Sunday, November 27, 2016

Early Literacy Development

While I teach computing in higher education, my brother, Dr John Worthington, is a Educational Psychologist, based in Brisbane, looking at Early Literacy in Australia and the region. He recently presented at MindChamps 2016, in Singapore on "Early Literacy Development".

Aims of this Discussion

  1. To give information about the typical progress of early literacy development, in a sense what is ‘normal’, and what you can do to help your child. 
  2. Understanding ‘typical’ development and the home activities which go along with it is the first step in ensuring your child’s long term literacy future. 
  3. To detail how parents and teachers perceived individual children as they progressed through early literacy and when these two perceptions may differ. 
  4. To touch on features which may predict a child could have difficulties in gaining early literacy. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Canberra Renewables is the University of the Future

This week I attended the opening of the Less Than Two  Degrees Renewables Innovation Hub in Canberra. This is a new office building professionally fitted out, specifically as an innovation hub. This contrasts with the typical innovation center in a converted warehouse, such as  Fishburners in Sydney. As well as being an excellent design for an innovation center, Renewables Canberra provides a template for the university of the future.

Half the ground floor of Renewables Canberra is open space for events. This area has no permanent furniture: it just is just a large room. The other half of the building has offices and meeting rooms around the periphery, each with a frosted glass inner wall. The interior has rows of desks on wheels, with clip on power boards, connected to cables from the ceiling. There are rows of lockers forming room dividers. There are two kitchens, with some bench seating.

The space allows for individuals or small groups to start at the open plan desks (keeping their belongings in the lockers) and then graduate to an offices, or suite of offices.

The desks are on wheels and and be pushed aside for events, or to make a classroom. I suggest this will be the design of the university campus of the future. The space can be rearranged as required, for individual, small group work or large classes.

One addition I would make to the design is cafe booths on wheels. With this two rows of bench seats (each on wheels) is arranged facing a table between (also on wheels, but remember to lock all the wheels for a semi-permanent arrangement). These units provide high density, semi-private meeting spaces for groups of six, with the fabric of the high backs on the bench seats absorbing sound.

Another addition would be USB power sockets. USB sockets are much smaller and less intrusive than mains sockets.

The Australian National University is having a Union Court Revitalisation Project Update, 7December 2016, 1 pm. This would be a good place to incorporate multi-use spaces similar to Renewables Canberra.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Proposed Reforms for Australian Higher Education

The Australian Parliamentary Library issued a Bills Digest, discussing the proposed changes to VET Student Loans (James Griffiths, 22 November 2016). The changes are to address a blow-out in costs in the Vocational Education and Training Sector. However, I suggest these measures will only be a stop-gap. Australia needs a policy which integrates VET and university sector.

One problem in the university sector is falling completion rates. A way to address this would be to use VET as a transition from school to higher education and as a way to support those who do not have sufficient, or recent, schooling. Currently Australian university have numerous ad-hoc programs to prepare students for university. These should be replaced with a coordinated national VET program.

Another way to address completion rates is with nested courses. Student loans could be limited to small qualification increments, so that students have to complete a vocationally useful qualification, before incurring more debt. Those with no prior HE qualification could be required to complete a six month certificate, before articulating to further studies. Students would then progress with qualifications which did not exceed two two years to complete full time. A typical path would be certificate, diploma or advanced diploma, bachelors degree, masters, and professional doctorate.

One element of VET which could be carried over to the university sector is planning for vocational outcomes. Currently universities can offer courses where there is not clear vocational outcome. An alternative would be to require universities to present evidence to show there are likely to be jobs for future graduates. Such predictions cannot be perfect, but some planning would be better than none at all. Universities and the VET would still be free to offer non-vocational programs, but these would not be eligible for student loan support.

Currently PHD programs are separately funded, for the purposes of advancing research. However, very few of the PHD graduates go on to a career in research. The current PHD funding could be reduced by 80% and the saving used for more direct research support. Students would instead have the option of a vocationally orientated professional doctorate, supported by a loan.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Are today's universities failing society?

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where a panel is discussing "Are today's universities failing society?". This is topical as the federal government, having sorted out vocational education is turning its attention now to universities. Next week I will be starting my contribution to the policy discussions with "Learning to Teach On-line with an E80 Blend".

In the case of the ANU, is is to be much more specific in deciding if the unviersity is failing society. The Australian National University Act 1991, Section 5, sets out the Functions of the University to include:
(a)  advancing and transmitting knowledge, by undertaking research and teaching of the highest quality;
(b)  encouraging, and providing facilities for, research and postgraduate study, both generally and in relation to subjects of national importance to Australia;
(c)  providing facilities and courses for higher education generally, including education appropriate to professional and other occupations, for students from within Australia and overseas;
(d)  providing facilities and courses at higher education level and other levels in the visual and performing arts, and, in so doing, promoting the highest standards of practice in those fields;
(e)  awarding and conferring degrees, diplomas and certificates in its own right or jointly with other institutions, as determined by the Council;
(f)  providing opportunities for persons, including those who already have post-secondary qualifications, to obtain higher education qualifications;
(g)  engaging in extension activities.

(2)  In the performance of its functions, the University must pay attention to its national and international roles and to the needs of the Australian Capital Territory and the surrounding regions.
This can be summarized as research and teaching for Australia. The interesting part is "extension activities", which is normally taken to be a form of cut down university education for the general public (a moder example being the MOOC).

