Sunday, June 25, 2017

ANU Cyber Reading Group

An "ANU Cyber Reading Group" organized by Dr Shane Magrath at the Australian national University's College of Engineering & Computer Science held its first meeting 31 May 2017. The first paper discussed was on Fuzzing,  a form of automated testing. Lockheed-Martin's Cyber Kill Chain was also discussed.
"Fuzzing is an approach to software testing where the system being tested is bombarded with test cases generated by another program. The system is then monitored for any flaws exposed by the processing of this input. While the fundamental principles of fuzzing have not changed since the term was first coined, the complexity of the mechanisms used to drive the fuzzing process have undergone significant evolutionary advances. This paper is a survey of the history of fuzzing, which attempts to identify significant features of fuzzers
and recent advances in their development, in order to discern the current state of the art in fuzzing technologies, and to extrapolate them into the future." From McNally, Yiu,  Grove & Gerhardy, 2012.
Last year I presented the ANU computer science students with a students with a Hypothetical on Cyberwar Over the South China Sea. ANU also offers courses in Cyber-intelligence and Security, Cyber Warfare Law, &  Cyber-security and Cybercrime.

References


McNally, Richard, Yiu, Ken,  Grove, Duncan, &
Gerhardy,  Damien (2012, February). Fuzzing: The State of the Art. Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence Division, Defence Science and Technology Organisation. DSTO–TN–1043 Retrieved from http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a558209.pdf

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Finkel Review Explained?

Greeting from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, where I am one of the packed lecture theatre, to heard a panel of experts have promised to explain the Explain the Finkel Review of of the National Electricity Market. This is hosted by the 
ANU Energy Change Institute. I am a member, but my expertise is confined to ICT and energy use.  From a quick reading of the report, I was not impressed. Previously, Dr Evan Franklin, Senior Lecturer, ANU Research School of Engineering, an excellent seminar "Electrical power systems with high penetration of renewables: the physics behind the political bluster".

The chair,  Professor Ken Baldwin, Director, ANU Energy Change Institute, presented the "energy trilemma": environment, security of supply and affordability. The problem is to maintain supply and contain costs, while also reducing carbon emissions, which Ken characterized as a "wicked problem" and Australia was "leading the OECD pack from the rear" on emissions. He gave a quick overview of the differences of Finkel's proposal, a Clean Energy Target, compared to Australia's previous scheme and no scheme at all. He then summarized the proposal for a mandated Generator Reliability Obligation. However, to me the central problem is not the engineering and economics, but the politics of the issue. As Ken points out Australia is in the current difficult situation due to a lack of planning. The question, I suggest, is if politics will allow this planning to happen.

Ken proposed a "Expert Foresighting Group", this sounded to me a little too much like the fictional "Nation Building Authority" in the TV comedy "Utopia". What are needed is a much smaller group of experts who are able to give government quick, politically feasible options quickly. University academics are used to having weeks, months or years to come up with a "quick" answer, whereas the political process needs answers in seconds, minutes or, at worst, "Action This Day".

Next to speak:
  1. Professor Quentin Grafton, ANU: Questioned the reliability of
  2. Honorary Associate Professor Hugh Saddler, ANU: Pointed out that land clearing changes have made dramatic reductions to emissions. Apart from that he pointed out that electricity generation is one of the few areas where reductions can be made.Also he pointed out that rooftop home solar generation is not regarded as part of the national generating system. Most interestingly, Professor Saddler suggested that state targets could result in a much larger reduction in emissions than the Finkle proposals. It may be that the policy log-jam at the federal level is irrelevant.
  3. Dr Matt Stocks, ANU: Dr Stocks stated up front he assumed the future was photovoltaics, which need storage and a network. He asserted that Australia does not have a robust national network, rather a series of state networks joined together, in a line, which increases the cost of electricity. Dr Stocks pointed out that renewable supplies generally do not provide the "inertia" which coal, gas and hydro provides. Curiously, rather than suggest that this could be provided by upgrading existing conventional generators, or creating new rotating inertia sources, he suggested batteries would be used. A battery will provide power for days, not the fractions of a second inertia will. The high tech equivalent is not a battery but a super-capacitor. Battery technology is being driven (pun intended) by the automotive industry. However, some vehicles, such as the Mazda 6 use a super-capacitor for fast, short term energy storage.
  4. Mr Dan Harding, ACT Government: Pointed out that many of the Finkle report recommendations have been included in previous expert reports, but it packages these all together into a coherent whole.
  5. Dr Nathan Steggel, Windlab: Suggested that the Finkel report overestimated the cost of wind generation. He suggested that market alternatives to a Generator Reliability Obligation should be investigated. 
Overall the panel was positive on the Finkel report recommendations. 

Open University Going Digital by Design

The Open University UK (OUUK) has announced a "root and branch review of every aspect of its operations", with  "major savings and reinvestment plan" for a university "digital by design". The  Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, gets a poetic proposing to  “... transform the University of the Air ... to a University of the Cloud ...". But the media release "The Open University outlines plans for radical reinvention" (14 June 2017) is vague as to what exactly intended.

Athabasca University, Canada's open on-line university, recently released the results of an independent report into the institution's financial viability. In 2014 UBC released a Flexible Learning Strategic Vision. These, like OUUK, discuss addressing life long learning in a flexible way, but are vague on exactly how to do this and even vaguer on how to attract students to it.

OUUK was a pioneer in how to design and deliver cost-effective higher education programs. Most of the on-line programs of other institutions (and MOOCs) are an adaption of OUUK's approach. It will be interesting to see how, and if, OUUK can improve on its current techniques. It may be that this is not so much about how to design or deliver courses, so much as identifying what the student needs and getting just that to the student, when they need it (an approach emphasized in Vocational Education).

OUUK proposes to "to enhance its reputation as a world leader in lifelong and distance learning". However, I suggest this may make the situation worse, not better, driving away students, not attracting them. As the Athabasca report notes, many conventional universities are now offering on-line distance courses.

I suggest that OUUK, Athabasca, and similar open on-line institutions, have an image problem. Open and distance universities are seen as less prestigious than traditional campus based institutions. Students do not attend an open on-line university because they prefer it, they do so because they do not have a good alternative. By emphasizing lifelong and distance learning these institutions are making themselves less attractive to students.

Perhaps OUUK needs to adopt the marketing approach traditional universities are applying to their on-line courses: emphasize high academic standards and a traditional on-campus experience. As an example, MIT have experimented with on-line courses with optional attendance. Most students will never take up the optional attendance, but will be comforted it exists. Students do benefit from interaction with other students and with an instructor, but this need not be face-to-face, or on campus.

