Friday, March 3, 2017

Improving Student Success

Greetings from the National Convention Center in Canberra, where I am attending an "Improving Student Success" workshop, hosted by the  Learning and Teaching Support Unit, of the Australian Government Department of Education and Training. This is held in conjunction with the Universities Australia national conference.

The first speaker, Professor Deborah West, Charles Darwin University (CDU), discussed "Learning Analytics" (LA), that is carrying out an analysis of data about how students learn, usually from the learning management system. One issue was concern that the results of the LA would be used to replace staff with recommender systems, which automatically provide students with advice. It seemed to me that LA is only a small part of recommender systems, artificial intelligence (AI) can provide such systems using other techniques. Also many of the insights claimed for LA are already known by educators and part of routine teacher training. The problem is that academics are not trained to teach.

If conventional courses are being delivered, then there is little scope for use of LA after the course has been designed. As an example, if a problem with literacy is identified, then a course can be redesigned, and the prerequisites can be changed. However, once the course has started there is little that can be done.

One interesting point was that about 70% of CDU's student load is on-line, with 30% classroom based. This is close to my prediction for Australian universities generally, being 80% on-line by the end of the decade. Current Australasian universities are about 40% to 50% online (as most students not attending lectures for supposed face-to-face courses).

Professor West cited: Siemens, G., & Long, P. (2011). Penetrating the fog: Analytics in learning and education. EDUCAUSE review, 46(5), 30. Retrieved from

Next was Professor Sally Varnham, UTS, chaired a panel of students on the "Student Engagement Partnership" (TSEP) project. What I found lacking from th discussion was on-line student representation and integration into the curriculum. For the last five years I have been a part-time on-line postgraduate student. I felt disenfranchised as most actives and representation structures assumed I was on campus and had spare time to be engaged in extra-curricular activities. I was more than a thousand kilometers from the campus and when not studying I had paid work to do.

Next was Professor Karen Nelson, University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. Professor Nelson pointed out that research shows that even those students who do not complete a degree receive significant benefit from higher education. However, I suggest that those students would benefit more if the institution was to award them a sub-degree qualification.  Professor Nelson also pointed out that the usual parameters for students (full/part time, age, previous education and so on) accounts for only about 12% of the variation in student outcomes.

Professor Nelson pointed out that regional students are moving to capital city universities.  Yesterday an review into regional, rural and remote education was announced by the Australian Government. One way regional universities can compete, I suggest, is to provide quality on-line, vocationally relevant, VET articulated, nested programs.

The Australian Computer Society (ACS) announced yesterday the first advanced professional accreditation for an ICT degree, awarded to the University of Wollongong (UOW) Master of Information and Communication Technology (Advanced). The accreditation requires students to have skills in leadership and management,beyond what is expected in the usual degree. I suggest this will aid completion and engagement of students, as they will be working on work-relevant skills and realistic projects.

Associate Professor Sarah O'Shea, University of Wollongong, talked on first-in-family students. She pointed out this is an imprecise measure, however the research literature did have some useful pointers. Professor O'Shea, cited her research indicating that a large proportion of first in family students consider withdrawing. However, I would like to a statistical analysis to check that this is not a correlation, rather than a causal relationship. That is, it may be that first-in-family students have difficulties for the same reasons of disadvantage which prevented others in their family. If a family has not been wealthy enough in the past to support a university student, they are not likely to be able to do so in the future. Also it would seem that the Vocational Education and Training sector should provide a useful transition from school to university.

Professor O'Shea, quoted one student how felt an impostor at university and they did not really belong. This is curious as that is how I have always felt at university, even after teaching at one for eighteen years. As a graduate student I found it interesting to read the reflective portfolios of other mature students and find they felt the same. One of the things I learned being a student again was that I still was a student with all the usual fears, uncertainties and loneliness. 

O'Shea (2016) notes the "... students reported a sense of bewilderment in the initial weeks caused by fundamental institutional processes for example, enrollment procedures, financial requirements and timetabling". These are things which I struggled with, even as an experienced student studying how to design education programs. These are problems I suggest could be addressed partly by reassuring students that these are normal concerns common to students, but also by addressing these concerns.

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