Thursday, August 29, 2019

Global Urban Sustainability Science

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where Professor Felix Creutzig from Technical University Berlin is speaking on "Data-scientific approaches for a global urban sustainability science". This is very relevant to Australia, where, we have rapid unplanned growth of cities.

Professor Creutzig began by pointing out that cities are growing, and a large proportion of their carbon emissions are from building the cities. He then pointed out the New York City Green New Deal (OneNYC 2050). However, Professor Creutzig pointed out that most cities are too small to employ specialists to work on such strategies. Studies carried out by researchers, he argued,  tend to be on a large scale, without the fine scale specifics to be of practical use, while small local studies do not have the needed scale. We then got the pitch on how "typologies" with machine learning could be used to fill the gap.

Professor Creutzig started with some simple statistical analysis of cities characteristics. He the introduced a simple topology of cities, by characteristics features such as energy use, GDP, and population density. What I found odd was that the data analysis for this was carried out using published case studies, not actual data from the cities. It worried me this did not seem to e "big data" or machine learning, just a conventional meta-analysis. Also this has built in the biases of whoever collected the data, as to what they though important about cities. Researchers and statistical agencies collect data based on existing theories of cities.

What "big data" and machine learning now offers is the opportunity to use much more fine grained data. I thought Professor Creutzigwas going to go on to discuss this. But instead he talked about an analysis of papers on the use of machine learning applied to climate change mitigation. This might be of some use for someone who was considering setting out to apply AI to urban planning. However, it is not actually applying AI to urban sustainability.

Professor Creutzig has published extensively on the topic.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Active Learning Classroom Designs

Thirty Seat Classroom at
Anteater Learning Pavilion.
Image by UC Irvine.
UC Irvine has an excellent video about their Anteater Learning Pavilion, built last year. They have a mix of room designs, the smaller having more movable furniture. The smallest rooms have tablet-arm chairs on casters, which can be moved by the students. The medium size rooms having tables on casters, but tethered by power and A/V cables to the floor. The largest room has seats fixed to the floor.

250 Seat Lecture Hall at
Anteater Learning Pavilion.
Image by
UC Irvine.

I like the smaller room designs. However, the 250 seat "Lecture Hall" looks to me an uncomfortable compromise between a conventional lecture theater and an active teaching space. I suggest two separate rooms would be better: one with a flat floor for active learning and one with stepped theater seating for conventional lectures. This would make better use of space, and each learning mode would be better accommodated.

The Australian National University went a step further, and built two separate buildings, one with theater seating for lectures (the Culture and Events Building), and one with flat floors for active learning (the Marie Reay Teaching Centre). Some of the lecture theatres in the Culture and Events Building also have retractable seating to provide very flat floor spaces. I have used the Marie Reay building for large student workshops.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Risks to Australian Universities from China Student Boom

Salvatore Babones (2019) has produced a detailed 44 page analysis of the risks to Australian universities from over-reliance on funding from Chinese students. The language used is alarmist: "... multi-billion dollar gamble with taxpayer money to pursue a high-risk, high-reward international growth strategy ...". Australian universities have a high proportion of international students from one source, however I suggest this does not necessarily translate into a financial risk.

The report focuses on seven universities: Melbourne, ANU*, Sydney, UNSW, UTS, Adelaide and UQ. Babones points out that China is the largest source of inbound international students, making up more than half. These make up 13%  to 22-23% of student fees for the universities.

Australian universities have a high proportion of international students from one source. However, a point the report does not emphasize is that much of the cost of teaching students is variable: as the revenue from students drops, so does the cost of teaching them. This reduces the financial risk to the university.

While Australian universities have a high proportion of international students in comparison with other countries, they still only make up 25% of the student population (with half from China). So if students from China were to cease, this would only reduce overall student numbers by 12.5%. That would be a serious concern for some areas of universities, particularly business studies, but not a risk to  institutions overall. There would be some excess teaching space, however, these are currently undergoing reconfiguration and replacement, as lectures are replaced with flexible learning.

I suggest a larger concern for universities should be the changes taking place in the way education is provided, and what forms of qualifications will be demanded by the workplace. Universities have argued that there is a synergy between their education and research roles. This was always a questionable link, as researchers do not necessarily make good teachers. Also the shift to online education places at risk university's business model. The demand for smaller, even micro, credentials, also presents a challenge for universities.

Universities, and university educators, are not just sitting back waiting for disaster. They are actively changing the way Australian university education is provided. As someone who designs courses for, and teaches, international students.