This on-campus dream/off-campus reality is similar to the way automotive companies market off-road vehicles to consumers who never drive them off-road. The companies know that their customers would be better off with a safer, more fuel efficient, lower cost family wagon, but that this is not attractive. The buyers know they are never really going to drive along a beach or across a desert, but the dream is very powerful. Similarly, the dream of attending an ox-bridge style campus is a powerful way to sell on-line courses.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Webometrics Ranking of Ten Thousand Universities

The "Webometrics Ranking of World Universities" by Spanish researchers has advantages over the better known ranking systems and produces a few surprises. Webometrics ranks more than ten thousand universities around the world, which is many more than other measures provide. For Australia 199 institutions are listed, whereas other rankings mostly cover the 43 accredited as universities, not colleges which also issue Higher Education qualifications.

Webometrics uses four measures: Presence, Impact, Openness and Excellence. While the weighted score of these measures gives a similar result to other measures, there are some surprises. For example, many ranking system give a similar result to the the Times Higher Education University Rankings with the "Group of Eight" first:
  1. University of Melbourne
  2. Australian National University
  3. University of Queensland
  4. University of Sydney
  5. Monash University
  6. University of New South Wales
  7. University of Western Australia
  8. University of Adelaide
Webometrics lists the same top Australian universities , but in a different order:
  1. University of Melbourne
  2. University of Queensland
  3. University of New South Wales
  4. Australian National University
  5. University of Sydney
  6. University of Western Australia
  7. University of Adelaide
  8. Monash University
The ANU slips two places due to low Presence and Excellence scores. Monash drops three places to eight position, due to a very low Presence score.

The Presence measure is unusual in university ranking systems, in that it measures the quality of the university's website. Ranked by presence, the top eight Australian universities are:
  1. University of Queensland
  2. University of Melbourne
  3. University of New South Wales
  4. Australian National University
  5. RMIT University
  6. Edith Cowan University
  7. University of Western Australia
  8. Macquarie University
Sydney, Adelaide and Monash are replaced by RMIT, Edith Cowan and Macquarie. This effect of the Presence is more pronounced with world rankings, where the usual US and UK prestige institutions rank first in Webometrics, but for presence the University of São Paulo and  Fundação Getúlio Vargas (Brazil), at 6 and 7 in the world, outrank Clatech and the University of Oxford. 

Another interesting result is that universities with "open" in their names do not rate highly on the Webometrics openness scale (the Open University UK ranks highest at 403). Similarly those with "virtual" in their name do not rate highly for web presence (Tamil Virtual Academy, is highest at 1172).

The institutions I have studied at most recently rank as follows on Webometrics:

RankInstitutionPresenceImpactOpennessExcellence
78ANU3007069131
738USQ14386587181200
1242Athabasca University1256116913621879
8175CIT4961635286355778

This is much as I would expect, with ANU being a leading research university, USQ and Athabasca teaching universities and CIT a vocational college. However both USQ and Athabasca score poorly compared to ANU on presence and openness, despite their emphasis on e-learning and access to education. USQ claims a "commitment to open education" and Athabasca describes itself as "Canada's Open University", but neither rates in the top one thousand.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

MIT For Credit edX Course Shows How to Market e-Learning

Nick Roll reports "For-Credit MOOC: Best of Both Worlds at MIT?" (Inside Higher ED, June 15, 2017). However, the MIT paper this report is prepared from never claims that this was a massive open online course (MOOC).

Marshall (2017) reports that MIT's Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department allowed students to undertake an edX on-line course, for credit. This pilot apparently went well but it is not the revolutionary "For-Credit MOOC" portrayed in the media. This is a conventional small, closed, on-line distance education course of the type which have been routinely delivered by universities around the world for decades.

The MIT pilot used material prepared for edX, with videos, text and exercises. Added to this were two instructors (professor and tutor) and the offer of one-on-one on-campus support. With only 31 students in the pilot, is much more instructor support than is usual for an on-line course.

Marshall (2017)reports that students signed up for the on-line course because of scheduling difficulties. This is something I found with my "ICT Sustainability" course, run at ANU from 2009 (Worthington, 2012). On-campus students signed up for the on-line unit as a way around scheduling problems. As Marshall notes, I discovered that even when the students are on campus and offered face-to-face sessions, few take up the offer. Also students get similar results for on-line and on-campus courses.

The most significant and interesting result Marshall found was that students found the on-line course less stressful. On-line distance education courses are usually considered to be more stressful for students. However, like Marshall, I found my on-campus e-learning students at ANU did not find the course stressful. This may be because the MIT and ANU students had already been admitted to a campus program which excludes the non-traditional students which distance education is specifically designed for. Also on-line courses, by design, are much more scaffolded than face-to-face courses.

The approach of using preprepared standardized courseware was developed in the era before on-line education, for paper based distance education. The Open University UK refined this approach and applied it to on-line courses, which had human tutors and in some cases the option of face to face study groups. MIT have applied essentially the same techniques which OUUK pioneered, which I used at ANU from 2009 and which many other open universities have applied over the last few decades. This work has been extensively researched and reported in the literature. It is not surprising that MIT found these tried and proven techniques worked.

EdX and MIT's approach to e-learning do not offer any new approach to education. However, what they do offer is a way to market this form of education to a new generation of students, their parents and government policy makers. Distance education, and its e-learning descendant, do not have a good reputation in the academia, amongst employers or prospective students. Despite decades of research to the contrary, distance and e-learning are seen as inferior. Open and distance education institutions around the world struggle for recognition and funding.

What edX and other "MOOC" providers have done is to provide a marketing buzz around e-learning to make it appear new, exciting and high tech. If that encourages students to sign, up and governments to support e-learning, it is a good thing. I suggest that traditional open universities need to learn from MIT's approach to marketing e-learning, while MIT should look to the literature on e-learning techniques they can apply.

ps: This approach to marking e-learning is similar to that used by the tiny house movement for promoting mobile homes. Manufactured mobile homes have a poor public perception, being associated with trailer parks (or a caravan in your parent's backyard) and low socio-economic status. The tiny house movement emphasizes custom design of homes by young professionals. The designs look like miniature traditional houses, not shipping containers, and are depicted set up in idyllic rural settings. While this is far from reality, if it encourages people to think about smaller homes, it is useful. Similarly, MOOCs are depicted as cheap and easy for anyone to do on-line, which far from reality.

