Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Data Science Ranking Universities

In "Data science can fix ranking briar patch" (The Australian, 14 March 2018), Tim Dodd suggests that data science could be used to rank universities, but this has been done for years with the "Ranking Web of Universities".  Their methodology emphasizes the quality and quantity of information universities provide online (which I think is a good thing). This produces slightly different rankings for Australian universities, to measures emphasizing research output behind pay-walls.

For its top ten Australian institutions the QS World University Rankings has: ANU, Melbourne, UNSW, Queensland, Sydney, Monash, UWA, Adelaide, UTS and Newcastle. On the Ranking Web of Universities, ANU slips from first to fifth place, while UTS and Newcastle displace Curtin, and Macquarie in the bottom two places.

Australian Web rankingWorld Web Ranksort descendingUniversityQS Australian Rank Presence Rank*Impact Rank*Openness Rank*Excellence Rank*
University of Melbourne2
University of New South Wales3
University of Queensland4
University of Sydney5
Australian National University1
Monash University6
University of Adelaide8
University of Western Australia7
Curtin University of Technology15
Macquarie University12

Monday, March 19, 2018

Educating the Future Workforce

The Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers has invited submissions on the impact of technological change. Here are some thoughts on the subject of how well the education system suits the need for a more flexible workforce.

Australia needs an education system which is short sharp and mobile.

The Australian education system already allows for work-ready learning across schools, VET and university. Some minor adjustments are needed to make the system more flexible:

1. Strengthen the VET system and have it blended with secondary schooling at the lower end and university at the upper end. Students should be able to complete a VET qualification at secondary school, go on to further study in the VET system (while working part-time) and then to university.

2. Make the university system more flexible: Encourage universities to offer nested, standardized programs which offer sub-degree entry and exit points. Students should be able to start with a sub-degree program and then continue their studies for a degree. Most university courses are already blended, but government policy and university practice needs to recognize that most university students now, in effect, studying on-line so they can work at the same time.

Teachers computing skills should be developed as part of their normal formal education, not some ad-hoc bolt-on program. Teachers teaching computing should be fully, formally, dual qualified in computing and teaching. Australia already has better systems for doing this than the UK.

Students should be encouraged to undertake STEM subjects at school, through subjects which address real world issues of concern to students and having computer professional role models who students can identify with. This requires, for example, project based work addressing issues such as climate change.

Innovation and hacking competitions can help make make STEM look exciting for students. 

Rather than focusing on traditional campus based htree years university degrees, I suggest policy should prioritize on-line, nested, programs which offer sub-degree entry and exit points, with the flexibility to study off-campus.

Soft skills can be addressed in specific university courses and in project work. Soft skills figure prominently in the ANU's "TechLauncher" programs of groups project work, which I help teach. 

Techlauncher students undertake team building exercises and have mentors, tutors and clients with industry experience. Some of this looks like fun, where students play with Lego, but there is also a lot of hard work on team and client relationship skills. E-portfolios can also be used.

In addition, we need teachers in schools, VET and university, who have training and formal qualifications in how to teach these skills. This is particularly a problem in universities where academic staff have higher research degrees, but minimal teacher training. Academics need formal teaching qualifications.

Diversity can be improved by offering STEM subjects which address real world issues of concern to students and having computer professional role models who students can identify with. This requires, for example, female computing teachers.

As well as students fresh out of school, the same techniques can be used for re-skilling adults. On-line and blended learning, incorporating recognition of prior learning (RPL) and recognition of concurrent learning (RCL) are particularly useful. E-portfolios can be used for ensuring skills standards are met. Australia's VET system was set up with this need in mind.

For more on this, see my book  "Digital Teaching In Higher Education:  Designing E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment".

Disclaimer: Tom Worthington is a computer professional, who advises on using technology for teaching and also does some part time teaching of computing at tertiary institutions. While an Honorary Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at the Australian National University and a member of the Professional Education Governance Committee of the Australian Computer Society, his views do not necessarily reflect those of either organization.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Female Students More Engaged On-line

Pye, Holt and Salzman (2018) found that female university students were significantly more engaged by on-line education than males at Australia's Deakin University. This seems counterintuitive, with males normally thought to prefer using a computer. So it might be useful to offer on-line courses in STEM disciplines which have difficulty attracting females, such as computing.
"... gender differences were identified, with females indicating overall higher perceived levels of online engagement across all constructs, with significant differences in the dimensions of assessment, relevance and contact with staff. ...

While females were seen as more disadvantaged than males at the beginning of modern ICT developments in relation to access and technical skills, this no longer seems the case, and at least some evidence sees the advantage swinging towards females in current technology-enabled environments. "

From Pye, Holt and Salzman (2018).