Babones, Salvatore. The China Student Boom and the Risks It Poses to Australian Universities, Analysis Paper 5, , Sydney, Centre for Independent Studies, August 2019

Monday, August 19, 2019

Digital Learning For Behavioural Change

I was skeptical, and slightly worried, by the title of Haymarket HQ's talk last Friday: "The Future of Digital Learning to Drive Behavioural Change" by So-Young Kang, Founder of Gnowbe. Haymarket HQ is a start-up center in Sydney's Chinatown, specializing in helping Australian businesses expand into China. But the behavioral change So-Young talked about was not some sort of Orwellian brainwashing, but helping people get ready for new jobs.

So-Young emphasized a mobile first approach to online learning, rather than mobile responsive. The latter is for on-line delivery to desktop computers, but uses features in web technology to ensure the display is adjusted if the student has a mobile device. With real mobile-first, the screen display, the content, and the course, is designed with mobile devices in mind. This requires much smaller units of learning.

With my course design I started with desktop orientation, about ten years ago, and started incorporating more mobile features using responsive design over the last five years. I now assume the student will study the material on a mobile device, do the quizzes and forum interaction, but still use a desktop computer for the major written assignments.

So-Young talked of both businesses and universities using Gnowbe products for staff and students. What was most interesting was using this for people skills. Academics and teachers could look at some of these techniques. What is yet to be explored in detail is how this will fit with conventional post-secondary learning. Are VET and university qualifications to be replaced by micro-learning? I suspect not, but it may be supplemented, or supported by this.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Cyber security Mentoring Program

Greetings from the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN), where ACT Minister, Mick Gentleman, just launched the OKRDY Cyber Edition Mentoring Program. An online system will match people with cyber security experience (mentors), with those could benefit from it (mentees). Added to the usual difficulty of matching people, is the needed to considered security clearances.

"A Canberra-based cyber security mentoring program helping local students connect with cyber professionals, organisations and government. OK RDY Cyber Edition is NOT simply a once off event, but a program of activities across, panels, mentorship matching, employer tours, social media and much more.

Our goal is to foster Canberra’s local cyber ecosystem, demystify cyber careers and help employers identify emerging cyber talent. This activity will develop a pipeline of job-ready cyber graduates in Canberra and collectively help to achieve greater employability, diversity and cultural outcomes for the cyber industry."

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Learning to Reflect Module Version 2.0

I have updated my "Learning to Reflect" learning module for the ANU TechLauncher program this semester. The students are guided in how to prepare a job application. In the process they learn long term professional skills to identify their development needs, how they will acquire these and to reflect on what they have learned. The materials are available under a creative commons license for modification and reuse.


The notes and videos contain content intended for instructors, as well as students, to be used in conjunction with online exercises, and face-to-face workshops. Students will be prompted by the Moodle Learning Management System, as to which parts to read, and when to read them.

1. Learn

In this first of two parts, you will investigate what you need to learn for your project, and long term for your career. In scope here, are both technical skills and also professional and teamwork skills. The aim is to prepare you to be a professional in your field, which includes the ability to take charge and responsibility for your future professional development.

2. Report and reflect

In this second and last part, you will reflect on what you have learned. The assignment task is to select a real position to prepare an application cover letter for, and revise the responses to selection criteria prepared in assignment 1.


Monday, August 12, 2019

Vocational Education as an Alternative to University

The Grattan Institute has released a report which suggests vocational education and training (VET), as an alternative to university, for  students with low school results. Research by Norton, Cherastidtham, and Mackey (2019), suggest that, for those with a low low-ATAR, VET produces higher lifetime incomes than university, particularly for males.

The authors views on female education perhaps may be more controversial. They point out that engineering occupations are male-dominated. They then seem to suggest that women would be better off sticking to traditional female occupations of  teaching and nursing. In terms of public policy, I suggest we need to be changing this situation and not reinforcing existing discrimination through education policy.


Norton, A., Cherastidtham, I., and Mackey, W. (2019).
Risks and rewards: when is vocational education a good alternative to higher education?. Grattan Institute.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Australia Pacific Security College

Hon Marise Payne,
Minister for Foreign Affairs
Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs, announced the creation of an Australia Pacific Security College (APSC), 10 August. This will be established with the Australian National University, to "deliver strategic security and leadership training to Pacific security agencies".

An APSC Design Summary is available. It is envisaged the APSC activities could include "... workshops, seminars, courses, secondments and online resources...". I suggest that this could be flipped, to make online resources the priority. The Pacific is a big place*, and the students will learn better if they spend most of their time at work, in their own country, studying online. They can keep in touch with their teachers, and peers in other countries, in online forums. There are well established processes for doing this.

