Friday, July 19, 2019

Teaching Computer Professionals to Teach with Educational Technology

For some years I have been considering the question of how to improve the quality of teaching at universities. One obvious way is to have academics who teach trained and qualified to do so. However, the business model of university is to attract students, and funding, based on the quality of their research. Students will select a university to study at based largely on a reputation which comes from research, even though this has nothing to do with the quality of the teaching. As a result, there is a strong incentive for universities to select and promote staff based on their research record.

Having recruited a staff member based on their research, it is very difficult to get them to study how to teach. The academic knows that they will be promoted based on the research they do. Regardless of the quality of education they provide, students will enroll. However, those same staff then have a frustrating time teaching students, because it is a skill they did not acquire during their undergraduate degree, where they learned the basics of their discipline, or in postgraduate studied, where they learned research techniques.

Universities offer academic staff short courses, and various fellowship schemes, in an attempt to improve the quality of education, and also to be seen to be doing something. However, this is frustrating for all concerned. I have been through many of these training courses and programs.

One solution I suggest is to incorporate training into degree education, before academics graduate, are appointed and become fixated on research. It can be argued that teaching is an integral part of any professional's job.

To make this training more relevant, it can be tailored to the needs and opportunities of the discipline. As an example, computer professionals can help provide education using computers and networks (so called Educational Technology, or EdTech).

Emphasizing the technical aspects of teaching will make the topic more palatable to computing students, and also make the topic more acceptable to those who approve degree courses. Such a course can make use of whatever short training courses, or work experience through tutoring, or edtech support work is available.

This approach could turn teacher training from something graduates are reluctant to do, even when they are paid to do it, into something students will pay for.

Previously I used this approach in a reflective learning module. Students were required to write a job application as a course assignment. While they were offered training materials, workshops and individual one-on-one help by a specialist careers unit of the university, they were reluctant to use these services. As a result they produced poor job applications. However, when the same materials, workshops and staff were integrated into the formal course, students engaged. The same approach should work for teaching and edtech.

3Ai Masters 2020 Program Open

Applications are open for the 3Ai Masters 2020 program. This is at the  Autonomy, Agency and Assurance Innovation Institute (3Ai), set up by Professor Genevieve Bell, at the Australian National University in Canberra. Exactly what the Institute does it a bit hard to explain. They say "... we are building the knowledge and tools needed to ensure that as technology advances, humanity advances with it ...".

I have had the pleasure of sitting in the ANU Computer Science and Information Technology common room with the first cohort of students. They are a diverse and interesting collection of people. Some are hard core computer nerds, but with a wide range of interests.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Reflecting on Reflecting on Teaching

Greetings from the Australian National University where I am attending a workshop on "(Re)Valuing teaching philosophy statements in changing times", with Dieter J. Schönwetter. This was organized by Deborah Veness, for the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS), plus staff from ANU Training and Development Providers, and universities across Canberra.

This is one of many workshops, seminars and formal courses I have undertaken to try to learn to write a personal teaching philosophy statement. One useful question in this workshop is:
"Why develop a personal teaching philosophy statement?"
I have had to write these statement for an education course, for the HERDAS Fellowship (unsuccessfully), an MEd, and the Higher Educaiton Academy.
One thing a teaching philosophy statement is not, is a substitute for teacher training.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Qualifications of Australian Government Contractors will be Checked as Part of Security Procedures

Today I went along to a presentation at the Department of Defence about the new Defence Industry Security Program (DISP). Previously, companies and contract staff had to have a Defence contract to get a security clearance, but it was difficult to get a contract without a clearance. The new procedures allow a company to apply for DISP membership, and then tender for contracts. The company can then appoint their own Security Officer, to nominate staff for security clearances. That all makes sense, but one curious side effect is that companies will also have to check the qualifications of staff. This may require universities to improve the certification service they provide. An easily faked paper certificate will likely not be sufficient.

As well as private companies, universities can apply for DISP membership. There are four levels of membership (Entry, 1, 2, 3) and four categories (Governance, Personal Security, Physical Security, Information & Cyber Security), making a sixteen cell matrix.

