Monday, January 30, 2017

Corruption Found in Acquisition of Ultranet e-Learning System

The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission of Victoria has found corrupt conduct by pubic servants in the acquisition of the failed Ultranet online teaching and learning system for all government schools.
"In 2006, the then Premier of Victoria announced a commitment to ‘revolutionise learning’ through the development and implementation of the Ultranet, an online teaching and learning system for all Victorian
government schools. The Ultranet was to be a virtual learning portal through which schools, students and parents could access and deliver curriculum content, student reports and other information.

The Ultranet project was closed down seven years later in 2013. It was described during this investigation as ‘a shambles in every sense of the word’. While the exact cost is unknown, IBAC heard evidence that the Ultranet was likely to have cost somewhere between $127 million and $240 million. ...
The investigation found evidence the tender
process for the Ultranet was improperly influenced and therefore corrupted, through improper relationships that senior departmental officers had ..."

Harvard and MIT free online course popular with teachers

A new report on Harvard and MIT free online courses shows they are popular with teachers at 32% of students (Chuang & Ho, 2016). The rate at which students complete is 5.5%, increasing to 30% for students who say they plan to earn a certificate, 36% for those who get through half  a course and 60% for those who paid for a verified certificate.

These findings are similar to those observed for conventional paper based DE courses half a century ago, more recent on-line course experience and common sense. Not surprisingly, teachers make enthusiastic students and the more a student has invested in a course, in terms of money or time, the more likely they are to complete.

The lesson for course promoters I suggest are:
  1. Target teachers as students, and recruit people from other disciplines to be teachers (and thus students),
  2. Have Students Invest Early: Charging students even a token amount for a course will increase their rate of completion. Alternatively, or in addition, have the students do a significant amount of work early on.


Chuang, I., & Ho, A.  (2016). HarvardX and MITx:  Four Years of Open Online Courses. Retrieved from

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Genevieve Bell at ANU Exploring Australia’s Digital Futures

Dr Genevieve Bell has announced she will be joining us at the Australian National University as a Professor in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, while retaining a role at Intel.

I first came across Dr. Bell, at the Realising Our Broadband Future forum, in Sydney, 2009:
"For me the event ended on a positive note with Genevieve Bell, on e-Community. It was refreshing to hear ideas about broadband for people to use, rather than as something done to them."
Dr. Bell, was the first speaker at the Innovative Ideas Forum 2010 at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, April 2010, where I wrote:
"One insight was that the people in the growth areas for Internet use in Asia live much more densely and that English was not longer the dominant language of the Internet. Western, and particularly American, ideas of how information is organised, meaning is expressed will not necessarily continue to dominate the Internet.

Genevieve argued that old forms of media, such as television, will live on. Rather than television being subsumed as a VOD service, TV is influencing the design of computers and the Internet."
The next week I bumped into Dr Bell at the State Library of South Australia. What I had not realized was she had been the state's Thinker in Residence on South Australia’s Digital Futures (I was there to talk about open source for South Australasian defence industry).

Friday, January 27, 2017

Form or quantity of digital feedback has more effect on learners?

Starr (2016) reports on research into how the form of feedback students are given effects their engagement with it. In particular he looks at different ways to annotate when marking using the Turnitin product, and suggests individually composed text and audio comments are preferable to templates and rubrics. However, there may be an alternative explanation: bespoke comments take longer to compose, resulting in fewer, which students can better engage with.

Starr (2016)reports;
"It was found that GradeMark on-script ‘Bubble Comments’ and off-script ‘Voice Comments’ may both positively influence how valued learners feel and encourage and support their use of feedback for development by positively influencing their motivation and ability to engage. On-script ‘QuickMark Comments’ and off-script ‘General Comments’ and ‘Rubrics’ may negatively influence same." (Starr, 2016, p. 2)
The study (as the author admits) only looks at the form, not content of the feedback, nor the time required for different types of feedback. An assessor has only a fixed and limited amount of time to mark each assessment item. If providing feedback in a particular way takes longer, then the assessor will be able to provide less, or less considered feedback.

Turnitin's QuickMark provides a way to select from a pre-prepared set of comments. Similarly Rubrics make use of a structured template. Bubble and Voice comments are bespoke, composed each time (although there is no technical reason Turnitin could not provide a way to record a set of standard voice comments).

Starr's research suggests the bespoke comments are preferred by students, which is not surprising. However, does this take into account the additional time which it would take to prepare such comments? If it takes, for example, four times as long to compose a bespoke comment, the students will receive one quarter the quantity of comments. It may simply be that students are able to engage better when they receive fewer comments.

Correcting every error in a student paper is a waste to the marker's time and not helpful for student learning. I suggest more concise comments, in analogue or digital form, from templates or bespoke, text or audio.


Starr, S. (2016). An exploratory investigation into influences of form of digital feedback on learners’ engagement with their feedback (Doctoral dissertation, University of Edinburgh). Retrieved from

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Online Delivery Increases Access to Education for Some Students

Goodman, Melkers and  Pallais (2016) conclude that online education can substantially increase enrollment in higher education. However, they base this conclusion on one program offering, the Georgia Tech’s Online Master of Science (MS CS). The conclusion may not be generally applicable and much is already known about who makes a good on-line student.

The authors carried out a detailed analysis comparing the students who enrolled in the on-line and classroom versions of the MS CS, finding the on-line students did as well or a little better. They also found higher completion rates than for MOOCs.

The authors are enthusiastic about the potential of on-line education for mid-career training.  However, the author's knowledge of the history of distance education (DE) appears to be limited. They describe Georgia Tech’s Online M.S. in Computer Science, as "... the earliest model to combine the inexpensive nature of online education with a highly-ranked
degree program ...". While this appears to be an excellent program (as is the subsequent  MS in Analytics), there have been inexpensive quality DE programs for several decades. An early example well reported in the literature are those from Open University UK (OUUK).

