Friday, October 25, 2013

ANU Can Add On-line Teaching to Nation Building Research

In "Winds of Change Buffett ANU" (The Australian, 23 October 2013 & at ANU), Professor Brian Schmidt proposed the Australian National University (ANU) should have fewer, higher quality students and an emphasis on international research. Instead, I suggest ANU expand its teaching on-line, opening courses to a wider range of students from diverse backgrounds, while maintaining standards and furthering research. ANU should aim to expand to 100,00 students, with one quarter on-campus and the rest on-line. ANU would then be able to compete on equal terms with other institutions for grants and students. I will be discussing this in my address to the Australian Computer Society Canberra Branch, on 12 November 2013.

ANU's Special Role In Nation Building

Professor Schmidt points out that Australian universities subsidize research from student fees, something ANU is less able to do due to its small size. He proposes additional government research grants to correct this. Instead, I suggest ANU can expand its teaching on-line, while retaining its small campus character and research focus. ANU can expand on-line course offerings rapidly, as it already has the technical infrastructure for e-learning in place. ANU can use its research reputation to market on-line courses internationally. ANU also has the advantage of not being impeded by the large investment in satellite campuses of other universities, which have been rendered obsolete by the Internet.

Professor Schmidt points out the ANU was created to engage in research at the highest international levels. The ANU was founded in 1946, by an Act of the Australian parliament, with a charter to:
"To encourage, and provide facilities for, post-graduate research and study, both generally and in relation to subjects of national importance to Australia." (Australian National University Act, NO. 22, Parliament of Australia, 1946).
As detailed in Milton Cameron's book "Experiments in Modern Living" (ANU ePress, 2012), the ANU was established with the active involvement of the most senior levels of government, specifically to further the government, defence, industry and society of Australia.

ANU has continued to carry out its nation building role. From the mid 1990s, the ANU assisted with training, technical infrastructure and policy, to establish the use of the Internet in Australia and national policy.

The ANU can continue to fulfill the role of acting as a formal and informal source of ideas for the Australian Government. ANU now educates senior military officers in strategic studies. Options for Australia's future defence posture are being discussed in ANU seminars. This includes how to deal with the new bipolar world, between China and the USA, and what weapons systems to invest billions of dollars in.

ANU Can Be a Small University With Many On-line Students

I agree with Professor Schmidt that ANU should not pursue growth at any cost, but the institution can have a relatively small number of students on campus, while serving a much larger student population on-line. Students can include ones with the highest academic qualifications. However, they can also include students who have lesser qualifications, but who would benefit as individuals, or be of benefit to society, through a superior ANU education.

At ANU I teach public servants and staff in major corporations how to reduce energy use by and through IT systems. These students research their corporate systems and make recommendations to management, as part of the course. There is no need to wait years for students to graduate for their research and education to benefit society.

The use of the Internet for teaching is now routine at ANU, with procedures for designer, delivery and assessment on-line and students enrolled around the world. Within five years, this will be the primary way university students will be educated globally. Face-to-face contact at campuses will still be relevant, but will be reserved for important activities, such as talking to people, not sitting passively in lectures absorbing information.

Buildings at Australian universities were designed for teaching in a mode which will soon be obsolete. Some buildings can be retrofitted for new forms of education, but universities which have made a large investment in satellite teaching campuses will find themselves burdened with an expensive drain on resources. The ANU has the advantage of not having a large investment in this soon-to-be obsolete teaching infrastructure.

Professor Schmidt is leading the way at ANU with new forms of on-line education, by hosting one of the first two ANU Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs) at ANU. A single MOOC can have hundreds of thousands of students, several times the ANU's entire current student body.

A reasonable target for ANU would be to have around 25,000 students on the existing campus and another 75,000 on-line students, making for a total student body of about 100,000. While this is five times the current ANU student body (and more than twice that of University of Melbourne), it is still half that of the UK Open University, on a campus three times the area of OU.

The ANU can continue traditional on-campus small group teaching and in on-line extensions of such courses, using the techniques I use for teaching "ICT Sustainability". In addition new techniques can be used for teaching large classes to an equivalent standard.

The ANU students should not be segregated into separate programs based on teaching technique or delivery mode. The current categories of full-time, part-time, on-campus, distance and on-line student should be abolished, along with the distinction between coursework and research students. All students should have the flexibility to choose the delivery mode which suits their current circumstances. All students will require some coursework and all will need to experience at least the fundamentals of research. In addition all students should learn to communicate their results, work in a team and leadership. E-portfolios can be used to allow students to document these professional skills, alongside specific course and thesis work.

ANU Can Continue to Work With World Researchers on Campus and On-line

Professor Schmidt points out that CSIRO's offices are on ANU's doorstep, but they are a lot closer than that. CSIRO's IT researchers have shared a purpose designed building with their ANU counterparts, on the ANU campus. The award-winning Computer Science and Information Technology Building was designed with input from both CSIRO and ANU scientists.

CSIRO researchers teach and supervise ANU students and ANU staff take part in CSRIO research. This relationship extends to government and industry, as it does at every good university (part of the so called "The Cambridge Phenomenon"). Public servants, politicians and business people visit for a seminar, or a chat and discuss what problems they have and as what the future holds. Some of these discussions happen in official meetings, but mostly informally after a seminar, in a café or bar. The university initiated Innovation ACT and the Entry 29 Co-Working space to further this business/industry/academic collaboration.

I will touch on this in my presentation "ICT trends in Education" to the Australian Computer Society in Canberra on 12 November.

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