Friday, May 29, 2020

Correctly Predicted in 2017 Students Online by 2020

At the moment I am talking part in the weekly ASCILITE Mobile Learning SIG (ML-SIG). There was a discussion of predictions as to what will happen with education. This reminded me that in 2017, I predicted "80% of university education to be delivered on-line by 2020". That has happened but not in the planned methodical way I had hoped.
“There is a revolution taking place in the way university students learn and I expect university degrees to be 80 per cent online by the end of the decade. This has spurred my interest in online learning, which can provide a quality education with fewer environmental impacts.”  From People: Tom Worthington, ANU College of Engineering & Computer Science
But my other prediction for 2020: Canberra the world capital, did not happen. ;-)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Continuous Delivery of Assessment

Dr Ben Swift gave a very interesting talk to tutors at the Australian National University recently about the work he has been doing using Gitlab and Continuous Integration (CI) for grading. In courses such as Art & Interaction in New Media, the tool Gitlab is used to provide an online repository of the work of each student. Students are given a template for submitting their work. As soon as uploaded, the CI feature of GitLab is  activated to carry out a series of checks specified by the lecturer of what the student submitted. These can be basic checks, such as verifying the student has included the statement it is their own work, comparison checks looking for plagiarism, and performance checks to see the code submitted does what it is supposed to. This has the considerable potential to be applied more widely to provide less stressful, more realistic assessment.

This approach might be applied beyond just computer code, to large bodies of written work with a complex structure. As Ben suggested, it would help get students out of the mindset of waiting until the last minute to submit. I suggest this could be taken further to apply the computer concept of "Continuous Delivery". With this approach the student would be expected to build a body of work in the repository, to the required standard, throughout their course. All of this work would be time and date stamped, and the student would be assessed on improvement over time, as well as quality of the finished product. A student who only deposited work in the repository shortly before a deadline would receive a grade of zero, regardless of the quality of their work, as they did not show improvement over time.

A byproduct of this approach would be to make cheating much harder. A student would have to steal, or pay for, a whole consistent body of work to be produced, not just individual assignments. They would have to deposit this work in the repository over time, in credibly sized installments, from Internet addresses consistent with their location. Multi-factor, or biometric challenges during submission could be used to make cheating even harder. Part of the student's assessment could be questions automatically generated from their own work.

Blend and Flip for Teaching Indonesian Students

The Australia-Indonesia Centre (AIC) is holding a webinar on Indonesia’s international education potential, 27 May. This will look at what Australia’s education providers can do in Indonesia, post COVID-19.
"Some institutions and businesses have seen an opportunity and patiently created a presence offshore, including in Indonesia. So how can Indonesia be part of the sector’s recovery? What are the key challenges faced in capturing opportunities in the country? Will the impact of COVID19 force a re-think in a sector that has been struggling with market diversity?  How can successfully navigate those challenges?" From Indonesia’s international education potential, AIC, 2020
As it happens I spoke at an international education conference in Yogyakarta, last December about one way Austrlaian higher educiaon instutions could provide training in Indonesia, do this, with blended leanring. The idea is internional students work in cross-cultural teams online and in person, as is already done at ANU in Canberra:
Blend and Flip for Teaching Communication Skills to Final Year International Computer Science Students, Tom Worthington, 2018 IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering (TALE). In Press. Preprint and Presentation notes available.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Don't Replace Long Paper Examinations with Electronic Ones

Last week I tried a couple of demo exams with one of the leading online exams products. While just a practice, these brought back a tinge of the terrors I suffered as a student with assessment. As an instructor, I would not use such a system for long examinations. Such examinations are not a good way to assess the knowledge, and even less so for assessing skills needed for real work tasks. In addition such examinations increase the risk to the health and safety of students. Students were already at risk of mental illness and self harm before COVID-19. They are now at higher risk, and there are better, safer, ways to carry out assessment. Online invigilated tests should have only a small part in assessing students.

There were some good points with the online exams. The compatibility test beforehand warned my CPU was too slow, but it worked okay. I have a relatively under-powered laptop by today's standards and slow Internet connection.  This is not just because I am a cheapskate, I am doing what Ken Mattingly did for Apollo 13: make sure that if it works on my equipment, it will work for those out in the void.

The business of panning the camera around the room, to make sure no one else was present was a bit of light relief.

I has some minor quibbles:
  • The instructions said to click "I agree" but the button said "I accept". That might seem trivial, but it can unsettle an already anxious student.
  • There was no timer I could see indicating how long I had left. I did not dare look at my watch in case this was seen as cheating. Apparently there was a timer, but when someone is under stress, their attention narrows. The ATSB recently reported that two pilots landed an aircraft without the wheels down, because they were distracted.
  • I had difficulty getting the camera to accept my image. I had to move a lamp so it shone on my face, which was uncomfortable.
  • After completing all questions I could not work out how to get out of the software. I ended up closing down the browser, which in a real exam would cause additional anxiety. It turned out the exit button was just under the timer which I had not seen either.
Having tried this process twice, I could image taking a short test this way.

