in creating new courses or updating existing courses (also the promotion of the particular institution or field and peer support for others in the same subject area is an advantage of sharing teaching materials). OER’s may be available as individual objects or bundled together as a package. They are most likely ‘open licensed’ through licenses such as Creative Commons or GNU and are made available either on the open web or within institutions. Also, the term ‘Open CourseWare is often used.





What types of materials?
The types of materials that are distributed as Open Educational Resources are usually those that have been previously used in a class-room setting, or designed for a purely online or in a blended learning context. They may be materials for activities or labs, full courses, games, lecture notes, lesson plans, teaching and learning strategies, video recorded lectures, or images and illustrations. The audience for these materials may be lecturers (which is primarily the case) or may be students or even parents or administrators.
What type of licences?
Open Educational Resources are usually licenced so that they may be easily re-used within a non-commercial educational content (ie not re-sold). Many licences allow for ‘re-mixing’ which means that they may be adapted and enhanced to suit differing institutional contexts and student cohorts. Some licences only allow for sharing and re-use and no major revision (ie. ‘read the fine print’) and many are available within the certain educational copyright regime of the particular country (ie. ‘educational use of copyrighted material’ provisions). Attribution is always an important consideration, meaning that the materials taken from OER repositories must be acknowledged so that the original creators of the work are credited.
Where are OER found?
Many OER repositories are available on the open web, such as the OER Commons project or Connexions. The repositories may be run by volunteers or through paid employees on project funding provided by a university or funding agency. Although projects such as OER Commons and Connexions were designed specifically for OER, broader definitions of the term may include projects such as the Internet Archive or even Wikipedia. OER repositories may also exist at a university level to be maintained either by the university library or through the team responsible for the university Leaning Management System (LMS). Leaner Management Systems such as Desire2Learn have inbuilt repositories so that course content may be deposited and shared at a school, faculty, or institutional level (or open to the broader community).
What are the archival (technical) standards?
When OER materials are places into a repository, metadata and archival standards need to be associated with them so that they may be easily located, archived and shared in a meaningful way. SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) is a common way in which objects may be described, zipped-up into a package and re-used by different Learner Management Systems (LMS). Succinctly, SCORM is a ‘package of lessons’ that are bundled together so as to be understood by the LMS. What this means for educators, is that when placing OER materials into a repository, the correct ‘meta-data’ (data about data) is required about the material; usually inputted through a form to demarcate the type of materials and subjects addressed.
What are the archival (teaching) standards?
Many OER resources are likewise aligned with the teaching standards that may exist in different institutions or jurisdictions. The resources available are often aligned through a peer-assessment of the OER’s utility, quality of explanation, or quality of technical interactivity. The value of this for educators is the certainty that OER resources are of high quality and currency and purposefully meet teaching challenges.

Moderating successful online forums

As with face-to-face teaching within a campus-based classroom, teaching online through Learning Management Systems is an active process that involves planning and skill to create a productive environment for learning. The tools available to teach online have now been available for quite a few years, but in recent times have become far more intuitive, integrated, and understood within the learning and teaching process. Plus the expertise developed by students to work online; to complete tasks, to act convivially and productively in groups, and to communicate over distance, is increasing desirable as many more work environments become virtualised

 There are numerous tasks that instructors can perform to promote the productiveness in Learning Management Systems. However, the integrated suite of tools in which they are made-up aren’t necessarily productive in themselves and there is a lot that instructors can do to promote their effectiveness to address teaching and learning goals. This partly involves the ability to recognise in the first instance what may work better in a face-to-face setting, and what may work better online. Then instructors must devise coherent, engaging, and convivial activities to sustain the group of students over time, both on and off-line, to work towards these goals.

What works online?

A suggested way to integrate the Learner Management System into a course; it is to first do an ‘audit’ of the curriculum. Tasks such as group writing tasks, discussions and debates, assessment tasks, and the active and critical engagement with content—such as academic articles—can be done either on or offline. It is up to the instructor to decide what mode works best for their particular content coupled with the assessment tasks and learning outcomes. There are of course, tasks that Learner Management Systems do particularly well, such as delivering of core teaching materials such as unit outlines and pre-recorded lectures. However other tasks, such as formative assessment (the informal assessment during tasks), Learner Management Systems also do well and there are an array of communication tools available in them to communicate directly to students, either individually or in a group, to aid this.