Reference

Marshall, A E. (April 2017). A Preliminary Assessment of an MIT Campus Experiment with an edX Online Course: The Pilot of 6.S064 Circuits and Electronics, MIT Teaching and Leanring Lab, Retrieved from http://odl.mit.edu/sites/default/files/PreliminaryAssessmentofMITonEdX.pdf

Worthington, T. (2012, July). A Green computing professional education course online: Designing and delivering a course in ICT sustainability using Internet and eBooks. In Computer Science & Education (ICCSE), 2012 7th International Conference on (pp. 263-266). IEEE. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1109/ICCSE.2012.6295070
 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Improving retention, completion and success in higher education

The discussion paper "Improving retention, completion and success in higher education" from the Higher Education Standards Panel, was released by the Australian Department of Education and Training, 9 June 2017. This seventy nine page report provides a comprehensive overview of efforts to measure and improve the retention of students in Australian university. It points out that many strategies have had limited success and asked what more can be done.

As the paper points out, Australian university students complete at about the same rate as in comparable countries. The report discusses categories of students less likely to complete, such as those who are part time, distance students from low socio-economic groups (p. 45). In a way this reflects the success of Australian Higher Education policy. Such students would previously have been excluded from higher education. Any policy to improve retention rates should be carefully designed so it does not inadvertently exclude these students (or allow an unscrupulous provider to deliberately do so to improve their statistics).

One change the points to  is "From 1 January 2018 Commonwealth support will be available to students at public universities in approved sub-bachelor courses." (Page 14). As the paper notes, this will provide a better transition to degree programs and for shorter work related qualifications.

However, sub-degrees present challenges for universities which are not used to offering such short, practical programs. Those institutions which offer vocational and educational training (VET), through an associated TAFE or Registered Training Organization (RTO) will have an advantage in staff and procedures to suit these shorter programs.

In discussing teaching quality, the paper notes that enrollments in Graduate Certificates in Teaching (the traditional qualification a university lecturer is expected to have) has been declining (p. 50). The paper suggests this be addressed by individual universities. However, perhaps a more centralized policy is needed. VET staff have a very high rate of completion of the equivalent qualification: a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment. This is because the qualification is required for VET teachers. No similar requirement exists for university lecturers.

I suggest requiring university lecturers to have a teaching qualification at least the same level as VET teachers: AQF level 4 Certificate IV, while retaining the option of a Level 8 Graduate Certificate. Those academics who also teach in the VET sector would be likely to opt for the Certificate IV and those exclusively in the university system the Graduate Certificate. In either case, this education should focus on practical aspects of teaching, with only as much theory as needed to support it. This should be offered on-line, using techniques including an e-portfolio and recognition of prior learning, both for convenience and to provide familiarity with the environment lecturers will be increasingly working in. and with the option of completion through an

Senior university academics should be expected to have completed a more extensive qualification on teaching, supervision and university administration. A Level 6 Advanced Diploma, or Level 9 Masters Degree would be appropriate.

One aspect of the paper which I find troubling, is the lack of appreciation for the change which on-line education has made, and will make, to Australian Higher Education. The assumption seems to be that most university students do, and will continue to, attend lectures on a campus regularly as full-time students. However, like the education provided by universities, this thinking needs to be flipped. University academics are well aware that only about one third of students attend the average lecture and that students have jobs and families. However, most academics have not been trained in how to provide education to this majority of students.

In March I completed a Masters of Education in Distance Education, focused on how to provide a quality education at a research orientated university catering to international students. Some of my colleagues have asked what the trick is to getting students to do the study expected of them. The trick, as I explain it, is to experience being a student so you understand what they are going through and becoming competent in your profession of teaching. It is then very much easier to teach, once you know how to do it and why.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Auto Power-board to Simplify Computer Setup

On the weekend I purchased a Master / Slave Powerboard. This is plugged into a mains power socket and then my computer and peripherals plugged in. The main item of equipment, usually the computer or TV, is plugged into a "master" socket and the peripherals into the "slave" sockets. When you turn on the computer (or TV) everything else is turned on as well. More importantly, when you turn off the computer (or it turns itself off after a set period of non-use) everything else is turned off. This works remarkably well. One use is for vod-casting studios at universities, where staff and students can record videos, such as ANU's new "One Button Studio".  The unit I purchased is an "Eco Solutions 6 Way Master / Slave Powerboard" by Mort Bay, for AU$35.04, but similar units are readily available. If buying on-line check that the unit meets local voltage and safety standards.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Athabasca University Review Report

The Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University (Canada), by Dr. Ken Coates, has been released. The seventy page report (1 May 2017) was prepared for AU, and Alberta's Minister for Advanced Education, on the financial viability of the university and options for its future. This is a positive report, suggesting the university has a future and how to ensure it.

As a recent graduate of the university (March 2017), I took a close interest in the review. As part of my degree I  had studied how to design and resource educational programs. I took part in a teleconference with  Dr. Coates and made some suggestions.

Many of the challenges which AU faces are common to regional universities in Australia. These include the extent to which a university can compete with institutions which specialize in vocational education, competition from city based institutions in providing distance education, competition from new forms of on-line education, and the cost of using on-campus full-time permanent staff. The Australian Government commissioned a review into regional, rural and remote education in March 2017 and a review of national vocational education in June 2017. A consolidation of Australian vocational educational institutions is already taking pace and it is likely that this will happen with universities in the next few years.

Dr. Coates recommends:
"AU should rebrand itself as the leading Canadian centre for online learning and twenty-first century educational technology. " (page 26)
I suggest AU could call itself "Canadian Open University". Dr. Coates  comments that AU lacks the ICT for this, which I suggest is overstating the case. AU already makes use of free open source software (such as Mahara, Moodle and OJS). This approach could be expanded in keeping with AU's open ethos by joining open source consortia and involving IT staff and students in development.