Overall the process was stressful, like a regular exam. There is the comfort of a familiar environment, rather than an exam room, but help is further away. If it was for a small amount of my grade (perhaps 20%) and short (around 30 minutes), this might be tolerable, just. But if for the majority of the grade in a course and for hours, there is no way I would ever contemplate sitting such a test.

I have spent a lifetime avoiding formal examinations. The first strategy is, of course, to not enroll in any course or program of study which has a long formal high stakes examination. If confronted with an examination, my first thought is: "Do I have enough marks already to skip this and still pass?". If all else fails, my options are reduced to withdrawing from the course, or the program, and then complaining to accrediting and funding authorities about the poor assessment process.

In my view, any exam should be relatively short, more like a take-home examination, than end of semester one. One issue is when the students can do it. I worry that some course designers are assuming all the students take the test at precisely the same time. This will not work well at home. There should be a period of a day, or days, over which students can choose to start their exam.

Academics and university administrators may be using online examinations in the mistaken belief that some law, policy or rule requires examinations. Even before COVID-19, there was flexibility with how assessment could be done. Assessment rules generally have a lot of detail about how to do a traditional examination, but then include a get-out clause saying that some other form of assessment can be used. Other forms of assessment take skill to design and resources to administer. But if you have been trained in how to design assessment (as I have), this can be done reliably, at reasonable cost.

Online exams and quizzes have been used previously for low stakes assessment throughout a course. The products being used now add automated invigilation. But if the student can choose when to start the exam, other measures will still be needed to make cheating harder. It is usual to have a question bank from which questions are chosen at random for each student, and some form of plagiarism detection for essays. Otherwise a student could note the questions, and pass these on others doing the exam later, so they could memorize prepared answers.

ps: Last weekend I was a Lead Mentor for the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces Logistics Hackerthon. The format is similar to ANU TechLauncher, but compressed into a few days. These are good examples of how teaching and assessment can be done in a more realistic way. Participants have to undertake a real world task, and are assessed on how well they do it. There are no formal examinations, instead participants show what they did.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Australian Parliament Looks at the Impact of COVID-19 on Learning

Mr Andrew Laming MP,
Chair of the Committee.
The Australian Parliament is looking into the impact of COVID-19 on learning, as part of its inquiry into education in remote and complex environments. The inquiry has already received 49 submissions, since starting in December 2019, but now wants to hear about the impact of the pandemic.
‘We want to expand our range of evidence into specific lessons and consequences of rapid and flexible home and online learning and teaching. The Committee hopes to learn more about how these new flexible approaches might continue to be applied in remote and complex environment long after schools return to ‘normal’ face-to-face teaching,’  Mr Andrew Laming MP, Chair of the Committee.

Friday, May 22, 2020

ANZDF Logistics Hack Awards

Greetings from the ANZDF Logistics joint hackathon awards. The judges thanked the 500 participants, 70 mentors (I was one of those), the Australian Computer Society who hosted the event, and the platform Slack.The awards were held using Zoom, which had also been used for the opening, and for several organizer meetings in between. This worked flawlessly for the awards, however, without an audience, or the winning teams, or the videos of what they did (for security reasons) the awards ceremony was a bit of an anti-climax. I suggest for this sort of event a little pomp is in order, perhaps music, envelopes opened, some trophies, and a few speeches thanking families. But at least it was short, at only 15 minutes. ;-)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Make Online Exams More Like the Real World

Universities are considering how to replace end of semester examinations. There is a technological solution with remote proctoring software such as ProctorU and Proctorio. These present the examination questions to the student on the home computer, and collect the answers. The software locks down the student's computer, so they can't look up answers on the Wikipedia. The software uses the student's web camera to see it is the student doing the test, and no one is helping. There are obvious limitations with such software, but what concerns me more is the stress it places on the student.

I have never had to take a test using online proctoring software. So I tried some practice exams. While just a practice, these brought back a tinge of the terrors I suffered as a student with conventional examinations. That could be lessened if taken with a human invigilator present (something CIT has used for years, in their libraries).

There were some good points: I was warned my CPU was too slow, but it still worked okay. I have a relatively under-powered laptop by today's standards and slow Internet connection.  This is not just because I am a cheapskate, I am doing what Ken Mattingly did for Apollo 13: make sure that if it works on my equipment, it will work for those out in the void.