Pye, G., Holt, D., & Salzman, S. (2018). Investigating different patterns of student engagement with blended learning environments in Australian business education: Implications for design and practice. Australasian Journal of Information Systems, 22. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3127/ajis.v22i0.1578

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Australia hidden largest university

In "Australia doesn’t have too many universities. Here’s why" (The Conversation, 15 March 2018), , Adjunct professor, RMIT University, compares enrollments of Australia, Canadian and UK universities. He concludes that the average Australian university has twice as many students as the UK and triple Canada. However, the distribution of students amongst students at Australian universities differs from Canada and the UK, and our largest institution does not appear in the lists.

Australia has an almost even spread of small, medium and large universities. Canada has many more small institutions and a few very large ones. The University of Toronto is about 50% larger than the next largest. The UK statistics are dominated by the Open University UK (OUUK). 

The closest Australian equivalent to the OUUK is Open Universities Australia (OUA). The students in the OUA consortium are usually hidden in the statistics of the member universities. If counted as a university, OUA would rival Melbourne as the largest in Australia.

As Gavin Moodie writes, a university with less than 10,000 students would have difficulty providing the range of teaching and research required. However, OUA provides an alternative model. Australia doesn't have to make a choice between small and large universities. Universities can cooperate to make better use of shared resources, while retaining an identity, local presence and brand.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Powering our electricity grid with energy storage

Dr Lachlan Blackhall, will present "A vision for powering our electricity grid with energy storage" at the Australian National University, 12.30pm, 15 March 2018.

Dr Blackhall is co-founder of Reposit Power and, I suggest, Australia's answer to Elon Musk. He has worked on areas as diverse as e-learning tools (2011) and an ion drive for spacecraft (2007).


Blackhall, L. (2011). Educational content authoring tools. A report for written for the College of Engineering and Computer Science, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs, 3, 3. 

Blackhall, L., & Khachan, J. (2007). A simple electric thruster based on ion charge exchange. Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, 40(8), 2491.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Decreasing Campus Energy Use With Flexible Classrooms and e-Learning

The Australian National University is preparing an Energy Master Plan. The aim is "... to create an Australian world class energy efficient, low-carbon, least-cost campus ...". One target in the existing ANU Environmental Management Plan 2017-2021 is to "Reduce energy use per person by 20 per cent by 2021". New forms of education can help, by using the buildings more efficiently and moving some education online. I suggest these techniques can be used to reduce energy use per person. In particular, teaching staff can be trained to teach in flexible and online mods. Also, a system can be used for students to book a seat.

Use Classrooms More Intensively

One way to reduce energy use per person is by increasing the intensity of use of the buildings. Empty rooms use almost as much energy as full ones, so the more use of each room in each building, the lower per person energy use.

ANU Union Court Redevelopment
New ANU Buildings
(artists' impression).
One way to increase the use of classrooms is to make them more flexible. The ANU Union Court redevelopment is a prime example of this. Two new buildings will allow forms of education beyond conventional lectures and tutorials.

ANU Culture and Events Building
The ANU Culture and Events Building will have rooms with retractable seating. At the press of a button, the room can be changed from a flat floor for a conference, to theater format, with tiered seating for a lecture.

ANU Collaborative Learning Building
The ANU Collaborative Learning Building will have flat floor rooms with movable furniture and walls. This enables the same space to be used for different size and format classes. Walls can be folded back for a large class or moved in form more smaller ones. Desks can be in straight rows for a more conventional eyes-front classroom, or in circles for a more collaborative approach.

Flat floor classrooms are conventionally used for small groups of up to a few dozen students. However, with technology and new teaching techniques, such rooms can accommodate hundreds of students. 

Training to help make use of classrooms

A flat floor large classroom at ANU, with large mobile LCD screens used to relay presentation to the back of the room.Training can help make flexible classrooms more efficient, in terms of teaching and energy use. Academics familiar only with conventional lectures and tutorials will tend to use the new flexible teaching spaces only for old fixed teaching formats. To use the rooms flexibly requires the staff to be training in flexible formats.

As an example, an instructor used to conventional lecture driven teaching will find the idea of hundreds of students in a room working in teams a recipe for chaos. The instructor needs to be taken through the theory and practice of how this works, and ideally act as an assistant in such a class before being required to be the lead instructor.

 The ANU TechLauncher events for Team Formation and Bootcamp run in the ANU's large flat floor teaching rooms, at 7-11 Barry Drive, have demonstrated that group exercises with 300 students can work. By introducing academics to these techniques, they will be more confident to use them in courses.

Use e-Learning to Supplement Campus

E-learning can also be used to increase the intensity of campus use. Most courses at Australian universities are now, to some extent, "blended", with part of the tuition on-line. However, to make the best use of the technology course designers and instructors need to be trained in on-line techniques.