It has been known for decades that those who already have higher education qualifications and are working in a field, make better DE students. Also courses which charge money are known to have lower non-completion rates than those which are free, or change a token amount. Also it was known that on-line courses produce slightly better learning outcomes than campus based courses.

In addition, it appears that the authors of the study have missed the obvious point that those enrolling in a graduate computer science program are likely to have computer skills above those of the average student and so make better on-line students. The results for these students should not be taken as typical of the general population.

ps. Recently I completed a on-line Masters of Education at Athabasca University, (MEd). This program has been offered for more than twenty years. Most of my fellow students had a background in education, while mine is in computing (and teaching computing). When it came to writing essays, my English-teacher colleagues had the edge, but in navigating the on-line environment, my computing skills came to the fore.


Goodman, J., Melkers, J., & Pallais, A. (2016). Can Online Delivery Increase Access to Education? (No. w22754). National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

Monday, January 23, 2017

Athabasca University Review

Athabasca University (AU) and the Government of Alberta have appointed Dr. Ken Coates (University of Saskatchewan), to lead a review into how to make the university financially viable. This follows a report in 2015, which warned of insolvency by 2016/2017.

Students are to be consulted and Dr. Coates is to report by 30 April 2017. However, it is not clear when, or if, the final report will be made public. The previous report was not officially released, with students, having to read a copy leaked to the media. After reading media reports on AU's financial viability and seeing no response from the university,  I decided to accelerate my studies to complete by the end of 2016, while there was still a university to graduate from.

The inquiry was announced the same day Athabasca University awarded me a degree. This is ironic, as I had studied how to design cost-effective higher education, under leaders in the field from the AU Centre for Distance Education. Perhaps the executive of AU could look to its own experts in the field of distance education for advice on what to do.

AU is not alone in having to re-think strategies: universities, vocational colleges and private education providers around the world are having difficulties (including Pearson, the world's largest private provider). It is also ironic that AU is having to respond to the "disruption" to the eduction system, caused by the on-line education revolution it helped pioneer.

AU is a worthwhile institution and it would be unfortunate if it was to close down. As a graduate who studied how to design and resource such institutions (and designed one of AU's courses: Green ICT Strategies COMP 635), it seems reasonable to make some suggestions.

Athabasca University brands itself as "Canada's Open University" offering on-line and distance education to students across Canada and around the world. I was attracted to the institution because of this open and on-line approach. AU's openness permitted me to enroll and the on-line approach meant that I could study from Canberra.

Some issues:

Local Customization

I suggest AU could model is recovery on the Suzuki Ignis car, which offers a reasonably priced customizable alternative to the BMW Mini.

Higher education, and distance education in particular, is like building a car: long lead times are needed for course design and testing, with the product having to be sold for years to recover the cost of development. Car companies build the same car for a decade, refreshing their models every few years with minor updates (such as revised bumpers and entertainment systems). They also offer options for the customer.

One of the annoyances with DE courses is that they can be run for years without even minor updates. It is annoying to find hypertext links in course notes which do not work, and apparently have not worked, for years. Like cars, courses need a minor refresh every year or so.

Continuing the car analogy, BMW offer more than ten million possible combinations of options for their Mini car. However, most of these options must be installed in the factory during the car's construction, which increases the cost and slows down delivery. In contrast, Suzuki offer options which can be fitted by the local dealer, making it cheap and quick. I suggest that AU can do something similar with education. This would see core programs and courses able to have options added.

AU could make more and earlier use of e-portfolios to provide flexibility. As a coursework student I was told at the start of the course I would have to do a capstone e-portfolio at the end. But it was only in the last term I was required to do something about it. This could be changed to see the beginning student designing their program with the help of the portfolio and planning to incorporate learning beyond the set courses. The problem with such an approach has been the increased staff supervision required. However, improvements in software which reduce the administrative burden and teaching techniques, which see students taking responsibility for their learning, can reduce staff costs.


Alongside the Open University UK, Athabasca University appears frequently in the research literature on e-learning. However, AU does not have the scale of OUUK. OUUK has about 170,00 students, while AU has about 41,000 students. AU must become larger, either on its own, or by federating with other institutions.

Government Regulation and Funding

The closest Australian equivalent to AU is the University of New England (UNE), located in inland New South Wales, with 21,000 students. UNE predates AU and acted as a model for the distance education techniques adopted by OUUK and others. However, like AU, UNE has had difficulties due to its reliance on a distance education model, which does not fit with the way governments fund universities. Australia also has several other regional inland universities which offer on-line courses, but these have multiple campuses, including campuses in city capitals.

UNE has had several attempts to make the pure DE model work. In one variation, the institution proposed to un-bundle tuition. The idea would be that a student could have a low cost course where they just paid for course materials and assessment: if they needed tuition, that was an optional extra. This approach did not work, because it conflicted with the full-service assumptions of government education policy, did not meet student expectations and the fee cut was not sufficient to make it attractive to students.

AU should not make the mistakes of UNE and offer products which the students can't understand, or waste time complaining the government does not understand DE. AU needs to offer programs attractive to students and which are viable with the regulatory environment.

Integrate MOOCs

MOOCs were a Canadian invention intended to genuinely improve education. However, they have become largely a marketing tool, to promote for-fee courses using free samples. AU needs to come to terms with this, without devaluing its quality DE offerings.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Australian universities TV advertising blitz

Australian universities are currently conducting a TV advertising blitz, with some extravagant claims made. Charles Darwin University (CDU), claims to be a ‘new world university’. This is a curious claim to make, as CDU is not in the new world (the Americas), but  Darwin (Australia). The video shows an animation of what looks like a desert canyon and an island with skyscrapers, neither of which are characteristic of the small mainland tropical city of Darwin.