Some minor quibbles:
  1. The instructions said to click "I agree" but the button said "I accept". That sounds trivial, but such things can induce panic in an already stressed student.
  2. The same questions in the quiz kept reappearing after I had answered them. This may have been a feature of the examination being used, not the proctoring software, but it was confusing.
  3. There was no timer I could see indicating how long I had left. I did not dare look at my watch in case this was seen as cheating. Later I was assured there was a timer on screen, but I never noticed it. So it might be worth pointing this out to students.  When someone is under stress, their attention narrows. The ATSB recently reported that two pilots landed an aircraft without the wheels down, because they were worried about something else
  4. I had difficulty getting the camera to accept my image. I had to move a lamp so it shone on my face, which was uncomfortable.
  5. After completing all questions I could not work out how to get out of the exam. I ended up closing down the browser, which in a real exam would cause additional anxiety.
But I can't imagine being able to sit though more than 30 minutes of this mental pressure. If confronted with it for a small proportion of the course grade (up to about 20%), I would be tempted to skip the exam and hope to pass. Otherwise I might withdraw from the course, or the program (then complain to accrediting and funding authorities).

As an instructor, I would not use such a system for long, high stakes exams, as it would be an unacceptable risk to the health and safety of students. The students were already at risk of mental illness and self harm before COVID-19. They are now at higher risk, and there are better, safer, ways to carry out assessment.
Student well-being is more an issue of those setting the exams, than the technology. These exams could be relatively short, more like a take-home examination, than end of semester one. One issue is when the students can do it. I worry that some examiners are assuming this will be like a paper examination, where all the students take the test at precisely the same time, which will not work well at home. What I suggest is a period of a day, or days, over which students can choose to start their exam.

Take Home Exams? There is a general assumption by academics that assessment has to be in the form of an examination. In fact university rules, and the laws they comply with, allow any  form of assessment. The assessment has to be rigorous, but sitting people in a room all at the same time answering the same questions is not the only way, or the best way to do this.

Online invigilated exams differ from a traditional take home examination in that there is automated invigilation and an elapsed time limit. The student can still choose when to start the online exam, if the person setting the exam allows that.

However, if the student can choose their starting time, the usual measures would need to be in place for to make cheating harder. With an online test it is usual to have a question bank from which questions are chosen at random for each student, and some form of plagiarism detection for essays. Otherwise a student could note the questions, and pass these on others doing the exam later, so they could memorize prepared answers.

ps: Last weekend I was asked to help mentor the mentors in a Logistics Hackerthon for the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces. The format is similar to ANU TechLauncher, but compressed into a few days. These provide good examples of how teaching and assessment can be done much better, without examinations.

Cambridge University Cancels Lectures Until 2021

Chapel of King's College CambridgeThe University of Cambridge (UK) has suspended mass face to face lectures until the northern summer in 2021. Small group teaching will continue in person. I suggest this is a prudent move, as mass lectures are likely to be the highest risk educational activity for COVID-19, as well as the least useful form of education. Lectures are easy to replace with video, and research shows the videos are just as useful in terms of student learning.

In 2015 I was asked by the Office of Scholarly Communication at University of Cambridge to talk to staff about how to teach students online. Dr Danny Kingsley, then Head of the Office of Scholarly Communication took some notes. At the time, the University of Cambridge was using the same Australian developed Moodle learning management system, as I used at the ANU. So Cambridge had the technology to provide online learning, if not the training or motivation to use it. 

There were some technical deficiencies: I has assumed that Cambridge lecture theaters would be equipped for video recording, as is common in Australia. But one bemused local pointed out that some of the buildings did not have indoor plumbing, let alone video. However, that is a problem easily solved. I assume that with the COVID-19 lock-down, staff now have been equipped with laptops and web cameras, adequate for recording lectures in a theater, as well as at home. 

A bigger problem than technology is teacher training, and the motivation for teaching staff to undertake it. As I was explaining at how to support students online at Cambridge , I noticed part of the audience nodding. These were teachers from a nearby polytechnic. To them e-learning was routine, as it was essential to an institution which had to provide education as cost-effectively as possible. In contrast, a research university such as Cambridge, has a business model built on research output. Teaching is important, but just part of what they do. 

For the last few years I have been considering how to the problem of improving the quality of teaching at research universities. I suggest it requires making teaching part of the syllabus for students who wish to tutor, and go on to a career in academia. This needs to be done before the student graduates, and becomes too important to be told to do teacher training. ;-)

Cambridge University does not appear to be alone with students asking for a refund, when they found themselves studying online, rather than in the hallowed halls. However, it is the small group teaching, which will continue, where the magic of Oxbridge is supposed to happen. Australian universities are also likely to first return to small group teaching first, with large lectures much later, if ever.

Even with large classes, there are ways, face to face or online, for students to get to know each other. One commonly used icebreaker is to have students form small groups to find out about each other. They then introduce each other to the whole class. This is one of the techniques which university teachers are routinely trained to use.

For those with good social skills, this can seem a very trivial and artificial. However, I was once enrolled in a course, face to face, where I never met anyone. I went to the lectures, listened to the lecturer, and went home. There was no get-to-know-you: the lecturer lectured and we were supposed to just listen, no questions, no discussion.