Academics who have only training and experience in face-to-face lectures and tutorials will tend to continue to rely on those techniques and be reluctant to try e-learning. There will be concern the students will not do the work, or will cheat, which can be the case if materials are not well designed and trained staff are not available to run on-line courses.

As an example, the ANU course COMP7310 "ICT Sustainability" is run entirely on-line, with no lectures and no examinations. This course runs alongside ANU's face-to-face courses, with the same status and meeting the same quality standards. However, design of this award winning course required the assistance of specialist e-leaning professionals. It also helped to have undertaken graduate education training at ANU and other institutions, focused on in e-learning.

With the appropriate level of training it is feasible to aim for the typical university program to be a 20/80 blend: 20% in a formal classroom setting and 80% on-line outside the classroom. An example of this approach is the ANU Techlauncher program, where students undertake a group project building software for a real client, in government or industry. Students are expected to undertake 10 hours of study per week, but are only required to attend a 2 hour formal session in a typical week.

Ideally students should be on campus no more than the equivalent of one day a week. Students should be out in the real world learning and practicing their skills.

Double University Per Person Intensity of Use

Less than half of students attend a typical university class. A survey at ANU found "... attendance declines over semester to around 30% of original signup ...". This is not confined to ANU and is not a new feature of universities. However, universities still tend to allocate teaching space based on the number of students enrolled in the class at the beginning of semester. As a result the classrooms tend to be less than half full after the first few weeks. This is a waste of space and also a waste of energy needed to maintain these spaces.

One way to engage students, and thus attract them to class, is with group activities, as is done with ANU Techlauncher. This ensures almost full attendance at interactive group activities. Blends of on-line and face to face activities (so called flipped classrooms) can keep students coming to class. However, not all students need to attend every class and many classes will have one third to one half attendance. This can be incorporated into space use planning.

Students can be given the opportunity to book a seat in class a few days in advance. Classrooms can then be allocated, making use of different size rooms and flexible walls and formats, to suit. A reasonable aim would be to double the intensity of use of classrooms, thus halving the per person energy use.

Reduce Staff Campus Use

Persons use of the campus includes staff as well as students. Most teaching undertaken at a university is not by full time, permanent academics, but by graduate students and part time staff from industry. E-learning is a particularly useful way to make use of part time staff skills. Industry professionals can teach students without having to leave their workplace. Researchers in the field can teach students. However, this will require the staff to be trained in techniques for e-learning. The ideal way to conduct this training is on-line.

More on:
  1. Classroom design 
  2. Digital Teaching 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Boost Unis by Teaching Academics to Teach

Professor Jenny Stewart
In "Whatever happened to the 'world's best job'?" (Canberra Times, 6 March 2017), Professor Jenny Stewart suggests "... governments should stop trying to substitute regulation for support, and acknowledge that the current system has been squeezed dry ...". However, I suggest changes in higher education are just starting and are not coming from the government, but the wider world. Academics need to skill-up to survive in this new world and in particular need to become qualified educators.

Academics have considerable freedom to develop their style of teaching. However, with this freedom comes the responsibility to become competent educators. Academics unwilling to learn to teach have only themselves to blame if other staff have to be brought in to oversee their work.

Australia does not have a mass system of higher education, with standardized curricula and courses for hundreds of thousands of students. Instead Australian universities provide for small cohorts of students. However, Australian academics can adopt some of the techniques from mass education, to improve quality and free up resources address individual student needs.

Universities don't need to operate like schools. However, academics do need to act more like school teachers in one respect: become trained, qualified teachers. Learning to teach requires hundreds of hours of study, practice and testing. Like any professional, teachers need to top up their skills every year with professional development, for their entire career.

Australia's universities were not established for pure research. From the founding of Australia's first university, the aim was to provide education, alongside research. A few students will go on to advanced studies and become academics themselves. However, the majority of students are destined for careers outside academia, and so this is where university education must focus. Universities must therefore cater for students with a wide range of abilities.

Australian universities are self-credentialing, but are not without external scrutiny. The professions accredit university degrees and so provide a level of national and international review. This external review has provided a competitive advantage for Australian universities and is helping fuel the current boom in international enrollments.

Many academics do work very hard at their teaching, but as General Patton might have said:
"The job of a teacher is not to work very hard, it is to make their students work very hard".
Many academics spend long hours writing detailed notes on essays. Unfortunately, education research shows that writing detailed notes on essays is at best ineffective, and may demoralize students. Teachers are trained in alternative techniques to provide feedback in smaller chunks, which students can accept and act on and which will motivate the student.

Academics spend long hours in class, frustrated by the lack of attendance and lack of interest shown by students. Here again, research shows there are techniques which can increase student engagement, without increasing staff workload. Teachers are trained in how to get and keep the student's attention and have them learning.
Unfortunately, some academics do not accept they are "teachers", and so continue to use techniques which research shows are not effective for student learning.