CDU also claims to be ranked in the top 2 per cent of university’s worldwide. This is based on raking 251 in the Times Higher Education World University Ranking, out of an estimated 23,000 universities world wide. However, there are 34 other Australian universities in the list, with the lowest at 601. This makes CDU a mid ranking Australian university, in a country which overall has very good universities.

CDU are not the only ones with creative ads , or the first. In the 2016 "We're here for you" campaign, Swinburne University had a tutor appear in person, seemingly out of nowhere, to help an on-line student in a cafe. It seems unlikely that Swinburne deploys tutors to cafes around Australia.  ;-)

Strange claims, are not confined to Australian universities. In answer to the question "What is Athabasca University's ranking in Canada?"
Athabasca replies: "Distance education institutions such as Athabasca University are not ranked in the same way as traditional universities.". This is clearly untrue: Athabasca is included on the Ranking Web of Universities alongside non-distance universities. Athabasca ranks quite well, at 40 out of 352 in Canada (1229 in the world).

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Completion Rates of Australian Higher Education Students

The Australian Department of Education has issued a report on Completion Rates of Higher Education Students: Cohort Analysis (2016). In response, the Australian Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, issued a media release urging university students to "... research options as completion rates dip" (18 January 2017). This was reported with the headlines such as "Nation of dropouts: University completion rates drop to a new low" (Liz Burke, 18 January 2017). However, I suggest the situation is not that bad and not the fault of the students. Australia's regional universities do not have a low completion rate, but even so there are some simple steps the government could encourage the universities to take to improve it.

The Cohort Analysis found the completion rates were: 39.2% after four years, 45.7% after six years and 73.5% after nine years. This is for a bachelor's degree, which is designed to take three years for a full-time student. Also, the study found that capital city universities had much higher completion rates than regional ones.

Not surprisingly, the Analysis found that part-time students take longer to complete. However, there are very few real "full-time" students. University students do not sit around campus relaxing: they have jobs and family commitments which conflict with their studies.
The Minister "... has urged students to research where they choose to study if they plan to go to university ..." (Media Release, 18 January 2017). This is unfortunate, as the minister seems to be blaming the students. The Minister suggests that the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) website can help students “make the right choice, first time”. However, I tried this website recently and found it of little practical use. In any case, more information will not help to choose between a set of inflexible programs.

Australia needs, I suggest, flexible offerings for students. It is not reasonable to tell students to choose from one of the fixed, three-year degree programs, and expect nothing in their life to change for the next six to nine years. It does not help for the system to label a student who wants to change their studies or has to withdraw due to job or family commitments as a failure.

Students change courses because they learn more about their interests as they study (if students knew everything before they started they would not need to study). Also, students are forced to drop out because the programs do not provide the flexibility which the complexities of life demand. A student who can't attend the campus due to a job change or family commitments is forced to withdraw from their studies.

Students do not use other entry pathways, because they have no way of knowing they will need those pathways, until after they are enrolled in a fixed program in the higher education system.

The minister's suggestion that students look at the reputation of the university they want to attend is not particularly helpful. The completion rates of universities are, to a significant part, not due to the teaching quality of the university, but the circumstances of the students. A student with a job and family commitments in a regional area can't just decide to abandon their job and kids to study in the city.

For the last seven years, I have been a part-time graduate student at two Australian universities (ANU and USQ), a Vocational Education and Training institution (CIT) and a North American on-line open university (Athabasca University). My area of study was education. I have had to read a lot of textbooks and papers on education, including on how to create better degree programs. Also, I have had the pleasure of talking to international and Australian researchers looking at student retention, such as Dr. Cathy Stone at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education,

It happens I have been a student at one of the Australian universities with the highest completion rate (ANU) and the lowest (USQ). This difference is not due to there being anything wrong with USQ (I thought the courses very good) and is consistent with differences seen around the world. City and regional universities cater to different students, with different needs, resulting in different completion rates.

One thing I learned is that being a student is very hard work and very frustrating. There is no way to know exactly where and what you want to study before you start to study. As I wrote in the Capstone e-Portfolio for my degree:
"... students need support to fit their studies into their lives. This can be through careful course design, giving the student small frequent nudges, scaffolding assignments and allowing them to be based on real-world problems. Also, frequently assessed work is an aid ..."
One of the most useful things I found was being able to supplement campus-based courses at one university (ANU) with on-line courses at another (USQ). Being able to obtain vocational certification (at CIT) based on my university study and work experience was also useful. In North America, I found being able to delay choosing what sort of degree I was doing (coursework or research) until after enrolling and completing introductory courses was very useful. Had I not had that option, I would not have completed my studies successfully and would not have been awarded a degree (today).

There are some steps the Australian government can take to increase completion rates for degrees and in also reduce the cost of unrecoverable student loans. One step would be to encourage universities to offer nested programs and guarantee mutual recognition of courses. A student who has had to suspend studies before completion of a degree should be awarded a sub-degree qualification, not left with a massive debt and nothing to show for it.

Students could receive a certificate after six months, diploma after a year and an advanced diploma after two years, with the option to suspend students at any of these checkpoints and return to complete their degree later. This would reduce the figures for non-completion of degrees as the students who left with a sub-degree would not be counted as non-completions. This would also reduce the student loan cost as students would not fee pressure to continue studies past a checkpoint and so not incur further debt unnecessarily.