Friday, July 12, 2019

How Green is My Computer? 26 July Canberra

I will be facilitating a workshop on "How Green is My Computer?", at the ACT Renewables Showcase, 10:30am, 26 July. This is at the Renewables Innovation Hub in  Canberra. Participants will estimate energy use, and carbon emissions, caused by a typical laptop computer.

High-Performance-Desktop-Replacement-Slim-Laptop by cmccarthy8  cc-by-sa nicubunu acquired from OCAL (Website) CC0 1.0
Computers > electricity > fossil fuel > CO2 > global warming.

This is an exercise from the short version, of the award winning university course "ICT Sustainability". Commissioned by the Australian Computer Society. The course has also been offered by the Australian National University, and Athabasca University (Canada). I am a member of the ANU Energy Change Institute.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Grid "duct-taped together" says ANU Entrepreneurial Fellow

Greetings from the Shine Dome at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra, where Dr Lachlan Backhall is presenting the ANU Entrepreneurial Fellow Inaugural address. In introducing Lachlan, Professor  Schmidt,
the Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University recalled how he had sought advice on renewable energy for his farm. His battery/solar system can now provide power during a blackout, and provide a good financial return. The VC commented that this is a "dumb" solar system, and much more is possible with the smart energy technology Dr Backhall has championed.

In his address Dr Backhall pointed out that the introduction of electricity was heralded as a revolution in energy use, but was resisted by entrenched industry. Also towns in regional NSW from 1888 acted to provide their own electricity supply and this has parallels with today's micro-grids. Apart from regulatory issues, Dr Backhall suggested that communities need to work how how they can share energy storage facilities.

Dr Backhall also pointed out that almost all tramways in Australia had been electrified by the start of the twentieth century. At this time there were few cars, but one third were electric, with lead acid batteries. The short range of these cars was addressed with public charging facilities hand battery swap schemes. While electric cars declined in the 1920s, he suggested some of the business models from this era may have parallels today. He suggested by the 2020s electric cars will have displaced internal combustion engines. He also speculated that electric cars might be used to transport energy: charge at point point and then drive somewhere are discharge into the grid.

Dr Backhall mentioned that there was early debate as to when streetlights should be turned out, as people should be home in bed. He did not point out that streetlights were previously off five nights, each lunar month, when the full moon was bright enough to see by (da Cruz, 2013).

Dr Backhall concluded by describing our electrical system as "duct-taped together", and suggesting there were better engineered options including renewable energy. He also said "No one in their right mind would build a new coal fired power station in Australia today".

Monday, July 8, 2019

Education and big data in Australia

Writing in EduResearch Matters, Buchanan and McPherson (2019), discuss banning of smart phones in public schools, companies collecting data about students, data collection in schools for educational purposes, and the monitoring of individual students performance using learning management systems. However, the authors have conflated related, but separate topics.

Bans on student mobile devices are intended to reduce student distraction. This has nothing to do with collection of data about students. I suggest it would be better to teach students, particularly older students, how to use mobile devices responsibly, than banning them. I am old enough to have been shown how to make an emergency phone call at school: is that still done?

Data collection via social media, and mobile devices by corporations is an issue, but not one exclusively for teachers. What is a school issue is the use of corporate educational sites which are “free”, but collect student data for resale. Teachers should not use Apps which infringe their students privacy.

Extensive standardized testing of students predates the Internet, but is facilitated by it, as in the example of online NAPLAN. What needs to be remembered is collecting data is not in itself useful. Also there has been extensive research on how such testing can be harmful.

The propensity of school systems to measure students and try to put their behavior (not just their academic knowledge), on some sort of scale is facilitated by a greater ability to collect data. But then again there should be a good reason and evidence, this actually works.
If the data is not being collected for a good educational reason, then I suggest teachers have a professional responsibility not to collect it.

Like many AARE articles, this one portrays teachers as powerless employees required to carry out the instructions of their employers. I suggest teachers need to assert their professional status, and decide what is in the interests of their clients (the students), as all professionals are ethically required to do. Where data collection is not educationally justified, or is harmful, teachers have an ethical obligation not to collect that data. Teachers need to put in place guidelines, and then lobby collectively to have them adopted by school systems.