Other recommendations:
"1. Open Access: AU should continue, and even expand, its activities associated with population groups that are under-represented in the Albertan and Canadian post-secondary system." (Page 27)
This is something which effected me personally. I had attempted to enroll in a Masters of Education at an Australian university, but was rejected due to not having a bachelor's degree in education. AU accepted my Graduate Certificate in Higher Education and experience as sufficient for entry into their masters program.
"2.  Diversity of the Student Population: While AU has a unique commitment to open access in Alberta, it should continue to take a broad approach to recruitment." (Page 27)
"3. Professional Courses, Diplomas, Undergraduate Degrees and Master’s Programs: AU should continue and expand its efforts to educate lifelong learners and should expand its career-focused and advanced educational opportunities." (Page 27)
Dr. Coates  points out opportunities for programs in business, health, educational technology and service to Indigenous Peoples.
" 4. Deployment of Faculty: While faculty members are critical to the success of a university, the standard disciplinary and faculty-centric approach to professional commitment will constrain an innovative, creative online institution." (Page 28)
This seems more an observation, than a recommendation. As a university, AU can't just shift staff around to meet teaching demand, as these staff need to have a depth of knowledge. What is not discussed is the use of remote part time staff for teaching. Being an on-line university, there is no need for the bulk of the teaching staff to be at Athabasca, or in Canada. Also AU appears to have a very low proportion of casual and part time academic staff (about one third). As a vocationally orientated institution, AU could benefit by making more use of casual and part time academics from the professions. Apart from reducing cost, this would inject current relevant experience.
"5. Mid-Career Retraining: AU has an open-ended opportunity to focus on mid-career retraining and adaptations to the new economy." (Page 28)
Re-skilling professionals is something identified in the UBC Flexible Learning Strategy in 2014. AU is likely to have considerable competition in provided programs in this area. However, its open policy and distance education expertise would provided a competitive advantage.
"6. Pedagogical Innovation: AU has an opportunity to build on its reputation for pedagogical innovation by focusing on the emergence of greater understanding of learning styles and related transformations in pedagogy, educational technology and online learning." (Page 28)
Unfortunately AU does not appear to have benefited from its reputation for pedagogical innovation so far. When looking for a masters of education to undertake AU was one of the three institutions outside Australia I considered, due to its prominence in the education literature. However, outside those who read papers about distance education pedagogy, AU is virtually unknown. There is a risk for AU in pursuing, or being see to be pursuing, every educational fad. Apart from the high cost of initiatives there is the risk of lessing of reputation as a reliable provider. However, some initiatives could be tried.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Impact through empathy

One exception to the usual fluffy kitten approach to university marketing is the Australian Catholic University (ACU), with their "ACU I Impact through empathy" campaign. This depicts the ACU's graduates, in health and education, helping people. It still shows study in a positive light, but is much more serious and sober than some of the sillier advertisements of other Australian universities. One point ACU glosses over is its origins in religious education: although the Vatican is briefly shown.

One of the more entertaining parts of higher education are the advertisements universities use to attract students. However, students have high rates of mental health problems. Depicting study as something fun, social, and easy, with instructors always to hand, may contribute to the problem.

University study is not fun, easy or pleasant: it is hard work, frustrating and lonely. Instructors cannot be as available, or helpful, as students would wish, due to resource constraints and the need for students to learn though their own efforts. As a result students may think there is something wrong with them.

ACU's approach is not just a matter of marketing. When studying education I made use of ACU's Canberra campus library and sat in on some graduate student sessions (one day I accidentally also sat in on an undergraduate teacher training class). There is a sense of caring and sharing which pervades the campus and the approach of the staff, different from a typical university. This may be just a matter of size, with a small campus able to be more personal, or it may be due to the caring disciplines the institution teaches.

Friday, June 2, 2017

ANU Science Teaching and Learning Colloquium

Greetings from the ANU Science Teaching & Learning Colloquium, where Dr Peter Anderson, from Monash University is speaking on "Indigenous students, indigenous perspectives". He suggests a right based approach to teaching to all students. I understood the rationale for this, but teachers would need more detailed guidance on how to apply this to STEM university courses.

One of the points Dr Anderson made was on access to education for indigenous students in remote areas. His solution appeared to be to send the students away to boarding school in the cities. Last year at mLearn 2016 in Sydney, Philip Townsend talked on Mobile Learning indigenous student teachers in remote areas. This provides an alternative approach, where at least some of the education can be provided where the student is.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cyber Kill Chain

There is a demand for Cyber Security IT professionals, so I am updating my knowledge of the area to help teach this. Last year I presented a "Cyberwar: Hypothetical for Teaching ICT Ethics", about a confrontation in the South China Sea.

Cyber Kill Chain


Lockheed Martin offer a Cyber Kill Chain® framework for cyber security. For those not familiar with the aggressive terminology  of the military, such terms can sound confronting, but the "kill chain" from which Lockheed Martin's propitiatory framework is derived is simply the military version of a decision making loop: first investigate the problem, then select a course of action, act and then assess the results before going around the loop again.

Some of the research carried out by the military is in the public domain. Australia's Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO ) produce occasional papers on cyber security. One is McNally, Yiu, Groveand Gerhardy's "Fuzzing: the state of the art" (2012). As the authors explain, fuzzing is a software testing technique which uses test data generated by one program to test  another program. This can be used, for example, for penetration testing, where many tests of passwords could be used to see if access is gained to a system.

 This paper starts with the origins of the technique for testing UNIX utilities at University of Wisconsin-Maddison by  Professor Barton Miller’s students. The paper provides a detailed discussion of more recent techniques. This is perhaps a little too detailed. Like many DSTO papers, at 55 pages, this is more than you need for a brief overview, so the casual reader might want just the introduction and conclusion.

References


McNally, R., Yiu, K., Grove, D., & Gerhardy, D. (2012). Fuzzing: the state of the art (No. DSTO-TN-1043). DEFENCE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY ORGANISATION EDINBURGH (AUSTRALIA). Retrieved from http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a558209.pdf

Friday, May 26, 2017

Is the Growth in Australian International Education Sustainable?

Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education and Training, has pointed to "... surging international student numbers.. " at Australian institutions, up 15% on March 2016. However is this growth rate sustainable? Can Australian institutions provide instructors, facilities and the quality of education, with this growth rate? What are the risks from depending on students from a few countries?

The International Student Data Monthly Summary from the Department of Education and Training shows 30% of the students are from China and 11% India. A dispute with China in particular (such as conflict over the South China Sea), resulting in a loss of students, would have a significant effect on Australian institution's finances.

While universities get most of the media attention, this is only just only half of the international students at 54%. Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector makes up 23%. While VET is growing at the same rate as universities (15%), I suggest there is scope for more growth in this sector. The challenge is to provide VET training which governments and employers in the region will find credible. If Australian VET providers can find a way to convince stakeholders that students actually undertook the training and are competent to the level certified, this sector could expand. This may require techniques similar to the livestock export industry, where there is individual tracking.

Just as a consumer of premium beef can see which farm a steak came from and the details of the farmer, credible VET certification may require the employer to see who trained the applicant in what, when and perhaps even video of the applicant undertaking their training and assessment.

