Thursday, February 22, 2018

Building the Future in Canberra

Greetings from the TechLauncher Team Formation event at the Australian National University in Canberra. There are more than three hundred students hearing 30 second pitches from potential clients. The students then select the project they prefer and form a team. They have a year to build what the client wants, which is usually software, but could be engineering hardware. 

The room used in not on campus, as the
ANU Collaborative Learning (CLE) Building is still under construction. The university has leased an office building across the road and removed the internal walls on the ground floor to create a large flat floor classroom. There is a standard lectern, with audio-visual controls, on wheels at one end of the room. This wall has three video projectors. There are small fold up desks, one for each student, along with a lightweight plastic chair. To one side there are large LCD displays on wheels, which can be moved out for group work, with the desks and chairs rearranged to suit.

This is a temporary set-up, but looks reasonably usable. It is a little untidy, as there are no storage cabinets for unused equipment. Also the standard height office ceiling is a little low for such a large space.

The room is almost square, as is usual for TEAL style rooms. For the pitch exercise, the clients are spaced around the walls, each standing in front of the sign-up sheet for their project. One instructor is going around the room with a wireless microphone, so each client can pitch. Another instructor is at the lectern controlling the timer. Several other instructors are roving the room, dealing with problems and queries. The room is not silent: there is a low murmur of conversation (the floor is carpeted but the ceiling could perhaps do with more sound absorption). The sound system is working well, but as with any flat floor large room it is not easy to see the presenter and perhaps there should be a wireless video relaying the image to the screens around the room.

My Teaching and Studying at the Uberversity

In "Cost-saving pressures create a place for Uberversity model", Tim Dodd, Higher Education Editor for The Australian, asked us to imagine a university with no campus. I don't have to imagine it, I have been teaching that way for nine years and spent four years studying there. Tim suggests it "... smacks of Uber or Airbnb ...", but this educational model predates both startups by several decades. Online education grew out of paper based distance education, which was pioneered in Australia, fifty years ago.

There are a wealth of good ideas to try out with education, but they are not, as Tim suggests, new. Taking an e-learning format developed by distance and open universities and giving it an "Uber-" prefix doesn't make it new.

In 2008 the Australian Computer Society commissioned me to design a graduate level e-learning course for computer professionals. What I discovered was that there were well researched and proven techniques for doing this, along with world leading Australian software. In 2013 I signed up as a graduate student of education, to further investigate these techniques. Studying on-line (obviously) at institutions 1,000 km and 13,000 km away, I discovered these techniques went back 50 years and Australian educators had made significant contributions to this work.

So before slapping a quick "Uber-" prefix on, assuming this is all new, and all comes from Silicon Valley, do a couple of web searches and see where it really comes from. Perhaps you might even pop into your local university and ask, or talk to Australian e-learning entrepreneurs.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Research to Impact Program

The Research to Impact program is on at Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN), starting 14 March. This consists of four workshops, over two months, with participants undertaking exercises between. The workshops are derived from those at CBRIN for entrepreneurs to find market needs, value propositions, business models, value chain, collaboration and pitching. But the workshops have been adapted for researchers who want their work to have a real work impact and be applied. I attended these workshops when they were run in-house for ANU by Petr Adamek and Craig Davis in 2016 and they were excellent. Staff of ANU, UC, CIT, Data61, CSIRO and UNSW Canberra can attend for free.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Async-Sync Learning System

A project proposal prepared for students, which may be of interest:

Async-Sync Learning System

Modify existing free open source educational software to combine the features of Asynchronous and Synchronous learning delivery.

Current learning management software provides delivery in one of two modes: Asynchronous, where the student can use the materials in their own time (example: Moodle), or Synchronous, where the students and instructor are online at the same time (example: Big Blue Button).