It is not just coursework where academics "teach". Supervision of research students for doctoral degrees is also a form of teaching. This is another area where academics waste their time, and hinder the development of their students, with inadequate practice.

None of this is to say that academics have to spend years in class learning to teach. Instead they can undertake basic teacher training as part of their graduate studies. The equivalent of a certificate in teaching could be provided as part of graduate degrees. This would provide the early career academic with the equivalent teacher training to a Vocational Education and Training (VET) teacher. Early career academics could then undertake a graduate program in education part-time, primarily on-line.

It should be kept in mind that most university teaching is not undertaken by full-time, tenured academics. Most teaching is by graduate students, part-time staff, adjuncts from industry and others on short term contracts. This is not a deficiency of the system, but a strength. Students have more empathy when teaching other students and visitors from industry bring a depth of real-world experience. However, these staff also need training in teaching, which is delivered in a way that it is seen as a benefit to the part time teachers, not a burden. In particular, the training provided needs to lead to a formal qualification.

Unlike commercial enterprises, universities are still run collegiately by the staff. University Vice Chancellors have limited power to make academic staff take their teaching role seriously. It is up to academics themselves to decide to skill-up and become professional educators. This would be preferable to government intervention requiring set educational qualifications for academics.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Whistle Pedagogy for the Large Flat Floor Classroom

A few weeks ago I was helping out in one of the Australian National University's large flat floor teaching spaces. There were more than three hundred students and it was difficult at times to get their attention. The students would be come very engaged in their small group activities, which is good, but it was difficult to return their focus to the instructor, for the next exercise. So for the next workshop, which was to be a whole day, I purchased a $2.50 coach's whistle, on a bright yellow lanyard.

The whistle turned out to be very useful, both to get student's attention, and to mark out who the instructor was. In the following two weeks the whistle has been used at several events, including the Canberra Innovation Network's First Wednesday pitches and ACT Government energy workshop.

The only scholarly work I could find addressing the use of a whistle in the modern classroom was for law students in the SCALE-UP classroom: Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (Burke, p. 200, 2015):
"If the room is large, a wireless microphone is desirable because this type of learning space can become noisy. A low-tech option that this professor has used is the classic whistle."
However, I found in practice, even with a good quality public address system it is difficult to get the attention of 300 students. Playing tune from smart phone via the PA system did not work either: the echo noise cancellation function of the PA system filtered the music out.


Debra D. Burke (2015) Scale-Up! Classroom design and use can facilitate learning, The Law Teacher, 49:2, 189-205, URL https://doi.org/10.1080/03069400.2015.1014180

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Unis Already Together with TAFE

In "Unis should get together with TAFEs as a way of being more efficient says minister" (Robert Bolton, AFR, 25 February 2018), federal education minister, Simon Birmingham, is reported to have suggested universities share teachers and buildings with TAFEs. This is not as radical, or new, idea as it first sounds.

A search of the national register shows that nineteen universities, out of forty three, are also Registered Training Organizations (RTOs). These universities are able to deliver the same vocational training programs as TAFEs. Other universities are either dual registered as TAFEs, or have an arrangement with a TAFE, or a commercial RTO.

Universities also run short courses for industry. In Canberra I have helped teach such courses for government agencies. These courses are not vocationally registered (although I use vocational techniques teaching them).

The Minister is addressing the wrong area, by pointing out capital tied up in university buildings. There is little scope for more efficient use of university buildings. Most of the existing lecture theaters and small tutorial rooms at universities are rapidly becoming stranded assets, as teaching becomes blended and on-line. Conventional lecture theaters are not flexible enough for modern learning techniques and tutorial rooms are too small for large scale interactive workshops.

TAFEs will have not use for the obsolete teaching buildings at universities. ANU demolished its central lecture theater complex last year and is replacing this with flexible facilities. These facilities will be in demand for university teaching year-round.

Higher Education in Australia, both at universities and the vocational sector, is now conducted on-line more than in the classroom. The significant cost is in course design and trained staff, especially on-line course design and staff trained to teach on-line. It is here that savings could be made, particularly with the vocational sector lending their expertise in carefully scaffolded teaching to the universities, which have emphasized research skills for their staff.

Universities Trashing Their Reputations with Glib Marketing

Recently I received an e-mail with the intriguing title of "eBook: 3 Australian Universities share the secret to online learning success". I was offered a "full eBook", but was disappointed to instead get just a thirteen page pamphlet, plugging a commercial conference. The three Australian universities lending their name to promotion have a track record of excellence in on-line education, but you wouldn't know it from this booklet. Instead you would think the institutions were only concerned with shallow short term feel good marketing to students. I suggest universities should avoid trashing the reputations they have built up over decades with glib marketing exercises.