The other threat to Australian's inbound international education industry is, of course, on-line learning. At present on-line courses, are not seen as a premium product, with questions over the quality of the education and the integrity of the assessment system. The VET sector could help change this perception, with its results based approach to training and assessment and flexibility.

Australian universities have recently experimented with vocationally relevant skills, micro-credentials and competency based assessment, but these have been routine in the VET sector for decades. It is much easier to convince an employer than a VET graduate has the required skills for a job, where there is a list of skills specific to that job, every one of which the student has been certified competent in. In contrast, a university graduate may, or may not, have been tested against some of a list of vague aspirational goals listed for a degree.

However, Australia suffers from its divided higher education system which sees universities separated from VET and no education focused institutions to fill the gap in between. Solving this problem is the key to further expansion of international education and lowering the cost of domestic higher education.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

EduTECH in Sydney 8 and 9 June 2017

The EduTech 2017 is on at the new exhibition centre in Sydney 8 and 9 June. I enjoyed speaking and chairing at the Tertiary Education IT Leaders stream of EduTech in Brisbane last year. This event has a free exhibition as well as streams for educators (and parents) from K to Vocational/University and Librarians.

This year I will be taking a less active role* and probably will just go to Ed 2030 (11:20am) and Systems Innovation (11:40am). Apart from that I will be wandering around the exhibition seeing what to blog for Higher Ed Whisperer. Anyone with something new and interesting for the blog, please let me know.

* I have volunteered to be on standby if they need a chair or speaker.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Australian USI Transcript Service: Is it any use?

Karen Andrews, the Australian Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, has announced a national Electronic USI  Transcript Service for VET students. This will allow students to obtain an electronic copy of what they did from 2015, onwards. However, the purpose and status of the service is unclear.

The USI website says "The online transcript will have many uses ...", but does not say what all those uses are. It says "This transcript will be a useful backup for when the original documentation is lost ...", but also says "... it does not replace the qualifications or documentation issued by training organisations ...". These statements are contradictory: to be a backup the new service must be able to replace the documentation previously issued.

I suggest the Government needs to decide if the USI Transcript Service can be relied on, or not. If the information in the government's database can't be relied on, then there seems to be little point in having the system. If it can be relied on, then it should be used in place of paper based certificates, which are easily forged.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Visible Learning: see learning through the eyes of students

Professor John Hattie
John Hattie (2015) argues that most teaching techniques work, but what works best is "visible learning": seeing learning from the students point of view, so they learn to learn. In this updated meta-meta-analysis it is easy to get lost ion the detail. But there are some useful, practical points for school and higher education teaching:
  1. Minimal effects of class size: Reducing class size only makes a small improvement in student's learning (Hattie mentions classes of 600 to 15). It occurs to me that the cost of staff is a large part of the education budget, so the way to improve the quality of education may be to increase class sizes. The staff time saved can be devoted to helping students.
  2. Student preparation is important: Flipped classrooms work where students actually do the preparatory work and are aware of what they have learned. As an example, I have students in my "ICT Sustainability Course" undertake a automated on-line quiz after each module.
  3. Reviewing increases learning dramatically: Hattie finds that taking notes does not help learning much, but reviewing the notes does. Also students learn from each other. As an example, I have my ICT Sustainability students answer two or three questions after each module, discuss it and them peer assess each other's contribution.
  4. Problem Based Learning (PBL) later: Hattie suggests that PBL has not been show to be effective as it has been used for first-year students who do not yet have the basic knowledge required. They argue this will be more effective for later years. In my teaching of students in the ANU TechLauncher program, this seems to be the case. Teams of third year and graduate computing and engineering students work on real projects for real clients.
  5. E-learning is just as effective as a classroom: Hattie points out that online and distance courses are just as effective as on campus learning. This has been well established in the research as the so called "No Significant Difference Phenomenon". However, many academics find it difficult to accept that their live lectures make no difference to student learning: live video, recorded video and no video at all is just as effective.
  6. Training university academics to teach: Hattie argues that training university academics to be effective teachers improves student learning. This may seem obvious, but university academics still resist the idea that they need to be trained to actually teach. Particularly at research orientated universities the emphasis is on academics conducting research on teaching, but not undertaking the type of basic learning of teaching techniques which school and vocational college teachers are required to undertake as a condition of employment.
  7. Alignment of Assessment and Course Aims: Hattie points out that students use the assessment as a guide to what is important in a course. As a recent graduate student myself, I found this very much the case. It was frustrating when the instructor had us study what was not assessed, then assessed us on something only briefly touched on in the course.

    There seems to be an article of faith amongst some in academia that students should not be driven by assessment and marks. Curiously, when it comes to rewards in the form of research grants and promotions, these same academics are very much directly driven by short term concrete rewards, not the esoteric pursuit of knowledge. ;-)

    In my own course design, I am careful to show the students the explicit link from the skills demanded by industry, the course learning objectives derived from those skills and the assessment items supporting the learning outcomes. For each module of a course the student can see there is some assessment at the end, with a deadline.

The paper is an update of the earlier book. 

Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn

Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn



 

Reference


Hattie, J. (2015). The applicability of Visible Learning to higher education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(1), 79. retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/stl0000021

Assessing STEM Students Using ePortfolios

The final assessment item for Computing and engineering students undertaking group projects in the TechLauncher Program at the Australian National University is a Personal Development Review (PDR). Last year this was a reflective portfolio prepared by the student using the Mahara e-Portfolio tool and worth 30% of the total course assessment. This year the exercise has been halved to 15% and recast as an a job application (1,000 to 1,250 words) against five selection criteria:
Dr Shayne Flint
Dr Chris Browne
Dr Chris Browne
  1. "demonstrated proficiency in a technical area of expertise
  2. a positive attitude and/or clear organisation skills
  3. teamwork and/or leadership
  4. demonstrated service to the workplace
  5. a commitment to personal development"
From: TechLauncher Personal Development Review, Shayne Flint and Chris Browne, ANU College of Engineering & Computer Science, 2017
Students will be assessed against these criteria. The use of Mahara is no longer suggested, with the student simply submitting a word processing document via the Moodle Learning Management System.