A student who has to change institutions should have prior study recognized and not be penalized for the change. A student who wants to supplement their studies with a course at another institution should be free to do so.

Universities should not have arbitrary attendance requirements for courses. Unless a course requires physical attendance, the student should be able to study and undertake assessment on-line. Students should be offered projects and assessment relevant to real world work and have the option to undertake this in the workplace, not on campus.

Universities should require teaching staff to be qualified to teach, and in particular qualified to design and deliver engaging on-line education. There is more to e-learning than just recorded lectures.

Teaching is a skill which needs to be learned. I was a reluctant student of education, thinking that I had already learned all I needed to know the on-line job at one of Australia's (and the world's) learning institutions. However, having been encouraged to study education as a discipline, I found there was much I could learn which not only was beneficial for my students but made teaching less stressful for the teacher.

The Australian Government could encourage measures to reduce non-completion and lower cost through the way it funds institutions directly and through student loans. Government funding could be contingent on the intuitions introducing these measures.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Teaching in a Digital Age

The book "Teaching in a Digital Age" by A.W. (Tony) Bates (2016, 528 pages) is an excellent free resource available on-line from the Canadian B.C. Open Textbook Project. This book is intended for college and university instructors who want to know how digital technology can help them teach.

The book is available a variety of electronic formats and three languages (English, French, and Vietnamese). Print editions of the book can be purchased, with a black and white edition at half the price of color (an option I have never seen before).

At 22 Mbytes, the PDF version is a bit large to expect a student to download just to read one chapter. However, the web version is divided into short sections and so would be useful for referencing as reading material in a course. It would be useful to have a PDF and EPUB edition which leaves out most of the images, which are only decorative but take up a lot of file space.

Each chapter is accompanied by a three-minute audio introduction by the author. This audio adds a useful personal touch and is not too long.

There is also a "Scenario" at the start of each chapter, setting out a hypothetical situation. However, these are only briefly referred to in the text of the chapters. In particular, I was disappointed that the scenarios were not used as part of the discussion questions contained in the chapters.

The first chapter (Fundamental Change in Education), looks at how universities and students are changing. There is perhaps a little too much of the author's views on the nature of education than is strictly necessary, but such a distinguished author can be allowed a little latitude.

It is important to realize that this is not just a book about online learning, but about teaching in general and where on-line learning fits in. Chapter 2 provides a reasonably conventional introduction to theories of learning. This is a part of teaching courses where my eyes (and I suspect of other students) glaze over. As noted in Chapter 3 (Methods of teaching), real world teaching does not fit neatly into these categories, and I suggest it might be better to reverse the usual order and first teach students the how and provide the theory of why later (moving this section to later in the book).

The book reflects the author's background in the UK and Canada. There is extensive use of reports from the OECD. This comes as a relief for someone like myself, a student of education who as had to read many works from US authors who do not seem to realize that the rest of the world exists.

While the book has extensive references and a bibliography, it does not have a reading list (which would be a useful addition to a course). A bigger the problem is that the book spends a little too much time arguing the case for digital learning (and in the case of MOOCs, arguing against them). A better approach, I suggest, would be to simply cover the different educational techniques, pointing out where and when they should be used, and why.

There is a danger in e-learning being seen as something new which a case has to be made for when it has been around for deaconess and is proven in day-to-day use.  The different techniques should be covered in proportion to how important the author thinks they are. As an example, I suggest that the order should be reversed, so that on-line teaching is covered first and lectures later.

Chapter 5 (MOOCs), spends a little too long on a case for or against MOOCs. In my view, MOOCs are not a new form of on-line education, just a way to promote conventional distance education. The MOOC label makes DE more palatable to prestigious research universities, which do not want to admit adopting educational techniques developed by teaching orientated institutions. Universities and others also use "Free" MOOCs to promote their for-fee programs.

Chapter 7 (Pedagogical differences between media), makes the important point that text still has a major role in education and that audio is useful. Something I find surprising is that most teachers (and students) think of recorded lectures and live webinars as being "video," when the mostly consist of audio with still images of text and graphics.

Chapter 8 (Choosing and using media in education) is largely redundant. Higher Education students today typically have a smartphone and a laptop computer, or tablet, or access to some other larger screen device. They have low-speed broadband Internet access. So the course designer should design for these tools. Some institutions (and educational systems) have wasted resources on equipping students with specialized hardware. In other cases, teachers refuse to make use of the IT the students have, for fear this will distract them from studying using paper books.

In Chapter 9 (Modes of delivery) presents evidence that on-line learning is at least as good as face-to-face. This case needs to be put. However, the chapter perpetuates the myth that on-campus learning depends on the direct face-to-face interaction between students and teachers. Most interaction on campus between students and teachers is mediated by technology. A student, at least an undergraduate or coursework graduate student, will rarely speak face to face with a professor. The student does not hear the professor's voice directly in a lecture theater; it is instead conveyed via a digital audio system. This is increasingly also the case in the labs replacing conventional lectures and tutorials.

In traditional labs and tutorials, the student would be able to see and hear the instructor directly. However,  the X-lab at the University of Sydney has up to 240 students at work benches, under the direction of one instructor. Each student is provided with a video screen so they can see the instructor, who can't easily be seen directly, due to the equipment in the lab. To make this point clearer, as a thought experiment, imagine the instructor being in another room, on the other side of the world: would the students notice? Would this make any difference to the quality of the education?

The book "Teaching in a Digital Age" is a very useful resource, but could do with some editing down and rearrange. As the book is provided with a Creative Commons license, I might try remixing it.

ps: I confess a fondness for Canadian educational work, having recently completed a Masters of Education at Athabasca University.

