Thursday, January 29, 2015

Avoiding Adjunct Hell

Brandy Robinson writes about "Adjunct Hell: Getting Unstuck"(facultyclub, 2015). "Adjunct hell" has a good description of the problems of being a part time university teacher. But I am not so sure of the solutions offered. The obvious one not mentioned is "don't do it". Universities produce far more graduates than there are academic jobs for. Adjuncts will always have a status (and pay) about the same as the people who pack shelves at supermarkets during the middle of the night. Two methods I found to cope with being an adjunct are to get yourself trained in how to teach (even if you have to pay for the training yourself) and teach whole courses, not bits of courses other people are running.

One tendency I have noticed with full time tenured staff, as well as adjuncts, is to complain about not having time for teaching, while engaging in unproductive approaches to it. An example is providing voluminous comments when marking assignments. There is plenty of research to show students don't read these comments (the longer the comments, the less they read). It is a particularly pointless activities with a final assessment item. I suspect that this is done for the ego of the teacher, not the education of the student: so they can get in the last word.

A professional teacher has an obligation to teach within the resource constraints set for them. If only 30 minutes is allocated per assessment item, a teacher who spends an hour on each is not doing their institution, or the student a favor, they are wasting everyone's time and acting unprofessionally. If the teaching activity can't be done within the resources, then redesign it. If it still can't be done then ask for more resources. If the resources are not provided, then don't "make do" and end up doing a bad job, do something else instead which is feasible (or don't teach the course at all).

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

University costs are a symptom not the problem

In "Stop the uni cost disease" (Online Opinion, 22 January 2015), Steven Schwartz, former VC of Macquarie University, says "Modern technology ... has had little influence on teaching and learning". He claims that lectures "remain ubiquitous". Perhaps that was the case at  Macquarie, but is not everywhere.

I gave up giving lectures in 2009 and have been teaching primarily on-line since then. I teach with a Learning Management System, to communicate with students and for them to collaborate with each other on-line. This does not require much bandwidth or computing power, but what it does need is a deep understanding of learning.

Steven Schwartz is wrong to claim "It takes the same amount of time to deliver a one-hour lecture as it did in the 19th century.". Research shows students can't pay attention for an hour, so recorded video lectures are generally much shorter than an hour (seven to twenty minutes). Students are encouraged to work actively, to cerement the knowledge.

As Steven Schwartz suggests there is a risk of uni­versities being distracted by seeking income. But my impression is that Australian universities understand they are there primarily to research and teach.

It is possible to produce distance eduction courses (as has been done for decades) with less staff time for deliver, but they are a different experience for the student.

As Steven Schwartz says students rank the UK Open University (OU) very highly, but this caters to a different market and provides a different experience to campus based institutions. Also OU was doing this before the Internet and its success does not depend on digital technology, but on careful design of distance education. Without administrators and academics trained in how to do it, this form of education does not work.

Online learning will replace most face-to-face teaching (about 80% within five years). But this will require significant resources for universities to accomplish. It would be a mistake to see this as a way to cross-subsidize small group learning and study abroad.

Australian universities need to learn to teach primarily on-line or most of their Australian and international students will be lost to overseas institutions, within five years.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Energy Storage for the Grid and Cost Based Discovery

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where Professor Donald Sadoway (MIT) is speaking on"Innovation in Stationary Electricity Storage". He started by saying the subtext for his talk was "Cost Based Discovery": researches have to consider the implementation cost of what they are investigation, they can't just pass it on to industry and hope it will be affordable. Also Professor Sadoway criticized his colleagues at MIT who are producing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which he said were not helping with basic education in developing nations, as the typical MOOC student is a western university graduate (and only 5% finish the courses anyway). Professor Sadoway also pointed out that an online course is of no use in parts of Africa where there is no electricity supply. This was the segue into the topic of low cost high capacity batteries to make renewable energy sources feasable for baseload.

Professor Sadoway described his investigation of possible battery chemical processes, looking at what are low cost materials which would be inexpensive to process. You can read some of his research work in Bradwell, Kim, Sirk, & Sadoway (2012) and Kim et al. (2012). But the presentation was more about how to research to produce a a cost effective result. This is a message which Australian university researchers need to list to: they can be academically rigorous and also produce something of use to the community (and will make money).

Professor Sadoway claimed 70% efficiency for a liquid metal battery, which is comparable to pumped hydroelectric storage (the only form of electricity storage in common use). He argued that while a tub of hot liquid metal sounds dangerous he pointed out that a leak in the containment vessel will be self sealing (as the metal cools, it hardens).

One possible early application Professor Sadoway mentioned for liquid metal batteries was powering forward military bases. Solar panels are not sufficient on their own, and while you can package them with diesel generators, but fuel transport is still an issue. Professor Sadoway argued that a liquid metal battery could be easily transported, as it is solid when cold and would be resistant to small arms fire (and also silent).

While currently being shipping container sized and intended for stationary use, the liquid metal batteries already have an energy density similar to lead acid batteries and improving. So I asked Professor Sadoway is his batteries would work in a submarine. He said this had been discussed with the Pentagon and there were no particular problems. This could be of interest to Australia, which is considering lithium iron battery submarines with Japanese technology for the Collins class submarine replacement in Project SEA 1000.

