Monday, October 19, 2020

ACT Higher Education Post-COVID-19 Strategy

Canberra's universities need to change how they work to remain viable during, and after ,the COVID-19 emergency. The major post-secondary educational institutions in the ACT are the Australian National University, University of Canberra and the Canberra Institute of Technology. I have studied at all three and am on the staff at ANU, however, these suggestions do not necessarily reflect the current policy of any, or of the ACT Government. I will be discussing some of this at an ANU symposium on Thursday.

The approach to COVID-19 has been short term, assuming that it will be over in months. However, it may take years to recover and it is certain there will be further pandemics in the future. Also the geo-political situation Australia finds itself in may result in international students again being unable, or unwilling, to study on Canberra's campuses, without warning. In addition other countries are offering increasingly attractive quality online and blended learning. Both Australian and international students may decide to take up those offers, if Canberra's institutions do not have quality, cost effective, flexible educational offerings. 

1. Adapt Infection Control Measures for Institutions

Reduced distancing for students

COVID-19 restrictions in the ACT have been eased, but even the current STAGE 3 makes it difficult for educational institutions.  As an example, the ACT requires persons to remain 1.5 m apart. I propose that for educational institutions, this be reduced to the WHO recommended distance of 1 m

Where seated, people should be able to be 250 mm apart, side to side. This would allow existing fixed seating lecture theaters to be used at 50% capacity, with every second chair empty. Active lecture theaters, flexible learning spaces and laboratories could be used at full capacity. Institutions should be encouraged to build these guidelines into the design of new teaching spaces to reduce infection rates for annual respiratory infections and allow for future outbreak measures.

Tracking on campus

The ACT Government and institutions should commission a tracking application compatible with the Apple/Google Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing Standard. Unlike the current Australian Govenrment's COVIDSafe App, this would be reliable, effective and voluntarily taken up.

2. Training for Hybrid Teaching 

Canberra's university have been able to quickly introduce online learning for students unable to get to campus. Unfortunately, most people teaching at university have not been trained to teach online. and have no formal qualifications for doing so. Vocational teachers at CIT, and private providers, are required to have a qualification in training and assessment. It is proposed that the ACT Government assist Canberra's universities to introduce a qualification for university teachers at least to the standard for vocational education. This could be provided a set of micro-credentials building to an AQF qualification.

3. Offering Hybrid Qualifications

In the past domestic and international students have been required to move to Canberra to undertake the majority of their university studies. I suggest this be changed so that a typical student can undertake 80% of their study online. The ACT Government can lobby the federal government to make the necessary changes to visa rules for international students. The Canadian government has already eased its visa rules, making Australia a less desirable destination. 

The ACT Government can assist Canberra's universities to develop advanced qualifications in the design and delivery of education to provide a quality online experience. This can then be used in marking campaigns national and internationally which emphasize students can have both the flexibility of an online education and the option of quality lifestyle experience in Canberra, leading to a world-class qualification.

4. Work Integrated Learning

Many vocational qualifications require students to undertake work experience as part of their degree. This is increasingly seen as a desirable part of any university qualification. However, international students experience problems obtaining access to a workplace in Canberra, due to federal government restrictions on non-citizens working for the public service and for government contractors. I suggest the ACT Government assist the Canberra Innovation Network to expand its current start-up program,. Also the ANU's Innovation ACT and TechLauncher programs could be expanded to provide cross institutional participation.

5. Vocational Supplementation to University Qualifications

The Canberra Institute of Technology has the capacity to provide training to supplement the university education of students. I suggest the ACT Government work with the universities to develop and market standard packages of degrees with vocational qualifications.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Tuning Zoom Videoconferencing for a Slow computer and Low Speed Broadband

Greetings from the 2020 UQ Work Integrated Learning Symposium, currently on Zoom from Queensland University. This is free and on for four hours, so there may be time for you to join. The students are running the event, which shows commendable dogfooding by UQ.

To improve the performance of Zoom on my slow laptop, and low speed wireless broadband connection, I am trying a router with UDP shaping

Previously I noticed that with Zoom in full screen mode the sounds would break up and image freeze. If I reduced the window size it worked better, but this was fiddly. Also when a presenter shares their screen, Zoom tends to force the display back to full screen, after which I have to shrink it again.