Icebreakers can be done online, where video conference system puts participants into small groups for a set period. Online text forums can also be used. This was done last weekend for the ANZDF logistics hackerthon, where teams were formed using Slack.

It will be interesting to see to what extent such icebreaker exercises can be held face to face, while maintaining social distancing. The Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN) had very successful First Wednesday Connect events with hundreds of people crammed in. These events have moved online. But when they can again be held in person will it work, if everyone has to keep their distance in a mostly empty room?

On my last visit to Cambridge I also dropped in to the business faculty (where the MBAs are) and talked to the equivalent of CBRIN. One insight was that most students do not participate in these activities if they are not required to. They tend to turn up shortly before they graduate, when they realize they might need to network to get a job.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Making a Better Hackerthon

At the moment I am in the post event meeting of Lead Mentors for the  joint hackathon to Secure Supply Chains for the Australian and NZ Defence Forces. The Slack communications tool used used for the event and worked well, but it has taken me about four such events to get used to it.  Here some suggestions I offered, which may be applicable to other hackerthons:

  1. Canberra start-up "OK RDY" have an app for connecting people with mentors. I mentored the project team when they won the Innovation ACT competition. There are a few products like this. Perhaps one could be used for the hackerthons.
  2. It might be useful to also have a hurdle where mentors have to sign up to Slack in advance. The idea would be to filter out the people who are very clever, and important, but might not get around to actually participating. 
  3. Coaches not lead mentors: Rather than having someone administratively in charge of a group of mentors, have people to provide advice. I took on the Coach role for GovHack 2017.
  4. For team building, something like the ANU TechLauncher process could be used. Each person with a project idea gives a very brief pitch. Those interested then sign up. The organisers then check there are not too few or too many, and do some rearrangement.
  5. Friday, May 15, 2020

    ANZDF Logistics Hack: A Blizzard of Messages.

    A joint hackathon to Secure Supply Chains for the Australian and NZ Defence Forces starts at 7pm (Canberra Time). I have volunteered to help, as a Lead Mentor, mentoring some of the mentors, who in turn provide advice to the participants). The Slack communications tool is being used for the event. This can be a little overwhelming, with a blizzard of messages. It can be easy to miss some important, in among lots of "hello I am...". This is something academics teaching online at university could useful experience, as it is similar to the bewildering flood of messages a student receives. The academic running a course may send out a message and wonder why students did not receive it. What they do not see are the other several hundred messages the student will receive from the university the same day.

    Some of the pre-reading for the hack, may be of interest:
    1. COVID-19 crisis, By Katherine Ziesing, Australian Defence Magazine, 5 April 2020
    2. Covid-19 shows Australia needs a national sovereignty strategy, by David Fawcett, Australian Strategic Policy Institute,12 May 2020
    3. Three Examples of a Supply Shock, Simplicable,6 February 2020
    4. One hundred days of the coronavirus crisis, By Inga Ting and Alex Palmer, 4 May 2020

    Universities Should Not Plan a Return to Lectures-as-Usual

    Recently US colleagues asked about plans for the return to the university campus for students, after COVID-19 lock-downs. The consensus emerging seems to be to provide for students remote online, as well as in the class at the same time. Classrooms would be equipped with microphones, cameras, screens and computers (many already are), so remote students could see and hear the instructor, as well as those in the room.

    However, I will still be taking the laptop and web camera I have been  using for teaching at home, along as a backup. That might be a useful  approach for institutions which don't have all classrooms equipped for live video.

    In Australia we are fortunate to receive reasonably consistent advice from local, state and federal authorities on COVID-19 measures. Some of this has the force of law, through health and safety legislation, as well as specific COVID-19 emergency regulations. However, there are currently no specific guidelines for universities (the ones for schools are clearly not applicable), so the closest is for workplaces.

    A prudent approach, I suggest, would be to have staff return to work first, then small group teaching, and lastly large groups. However, there are some difficult legal and ethical dilemmas, particularly with large group teaching.

    Conventional lectures, with large numbers of students, in a cramped lecture theater, probably pose the highest infection risk. Also this is the least effective form of teaching. A conventional face to face lecture is no better for student learning than watching a video. So there is no good reason to resume lectures, ever (I stopped giving lectures ten years ago). There will still be scope for a presentation by a celebrity guest speaker, and for interactive learning with a group of people,. However, I suggest universities do not plan a return to conventional lectures, with someone speaking for an hour to hundreds (most students gave up attending these years ago, anyway). Instead universities should start decommissioning, re-purposing, or demolishing, lecture theaters, to make way for flexible learning spaces.