Professor Sadoway then mentioned that he teaches first year chemistry. He mentioned the lectures are videoed and that Bill Gates watched and came to visit. This indicates that understand what MOOCs are really for: self promotion. ;-)


Bradwell, D. J., Kim, H., Sirk, A. H., & Sadoway, D. R. (2012). Magnesium–Antimony Liquid Metal Battery for Stationary Energy Storage. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 134(4), 1895-1897.
Kim, H., Boysen, D. A., Newhouse, J. M., Spatocco, B. L., Chung, B., Burke, P. J., ... & Sadoway, D. R. (2012). Liquid metal batteries: Past, present, and future. Chemical reviews, 113(3), 2075-2099.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Transforming Sydney into a world EdTeh hub by 2020

The SydEduTech group has issued a Draft Strategy Framework for Sydney EdTech Hub 2020, with the aim to "transform Sydney a leading EdTech Hub by 2020". This is an ambitious goal for an ad-hoc volunteer group, especially given that 2020 is only five years away. But Sydney has some natural advantages, being one of the most livable cities in the world, in Australia's most economically vibrant region and having a number of major universities and Google's Australian Headquarters.

SydEduTech has invited the community to:
  1. Review the draft strategy framework 
  2. Comment to Facebook, directly or link blogs to there.
  3. Attend a SydEduTech “strategy reset” meeting, 6pm, 3 February 2015.
Three questions asked are:
  1. What are the major trends predicted for EdTech for the next 5 years?
  2. What are the outcomes that need to be achieved for Sydney to be recognized as a global EdTech hub?
  3. What are the challenges/strategic investments that we need to do as a group to achieve this goal and how would you approach them?
My answers:
  1. What are the major trends predicted for EdTech for the next 5 years? Interest in MOOCs will gradually transform into demand for courses which ordinary students actually complete, have a viable business model and provide credible credentials. Within five years on-line education will become the norm, with the upper secondary, vocational and university student spending about 80% of their time on-line.
  2. What are the outcomes that need to be achieved for Sydney to be recognized as a global EdTech hub? Sydney needs to build on its strengths as a good place to live and popular destination for international students. An area which Sydney could work on is training and qualifications for ICT professionals and educators in EdTech. As well as skilling up the thousands of local educational designers and on-line teachers required, training and qualification packages could be marketed to the world.
  3. What are the challenges/strategic investments that we need to do as a group to achieve this goal and how would you approach them? The Australian and state governments, along with higher education providers need to be convinced that the golden age of international students coming to Australia for face-to-face courses is about to end.  Existing educational institutions need to be convinced that there is benefit in cooperation, rather than competition, to retool for on-line education, while they are still in business. One way to do this would be for the NSW government to emulate the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN),which has the major universities as members.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Universities maintain public responsibility and social purpose

In "Universities are losing their sense of public responsibility and social purpose" (The Guardian, 6 January 2015), Professor Peter Scott writes "... we seem to be increasingly losing our sense of public responsibility and wider social purpose ...". He may feel that his institution, University College London (UCL), is losing its sense of public responsibility, but he does not necessarily speak for other academics.

Professor Scott seems to be attributing this perceived loss of public responsibility to the need for not-for-profit universities to compete with for-profit institutions. However, universities have been competing with each other, and with other for-profit educational and research organizations, for hundreds of years.

Universities can't avoid being "entrepreneurial", as they are in the business of organizing and operating educational and research activities. Unless Professor Scott is proposing that education and research should only be carried out by independently wealthy individuals, then someone, somehow has to pay for these activities. Education and research can be paid for by the state, by public donations, by students, by licensing intellectual property, or more likely, by a mix of these. Someone, somehow has to decide which institutions get how much money. This can be decided by fiat, through some rule based process (by a bureaucracy), through market forces, or more likely a mix of these.

If Professor Scott doesn't like the way his university is run, then as a professor he has the opportunity to seek to have his institution change its ways. A university with less bureaucracy, an emphasis on education for broad social benefit and long term society benefit certainly sounds attractive. Perhaps Professor Scott needs to look to what other institutions, in other countries are doing. He will find there are universities which look to long term social benefit and try to minimize bureaucracy.

UCL is contributing to new and interesting educational initiatives. One of these is  UCL Australia, which shares a building in Adelaide with  Carnegie Mellon University Australia and Torrens University Australia (part of Laureate International Universities). Australian rules for the registration of universities makes it difficult to establish a flexible on-line institution. UCL, CMU and Laureate appear to have found a way through these regulations, which will hopefully be to the benefit of Australian higher education.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Compulsory Attendance at University Lectures and Tutorials

There appears to be a requirement for many Australian educational instutions for students to attend at least 80% of classes. A search on "attend at least 80%" produces 35,000 web pages at Australian educational institutions. Some of these refer to "scheduled contact hours", some just to "tutorials" and some to lectures and tutorials. This 80% rule appears to be derived from the English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS) government rules, even though providers are not required to monitor attendance for higher education courses.