Teaching in a Digital Age 

Table of Contents

  1. Fundamental Change in Education
  2. The nature of knowledge and the implications for teaching
  3. Methods of teaching: campus-focused
  4. Methods of teaching with an online focus
  5. MOOCs
  6. Understanding technology in education
  7. Pedagogical differences between media
  8. Choosing and using media in education: the SECTIONS model
  9. Modes of delivery
  10. Trends in open education
  11. Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age
  12. Supporting teachers and instructors in a digital age
  1. Building an effective learning environment
  2. Questions to guide media selection and use
  3. Online learning quality standards, organisations and research
  4. Independent commissioned reviews

Microsoft Building a Quantum Computer by 2026

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where Michael Freedman, Director of Station Q at Microsoft is speaking on "Building a Majorana quantum computer". The mathematics of how the quantum computer Professor Freedman is building would work is beyond me. However, two points were of interest: the quantum computer will not just be able to perform computations faster, it will be able to perform so many more it will be able to solve problems we did not previously consider. The other is that he believes that it will be possible to use the same type of production process now used for microchips to make quantum chips. This requires many advances in production techniques, but in essence involves putting s silicon wafer into a chamber and exposing it to chemical processes, then chopping up the wafer to make hundreds of chips. He expects Microsoft will build a quantum computer within a decade.

Canberra Gamification Startup Finalist in USA

Canberra start-up Quizling have been chosen to pitch at the SxSWedu Launch Competition in the USA in March. Quizling provide an on-line system for teachers to build educational  app quizzes. They were participants in the GRIFFIN Accelerator at the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN). 

ps: The company "Quizling" is not to be confused with "Quisling".

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Georgia Tech Masters On-line for US$10,000

Georgia Tech is offering an Online Master of Science in Analytics for US$10,000. Also offered will be a shorter introductory so called "MicroMasters" program. Both will use the edx platform. It should be noted that Georgia Tech is planning to accept only 250 masters students initially, making this more like conventional distance education programs (which some universities have been running for decades), rather than a called MOOC.

For comparison, the Masters of Education I recently completed on-line at Athabasca University (Canada) cost about US$15,000. This was with classes of  a couple of dozen students and a human tutor. The Georgia Tech Masters is structured similarly to Athabasca, in that the student completes ten courses and then a capstone project.

It is likely that the coursework with capstone will become the standard format for graduate programs, both on-campus and on-line. However, I found the capstone process remarkably difficult. This was remarkable as I was a student of education and was studying the pedagogy of the process, so was much better prepared than the average student would be. 

Institutions need to put in place a process to prepare students for the capstone from the start of their program (including assessment of their progress). Leaving it to the end, as students will otherwise do, will extend the time taken and increase the non-completion rate.

Also we may see use of tools such as Mahara's SmartEvidence, to provide more flexibility. This would allow students to show they have met program requirements using a wide range of courses and non-course activities. However, this will require training students (and staff) to think strategically about learning, rather than just ticking boxes to meet requirements. If we could do this we could offer students additional certifications easily, for example in teaching. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Chinese Venture Capital for Australian Startups

Professor XU Hongbo of South China University of Technology and, will speak on Investment by Chinese VCs in Australian startups at Haymarket HQ in Sydney, 6pm 3 February 2017.
"Angel investing & venture capital in China; the development of the Wechat ecosystem; the current startup boom in the Middle Kingdom; and investment by Chinese VCs in Australian startups.

Professor XU Hongbo is an active angel investor; founder of the Shenzen venture firm; which is the general partner of the Wechat Growth Fund, which is backed by, among others, Tencent. He is also a professor of computer science, specialising in artificial intelligence, at the South China University of Technology, a Top 25 university. ..."

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Are Professional Development Questionnaires Any Use?

Recently I was asked about questionnaires for evaluating professional development (PD) courses, specifically: attitudes, behaviors and efficacy. I suggest not wasting resources on this. If the institution has a standard course survey, then use it, but don't set much store in it.  Instead, focus on testing what the PD is intended to teach and not worrying so much about attitudes, or evaluation.  If the PD is to teach students how to collaborate and communicate, then test if they can collaborate and communicate, using conventional assessment techniques in the course.

Questionnaires are of little use in evaluating courses. Ebert-May et. al. (2011) found little correlation between what people said they did and what they actually did, after PD. One interesting finding was that "... novice teachers implemented inquiry-based, learner-centered instruction to a greater extent than experienced teachers ...". With limited resources it might be better to provide training for early career academics.


Ebert-May, D., Derting, T. L., Hodder, J., Momsen, J. L., Long, T. M., & Jardeleza, S. E. (2011). What we say is not what we do: effective evaluation of faculty professional development programs. BioScience, 61(7), 550-558.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Starting an E-Learning Business in China

Terry Hilsberg and Nick Jenkins at HHQ
Yesterday Australian entrepreneur, Nick Jenkins (詹宁锴) talked about starting the e-learning business "Language Confidence" in China. 

Nick talked about his founding an education start-up at  Telstra's Muru-D Start-up Accelerator, but then changing from trying to sell education on-line direct to consumers and finally concentrating on selling testing services. He was frank about the difficulties of doing business in China, but pointed out the potentially large rewards.

This raises the question of how higher education can assist such entrepreneurs. Apart from provided some basic education in the mechanics of business, which I suggest can be done on-line, courses could allow students to integrate their practical experience. I asked Nick about this and he related how he was not permitted to use is direct practical experience of leading a multi-national team in assessment for a business course (in contrast I encourage students to use their work experience).

Nick was interviewed at Haymarket HQ (HHQ) in Sydney, by Terry Hilsberg. HHQ is a new coworking space located in the loft above a karaoke bar in Sydney's Chinatown, to help start-ups targeting Asia.