    ANU Marie Reay Teaching Centre
    The ANU Kambri complex, opened in February 2019, provides an example of an alternate approach to large university teaching spaces. The Marie Reay Teaching Centre has six floors of entirely flat floor classrooms, with movable chairs and tables. This allows occupants to be more easily spread out, than in a fixed seating lecture theater. If conditions allow, the tables can be pushed aside and chairs arranged close togehter lecture style. During construction, I asked the engineers if the prefabricated manufactured wood panels allowed the building to be modified more easily modified than in a concrete building. The reply was that this would need just a structural engineer, and a chainsaw: in other words the building could be easily modified.

    The adjacent Culture and Events Building has multipurpose rooms with retractable theater seating. At the push of a button the tiered seating retracts into the wall, leaving a flat floor space for chairs and tables to be placed. The foresight of those who planned these buildings is to be commended.

    Thursday, May 14, 2020

    Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Learning During COVID-19

    The Australian Parliament is holding an inquiry into Education in Remote and Complex Environments and wants to hear about the impact of COVID-19 on learning and teaching. There have already been 49 submissions on other aspects of education.
    "‘The Committee has been examining how education meets the learning needs of students and how barriers in the education journey are overcome. The response of Australian schools to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need for rapid adaptation to home and online learning, has clearly accelerated the importance of flexible and well-supported responses,’ Mr Laming said.
    ‘We want to expand our range of evidence into specific lessons and consequences of rapid and flexible home and online learning and teaching. The Committee hopes to learn more about how these new flexible approaches might continue to be applied in remote and complex environment long after schools return to ‘normal’ face-to-face teaching,’ Mr Laming said."
    From: Home learning and teaching during COVID 19, Media Release, House of Representatives, 14 May 2020.

    Wednesday, May 13, 2020

    Building rapport with your students in the online mode

    I was asked at short notice to speak to university tutors on "Building rapport with your students in the online mode". Here are some thoughts:

    Building rapport with your students in the online mode 

    by Tom Worthington, MEd FHEA FACS CP IP3P
    Honorary Lecturer, Research School of Computer Science, ANU

    What is rapport?

    "a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other's feelings or ideas and communicate well."
    From: OED 

    Why Rapport?

    "Preliminary modelling by the Brain and Mind Centre suggests the COVID-19 crisis could cause up to 750 extra suicides a year ..."

    Guidelines for Rapport

    1. welcoming students through personal introductions 
    2. being responsive on discussion boards
    3. providing timely and detailed feedback
    4. encouraging deep learning through inclusive and relevant learning activities and assessments
    5. generating peer interaction over learning tasks
    6. making appropriate use of learning tools
    7. assisting with problems
    8. referring to the correct support.
    From: National Guidelines for Improving Student Outcomes in Online Learning, Cathy Stone, NCSEHE & The University of Newcastle, 2016

    Example: Learning to Reflect Instructor's Guide

    "Welcome to Learning to Reflect, I am your instructor for this module, Tom Worthington. You can contact me via the Dialogue tool in Wattle. You will find materials on the course web page. There is an e-book with a chapter for each of the topics, a description of the assignments, and activities."

    From Learning to Reflect, for ANU Techlauncher, Tom Worthington, 2019

    Learn Rapport

    Dogfooding: "the idea that someone would use the products they were making became known as 'eating your own dog food.'"
    From Harrison, W. (2006). Eating your own dog food. IEEE Software, 23(3), 5-7. Retrieved from

    Example: Coffee Courses

    "... authentic real life assessment tasks should contain the challenges of a real life work context."

    From: Principles of authentic assessment, from Assessment and Feedback, Jill Lyall and Mandy Tutalo, ANU Coffee Course, 2019

    Making Doctoral Degrees More Useful

    Professor Inger Mewburn, The Thesis Whisperer,  has warned of a imminent economic crisis in higher education and called on those involved with doctoral education to change what they do now, before the crisis hits. While I agree we need doctoral degree graduates, changing the PhD is not the only way to do it. We need more Professional Doctorates, which are specifically designed to train people with the highest skills for industry.

    Professor  Mewburn suggests more time be spent on students "developing their full professional selves". Students need to learn to present in public and be more outward looking, as they are unlikely to find a job in the department where they trained, or in any university department, anywhere.  While I agree with all of this, Professor  Mewburn has overlooked the Professional Doctorate. This is a degree at the same level as a PhD, but focused on the needs of professionals working in industry.

    In a way it does not much matter if PhDs are reformulated to be professional doctorates in all but name, or genuine professional doctorate programs are introduced alongside PhDs. In either case, universities , need to make some hard decisions to make this happen, quickly. Otherwise economic conditions will make the decisions for them.

    Hackathon Friday to Secure Supply Chains for the Australian and NZ Defence Forces

    Senator Reynolds,
    Australian Minister for Defence

    Senator Linda Reynolds, the Australian Minister for Defence, announced today the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces will host a joint hackathon to strengthen supply chains. This is to be run by the Australian Computer Society (ACS), starting this Friday. Australians and New Zealanders have been asked to contribute ideas to secure the logistics of our military, in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as recent bushfires, earthquakes and floods.