Buchanan, R., & McPherson, A. (2019). Teachers and learners in a time of big data. Journal of Philosophy in Schools, 6(1). URL

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Federal Capital University Proposed for Australia in 1910

At the Australian National University's Forum for early-and mid-career teachers and researchers yesterday, one of the speakers* mentioned that proposals for a Federal Capital University went back as far as the 1920s. This is supported by Davis (2013), but a quick web search showed it was actually in 1910 that the Minister responsible for what became Canberra, proposed a university:
Something of the nature of a university that "will lick creation" is promised by the Minister of Home Affairs (Mr. O Malley) at the Federal capital site. "We intend to have a real democratic university and an advanced university," said the Minister in reply to a question yesterday. "In my opinion the universities of Australia should be reconstructed on different lines. This university we are going to establish will be saturated with the same sympathetic spirit as is found in the advanced guard of Christian democracy today, it will cater principally for the people, not for the sons of boodlers."
    From "Federal Capital University", The Advertiser, page 13, 19 October 1910 (Trove Archive).
Apart from the reference to "Christian" democracy, much of what the Minister foresaw is still relevant to ANU today. This includes an emphasis on an "advanced university", but one "for the people", not the children of the wealthy ("Boodler" was a derogatory term for a rich person).

* I can't say who said this at the forum, as we were operating under the Chatham House Rule.


Davis, Glyn. The Australian idea of a university [online]. Meanjin, Vol. 72, No. 3, Spring 2013: 32-48. Availability: <;dn=640753171641857;res=IELLCC> ISSN: 0025-6293.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Latex: a heavy duty publishing tool for serious academic publishing

Last week I was finishing a paper for a computer education conference. This was using the Libre Office open source word processor. Suddenly I realized I was using the wrong tool, and changed to LaTex. This was not an easy change, even for some who had used Latex before (decades ago), but it was worthwhile.

The problem was that every time I made a small edit to my document, I had to tinker with the layout. Each time I added a reference I had to change the referencing list. In the past I made do with things by hand for APA references, but IEEE style references required renumbering each time. Over the years I had tried various bibliographic plugins, but none worked well with Libre Office.

In 1999 and 2000, I used Latex to produce two books: Net Traveler, and Universal service? (by Michael Bourk). LaTex is a tool developed for complex academic works. While Latex worked well for the books, it was cumbersome to use for small projects. Latex works a bit like writing web pages with HTML, or writing a computer program. You include commands in your text for the formatting and images. You then have to have this rendered to see what it looks like.

After a computer upgrade in the late 2000s, I did not bother reinstalling Latex. The next time I was preparing a book, this was done as a byproduct of a website. It was easier to import the HTML files into Open Office, and use that for the typesetting (Open Office, and its successor Libre Office can work directly with HTML files). There were not many references, so I did them manually.

I then spent about seven years as a graduate student. I had to write a lot of assignments, and a large e-portfolio. However, as this was in the social sciences (teaching), the APA format was used, which is easy enough to do with a word processor. My Masters capstone was a web based e-portfolio, so a conventional publishing system was not needed (although I did produce a book from this with Libre Office).

Decades years later, I was sitting in a tedious academic meeting, fiddling with my draft of a paper for a conference. I decided I should give Latex another go (my colleagues had been telling me this for decades). I looked at versions of Latex for Linux, but there were so many to choose from, this was too hard. So instead I tried a few of the web hosed implementations, and settled on Overleaf, which is free for casual users.

Overleaf, like many Latex systems, presents a text editor on one side of the screen, and shows your formatted document on the other. You edit the text, then push a button to see what it will look like. Learning Latex is a major undertaking, and it took me some hours to remember how to do it. However, once that was done, there were the delights of entering a reference in a bibliography file, and having it correctly formatted automatically, and entering a code to say put the figure at the top or bottom of the nearest column of text. Also it was a great relief to have my document pass the conference submission system's automated format checks at the first attempt.

Using Latex is as much about unlearning things, as learning them.  You need to forget about the fonts and where things go on the page, and let the software worry about that. This especially the case when preparing a paper for a conference. You load the conference template and fill in your text, letting the system do the details.