ANU, and other universities, also act as a reserve of independent expertise for the community, government and industry. This latter role only becomes controversial when someone in the community, government or industry does not like the independent advice provided (such as with climate change).

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Improving Australian Higher Education Admissions

The report "Improving the transparency of higher education admissions" commissioned from the Higher Education Standards Panel, by the Australian Government has been released. The 75 page report has fourteen recommendations. As noted in the executive summary, Australia now has a demand driven system with students deciding which autonomous institution to attend. The report does not question if this is a good way to do higher education. Also the report only covers part of Higher Eduction: the university sector, with vocational education and training mentioned only briefly.

The report states the problem as being "Prospective students need to make informed decisions. The new admission processes and entry requirements are poorly understood.". This makes the assumption that universities are significantly different. In the case of the VET sector this approach has proved disastrous, with students being tricked into enrolling in worthless overpriced courses and ones they had no prospect of completing by unscrupulous providers, at a cost to the public of billions of dollars. The government has had to step in a heavily re-regulate this system. The situation is not that bad in the university sector, but even so the role of planning, not just market forces, should be considered.
The report makes recommendations to make university admissions processes more transparent. However, it should be noted that universities are competing for enrollments and it is not in their interests to make the process transparent. Any transparency will need to be imposed on universities from outside and enforced with penalties for non-compliance.

The report notes that less than half of 2014 enrollments were not based on ATAR. One solution might be to abandon the idea of students proceeding from school direct to university. Instead students could first undertake vocational studies and then some go on to university. There would then not need to be a complex reform of ATAR, as it would not be used for university admission.

Another part of the solution could be to ensure that students have access to affordable universities. Students should not have to embark on some sort of economist's fantasy of the rational consumer, evaluating every university, to maximize future outcomes. Instead a student should be able to assume that the nearest affordable institution is of acceptable quality. In any case, research shows that it does not much matter which school or university you go to, you get essentially the same education. This is an example of what is know in education discipline as the no significant difference phenomenon.

Universities, much like pharmaceutical companies, try to differentiate what is essentially the same product with extra features to attract customers. These features are generally of no real value and are just a form of marketing and profit maximization. The role of government is to ensure that all medicines meet safety and efficacy standards. Where government subsidizes medicine, there is also a role in keeping costs down with generic products. In education, government should play a similar role, encouraging students to take the cheapest acceptable courses, not helping universities amplify minor and irrelevant differences.

The report, and the government in general, continues to fail to address far more significant issue for higher eduction: how to make the transition to a primarily on-line activity. Within the next five to ten years most university education will be on-line. Australia can either plan for this transition, or have its HE sector become uncompetitive and shut down, like the car industry. Unless action is taken to make this transition, there will not be an Australian Higher Education sector and Australian students will be worrying if they have the prerequisites to enroll in an offshore on-line university.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Renewables Innovation Hub Opening in Canberra

The Canberra Renewables Innovation Hub is having a grand opening 4pm 22 November 2016. The official name for the facility is the "<2degrees Renewables Innovation Hub"*, and is dedicated to helping renewable energy and cleantech start-ups. The hub on the northern end of the innovation zone I previously identified between Canberra's CBD and the ANU campus.

ps: * Innovation hubs seem to delight in obscure and hard to pronounce names. This one is a spin-off of "Entry 29".

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Blockchain Learning System

In 2013, cyber-security company Mandiant warned of large scale government-sponsored cyber espionage campaigns. Educational institutions have students who are corporate and government employees, as well as military personnel, making them a target for cyber espionage. Cloud based systems are particularly attractive to cyber spies, especially if the server is located in the country doing the spying, so it can be done easily, perhaps even legally.

Sharples, and Domingue (2016) suggest blockchain technology, used for digital currency, could also be used for education. For example, you could prove you completed an assessment task on time, without having to submit the work to a central system. The assessor would check the blockchain certificate to see the work was on time, and add your mark to the blockchain.

Along with m-Learning, this might provide an alternative to large cloud based services for education. The student would be issued with  a digital certificate, and then pointed to where to get the learning resources. The student could use their digital certificate to securely communicate with other students and submit their work for assessment, using on-line resources not provided by the educational institution.

Richards, McGreal and Stewart  (2010) refer to cloud computing supplanting the “cottage industry” of institutions providing their own computing. However, companies such as not only provide cloud computing, they also offer e-publishing and other "vertical" services. It may be that once small institutions have educated students on the benefits of cloud based education, the large cloud providers will take over this market, offering courses themselves. As an alternative, smaller not-for-profit institutions might use digital certificates and other technology to create large virtual academies, which share resources on-line, but can also provide human scale local services.


Mandiant. (2013). APT1 Exposing One of China’s Cyber Espionage Units. Retrieved from

Richards, G., McGreal, R., & Stewart, B. (2010). Cloud computing and adult literacy: How cloud computing can sustain the promise of adult learning. AlphaPlus: Toronto. Retrieved from
Sharples, M., & Domingue, J. (2016, September). The Blockchain and Kudos: A Distributed System for Educational Record, Reputation and Reward. In European Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning (pp. 490-496). Springer International Publishing. Retrieved from