As I discovered myself, having to complete a reflective portfolio last year for a MEd, this is a particularly difficult task for a STEM student. Having been trained to always emphasize hard facts and write in the third person, it is difficult to suddenly write about myself and my personal relationship to the work. Treating the task like a job application should provide more focus for the students. However, this is still difficult where students have been undertaking teamwork and trained to be "team players" but then asked to write about what they, individually, accomplished.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Peace Through Superior Innovation

Kate Lundy
Greetings from the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN) office, where I am attending a ACT Defence Industry Forum. Former Senator for the ACT, Kate Lundy, the ACT Defence Industry Advocate opened the event. She pointed out that while defence industry in South Australia is discussed in the media, Canberra is the location of the ADF headquarters and many supplier companies. This is timely as I was on a panel for ANU software engineering students this morning, including a discussion of cyber-security and  radar design for warships (which is done in Canberra).

The choice of CBRIN for this event is interesting, as it is usually associated with web startups for consumer products, which would seem a long way from military systems. However, supporting the heavy iron military equipment are thousands of products and services provided by small specialist companies. I saw this first hand in 1997 when taking part in a multi-nation military exercise in Queensland. Not only were there companies at the temporary base set up for the operation, but deployed on warships at sea. I flew out into the Coral Sea by military helicopter to meet with my colleagues on the US fleet flagship, where I bumped into many civilians supporting the military.

Petr Adámek
Petr Adámek, the new CEO of CBRIN challenged the defence industry to think about how innovation could be better done. One way I suggest is to look at adopting some of the gig-economy techniques to defence services. This does not need to involve guns and bombs. Most defence spending goes on personnel: training people, feeding them, and keeping them healthy. The military also spend a lot on "logistics": getting materials needed to the right place at the right time.

A current example is the ADF restructuring to its traditional role as an amphibious fighting force. Australia has invested several billion dollars in amphibious warfare ships, which can transport personnel and equipment across the region onto a shore. However, retraining the Army to be effective marines, to get all the supplies they will need to where the ship is and all of the support on board is an opportunity for many new products and services.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

One Course at a Time Makes Study Easier

In "Sequential single-unit blocks pave the pathway to academic success", Peter Dawkins and Ian Solomonides



Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Framework for Open Learning Funding Cut

One small item in the Australian Budget 2017-18 was a $2.5M cut in funding for the Framework for Open Learning (FOLP). ICT for schools, VET and higher education to provide open learning is a worthwhile objective and one which could save billions of dollars.
"The Government will achieve efficiencies of $2.5 million over four years from 2017-18 by returning uncommitted funding for the Framework for Open Learning Program to the Budget. Projects currently funded under the Program will continue until their completion. Ongoing funding of $0.5 million per annum will remain from 2021-22 to continue to support schools to help connect and exchange data digitally.

The savings from this measure will be redirected by the Government to fund policy priorities."
From "Budget Measures, Budget Paper No. 2 2017-18", page 81, 2017

Future of Teaching and learning at ANU

ANU Union Court Redevelopment
New ANU Buildings
(artists' impression).
Greetings from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra where Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington is speaking on the Teaching and learning futures at ANU. This is one of a series of talks about the new Union Court Development. There are also Union Court podcasts. Three of the new buildings will include teaching facilities. There will be a student services building, teaching and cultural events building (with large theaters).

The teaching building will have 60% formal learning spaces and 40% informal. Rooms are designed for 30, 60, 90 and 120 students (some rooms have movable walls). There will be translucent glass panels to provide privacy with light. The top floor will have a "super-floor" suitable for 320 students in cabaret style.

For the last ten years I have been looking at suitable teaching space design and for three years learning about teaching styles to suit these spaces. I will be presenting on this in "Dogfooding: Learning About Teaching by Being an On-line Student", at ANU, 1pm, 15 May 2017.
The culture and event building will have a flexible space with movable 200 and 512 seat tiered lecture theaters. This is intended to be used for sports and examinations with the seating retracted. I have been to conferences in similar spaces in Hong Kong and Cambridge. There will also be 150 and 300 fixed seat theaters for performances and lectures.
While the new buildings are being built there will be a need for temporary facilities. I have suggested rather than finding large temporary lecture theaters instead change to flipped teaching in flat floor rooms. Apart from being easier to find flat floor spaces this will improve the teaching.
One interesting aspect is that Professor Hughes-Warrington pointed out the new teaching building will be constructed from cross-laminated timber rather than concrete and steel. She suggested this will improve the WiFi signals, but I suspect the cabling in the building will still limit transmission.
"The university landscape is rapidly transforming, driven by societal and technological change on a global and local level. These changes provide us with an opportunity to ensure that we are providing an enriched and valuable learning experience here at ANU.
The revitalised Union Court precinct ANU is building will feature some of the country’s most advanced collaborative learning environments.
This forum will discuss the opportunities these spaces provide for teaching at ANU and the wide range of teaching possibilities our spaces will accommodate, including didactic lectures, tutorials, seminars, flipped classrooms and more."

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Making University Relevant to Entrepreneurs


Universities need to counter the "universities kill innovation" view in the entrepreneurial community. This was evident in Steve Baxter's talk at River City Labs in Brisbane last Friday.


On Friday I had some free time in Brisbane so I went along to River City Labs Entrepreneur's Story Evening. River City Labs is a coworking space, much like Fishburners in Sydney and Entry 29 in Canberra. Those wanting to start a new tech business get some office space and help.

River City Labs is in the historic TCB Building  at Level 3, 315 Brunswick Street Fortitude Valley. They recently moved from around the corner in Wickham Street (some events in Eventbrite still have the old address). Like many start-up spaces, River City Labs seems to delight in being hard to find. You go down an almost deserted shopping arcade and turn left into a passageway which apparently ends with a blank brick wall. Closer examination shows this is a lift lobby, with the lift doors disguised in brick pattern wallpaper (why?). The only way I found the place was people coming out wearing jeans, black shirts and carrying laptops (the Steve Jobs looks). ;-)

Once inside, River City Labs is a world-within-a-world. This multistory space is fitted out in the usual New York Loft warehouse style of co-working spaces: bare wooden floorboards, bare brick-walls and services visible on the ceiling. There is glass partitioning, making the most of the light from the clerestory windows of the large atrium.

Steve Baxter, as it turns out is not only one of the founders of River City Labs but also appears on the  Australian TV series Shark Tank. Steve is originally from Brisbane, made his mark as an ISP pioneer in Adelaide, then in the USA before returning to Brisbane.

Steve made several comments about the role of universities in innovation, both in his talk and in answering questions after. What he seemed to be saying was that successful tech startups are founded by technologically competent entrepreneurs, not business people. Steve suggested that the tech entrepreneur could obtain business advice and training, but a business person without the needed tech training would have more difficulty.