An approach has been proposed combining the features of both Asynchronous and Synchronous in the one package: "... synchronization of the asynchronous learning process ..." (Worthington, p. 619, 2013). This has been investigated with a small proof-of-concept (Worthington & Wu, 2015). An attempt was made in a previous ANU group project to expand this, but difficulties were experienced integrating Moodle and Big Blue Button.
Tools have matured since 2015 and it is proposed to make another attempt to build an Async-Sync Learning System (ASLS), beginning with a simple use case:
"A teacher in the new ANU Collaborative Learning (CLE) Building gives their class a set time to complete a quiz and then discuss it. Students participating remotely via the ASLS complete the quiz at the same time and take part in the discussion with the students in the room (synchronous mode). After the class, the teacher presses "Publish" and the lesson recording is made available to students who could not take part live. A student watching the recording later (asynchronous mode) has the same amount of time to complete the quiz as one in the live class. They can't fast forward past the quiz to the discussion, until they completed the quiz (due to the synchronization feature of the software). After they complete the quiz, the student can contribute to the discussion, and access what the other students who were in the room and participating remotely live, or later, said."
Any materials produced by the project will be under an open source license available for free use. Students will have the option to enter the project in the Innovation ACT competition and set up a company to support the product.


  • Worthington, T. (2013, April). Synchronizing asynchronous learning-Combining synchronous and asynchronous techniques. In Computer Science & Education (ICCSE), 2013 8th International Conference on (pp. 618-621). IEEE. URL
  • Worthington, T., & Wu, H. (2015, July). Time-shifted learning: Merging synchronous and asynchronous techniques for e-learning. In Computer Science & Education (ICCSE), 2015 10th International Conference on (pp. 434-437). IEEE. URL


  1. Investigate forms of learning delivery
  2. Modify existing open source software to provide Asynchronous and Synchronous functions in the one package


Experience with, or interest in, education would be an advantage.


Worthington, T. (2017). Digital Teaching in Higher Education: Designing E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment. Lulu. com. URL

Higher Education in Australia: Short Sharp and Mobile

I have been asked to write a short opinion piece on the future of higher education in Australia, so I thought I would draft it here:

Higher Education in Australia: Becoming Shorter, Sharper and More Mobile

It is an interesting time to be teaching at an Australian university. Business is booming, with record international enrollments. However, international enrollments are subject to the vagaries of international politics. At the same time Australian industry and government are urging universities to produce work-ready graduates.

Imagine a future where you can begin your higher education at secondary school, then have the choice of a government vocational institution, a private college, or a  university (public or private). Imagine if you could study on-line, while working or looking after a family. Imagine you only need to attend a campus for hands-on instruction, which may be a few days a year, or never. Imagine if you could present evidence of your existing skills and knowledge, thus avoid unnecessary courses. Imagine if you could enroll in multiple institutions and even study overseas, without leaving home. Imagine if you could study via your smart phone.

This future is here right now. In the last few years I have been a student at the Canberra Institute of Technology, which has a campus collocated with a secondary school, a student on campus at the Australian National University and took a couple of courses at the University of Souther Queensland 1,000 km away. I was a student of CIT, ANU and USQ at the same time. Then I enrolled in a program at Athabasca University 13,000 km away, in Canada, studying via my laptop and smart phone in Canberra.

Australia has a higher education system which extends from upper secondary school through trade certificates to advanced post-graduate university degrees. The system accommodates everything from apprenticeships for plumbers to research doctorates for computer professionals. The system has about one hundred government owned universities and TAFEs, thousands of private registered training organizations and one for-profit private university. There are providers offering higher education at school, on-line and via a smart phone.

Today's students will have many careers and so need a general education, regularly topped up with short intensive training and skills recognition. But we do not need to Uberize higher education to do this. We just need to free up some of out thinking about what education is and provide the right incentives for students and institutions. Such carnages need to be undertaken with care. Federal government attempts to free up the VET system resulted junk courses being offered to unsuspecting students. Changes to the university system could place at risk major export industry.