In my view, requiring attended is not a good idea, as not assessing what the student can do (apart from the ability to turn up). If there is a low attendance rate at classes, then the university needs to address the reason for that. It may be the students do not perceive any value in the classes (and there may be little value).

If an institution does have a rule requiring a minimum level of attendance, then it must put in place a system to record attendance and check it. If an institution has such a rule then it would be unfair (and most likely unlawful) to arbitrarily apply it to some students and not others. If the intention is that students with good marks are not required to attend class, then the rule needs to be rewritten to say that.

A better alternative is to conduct some form of assessment in the class, or which depends on the class, so students will at least see that if they don;t attend, they will not pass.

In my "ICT Sustainability" course students are assessed on their answers to questions in the on-line forums for about 20% of the overall assessment.

In the ACS version of the course students are required to pass this part of the assessment to pass the course overall. So students have to participate in at least half the forums to be able to pass the course. The ANU doesn't impose this requirement in their version of the course, but students still participate at about the same rate.

In practice no more than about 10% of the students miss a forum (very few miss more than one forum). Each student gets a report on the class average mark and their own mark each week, along with feedback. I suspect is not the loss of marks so much as the regular reminders to participate and also seeing what their peers are doing which encourages participation.

But the requirement to participate in every forum can be a burden for the student and the teacher (I have to consider requests for exemptions from students who miss a week). So this year for the ANU version of the course I am changing the assessment to the best 10 out of 12 weeks. The idea is that the student can miss two weeks without worrying too much.

Graduate programs in e-learning

Tony Bates' recommended graduate programs in e-learning includes masters and PHD programs. this includes masters from the University of British Columbia, University of Edinburgh, University of Hull, Athabasca University, Open University, UK.
University of British Columbia, Canada: Masters in Educational Technology (fully online). Interestingly, as part of a project on one of the courses in the UBC MET program, four students have produced an up-to-date (2010) list of Canadian competitors to the MET program, with a comparative chart, some of which are NOT included in the list below, because I am not familiar myself with the programs.
Royal Roads University, Victoria, BC offers a Master in Learning and technology (hybrid model)
University of Edinburgh, UK: M.Sc. in e-learning
University of Hull, UK: M.Ed in E-learning
University of Colorado at Denver: Masters in e-Learning design and implementation
Pepperdine University: Masters in Educational Technology Online. This program is 85% online, the rest requiring attendance at the Malibu campus, California.
University of Maryland University College/Carl von Ossietzky Universit├Ąt Oldenburg Masters in Distance Education This award-winning program has a technology specialization.
Athabasca University, Canada: Master in Distance Education. This fully distance program has been re-designed in recent years, and now contains a very strong technology component, with excellent faculty
Open University, UK MA in Online and Distance Education Covers the theory and practice of online and distance education; open to students from countries all over the world.
Concordia University Chicago MA in Educational Technology. This is a blended learning program, combining online learning with periodic classroom instruction. Note that this is a completely different university from Concordia University, Montreal
University of Sydney Master of Learning Science & Technology program (MLS&T) is a research-informed program designed and taught by international team of leaders in the learning sciences, offering both Professional and Research streams. The Professional Stream is designed for those who want to advance their careers in e-learning. The Research Stream can act as a bridge for PhD studies and is designed for students who are hoping to pursue a career as an education or learning-sciences researcher. University of Sydney is the oldest and most prestigious of the Australian state universities.
The University of Northern Iowa offers an M.A. in Instructional Technology aimed primarily at k-12 teachers. There is no differential tuition for international students, at just over $400 per unit.
- See more at:

Review of Australian Teacher Training

The Australian newspaper reported today in "Teacher training fails on literacy" (by JUSTINE FERRARI) that the NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards had reported on teacher training courses. However, I could not find a copy of the report on the Board's website. Where is it?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Use of Architecture to Promote University Programs

University Technology Sydney Frank Gehry BuildingThe University of Technology Sydney (UTS) is using its new Frank Gehry designed Dr Chau Chak Wing Building to promote the UTS Business School. This includes an advertisement on the side of a NSW bus. I am nots ure what the architect would make of his work being used in this way, but this is in a long tradition of universities using architecture as part of their branding. The Great Dome of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is used in stylized form by many of MIT's units, such as the Schiller Lab.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Explaining Australia's New Carbon Pricing Scheme to Students

Students at the Australian National University will be studying "ICT Sustainability" (COMP7310) again from February 2015. The students learn to estimate carbon emissions from ICT and then come up with ways to reduce them using ICT.

This year I had the problem of revising the course to take into account changes in Australian greenhouse gas regulations. This turned out not to be as difficult as I had thought. Most of the technical standards for the previous Labor Government's carbon pricing system have been retained by the Collation.

The difference is that rather than organizations paying to emit carbon (with a market to be introduced to set the price), they bid at a reverse auction to remove carbon for the lowest price. So I had to only change a few words about the old scheme and add a sentence on the new one. This is not to say the new scheme will be as effective at reducing emissions, just that in terms of the people doing the accounting and auditing of it (where my students can get jobs), it is not that different.