Steve seemed keen for school leavers to undertake tech degrees at university, but otherwise did not want universities involved in innovation. It was not clear to me what he thought universities were doing that they shouldn't do. Apart from educating students, universities conduct fundamental and, some applied, research. My preferred approach for university research to be exploited is the Cambridge Phenomenon Model: some of the graduates involved with the research transition to the private sector to commercially exploit the work, with the institution perhaps retaining a financial interest. The hands off approach where the scientist hands their work to a company to develop does not work well: the scientist has to get their hands dirty working in industry.

After Steve's anti-university comments I got a laugh asking the last question, when I mentioned I was associated with ANU (I happened to be wearing a black t-shirt with "ANU" in very large white letters). I pointed out that some tech students in Canberra are encouraged to go to the Canberra Innovation Network (equivalent to River City Labs) to learn about entrepreneurship, they then receive credit for the project work they do. Programs such as ANU Techlauncher try to balance the academic and practical aspects. Steve seemed to like this idea.

If entrepreneurs have the idea that universities just turn out academics of no value to industry, then this will become a self fulfilling prophecy. I don't agree with Steve that universities should just produce tech graduates. The universities can also teach tech graduates some basic business skills: how to make a presentation, plan a project, work about cost and what the client wants. Also universities can provide sub-degree and shorter post-degree education to help entrepreneurs. It doesn't have to be a school-university-job production like of people.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Train Teachers to be Professional

In "Here’s what is wrong with testing teachers and Teach For Australia" Keith Heggart (1 May 2017) discusses and dismisses both raising the ATAR and using ah-hoc teacher programs. However, Heggart does not offer a viable alternative. I suggest training teachers to be proactive professionals, who take responsibility for how to teach.

Teach for Australia encourages graduates, particularly in STEM, to take up teaching. This has a high profile currently, being the subject of a SBS TV documentary "Testing Teachers". It is good to see there are some idealistic individuals willing to sacrifice a high paying career to go into teaching. This makes good TV, but clearly is not a viable public policy. If you want highly qualified teachers, then you have to train and pay them all accordingly.

For similar reasons, I suggest that raising ATARs will not improve teaching quality on its own. Why would a university student choose a teaching degree, if they can select an alternative leading to higher pay, less stress and shorter working hours?

Heggart proposes reducing teacher workloads, but does not provide a strategy for doing this. If teachers are willing to work long hours for little pay, why would governments and employers be motivated to change that situation? I suggest that the teachers themselves need to be trained to change this.

Teachers can be trained to be true professionals, who make decisions about what and how they teach. One part of this would be for teachers to cooperate to design the way they teach so it makes efficient use of their time and that of the students.

Rather than just responding to demands on their time and spending long hours filling out useless paperwork, teachers could be trained to prioritize their time. Teachers could work out what is important for their student's learning and allocate time to those tasks. What is not important for learning and for which there is no time should simply not be done.

The issue of how to teach is now being debated at universities. ANU is demolishing its central lecture theater facilities. I have suggested we take the opportunity to do our teaching differently. Lectures are not a particularly useful way to teach university students and so I have suggested we stop doing it.

School teachers can be trained to design learning to efficiently use available resources. The scarcest of those resources are teacher and student time. Teachers can be trained to use technology to reduce administrative burdens and also to collaborate with their peers. Rather than a teacher alone in a classroom, being told to fill out a whole lot of forms, they can focus on actually teaching.

This is not to suggest some sort of revolutionary takeover of schools by teachers. Instead it is suggesting teachers be trained to take responsibility for teaching. Trainee teachers can then have support from mentors and peers on-line. As they advance through their careers teachers can include the role of planning and implementing the future of education as part of the work of a professional.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Replace Lectures with a Flipped Classroom

Australian universities are moving away from the provision of dedicated lecture theaters. This change in physical spaces provides the opportunity to think about how to improve teaching. As an example, the Australian National University (ANU) is replacing the central Manning Clark lecture theatre complex with flexible learning spaces, as part of the Union Court Redevelopment. The obvious approach to consider is the flipped classroom. Apart from improved education, this will halve the amount of formal teaching space required.

A common teaching format is three one hour lectures a week and one tutorial of one hour. However,  a student who has sat through three hours of someone talking at them in a darkened room is not likely to recall much, the following week when a tutorial is held.

With the flipped classroom the student reads material on-line on their own, watches some videos or listens to an audio podcast. They do a short quiz or exercise immediately after, to consolidate the learning. Within a few days they then attend a face-to-face session where they listen to a presenter for a few minutes, do a small group exercise, listen to the results from other groups.

Key to both distance education and the flipped classroom is to have the students doing something active. Also key is to have this activity assessed and to provide the students with feedback on how they are doing, as soon as possible.

But is it feasible to replace lectures and tutorials with a flipped classroom? Will it take too many new buildings and staff?

Consider a typical course with 300 students enrolled and tutorials of 20 students (from p. 4  "A Guide for Parents and Carers", 2016). A typical course will have three one hour lectures a week and one tutorial of one hour. Assuming a 300 seat lecture theater is available, one lecturer can provide the lectures in three hours and 15 tutor hours will be required per week. This would require a 300 m2 lecture theater for three hours and a 40 m2 tutorial room for fifteen hours per week (using usual space guidelines). This is a total of 5 m2 hours of floor space per student per week. 

Rendering of the TEAL classroom at MIT
A room for cabaret style flipped teaching, such as  MIT's Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) or the ANU Physics Studio, requires about 2.5 m2 per student. The 300 students would require 750 m2 with 34 tables (each seating nine students). As well as TEAL* this format of classroom is also called SCALE-UP: Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (or Student‐Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs), ALC: Active Learning Classrooms, or TILE: Transform, Interact, Learn, Engage.

A cabaret style room requires about two and a half times as much floor space as a conventional lecture theater. However, saving is made in floor space, as each student spends less time in the room, with the flipped approach. There is also no need for a separate tutorial room.

Such large teaching spaces do exist, as an example, the University of Sydney "X-lab wet lab" accommodates about 240 students. However, the X-lab has a very sophisticated (and expensive) audio system allowing it to be divided for smaller classes.

A more workable option may be to divide a course into multiple sessions. This also provides the student with the option to choose a time which better suits them. A course of 300 students could be divided into two groups of 150. This would require a room of 375 m2, about 19 m2, with seventeen tables. This is a total of 2.5 m2 hours per student per week.