The future I would see for Australian Higher Education is to apply some approaches from the VET sector to universities and expand the approach already taken by Australia's on-line universities. University qualifications can be nested, so a student can complete a vocationally useful first qualification in less than the three years required for a Bachelor Degree. Students can instead start their study with a certificate or diploma, of six months to a year. They can then top this up with an advanced diploma or degree. Institutions can be given financial incentives to offer nested qualifications and students given incentives to take them.

Universities can require staff to obtain a formal educational qualification, as the VET sector does, so academics know how to teach. University academics have been reluctant to do this and a level of compulsion may be required, with government funding and accredited being withdrawn from institutions without qualified staff.

University qualifications can be defined, as they are in the VET sector, in terms of the knowledge and skills required and how those skills can be demonstrated, so students can present evidence instead of undertaking a course. Knowledge and skills definitions can be standardized between programs and universities, so students need not repeat the same work, over and over.  As in the VET sector, courses can be on-line by default. Where a skill needs to be learned hands-on, students can have the option of learning on-the-job, rather than on a campus. Such a system would be very complex to introduce Australia wide by regulation and in\stead funding incentives could be used to promote consortia to undertake this approach.


Australia's first university, the University of Sydney, was founded the 1850, with the dual purposes of cultural enrichment and economic advancement:
"Whereas it is deemed expedient for the better advancement of religion and morality and the promotion of useful knowledge, to hold forth to all classes and denominations of Her Majesty’s subjects resident in the Colony of New South Wales, without any distinction whatsoever, an encouragement for pursuing a regular and liberal course of education ..." University of Sydney Act 1850 (UK), Public Statutes of New South Wales
Distance education commenced at the University of New England in 1955. There were misgivings over "Degrees by Correspondence", mush like topday's concerns over Internet degrees. However influenced the design of distance, open and on-line universities around the world:
"We had been fortunate in attracting to the Open University in 1969, for a spell of three months, Mr Howard Sheath, who had been Head of the External Division of the University of New England for many years." (Perry, p. 59,  1976).

Australia's first short vocational course was two hundred years before this, aboard the first fleet, with a Royal Navy officer teaching reading to the convicts on their way from England (Whitelock, 1974).

Tertiary education in Australia today is provided by 43 universities, 40 state government technical and further education (TAFE) institutions and more than 4,000 Registered Training Organizations (RTO). The TAFEs and mostly probate RTOs are collectively referred to as Vocational Education and Training (VET).

Australian Qualifications Framework Levels 1 to 10

In 1995 the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) was introduced to fit the education provided by government and private institutions, schools, VET and universities, into one framework. The AQF has ten levels, from 1 (to prepare for a first job), to 10 (doctoral degree).

Levels 1 to 3 of the AQF are offered by VET. Universities, and VET offer the AQF middle levels, 5 to 7 awarding Diplomas, Advanced Diplomas and Bachelor Degrees. The graduate levels, 8 to 10, Graduate Certificate, Masters and Doctorate,  are offered mostly by universities.

VET institutions offer nationally standardized  qualifications. There are almost 1,500 qualifications, built from 17,000 units of competency. Units of competency can be used in multiple qualifications, with the units "Lead and manage organizational change" (BSBINN601) used in 28 qualifications. Each units of competency is defined in terms of the outcome and assessment. While the qualification and unit definitions are standardized and public, the method of instruction and course materials are up to the individual institutions. Even so, the units of competency are interchangeable between institutions, with students able to obtain credit from one institution for units completed at another.

Universities currently offer less standardized qualifications. Unlike the VET sector, each university designs its own degrees and courses. Some universities offer hundreds of different degrees, made up from thousands of courses, none of which are offered at any other institution. A student transferring between universities will be offered some credit for previous study, but will likely not be granted credit for all their work, due to the lack of standardization.