    Participation can be as team members, mentors and partners. The event will be held over three days, with  the same hackerthon format as used for the Flatten the Curve hack in April. On day one teams are formed, day two they design and build, and on day three they refine and present their proposals, which are judged for prizes.

    ps: I have volunteered to help, with my experience working at Australian Defence Force Headquarters in the 1990s, while President of the ACS, developing national policy online as part of what the media called the Internet "Cabal".

    Tuesday, May 12, 2020

    More Flexibility from Accreditation Bodies During Pandemic

    Five organizations with members who train medical and other professionals have called on accreditation bodies to be more flexible during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Australian Council of Professions (ACoP), Universities Australia (UA), the Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia (ITECA), the Australian Collaborative Education Network (ACEN) and the Independent Higher Education Australia (IHEA) are concerned that accreditation procedures may slow the supply of trained staff when they are needed most.

    The problem is that front line professionals need hands-on training, supervision and testing, but this is difficult to provide due to lock-downs and stringent processes at places of employment. With the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA), they are supporting creation of principles for professional accreditation during the COVID-19 pandemic. The aim is to maintain quality while there are fewer reduced availability of Professional Placements available, and with measures such as online assessments required.

    However, the first of the proposed principles I don't agree with: 
    a. Professional accreditation bodies recognise that during the current pandemic higher education providers must attend to educational delivery and student needs first.

    In a pandemic, the need of the community for intimidate support comes first, with education of students a lower priority. All professional codes of ethics state that the needs of the community override those of the individual professionals and their organizations. Trained staff are needed now to save lives, so training programs may be shortened, and students asked to volunteer for font-line duty, sooner than they otherwise would. As future professionals, this is a valuable lesson for students: my needs do not come first.

    One way I suggest accreditation bodies can help, without compromising standards, is though online working and allowing online training and assessment. The need to physically visit and meet with educators should be replaced with an online option, and not hours of tedious Zoom meetings: a genuine online, efficient process.

    The use of online forms of reporting by and of students in placement should be encouraged. Much of the tedious paperwork which takes up everyone's time can be put online, streamlined, and in some cases eliminated all together. Some years ago I helped the University of Queensland develop a system for online reporting of occupational therapy students in professional practice placements. This took several attempts and revisions, to get something practical for use in a clinical environment. This proved a lot harder than it first looked.

    To a large extent, the need for reporting can be replaced with monitoring of the online logs already kept routinely in the workplace. The Australian National University provides an example of this with its TechLauncher program. Students undertake team projects for real clients, as part of the requirements for Australian Computer Society professional accreditation. Students use online tools to collaborate. A byproduct of this is that the tools keep a log of what every student did, stamped with the time and date they did it. Examiners have access to all the logs, so they do not have to rely on what students, and their clients, say they did. Students, clients and instructors, can also report on the quality of student work, as it is happening, rather than waiting until long after the event.

    Friday, May 8, 2020

    Lets Do Online Learning for Social Distancing

    Swinburne University's "Let's Do This" TV advertisement for e-learning has been slightly modified from previous years, to allow for social distancing (I can find the modified version online). This was originally produced by the creative team of director Curtis Hill, DP Joel Betts and Producer Elise Trenorden. In past years Swinburne have had the less silly TV ads for online courses. It will be interesting to see how the universities which have offered online courses in the past, and marketed them on TV, handle the current situation, where just about all students at all universities are studying online. This raises some difficult quesitons for the universities which are members of the Open Universities Australia consortium: if they have been able to provide most courses for most students online, why not keep doing that?

    Is a New Canberra Campus Needed?

    UNSW Canberra at ADFA are planning a new university campus in Canberra, on the site of the old Canberra TAFE. The current UNSW Canberra campus is described as being "now at capacity". However, universities are currently teaching online, with almost all students and staff off campus. That situation will change in the next few months, as students and staff return to campus. But, the COVID19 emergency has accelerated the long term trend to e-learning.

    As this is integrated into routine university teaching, the capacity of Canberra's university campuses will increase five-fold. Domestic students will only need to be on campus for about one day a week and international students in Australia only for a brief part of their studies, if at all. There is scope to repurpose some of the surplus space for research and for co-working, but even so, there is likely to be more than enough space on Canberra's campuses for the foreseeable future

    It does make sense to reuse the old Canberra TAFE site for a university, but it is unlikely Canberra will have the hundreds of thousands of additional students which this, and the existing campuses, could accommodate. 

    Sunday, May 3, 2020

    Undergraduate Certificates to be Added to AQF

    The Australian Government announced funding for short online university programs, in response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus, on 12 April 2020. There are 77 programs offer from today on the Courseseeker website (look for course category: "Short course"). These are undergraduate certificates (46) and graduate certificates (31), requiring six months full time study. While welcome, I suggest government make some improvements to the scheme, to allow for part-time study, nested programs, and mutual recognition of the certificates. Also I suggest incorporation of compulsory peer support training in all certificates, to address the elevated mental health risk, particularly for young people isolated at home, studying online, during a pandemic.

