Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Rolls-Royce Education on a Mini Budget: Using Customised e-Learning Packages

I have been invited to speak in the "The Shape of ICT Education" stream of the ACS Canberra Conference, 23 September 2014 (discounted registration until 22 August). My topic is "Premium Education on a Budget: Online Continuing Professional Development".

The Future of Higher Education in Australia

In his National Press Club Address, Professor Ian Young, Australian National University vice-chancellor, called for higher quality education more diverse for Australian university students (Imagining an Australia built on the brilliance of our people, Ian Young, 30 July 2014). One way I suggest we can do this is to combine pre-packaged online courses with personal tuition. The analogy I first tried to explain this was a "Christmas Pudding" (big flexible lump of customised education [the pudding] with inflexible e-learning components embedded [the shillings in the pudding]). But no one much liked that analogy, so I now propose the Rolls-Royce model of e-Learning.

Rolls-Royce Education on a Mini Budget

The marketers of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars and Mini would like you to think these are two very different British made cars: the Rolls-Royce a hand made luxury vehicle and the Mini a small performance car. However, both are produced by German company Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW). BMW sources designs and components for both cars from its German engineering and production lines, then ships them to the UK for assembly. Both cars have a large range of options for the customer, with an emphasis on hand finishing of the interiors in England for the Rolls-Royce. The Rolls-Royce Ghost is built on the BMW 7 Series F01 Platform. The Mini is built on the BMW 2 Series UKL Platform. These "platforms" are the mechanical underpinnings of the car, on which different body designs can be built.

Engineering Car Platforms

Motor vehicles are very expensive to develop, so car companies, or consortia of companies, design automobile platforms. which have a common underbody, suspension, steering and engine components. Platforms are designed to be flexible, allowing for compact to large cars, with two or four wheel drive and a range of engines and bodies. The platforms are designed for international assembly and prototype cars (called "mules") are rigorously tested in desert to Arctic conditions. Car comapnies then produce a range of size and models of cars based on the one platform, from compact city cars to large four wheel SUVs, from economy to luxury.

Education Platforms

BMW does not hand make the mechanical components for a Rolls-Royce, nor custom design them for the Mini, not because this would cost more, but as it would result in a lower quality, less reliable product. Modern production techniques produce cars which are superior to hand crafted ones, as well as being cheaper. BMW emphasise the English hand crafted interiors of the Rolls-Royce, but underneath there is German engineering for the production like. This same approach, I suggest, could be applied to education.

The ideal education is usually thought of as the Oxbridge model, developed in the city of Oxford, England (not far from where BMW Minis are assembled). Under this model, a don sits in their wood-panelled stone college rooms, patiently teaching a handful of students. Each student gets individual attention from an expert in one specialisation. This ideal suffers from similar problems to hand made cars: quality and efficiency.

While a university don can be an expert in a discipline, they can't be an expert in everything the student needs to learn, nor in how to teach it. An alternative approach is to have course materials designed by multidisciplinary teams, then carefully tested and refined, and then delivered by tutors (much as cars are designed by large teams of engineers and then assembled by factory workers). This approach was used by early university extension courses, specialised Distance Education universities and later evolved into e-learning delivery and later Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

This factory approach to education might seem at odds to the Oxbridge, but dons write books, which others use to teach. Oxford University was a pioneer of university extension courses one hundred years ago and continues that tradition through its Department for Continuing Education, with web based online courses.

The traditional approach to distance education courses and their later online equivalents has been to emulate a traditional university semester long format. Individual teachers are not able to change the content of the courses and students must choose from a limited range of courses. will be able to change a course will is then greatly restricted. This is much like a customer choosing from a limited range of models of car to buy. An alternative used in vocational education is to assemble courses from much smaller modules. The academic can choose the educational modules for their student, much as a car designer will choose from a range of pre-designed components.

Some educational platforms are:

  • Bologna Process and Qualifications Framework of the European Higher Education Area: The "Bologna Process" is a European standardised approach to higher education, followed in Australia. This has three levels of degrees:
    1. Bachelors: 3 to 4 years,
    2. Masters: 1 to 2 years,
    3. Doctorate: 3 to 4 years.
  • Australian Qualifications Framework: The AQF includes the three Bologna levels, but below them has:
    1. Certificate: 6 months
    2. Diploma: 1 year
    But these Australian diplomas and certificates may not be recognised internationally.
  • International Professional Practice Partnership Certification: Under the IP3, national computer societies recognise each others member qualifications. IP3 requires qualifications equivalent to the Bachelors level and references the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA). The Australian Computer Society and Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) are IP3 accredited. As well as initial qualifications, the certification requires ongoing professional development, typically 20 or  30 hours per year.
  • Open Universities Australia: OUA offer degree courses in IT from Australian Universities. This introduces an element of standardisation and limited cross university compatibility. Students can include courses from different institutions. The ACS Virtual College course are available through OUA.

E- learning the production line applied to education

Units of competency

The idea of mass produced education might seem the opposite of quality education, but event the most elite of universities already use mass-produced educational materials: books. Even the most conservative Oxbridge don relies on mass-produced books and papers to help educate their students. They may tell their students which part of which books to read and what to discount, but they do not dismiss all printed work altogether.

This approach of using selected packaged educational materials with customisation could be extended to e-learning courses. This approach is already used for vocational education in Australia, where teachers in Registered Training Organisations choose from about 18,000 nationally standardised "Units of competency" listed in a database, which have been assembled in various combinations to make 1,700 "Qualifications" in 73  "Training packages". Some of the educational material for this is available in . As an example, the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment qualification (TAE40110) has 22 Units of competency (seven core), is part of the Training and Education Training Package. There is a national register of more than 50 training packages which can be used online, or in a classroom for delivering the certificate.


Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been heralded as a way to deliver low cost (or free) quality online education. However, MOOCs have been derived from semester long, lecture based university courses. MOOCs generally provide 12 weeks of course material without any tailoring or tutor input. An alternative approach would have course materials in much smaller modules (between one day and one week of work).

1 comment:

  1. I chose the title "Rolls-Royce Education on a Mini Budget: Online Continuing Professional Development" for a talk to the 2014 ACS Canberra Conference. In this I am using manufacture of high quality cars as a metaphor for education. But I have just noticed there is a "Rolls-Royce North East Training Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) set up to provide skilled workers, which literally provides a Rolls-Royce education. ;-)