A level of degree standardization is imposed by external accreditation and professional bodies, such as the Australian Computer Society. However, the accrediting body only specifies what needs to be broadly covered in a program.

Open Universities Australia (OUA), a consortium of Australian universities, offers 61 degrees, 101 post-graduate programs and more than 1,300 courses. Students of OUA can select courses from multiple universities in the consortium and credit these to a degree from one.

Shorter Courses

A Bachelor Degree from a university requires three years full time study. This is usually assumed to require twice as long for part time study, but students typically take longer. That is a very long time between enrollment and being able to present a qualification to a prospective employer.

The VET system typically offers certificates, requiring 3 to 4 months full time study, which may be nested with a longer diploma or advanced diploma. The student completing a certificate at one institution can apply to another for further study, with all completed work being counted, due to national standardization.

VET also provides for "Recognition of Prior Learning" (RPL), where a student presents evidence of already having the knowledge and skills required. This can considerably shorten study time. As an example, I obtained 80% of a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment, based on my prior university education and teaching experience.

RPL is less common in the university sector. However, recognition of forms of learning outside formal courses is becoming more common. Students may be required to gain experience in a workplace, providing evidence through a journal, project report, or reports from supervisors. This apprentice or intern approach is common in VET vocational programs and some university professional degrees in health care and engineering.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

ICT Sustainability: Update for Graduate Course Starting at ANU Next Week

Changes for 2018:
  • A discussion of the sustainability of bitcoin and blockchain was added to the topic "Business process improvement".
  • The chapter "Compliance Audit" was renamed "Carbon Accounting" and updated with the latest National Carbon Offset Standard.
  • A short video introducing the course, was created.

Monday, February 12, 2018

University Advertising Failing to Make the Grade

Australian universities are currently using TV advertisements to attract on-line students.

In 2016 Swinburne University's "We're here for you" campaign,  had a tutor appear in person, seemingly out of nowhere, to help an on-line student in a cafe. This year their "Let's Do This" is less silly, apart from having a cat in it. One annoying point was when the narrator says "... lets make the grade ..." the screen shows the word "Distinction" and a tick. Universities should, I suggest, avoid giving students unrealistic expectations of how easy study is and in particular distance eduction. Students should not be given the idea that making the grade means getting a distinction. This may contribute to the high levels of stress and mental illness experienced by students.

In contrast, Open Universities Australia's 'Stop asking "What if?" and find out "What now?"' campaign focuses on ease of enrollment. This is much more low key (perhaps too low key) and doesn't set too many unrealistic expectations. While I found being an on-line student very stressful, enrolling proved relatively simple. One difficulty OUA have is explaining exactly what it is: not a university, but a consortia of universalities, offering on-line courses.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Making Videos Takes Skill and Effort

When encouraging staff, or students, to make videos, please consider the effort involved. While they may have years of instruction on how to write, how much training and practice have they had in making videos?

I was reminded of the work needed to make a video recently when I came across a VHS tape of "Bicycles". This was a student exercise for the course "Audio-Visual Video" (for training) at the ACT TAFE in 1989.

After spending one evening a week for several weeks leaning the basics of video, I spent a day recording video of cyclists around Lake Burley Griffin. It then took several hours to edit this into a 90 second video. Someone looking at this might think "I could do that!" and they could, but it takes hours of work, after learning the basics.

Note that this video used paper caption cards and analogue tape editing. The mechanical part of the process is now much quicker and easier with a digital editor. However, working out how to tell a story and assembling  the material still takes a considerable amount of time and skill. Staff and student needed to be provided assistance with how to do this and given a realistic idea of the work involved.

The ACT TAFE, where, I learned to make analog videos, is now know as the Canberra Institute of Technology. My instruction from 1989, Brian Oakes, is now running Video for Youtube courses.

ps: One thing which has not charged in the transition from analogue to video is worrying about use of copyright material.  My video was edited in time with the song "Bicycle Race" by Freddie Mercury, performed by Queen (1978). When I uploaded it to YouTube this music was automatically identified and advertising revenue assigned to the copyright holder.