An approach I tried in the past was to slow my Internet connection, which Zoom responded to by using lower resolution video, making everything more stable. However, this also slowed down all my other network use. There are software utilities which will slow just one application, but I found these did not work with Zoom.

The Internet uses two sorts of data transmission: TCP and UDP. Most applications, such as email and web browsing use TCP, as this provides a reliable connection. Video conferencing programs typically use UDP for the audio and video, as this has less overheads. The utilities I tried to slow an Internet connection only act on TCP, not UDP, so did not slow Zoom.

Not being able to find a software solution I turned to hardware. Many routers allow for slowing, or "shaping" of the speed of the connection. A few allow this to be targeted at TCP or UDP specifically. I tried a TP-Link TL-MR3020 V3 router (around $50 AU), and switched on the UDP shaping. So far it is working well.
Currently I have the data rates for UDP set to: 800 kbps transmitting and 512 kbps receiving. I want to provide a good quality standard definition image of myself when speaking, but a lower quality for the video I receive, so have sent the sending rate higher than receiving.

Zoom is currently providing an image of the speaker at 320 x 180 pixels, 12 frames per second and screen-sharing at 1440 x 900 pixels, 1 frame per second. The screen share looks very clear and readable, with a clear thumbnail of the speaker next to it. If a video is played in the screen sharing it looks jerky, but fortunately most presenters don't play videos.

A bigger test will come this evening, when I am speaking on "The Virtual University" (6pm, all welcome).

ps: One small glitch: after a short break when my computer went to standby mode the router was no longer connected: I had to reboot it.

pps: The video from some speakers was not appearing in Zoom gallery mode. So I increased the down speed from 512 kbps to 1024 kbps. The increased speed also allowed for screen sharing at 1920 x 1080 pixels at 8 frames per second, which is enough to follow a mouse around the screen and simple animation. In speaker's view the video is now at 640 x 360 pixels 26 frames per second. However, this is using too much of the limited CPU in my computer, so I will try setting up and down speeds to 800 kbps.

ppps: Had problems with the  TP-Link TL-MR3020 router, so changed it for the desktop version, a TL-MR3420, which is working well.

Learning Objects and Metadata

Greetings from the second meeting of the IEEE Standard for Learning Metadata meeting (P2881) being held online. The standard defines a data model to keep track of e-learning content Including the learning style it is for. We are starting with the basics with what a Learning Object is: something more formally defined than materials normally used for teaching and intended to be reused by many. The metadata describes the objects and allows them to be easily found and managed. While this can be applied to any type of learning, it is particularly relevant at present with large scale use of e-learning due to COVID-19. This provides a way for educators, institutions and systems to share the millions of new learning materials being developed, to provide better, more cost effective education. 

The current standard uses a rigid  data model. The problem is how to make something more flexible, but still allows widespread easy use. This is a difficult balance with global standards.

Other work in this area includes the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI), based on Dublin Core, which come from the library community.

ps: The meeting this time is at a slightly better time, 5:30 am, rather than 4:30 am in Canberra, but it is still early. There are 34 participants (up from 24 participants at the inaugural meeting). Most are from the USA, but a few of us are from around the world. The meeting is using WebEX again. I have been able to get the audio to work reliably and had to dial in for sound, with computer for video. As with other video conferencing systems, the computer client provides a code to use when dial in for audio, to link the voice call with your online identity. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Virtual University, 6pm Thursday

Discussion of "The Virtual University: Study, Community and Connections in an Age of Remote Learning", will be held online 6pm AEST Thursday 15 October 2020. This is hosted by the ANU Learning Communities at the Australian National University. I will be joining the panel to talk about my ten years experience as an online student and educator.

Here are some questions provided by the organizers to prime the discussion, with my preliminary thoughts:

1. What does the campus as a place mean to you? Would you consider it a space or a place, and why?

A campus is a place where ideas can flourish. 

2. Why is it important or meaningful for a space such as a university campus to be imagined and experienced in particular ways?

A campus is a space where students, staff and anyone interested in ideas, can meet to explore mutual interests and challenge each other in a safe environment.