Each flipped class will require a lecturer to be the MC and about five tutors (one for each four tables and one to assist the lecturer). If each  student undertakes one workshop of one hour per week, there would need to be two classes a week (or one a week for a two hour class).

The two hours of flipped class per week will require about the same amount of staff time as the four hours of lectures and tutorials. An emcee (equivalent of a lecturer) will be required for the two hours. While this is less than the three hours of lectures, they will also need to supervise the on-line component of the flipped class and handle the increased complexities of the flipped mode.

While only 10 hours of tutor time are needed in the face-to-face class, there will be extra work for the digital teaching in on-line classes.

One advantage of cabaret style teaching rooms is that they do not require a purpose built building. Libraries, offices and commercial buildings with flat floors can be re-purposed for cabaret style teaching These changes can be temporary, using mobile furniture and equipment. When not needed for classes the space can be used informally by students. The ANU Physics Studio, in a former chemical laboratory, is an excellent example of this approach.

The cabaret rooms, with movable furniture can be adapted for other teaching styles, best illustrated by the University of Canberra's Inspire building TEAL room*,  which has semi-curricular flip top tables which can be quickly reconfigured during a class for different teaching styles, or packed away for a function.

Before cutting the space budget at universities, administrators need to consider where students will study when not in formal classes. With an emphasis on group work, students will need somewhere to do that group work. This will not involve an instructor and not be scheduled on the university timetable, but is still key to learning. Learning commons and uncommitted time in the flexible teaching rooms will be needed if the students are to meet on campus. Also students undertaking lab work with specialized equipment will need time to work.

In 2008 I gave up lectures and moved my teaching on-line. With new teaching spaces available it may soon be time to go back to the classroom. I will discuss some of this in "Dogfooding: Learning About Teaching by Being an On-line Student", for the  ASCILITE Technology Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group Webinar (TEL edvisors), 4 May  & Human Centered Computing Seminar, RSCS, ANU, 15 May 2017.

* ps: The University of Canberra's Inspire building TEAL room is colored teal (blue-green), which may be a joke by the designer.

Friday, April 21, 2017

UNESCO Policy Recommendations for Equitable and Affordable Higher Education

UNESCO have released a policy paper on "Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind" (20 April 2017).

The six ways are:
  1. Know your target for equity policies. Review equity policies periodically to make sure that the groups that most need help are getting it. Take advantage of household surveys and other monitoring tools to keep track of different groups. 
  2. Put it in the law. Ensure equity and affordability across diverse higher education systems by guaranteeing principles of access within regulatory frameworks
  3. Set up steering and monitoring agencies. Guarantee student protection by establishing national agencies to develop and follow up on equal opportunities policies, equity and affordability in higher education. Quality assurance bodies can play a role in the monitoring of equity policies.
  4. Level the playing field. Use a combination of admissions criteria to ensure that all students have a fair chance at getting into the best universities, regardless of their backgrounds. Develop effective affirmative action policies that put equity front and centre in the admissions process.
  5. Combine tuition fees with means-tested grants and loans. Concentrate public financial aid on disadvantaged student groups. Establish an agency to coordinate student financial aid disbursement and effective collection mechanisms.
  6. Limit student repayments. Combine low tuition and fees with income-based loans to cap student repayment burdens at less than 15% of monthly income.
From: Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind, Page 10, UNESCO, 20 April 2017.


Two additional measures I suggest may help:
  1. Concentrate public financial aid on shorter introductory vocational programs. The funding needed for one student to undertake a three year degree could instead provide three students with a one year diploma, or six students with a six month certificate. Once the student is qualified for a well paying job they can fund their own studies.
  2. Train Academics to Teach On-line:  On-line and blended learning provides considerable potential for providing equitable access to education. However, many university academics have minimal training in how to use computers for teaching. Academics should be trained in how to teach in blended and on-line modes using courses delivered in blended and on-line modes.

EDUCATION: It's a science!

Here is a virtual placard to display on my e-Book reader at the March for Science Australia, at Parliament House, Canberra, Saturday, 11am, 22 April 2017:

EDUCATION


It's a science!

Higher Education Whisperer.com

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Facilitating Success for Students from Low Socioeconomic Status Backgrounds at Regional Universities

The report "Facilitating Success for Students from Low Socioeconomic Status Backgroundsat Regional Universities" by Marcia Devlin and Jade McKay has been published by Federation University Australia. There are no real surprises in this 110 page report. Some of the suggested areas for policy reform seem a little naive.

The research found eight factors for the success of students:
  1. Students’ own attitudes
  2. Family support
  3. Financial security and sustainability
  4. Reliable technology
  5. Understanding and responding to the particular circumstances and needs of students
  6. Facilitating students being and feeling connected to university
  7. Student preparedness for the realities of university study
  8. An inclusive, engaged approach to learning and teaching
The authors suggest five areas for work:
  1. Ensuring financial stability for students
  2. Defining, measuring and monitoring ‘attrition’
  3. Valuing staged and micro qualifications
  4. Leveraging existing regional and rural infrastructure
  5. Regional school investment
We do not need a study to identify that financial security is an issue for students from low a SES background. Also the proposal to ensure financial stability for students would exclude many from higher education.

The proposal for micro-credentials is worthwhile. However the term "micro-credentials" is misleading, as this suggests a credential for a few hours work. What the report appears to be proposing are sub-degree qualifications: certificates and diplomas. These take six months to a year of study. These are not "micro-credentials" and are already allowed for in Australian Higher Education. All that is required is the government funding incentives to implement them.

Government could encourage institutions to implement nested qualifications. That is, students would be able to exit with a qualification after six months or one year and be able to reenter the same program later. Government could encourage this by making it a condition of the funding of degree programs: that is degrees which did not have a nested option would not be funded.
 
Shorter qualification are more common in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector, than universities. Government funding to encourage students to undertake VET before university would likely improve success rates for low SES students. Many regional universities have co-located VET facilities and this should be relatively easy to implement.

What the report does not seem to address is improving the inclusiveness of higher education, through better course design and use of trained teachers. This is an area where the regional universities have an advantage over the capital city research universities. Cathy Stone's National Guidelines for Improving Student Outcomes in Online Learning  provide a useful set of tips for improving e-learning which are also applicable to campus-based programs.

The report also fails to address the role of e-learning in facilitating success for students. E-learning is normally considered to lower student success, compared to on-campus students. However, e-learning allows students who would otherwise not be able to access higher education at all to participate. E-learning offers a way to provide cost-effective support for students from low SES backgrounds in regional areas.