Introducing the Internet into Australian Education 25 Years Ago

Recently an academic in Canberra commented that there was no Internet 25 years ago. I was surprised that they knew so little local history. By 1993, Australian universities were linked to the Internet by staff originally at ANU (Clarke, 2004).  Also in 1993, Michele Huston at ANU, ran a project to put ACT schools on the Internet (Huston, 1995).


Clarke, Roger. (2004). Origins and Nature of the Internet in Australia. Emergence, 4, 1990-1994. URL
Huston, Michele (1995, June). Introducing the Internet into Australian Schools: A Case Study - The ACTEIN Program, INET'95 - the 5th Annual Conference of the Internet Society, Honolulu. URL

Monday, February 5, 2018

Non-government Student Loans for Vocational Programs

Australian startup company Study Loans Pty Ltd is offering loans to students for 6 to 48 months. Rates are 12% to 18% depending on the students credit rating and the education provider's track record. This compares to zero interest on a government VET Student Loans.

No interest is charged on government loans, but they are indexed to the CPI and so the amount to be repaid can increase, depending on inflation. Also the range of providers which students can apply for government loans for has been reduced, in response to poor performance by some providers. So there may be scope for a commercial alternative.

Study Loans Pty Ltd provide a loan calculator, so students can get an idea of the cost. However, the default settings are for 24 months repayment. Students on low incomes may have difficulty with repayments. Increasing the repayment to the maximum of 48 months considerably increases the interest to be paid.

Student Loans Pty Ltd is currently offering loans for courses at 38 education partners. Most of the partners are Registered Training Organizations, offering courses also available at other commercial RTOs and government TAFEs. As an example "Academy of Makeup" offers the  a Diploma of Screen and Media-Specialist Makeup Services (CUA51015). Other providers, such as General Assembly and The Plato Project, appear to be offering courses outside the RTO system.

By focusing on a small range of providers and carefully monitoring student progress, Study Loans Pty Ltd may be able to improve on the success rate of the government loans system, proving a better result for both the students and the company. However, there may be some downsides to the Study Loans Pty Ltd approach, in terms of cost and recognition of qualifications.

Government TAFEs generally charge lower fees than commercial VET providers for the same nationally standardized qualification. As an example, Academy of Makeup's Diploma of Screen and Media-Specialist Makeup Services (CUA51015) is $11,900. The same standardized qualification is $4,060 at TAFE NSW: just over one third the commercial provider's fee. Of course, the student may consider the extra cost for a commercial provider worthwhile, if it provides a superior education (or the student can't get into TAFE).

Student Loans Pty Ltd also partners outside the RTO system. Students may prefer a provider who offers something different to the homogenized, standardized VET programs. But the students may find their qualifications not recognized by industry, or by educational institutions.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Lessons from Victorian Government's Failed Ultranet Learning Platform

In 2006 Victoria announced the development of an online learning system "Ultranet" for all government schools. The project was abandoned in 2013, at a cost estimated to be $127M to $240M. In 2017 the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission of Victoria found corrupt conduct by pubic servants in the acquisition of Ultranet.

There are more than 150 scholarly works which mention the Ultranet project. About 100 of these, before 2013, are generally positive. Understandably, after the failure of the project in 2013, the tone of the later 50 or so papers becomes negative.

McShane and Dearman (2016) provide a brief overview of the project and suggest that in addition to design and usability flaws, the project assumed an unrealistic level of digital literacy and connectivity for both parents and teachers. Fitzgerald's thesis (2017) looks specifically at stakeholder engagement, finding teachers considered it a politically-imposed change. Interestingly, Fitzgerald found support for the idea of Ultranet from parents, but the poor implementation limited their involvement.

The history of Ultranet should be required reading for all those contemplating large scale IT based education initiatives.