Terry will be speaking at the next HHQ Square table event about his work with (Shenzhen). For upcoming HHQ Square Table Events, see the meet-up group.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Introduce Teaching as a Specialization for Computer Professionals

This is to propose recognizing teaching as an area of specialization for computer professionals. I suggest that computer professionals who teach should be recognized as playing a key role in teaching in schools, vocational education institutions, universities and, most importantly in the workplace. I suggest that computer professionals with teaching skills will be a valuable resource with computers having an increasing role in formal and informal learning. However, to make best use of computer professionals who teach, their specialist skills need to be formally recognized by the computing profession.

The Australian Computer Society (ACS) accredits higher education programs using the the ACS Core Body of Knowledge for ICT Professionals (CBOK). About the only recognition of education as a role for computer professionals in the CBOK is Appendix B "ICT Occupations Contained within ANZSCO" (page 15), which lists "ICT Trainer" (223211), as an occupation. The role of computer professionals teaching in industry, in schools, vocational an university education is not recognized. This is at odds with the importance placed on computer education by the ACS, in schools, vocational education and universities.

The ACS Accreditation Application Guidelines (2016, page 5), state that education qualifications and teaching experience will be considered:
"In gauging the capabilities of staff, the Panel will look at qualifications (both in ICT and education), research and practical ICT activities, teaching experience, and contributions to the advancement of ICT knowledge, practice and education. Involvement in professional societies and effective participation in ongoing professional development are also relevant indicators of suitable capability."
Similarly, Australian higher education does not recognize teaching as a computing specialization. Some universities offer double qualifications, where a computer science qualification can be completed alongside a teaching one (typically for school teaching). However, I have been unable to find any Australian university computer degrees which offer teaching as a specialization of the degree.

As I noted in my presentation to the Computing Education Conventicle 2016, there are twelve education and training related skills defined in the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA), as used by ACS. These would form a suitable basis for a teaching specialization.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Bespoke Courses from the University of New England

I don't know quite what to make of "Bespoke Courses" from the University of New England (UNE). The idea seems to be to select 2, 3 or 4 units from UNE degrees to make your own certificate qualification. This is confusing, as what UNE calls "units" appear to be what I know as  "courses" (what a full time student typically does four to six of per semester). What UNE calls a "course" I know of as a "program" (such as a degree program).

UNE offers a four unit certificate for $10,800. At $2,700 for each unit this is not exactly a bargain. Athabasca University charged me about AU$1,900 per unit. UNE offers students a low interest loan with a regional bank (implying the course is not eligible for a government student loan). Also of interest is that the bank the loan is offered through what was originally the Staff Credit Union of UNE (now known as the Regional Australia Bank). The head of the UNE Business School is a member of the Bank's board. I suggest this, and any other interest UNE (and its staff), have in the bank, should be declared wherever UNE promotes the student loans.

I tried designing an "Advanced Bespoke Course". First I was prompted for a degree name, which is confusing as this is not for a degree and I don't know what the names of UNE degrees are. So I ticked from the list Computer Science, Education, and Sustainability (as these are topics of interest). I then clicked on "View Results". The page scrolled to the top where it said "1 Degrees found", which is not very informative. Scrolling down again I found "No results are found in Postgraduate" and "Undergraduate degrees: Bachelor of Computer Science". This seems a little odd: why does UNE have Education and Sustainability as categories to choose from, if it offers no units on these topics?

Curiously, while Computer Science was the only degree listed, the courses I was then offered included Management Accounting, Biology, and Applied Physics, as well as IT courses.

UNE claims "The first truly bespoke university qualification is here". However, for several years ANU has been offering "Graduate Studies Select" (GSS). With GSS students can undertake a Graduate Certificate, Graduate Diploma, or Masters of Studies, selecting from the courses at ANU (including my course ICT Sustainability) and also courses from affiliated institutions. 

UNE was a pioneer of distance education and lately has shown it is willing to experiment with ways to offer university education. But I suggest to make the bespoke courses a success they need to offer some suggestions for combinations of units. A "choose your ingredients" sandwich shop will have some suggested combinations ("the plowman's: tasty cheese, pickles, ham ...") , UNE could offer some combinations of units to suit particular interests ("The STEM taster: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics"). Also it would be useful if there was some vocational element to the qualifications, as more than ten thousand dollars is a lot to pay just out of interest (when you can do other on-line courses for free). In addition, they might wan to lower the price by about 40%, to make it competitive with quality on-line institutions.

Open Source Software for an International Distance Education Student

In 2013 I enrolled as a distance education student in a Masters of Education at Athabasca University Canada. One of the requirements was to be able to submit assignments in Microsoft Word format. However, as a Linux user I normally use Libre Office, in place of Microsoft Office. So I decided to see how far I would get with this. In three years of study I created dozens of assignments in Microsoft Word (.DOC) format using Libre Office, without much difficulty.

Athabasca's website says:
"AU's standard computing platform is a computer running Microsoft Windows with MS Office, so this is the primary system supported by AU's IT Help Desk. Only very limited assistance for other hardware and software platforms is offered. ... software capability to submit assignments as Microsoft Word (.doc) documents. "

From "Student Computer Requirements", IT Help Desk, Athabasca University 

There were some problems where I tried to use the newer .DOCX  format. I found it better where I was given an assignment template in .DOCX, to save it as .DOC and submit in in that format. In three years of submitting assignments no one seemed to notice that I was not using Microsoft Word.

For a statistics course I was required to carry out calculations using data supplied in a Microsoft Excell spreadsheet, enter my results in the spreadsheet and submit that. Some of the instructions for using the spreadsheet, did not apply, but I was able to carry out the calculations using Libre Office Calc and pass the course.