Pro-active interaction

Once a decision is made to integrate certain tools, such as forums or virtual classrooms, into the curriculum, it is important to consider how they will be moderated to ensure that the desired learning outcomes are met.  The instructor must take a proactive role to make sure that the interaction with content, the interaction between groups of students, and the interaction with the instructor are constructive and meaningful (see: Salmon; 2012). The tone and calibre of the conversations ensure students may contribute constrictive critique confidently, without the fear of derision or personal reproach.

Instructors should intervene in forums, to moderate and guide, to reward good ideas and drive conversations. This is fairly similar to what takes place in face-to-face tutorials, however there are new opportunities in online forums, such as, to summarise the debate, to reinforce common goals, to place links to content to reinforce or refute an argument, and to reiterate at intervals the benefits of contributing to the forum. Plus forum are in written form meaning they provide a reference point for pursuing ideas for subsequent written assessments.

But as with face-to-face teaching, it is also important to push, to a certain degree, the responsibility for finding course related material and discovering new information—and thus the responsibility for learning— back onto the student.  There is a danger that the instructor becomes little more than a ‘search engine’ offering quick answers to question in an uncritical, encyclopaedic way. Scaffolding, linking, and delivering information in an interesting and challenging way will promote information sharing between students thus assist in the building of knowledge through dialogue.

Building strong foundations

Online sessions may be framed as an ‘online seminar’ or ‘online tutorial’ and may be synchronous or asynchronous, again depending on the content and activities. As with face-to-face teaching, it is important to make the topic of study interesting, to ground the objects of the study in anecdotes, stories, and in real-life experience.  Also, couching the object of study in discursive dialogue between students will assist them in learning from each other. This may take the form of a group of students coming together in a forum to provide feedback on an article; to summarise and critique it, and then develop a set of questions to bring to class to further explore in a face-to-face meeting.  

In general, ideas should be presented to students in such a way that they make sense in the overall course and the substantive conversations directed towards the goal of the course. Activities may be collaborative or practice based, but always with a set of clear and coherent goals.  In summary, building a strong foundation from the start, the planning of activities and the introduction and explanation of online tools in their context will sustain students in the longer term. Both instructor and student are working towards common goals, with shared responsibilities.

For more discussion on moderating successful online forums see: Gilly Salmon, “eModeration: the Key to Online Teaching and Learning, Taylor and Francis, 2012

Digital Humanties & Learning environments

I wrote about this some time ago; about the connection between eLearning (blended learning etc.) and the Digital Humanities.  The problem is that the connection is a weak one and should be further developed. I know of very few Digital Humanities modules or plugins etc. that are be used in existing learning environments such as Moodle or Blackboard. And it is not as though the DH doesn’t have the learning materials and methods. There has been much work done on teaching digital humanities, but the work done (both research and development) seems to miss the enormous body of knowledge around LMS and educational design. This field is particularly strong in Australia and NZ and it would be good to see some movement in this area; in the same way that the DH has developed a good working relationship (if not an intellectual one), with eResearch.

Teaching Digital Humanties: Digital methods elective: Ph.D. Coursework Subject

I have started teaching in a Ph.D. coursework subject at the University of Melbourne; the first year that this type of guided professional development has been offered in Ph.D. research at the institution. Our contribution is the first Digital Humanities subject in the faculty; a lot of fun to design and teach, but somewhat experimental. There are five of us teaching the subject (and about twenty Ph.D. students). The instructors have many years teaching, research, and computing experience and ways of applying computing to teaching and research problems. We have put together our syllabus from many sources and thanks to the University of Victoria in Canada and especially Brett Hirsch of UWA for blazing a path for us. It is only a five-week course of two hours sessions, so we are barely getting our feet wet in such a large and vibrant field.

And sorry, but some of the links may not work as appropriate University log-in credentials are needed to access them.

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