Tom Worthington speaking on e-learning in Colombo
One outcome expected of the APSC is an "... active network of security officials across the region ...". This network, I suggest, could be supported by a secure online network, linking the staff, students, and alumnus. Given the ANU has already been the victim of a data breach, the APSC will make a tempting target, so additional measures, such as two factor authentication, might be used.

* In 2005 I conducted a five day workshop in Samoa for staff from museums around the South Pacific region, on the use of computer and telecommunications technologies. I spent most of a day traveling to Apia, but due to the International Dateline, I arrived shortly before I left. ;-)

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Australian Governments Agree to Reform Vocational Education

Representatives of Australia's federal, state and territory governments issued a Communique yesterday committing to work to reform Vocational Education and Training (VET). This claimed that "VET and higher education are equal and integral parts of Australia’s post-secondary education system". Unfortunately that has not been the policy or practice of Australian governments. The Federal government mismanaged VET funding, allowing rorting by private training providers, while while state governments starved their TAFEs for funding. A new COAG Skills Council will provide a reform roadmap "in early 2020". The same meeting also discussed boosting infrastructure. A major impediment to this is enough skilled labor, trained by the VET sector.
"A vision for skills in Australia

A strong Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector is critical for our economy and ensuring Australians are equipped for the workforce now and in the future. Leaders agreed to a shared vision for VET delivering high quality education and training that meets the needs of students and employers. VET and higher education are equal and integral parts of Australia’s post-secondary education system. The Commonwealth and states and territories will work together to deliver a system which helps all Australians – for those getting first qualifications or re-training – get the skills they need for employment. Skills ministers will work together through a new COAG Skills Council, in consultation with education ministers, to advise leaders on future reform priorities by the end of 2019 and provide a reform roadmap to COAG in early 2020."

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Potential Improvements and Rorts With New Australian University Performance Measures

Dan Tehan, the Australian Federal Minister for Education, has announced that funding to universities will be "performance-based". Measures will be: graduate employment, first-year student completion rate, student satisfaction with teaching quality, plus participation of Indigenous, low socio-economic status, and regional and remote students. This provides opportunities for better teaching, but also a risk of rorts.

There was a review process, and the final report is available. I was surprised with the relatively mild response from Vice-chancellors, who met with the minister.

What might have worried the VCs was that the Minister said the "core business" of universities was "producing job-ready graduates with the skills to succeed in the modern economy". That is more the job of the vocational sector, including TAFEs. Universities have a far wider, long term role, even if just considering narrow economic outcomes. Universities produce inventions, and experts to implement them, but this process can take a decade, or more. Financial incentives which encourage universities to take a short term view could stop the flow of inventions and highly skilled people, stalling the economy.

Example of for Better Teaching

Having new funding linked metrics could provide an incentive for universities to use better teaching techniques. As an example, last year I designed a learning module to teach students to reflect on their learning, by having them write a job application. I ran this last semester for ANU Master of Computing international students. The module uses the full range of scaffolded m-learning, blended, flipped, peer assessed, group techniques I have been learning over the last six years, as a student of education.

This module was well received by the students, and is being run for all computer science students this semester in the ANU TechLauncher program. These students will have a better chance of getting a job as they will have been formally trained in looking for jobs and have had their application peer reviewed. The learning module is available under a Creative Commons license for free reuse.

The first-year student completion rate can be improved by better scaffolding of the education, project based group work, and a blend of online and classroom education. These techniques are well known, and I explored some in my book "Digital Teaching In Higher Education".

Opportunities for Better Student Performance

Student satisfaction with teaching quality can similarly be improved with better teaching techniques, and in particular with better assessment. But the best way to improve the student experience, I suggest,  is to employ trained, qualified educators. Academics will not willingly undertake teacher training and certification. One way around this is to incorporate the training in vocational degrees. Rather than treat teaching as an afterthought which an academic halfheartedly picks up after their formal education, make it part of the training of all professionals in their degrees.

Participation of Indigenous, low socio-economic status, and regional and remote students can be assisted with wider access to online education. This allows those with cultural, family, or work commitments to study without moving to a city. Also the rigorous design process required for online courses produces better courses, which can take into account the needs of non-traditional students. During my MEd studies I explored how to provide e-learning for high quality education.

One difficulty with online education is that it may not do well with the new metrics.  Online students take longer to complete and drop out at a higher rate. This is not due to any inherent problem with the teaching format, but because these courses attract students who are excluded from campus programs. The same factors which stop them attending on campus also result in lower, slower, completion rates.