    Study Areas

    The emphasis in the announcement was on areas of study to help with the COVID-19 emergency. This is reflected in the programs offered. With health, including aged care and biomedical science, the largest offering, followed by education:

    Study Area Number of Programs
    Health 25
    Education 18
    Information Technology 10
    Engineering & Related Technologies 9
    Agriculture, Environment & Related Studies 5
    Natural & Physical Sciences 5
    Architecture & Building 3
    Society & Culture 2
    Total 77

    Acceptance of Certificates

    The Minister for Education, Dan Tehan,  caused confusion at the time of the announcement by describing these as "micro-credentials" and "diploma certificates". What are being offered are six month full time programs. A micro-credential is much shorter, requiring only hours, days or weeks of study, not six months. A diploma requires a year of study.

    A Graduate certificate is a well known, well understood, and legally recognized term. Such programs have been used in the past as a way for someone from a discipline to gain extra skills and knowledge to work in a specialization. A Graduate Certificate in Australian Migration Law is one path to registration as a migration agent. A certificate in cyber security is useful for an IT professionals to work in security. It can also be an entry point to further studies. As an example, I undertook a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education, to help me learn to teach, and to then go on to a Masters of Educaiton.

    Graduate certificates are a low risk, low cost, well understood option for universities to provide. The students are more mature than undergraduates, so are easier to teach. The course materials and classes can be shared with graduate diploma and masters programs.

    Legality and Acceptance of Undergraduate Certificates

    While graduate certificates are well known, as Andrew Norton points outundergraduate certificates’ are not currently recognized in the Australian education system. If a private for-profit educational institution was to offer such a qualifcaiton, they could expect legal action from regulators. However, public universities are offering these with the blessing of government, with legal status to be conferred retrospectively.

    While legal status may not be a major problem, industry acceptance and pedagogy may, with undergraduate certificates. It is likely that the certificates will have been created in the same way as graduate certificates, from components of longer diplomas and bachelor programs. As an example, UWS with its Undergraduate Certificate in Information and Communication Technology offers the possibility of credit towards a degree, and presumably the certificate is built from that degree. However, unlike graduate students, these undergraduate students may be new to university study, as well as to online study. It takes time for a young person (the minimum age is 17 years) to get used to study at university, as well as life in general.

    While the undergraduate certificates are being offered as standalone qualifications, I suggest they would be better as the first part of a nested qualification. That is, it would be assumed the student was intending to go on to undertake a diploma, and from there a degree. Ideally this would allow for blended learning. That is the student would undertake some study online and some on campus. My rule of thumb is that a typical student would be on campus for 20% of their study, about one day a week (obviously where COVID-19 restrictions allow).

    Do We Need Undergraduate Certificates When We Have VET Ones?

    While graduate certificates have been accepted as a qualification for particular roles, undergraduate certificates have not. The Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector already has a well established set of qualifications for jobs in the fields the undergraduate certificates are being offered in. These VET  qualifications have been recognized in laws, and in industry hiring practices. The VET sector is experienced in turning out students who are ready with practical skills needed for a very specific workplace role. However, universities have focused on much longer programs and more general higher level skills. In some cases universities have formed partnerships with VET institutions (or have VET arms), where the student does enough training in VET sector to get a job, then then transitions to university for a degree. It is not clear there is really a need for vocationally useful undergraduate certificates, or than Australia's universities are equipped to provide them.

    There is also a lack of alignment between VET sector and university qualifications. As an example, to be able to teach in the VET sector, I was required to complete a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment. This was despite already having a Graduate Certificate in the field of education. In practice I was able to obtain 80% of the VET certificate based on my university experience and education. Even so this took months of elapsed time and payment of additional fees.

    Will Universities Value They Own Certificates?

    Within the VET system qualifications are mutually recognized, but this does not apply between VET and university, between or within universities. A student who has completed a unit of study at a public or private VET institution has that automatically accepted at any other for credit. However, the UWS Undergraduate Certificate in IC&T "may be credited towards the degree". In this case the university is not guaranteeing to recognize its own certificate for further study, let alone one from another university. If the undergraduate certificates are to continue beyond the next six months, I suggest the government make funding conditional on universities accepting their own certificates, and those from other universities, for advanced standing.

    Need Part Time Certificates

    I suggest government allow certificates, undergraduate and graduate, to be part time.

    The certificates offered under the government COVID-19 funding are all full time. This makes sense as a short term emergency measure. The nation needs health and other workers quickly to deal with the pandemic. It is also a way to keep young people occupied while forced to remain at home. It provides them with a qualification to get a job much quicker than a degree. However, undertaking full time study online is very difficult, especially for a young inexperienced student. Adding to that isolation due to COVID-19 greatly increases the difficulty, and the risk of mental health issues.