For some group assignments I would with other students to prepare documents using Google Docs.  This worked remarkably well, with us able to each make contributions to a joint document, along with comments, asynchronously. Shortly before the assignment was due we would have a synchronous session, using Skype for audio and editing the document jointly on screen. This was something like a real time video game with the text moving around on screen as others edited and I tried to find where I was to make my changes.

Occasionally I had to use Libre Office Impress to view a Powerpoint file. Often the formatting of the resulting slides was not elegant, with text out of aliment. However, overall the presentations were readable. I did not have to submit any Powerpoint files, so don't know how acceptable Libre Office would be.

A program which caused more difficulty was Adobe Connect, for web conferencing. Most of the Athabasca courses used asynchronous communication via the Moodle Learning Management System. I would post to a text forum and read replies the next day. This was convenient as where I was in Canberra, was in a very different time zone from Canada. However some courses would have a synchronous session every few weeks using Adobe Connect. There were usually two sessions run one at a time to suit Canada and one for the rest of the world (which tended to suite Australia).
I found that Adobe Connect would not work with Firefox for Linux, but did with Google Chromium. However, additional software needed to allow me to run a webinar, not just be a participant, did not work with Chromium. This only became important during the Capstone e-Portfolio Presentation, at the end of the program, where I had to give a presentation. For this I borrowed a Windows computer. In retrospect it would have been better to find a workaround, as the windows computer did not work particularly well.

Some changes would make being a student much easier. A work processor which rigidly enforced style sheets would be useful. Students (and academics generally) are required to use specific fonts, heading sizes and layout. Most students try to manually replicate this format, rather than use the styles built into the word processor. It would be useful to have an editor which enforced the styles.

Better webinar software, which works with Moodle would be useful.

However, overall I managed to get through three years and complete a Masters without using Windows (almost).

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Chinese Start-ups in Sydney

Nick Jenkins, Co-founder and CEO of Language Confidence will be giving a free talk on "Lessons learned starting up in China" at Haymarket HQ, in Sydney's Chinatown,  6PM, 10 January 2017. "Nick will be talking about raising money in Singapore, creating a global team ... and working with Chinese corporates.".

Saturday, January 7, 2017

EU Digital Competencies for Teachers Project

The EU funded Digital Competencies for Teachers Project (DIGICOMP) has provided a Moodle based e-Learning Portal for teacher training. There is a leaflet explaining the project and a sixteen page Methodology for Preparation of Materials.

I signed up to try the e-learning.  DIGICOMP uses the Moodle lesson. The student is presented with a small amount of text and then a quiz, in the style of many self paced on-line courses. I started by selecting "Information", but got stuck on the first quiz. This asked me to pick which were browsers from a list. I selected Firefox, Opera and Safari. I clicked "continue" was told these answers were correct but was then presented with the same quiz again.

Apparently I had not selected all the browsers. However, the other choices were Google, Facebook, and iPhone 6, none of which are browsers. The Google browser is called "Chrome", Facebook is a social media platform and iPhone 6 is a smart phone.

Even if my answers are not correct, there should be a way to proceed past the quiz without having to make all nine attempts.

After nine attempts I was able to move on to the second part of the lesson entitled "Browse (Google) Like Ninja!". There is no good reason to mention Google so prominently in a course (unless the project is being funded by the company). Also there is no need to use jargon like "Ninja". Perhaps these are early days for the project and this is just a Alpha version of the course.

Friday, January 6, 2017

University of Sydney X-lab

Yesterday University of Sydney held an open day. I took the opportunity to join a tour of the Charles Perkins Centre and its X-lab. The building has space for 1500 undergraduates, 900 medical researchers, and higher degree students. One feature of the building is the way the undergraduates can mingle with researchers and medical doctors.

The building has an atrium with curved balconies and a sinuous staircase offering an alternative to the lifts. There is the usual modern layout with open plan in the middle and meeting rooms around the outside, with glass walls.

The standout feature is the "X-lab wet lab". This has rows of lab benches, with each of 240 students getting a touch screen computer on an arm. Four instructor stations are equipped with cameras so the students can see their instructor, and the experiment they are performing close up on screen. There are directional loudspeakers in the ceilings above the benches, to allow students to listen to one of the four instructors.

The x-lab provides an advanced teaching environment, but is not perfect. The directional speakers work well enough, but are an expensive solution. A lower cost alternative would be to divide the room into four zones, with a row of equipment cabinets separating the zones. Low cost loudspeakers (or the speakers in the computers) in each zone would then have provided adequate sound separation. Alternatively headphones could be used, which would also allow the students to speak to the instructor: a technique I have dubbed the "silent lecture".

The DELL touchscreen computers, at about 36 inch, are somewhat oversize and tend to dominate the room. Smaller touch screens, of around 15 inch, might be more suitable (and cheaper).

The operator consoles at the ends of the benches are well equipped, but the screens here are also large and make the instructor hard to see. It might be useful to have the instructors station raised and smaller screens used.

The building also has "dry" teaching rooms, with a microscope for each student and a large computer monitor. There are also  conventional teaching rooms and informal group spaces for students. A surprise is that under the entrance to the building is a very large lecture theater. This is a good use of space, as a lecture theater d does not require a view and so can be placed underground.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching in Australian Higher Education

The Australian Government funds the QILT Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching website. One point to note is if your browser has an ad-blocker, such as AdBlockPlus you may not see any institutions listed (I didn't until I disabled the ad-blocker for the QILT site). QILT lists 55 institutions offering Teacher Education (including Vocational Education & Training, and Higher Education and Special Education). There are 44 institutions offering programs at the postgraduate level (39 Universities and 9 Non-Universities). 