Improved Teaching Techniques But Potential Gaming of New Metrics

New teaching techniques can improve completion rates and job outcomes. However, these may also be misused to game the system and manipulate the metrics for financial gain by unscrupulous operators. Coming up with reliable measures to base funding on will take considerable effort. The rorting of the vocational funding system shows how inventive people and organizations can be when it comes to exploiting an education funding system. Some obvious examples of how the new measures could be gamed:
  1. Graduate employment: The best students to have for vocationally oriented programs are those who already have a job, or have relevant work experience. Some educational programs require this, as an essential part of work integrated learning (and some professional bodies require it as part of degree accreditation). Due to the difficulty of finding suitable jobs for students, some universities have set up their own consulting companies to employ the students. However, these measures could be misused to make the employment statistics of look better.
  2. First-year student completion rate: Students who have already successfully completed a sub-degree program are much more likely to complete their degree. This can be done, by having students undertake a certificate, or diploma at a vocational education institution, in some cases associated with the university. Those students then get degree credit for their VET studies.  Similarly, universities can offer credit for completion of low cost cost online "MOOC" courses. Another approach is to enroll the students in nested program, where they get a sub-degree qualification first. These are all good ways to improve student outcome, but can be misused to game the statistics. Students enrolled at VET, in online MOOCs, and sub-degree programs do not don't count in the university degree statistics, so those who drop out are not counted.
  3. Student satisfaction with teaching quality: Progressive assessment, where the student is given small tests through their course, provide better feedback.  This allows students who are not succeeding at a subject to withdraw early, and focus on other studies. I use this approach routinely in courses, and the students like seeing how they are doing. However, this might be used to make the student satisfaction scores look better. Students who fail a course tend to give lower satisfaction scores. However, with progressive assessment, students withdraw before the end of the course. These students are not recorded as a fail, which is good, but also they do not get to fill in the student feedback survey, as it is administered at the end of the course, after they have withdrawn.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Learning to Reflect Videos

Having revised the "Learning to Reflect" module notes for ANU TechLauncher students, it was time to revise the video. This is a time-consuming and exacting process, even for someone with training in video production.

Last semester I produced this by first making a slideshow presentation, which was also used live in the classroom. I prepared a script based on what was in the module notes, rearranged to match the sequence in the video. I then turned each slide into an image, and the script into synthetic speech. The slides and audio were then imported into a video editing package and timed to match the audio. The results were not perfect, but like Samuel Johnson's piano playing dog: "It's not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."  ;-)

This time I decided to try Content Samurai, after it was demonstrated at PitchEd NSW. This is a web based tool which takes a script, and searches for suitable video clips, or still images,  based on the key phrases. The service will then turn the script into synthetic speech timed to the video. This process works remarkably well. The Australian accented male voice provided is much better than those I have used previously. I did have to slow down the narration to 80% of full speed, and lower the volume of the background music to 5%.

After some experimentation I found I could set the system to add a new scene for each paragraph in the script. I could then hide the text, otherwise it would put it as a caption on screen. Also I could upload my slides in place of some of the auto suggested clips. This way my slides are interspersed with the suggested filler scenes.

Here is what the video looks like generated by automatically, with the defaults (video selected from keywords, scene transitions, animated text). This version was not usable:

I then changed the settings, to use only still images, and have one per paragraph, with no animation, or scene transitions:

One problem was that rendering was very slow (but video rendering is always slow). I found it could be faster by using still images, rather than video clips. The rendering took about six minutes for a six minute video. Also I created a plain black template for the slides, with no shaded pattern.

One option I would like is to reduce the bit-rate of the audio. For an educational video you need only low quality mono sound.

One tip is to set your slide maker (I use LibreOffice) for 16:9 format slides, to match a modern widescreen TV. Then generate the slides images at the resolution required. Full HD TV is 1,920x1,080. Content Samurai produced the lower resolution 1,280x720HD TV format typically used for broadcast TV, but down sampled my higher resolution slides very cleanly.

I could not find a way to prepare closed captions within Content Samurai, so I uploaded the video to YouTube, and then downloaded the VTT file it produced. I then uploaded this to the Moodle website, for the students.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Square One Coworking Space at ANU

The Australian National University has announced "ANU Square One",  a coworking space for "student entrepreneurs working on projects, startups or freelancing". There will be a launch at 5pm, 21 August 2019. Students can apply now to be "onsite" members. As an ANU alumnus, I have applied to be an "off-site" member, to work on the "Async-Sync Learning System".

Thursday, August 1, 2019

InnovationACT 2019 Team Hunt Tuesday

InnovationACT 2019 starts Tuesday in Canberra, with a Team Hunt. This is a ten-week entrepreneurship program, for teams of two to five ANU students (plus a possible "Wildcard entry"). Teams can work on social enterprises, or for-profit ideas.  Teams can share from $50,000 in grants,to develop their idea. I have mentored several successful teams in the past (including "OK RDY"), and volunteered again this year.