Monday, August 12, 2013

Academia isn’t Limited to 26 Weeks a Year

In "Academia can’t be limited to 26 weeks" (Australian Financial Review, 27-May-2013),
Alan Tudge MP, Chairman of the Coalition’s Online Higher Education Working Group, argues that academia could be more efficient. He suggests universities could:
  1. Offer more than 26 weeks of tuition, perhaps the 40 weeks of schools,
  2. Use more online materials for greater flexibility,
  3. Offer credentials based on what is learnt, rather than time elapsed.
As well as being more convenient and cheaper for domestic students, Mr Tudge suggests this would appeal to international students. However, Mr Tudge doesn't mention that a major part of Australia's Higher Education sector already does all these things.

The Australian vocational education sector has flexible on-line courses and skills based assessment. Unfortunately Australian governments have failed to value the contribution TAFEs and probate training providers make and have tended to reward innovation by cutting funding. Also the Federal Parliament failed to put in place adequate protection for international vocational students, resulting in their exploration and then collapse of this expert industry. Having seen this, it would not be surprising if university academics were reluctant to follow the vocational sector reforms too closely and risk the same government mismanagement.

Many of Australia's universities already offer short intensive courses and other programs  during the semester breaks. Some also offer on-line courses, or whole on-line programs.

As an example, recently I completed a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. As a part time student undertaking one course at a time, this would normally take two years. However, I completed it in just over one year, by taking courses in break sessions as well as during semesters. Two of the four courses were purely on-line and two blended classroom/on-line (at two different universities). At the same time I was enrolled at a vocational institution to learn vocational education and  received a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment. We are likely to see this approach of multiple institutions and forms of education being the norm for students.

Higher educational institutions in Australia offer a range of education delivered in different ways at different times. Some already implement the techniques advocated by Mr Tudge. As an example I teach an entirely on-line course at the Australian National University, with no prerequisites, no lectures and no examinations. This course (ICT Sustainability) is very popular with the students. But many students undertake face-to-face on-campus courses as well. The students like the option to be able to mix and match forms of education.

In my submission to the NBN Inquiry  ("Broadband for a Broad Land"), I suggested there was scope for savings and efficiency in education through on-line services. This would require cooperation between university and vocational institutions. This might require action from government to force cooperation, through funding mechanisms.

Before suggesting efficiency for other institutions, perhaps members of the Australian House of Representatives need to put their own house in order. The Parliament has sat for an average of only 13 weeks a year, half the university teaching period. MPs do other work when Parliament is not sitting, but even so they might like to consider some use of technology to make their processes more efficient.

I proposed to the 1998 Constitutional Convention that the number of MPs be halved and half the sitting days be on-line, not face-to-face in Canberra. In this way MPs could be in their electorate for longer, addressing constitute matters face-to-face, while in touch with their fellow members on-line. This is much as education is done now (a few months ago I was at an education conference in Colombo, while teaching a class in Canberra). Whoever makes up the next federal government might like to consider options for trimming down the legislative arm of government, while also trimming the executive arm.

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