    It has been common practice for Graduate Certificates to be offered part time. This is useful for working professionals, who cannot take six months off work to study. It is particularly useful with online study. Even so, as an online graduate student I found I could not do more than one quarter of a full time course load comfortably. This was under almost ideal conditions, where I was a mature student with very good IT skills, studying with some of the world's top online educators, and already experienced in the field I was studying. The typical young undergraduate is going to have considerable difficulty studying full time.

    Address the elevated mental health risk

    Even with all the advantages I had as an online student, it was not the fun depicted in university advertisements: it was a frightening, painful, frustrating experience. The Australian Government ,and universities, need to address the elevated mental health risks, particularly for young people isolated at home, studying online full-time, during a pandemic.

    Students are encouraged to take part in extra-curricular and co-curricular activities on campus. This can't be assumed for online students, especially not with COVID-19 measures in place. I suggest universities need to teach students how to form and maintain peer support groups online, and make this an assessed compulsory part of studies. Leaving this as something optional and voluntary, is an unacceptable risk to the health, and the lives, of students. In addition, not teaching students how to support each other will result in a higher dropout rate, and so a waste of public money.

    Saturday, May 2, 2020

    Training Tech Professionals to Teach: Part 15

    In 2016 I started looking at how to training computer professionals  to teach, and wrote 14 posts over the next three years. Part 14 was on some existing teacher training at a university.  This training has to satisfy several needs. There are experienced students who want to tutor at university, and industry professionals who want to teach part-time at university. Also this is a way to introduce new teaching and assessment techniques to university. In the previous 13 parts of this series I looked at the definition and recognition of education as part of the computing profession, and how this could be provided in a university level course. Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an added impetus for training in online learning.


    It might be asked why a semester long course in teaching is needed. University staff are already offered short courses (I have undertaken many, many of them), and whole qualifications in education (I have a couple of those). They can also undertake the excellent teacher training provided in the vocational education sector (one of those also). However, I suggest the short courses are insufficient and the longer qualifications tend to be more than is needed, at least for a beginning teachers. Also university education qualifications for academics tend to be too "academic". Someone going into teaching for the first time needs help with how to teach, then and there.

    It needs to be kept in mind that most teaching at university is not undertaken by tenured professors, it is by more junior casual and part-time staff, many of whom are students themselves. It is very difficult to convince a tenured professor to undertake a teaching course, and learn new ways to educate, but it is much easier with someone just setting out on a career, less secure in their position.


    A pragmatic reason for suggesting a formal university course in teaching for professionals is that it can also be offered as part of degree programs. Teacher training is normally thought of as a cost to the university, draining the training budget. If the course can be offered to fee-paying students, that can offset some of the cost of development. This also provides a way to fill the class of a new course.

    May tutors are students themselves. These students can be given the opportunity to gain credit towards their degree, not just a little cash, by having their teacher training formally recognized. This benefits the student, as they need not undertake teacher training in addition to their regular studies: it is part of their studies. Also this provides the soft skills employers ask for, but which it is difficult to find space for in the curriculum. Having tutors enrolled in a teaching course also has direct financial benefits to the university, as the tutor will be paying for their training. As the teaching course is a regular course, this is something the student pays the standard course fee for. 

    Teaching Techniques

    Teaching is a skill best learned by doing, with others. So I suggest a teaching course should be structured to provide just enough theory in online modules, and then require the students to teach, and help each others, in practical assignments. Students can undertake this concurrently with their teaching, and use that teaching as the subject of their assignments. This approach is commonly used in teacher training. The course can also provide an exemplar for the way university education should be provided, with the emphasis on students working in teams on practical projects which are assessed, assisted by a teacher. There need be no lectures or examinations, as these are not particularly effective teaching or assessment techniques. The assessment can be pass/fail, as that is more effective than the complex scales currently used by universities.


    There have been many proposals for micro-credentials. That is a qualification much shorter than the typical six months full time study required for the shortest AQF aligned university qualifications.  Micro-credentials are an appealing idea, but difficult to implement. To simplify the process, a course in teaching could be divided into three or four micro-credentials. These could then be offered to industry professionals for development. Those who complete all the micro-credentials would receive one course credit.

    Government Funding for University Teacher Training

    The Australian Government is  funding undergraduate and graduate certificates as part of the COVID-19 response. These are six month online full-time programs. It is not proposed to create a CECS teaching certificate, just one course. However, the Minister for Education mentioned micro-credentials, and so it may be possible to obtain funding for these:
    " We had a major report done on the Australian Qualifications Framework, and they, it suggested that we should move to what this, what they call, micro-credentialing, short courses. So, we’ve used these opportunities to say, ‘Alright, well, let’s push ahead with this, and let’s really give it a go for the next six months'."