One limitation with the QILT site is that there is no option to select institutions offering on-line courses. The assumption seems to be that the potential student will select a state and then look at institutions in that state.

The site requires the student to select no more than six institutions to compare. There is no way, for example, to list all the institutions in Australia, by quality ranking and then select the top six. The student would have to look at each institution and manually note and sort the top six.

There are  5 ACT Universities with Postgraduate courses in Teacher Education listed. So I selected all five, plus Montessori Institute (a non-university postgraduate provider, which, not surprisingly trains Montessori teachers). Only four institutions were shown, due to too small a number of students for the with two. The four institutions were around 80%, on "Overall satisfaction" and with confidence intervals so wide that this which not be of use in selecting between institutions. On the "Teaching scale"
University of Canberra was 10% above the others.  On the "Skills scale" University of New South Wales was slightly ahead.

What is not clear is how useful this information is for students selecting programs. The differences between institutions are minimal. A better approach might be to put resources into ensuring all institutions meet an acceptable minimum standard, so a student knows that if they enroll locally they will receive an acceptable quality education.

Also with the transition to e-learning the quality of legacy classroom based courses will be of little relevance.Students are increasingly likely to follow the approach I took in looking for a program in 2013. First I looked in the city where I lived. After finding nothing suitable in my city, I think looked internationally. Once beyond commuting distance, it makes little difference if the institution is 1,000 km or 10,000 km away. In the last five years I have been a student of ANU and CIT (within 10 km of home), USQ (1,000 km) and Athabasca University (14,000 km).

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Teaching Crowds: Learning & Social Media

In "Teaching Crowds: Learning & Social Media" Jon Dron and Terry Anderson (Athabasca University Press, 2014) emphasize the value of learning together. In the final chapter they argue that modern open and distance universities "should not have to ...  replicate structures designed to fit scholastic life in medieval Europe". They look to a future with variable length courses, competence based assessment, badges, new forms of on-line publication, flatter institutional hierarchies, cross disciplinary studies, teaching collectives, personalized learning, cMOOCs, e-portfolios, and other innovations. However, we need to get to this future from the present and I suggest not making the changes too radical, or too fast.

Dron and Anderson's book is available for purchase a Kindle or paperback. It is also available free on-line as one  PDF download and as separate chapters in PDF and HTML (useful for including as a reading for a course):

  1. On the Nature and Value of Social Software for Learning 
  2. Social Learning Theories
  3. A Typology of Social Forms for Learning 
  4. Learning in Groups 
  5. Learning in Networks 
  6. Learning in Sets 
  7. Learning with Collectives 
  8. Stories From the Field 
  9. Issues and Challenges in Educational Uses of Social Software 
  10. The Shape of Things and of Things to Come

Added My Blog to ORCID List of Publications

Recently I found that I could link my ORCID Id to my ACI Scholarly Blog Index Id so all my blog entries are listed.

ORCID is a system for providing researchers with a unique identifier so their publications can be easily tracked (my ORCID ID is ACI provide a , which includes my Higher Education Whisperer Blog.

However, after linking nothing happened: the blog did not appear in ORCID. I logged a fault report with ACI and expected a reply some time after the holidays. To my surprise there was a prompt reply saying they were looking into it with ORCID. This morning my ORCID in-box had about a thousand messages, each saying "Your ORCID Record was amended". When I looked at my list of publications, each post in the blog had been added as a publication.

However, none of the posts were visible publicly (what is the point in having a list of publications no one can see?). So I did a bulk edit to select all the entries and make them publicly visible. Then I changed the privacy setting, to make all new publication entries public by default.

One problem with adding a blog to my list of publications is the large number of entries. This obscures the small number of conventional papers I have listed. Someone looking at the list may think all I do is blog. ;-)

Monday, January 2, 2017

Some Recent Open Access Books on Higher Education

The Directory of Open Access Books (as mentioned in The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics) indexes several thousand scholarly books. As with DOAJ for journals, this is useful if you are looking for readings for a course and you want students to be easily able to obtain them. Not only can the students access the papers without having to worry about paying a fee, but they also tend to be in formats which are easier to read. In many cases, book chapters are available as separate downloads, so a students does not have to get the entire book, just for the few pages you want them to read. Interestingly, unlike the journal papers, which tend to be in open access journals produced by non-profit groups, there are open access books from conventional for-profit publishers (who also sell paper, and in some cases electronic, copies of the same free books).

A search for book on Higher Education returned 48, of which here are a few recent ones which look interesting:

Becoming a World-Class University: The case of King Abdulaziz University
Authors: --- ---
ISBN: 9783319263793 9783319263809 Year: Pages: 190 Language: English
Publisher: Springer
Subject: Education

The Dream Is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education
ISBN: 9780520292840 9780520966208 Year: Pages: 260 Language: English
Publisher: University of California Press
Subject: Education

Open Education: International Perspectives in Higher Education
ISBN: 9781783742783/9781783742806 Year: Volume: 1 Pages: 378 Language: English
Publisher: Open Book Publishers
Subject: Education

Higher Education Reforms in Romania: Between the Bologna Process and National Challenges
Authors: --- --- ---
ISBN: 9783319080536 9783319080543 Year: Pages: 226 Language: English
Publisher: Springer
Subject: Education

Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education
Authors: --- ---
Book Series: African Higher Education Dynamics Series ISBN: 9781920677855 Year: Volume: 1 Pages: 310 Language: English
Publisher: African Minds
Subject: Education

Mergers and Alliances in Higher Education: International Practice and Emerging Opportunities
Authors: --- --- ---
ISBN: 9783319131344 9783319131351 Year: Pages: 307 Language: English
Publisher: Springer
Subject: Education