3. Could you describe your experience of the campus in five words?

Important casual conversations in corridors.

4. Do you think traditional campus space is necessary to deliver and/or receive a high-quality university education? Does the physical campus space still matter for the subjective student and staff experience or has the COVID-19 pandemic proven to universities that online modalities can be equally, if not more, effective?

A campus is desirable, but not essential for a university. To learn how to provide excellent education online, in 2013, I enrolled as an international online student of education, at a university in Canada, 14,000 km from home. I have never seen the Canadian campus, or another student face to face. I only met two of my professors, when we both happened to be on the same continent for conferences. Despite this, I received a better educational experience online than I have ever had on campus.

As Pirsig wrote: 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,  Robert M. Pirsig, 2006
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, 2006
"... the real university exists not as the physical campus, but as a body of reason within the minds of students and teachers ..." From Chapter 13, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, 2006

However, as an online student I experienced crushing loneliness and longed for a face to face experience. What I suggest we can do is blend the best of online and face to face experience. My rule of thumb is a student should be on campus for about 20% of their studies.

As part of my international studies in 2017 I identified a risk to Australian universities that the flow of international students to Australian campuses could be cut off without warning due to an regional crisis. This risk remains due to the deteriorating geopolitical situation Australia finds itself in.

5. Do you agree that the campus is symbolically significant to students and staff who are yet to actually attend, and who cannot return to, campus? If so, why?
A university campus is a useful and powerful symbol. It gives a focus and identity, not just to the institution, but to staff and students. But that symbol can be fostered without spending a lot on land, or buildings. A good example, is the Torrens Building in Adelaide, which is shared by several international and Australian universities. Each university uses a photo of this impressive sandstone building with their own banner outside, neglecting to mention it is shared by the others. 

6. The famous sociologist Henri Lefebvre wrote that “space is permeated with social relations; it is not only supported by social relations, but it also is producing and produced by social relations” (Lefebvre, Elden and Brenner 2009, 186). In this era of remote work and learning, do you think the campus space is still a social space in the way Lefebvre describes?

A campus can be a useful adjunct to foster social relations, which are essential to effective work, research and teaching. However decades of research and practice with the online university has proven it is possible to have meaningful and productive social relations between academics and students who have never met face to face. What is key to this is having both staff and students trained in how to work online: this is not something which comes naturally to people. In my previous career as an IT professional in government, I helped introduce the Internet and the web to public administration. Considerable amounts of work were required over years to have this idea accepted and to train staff in the skills required.

7. Much research on education considers two main spaces in which education occurs-on campus, and off campus which is often referred to as ‘remote’ or ‘distance’ learning. Do you think this language needs to be reconsidered, and do you think the binary between on-campus and off-campus learning is now more complicated than simply presence or absence?

As remote online learning becomes normal, the language issue will sort itself out. In my previous role I helped introduce email to government. This was so successful, that within a few years "mail" came to indicate email, and it was necessary to refer to "paper mail" for the other type. I expect the same will happen with "education", where this will indicate distance remote online learning as that is normal and something face to face will have to be qualified. 

In designing courses I no longer distinguish between on and off campus, and assume distance/remote is the default. With this approach I design for online asynchronous delivery, with synchronous components added. The latter can be online via video conference, or in a classroom, with no change to the educational design. I used this approach for designing the education I delivered last year. This year when COVID-19 struck, I just had to replace the face to face components with video conferences. There was no need to change the learning materials or assessment.

8. Could you describe in five words how you foresee your experience with the campus in the near future, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues?

Gradual Voluntary Return to Campus

In April I proposed a gradual return to campus using blended and hybrid learning. We could start with small groups of students and gradually increase the size, as conditions allowed. This should be at the discretion of the students and staff. Those who cannot, or do not want to, return to campus can be linked online. No student or staff member need be compelled to return to campus even after the COVID-19 emergency has passed, as there is no compelling educational or work value from being on campus. Also I have suggested that lecture theaters be decommissioned and replaced with more flexible flat floor spaces for a more active learning style. 

In 2008 I gave my last lecture, moving my teaching and assessment online. By 2019 this had become routine. I am happy to supplement online learning with a classroom experience where possible, but this is not essential. My approach is "Online Plus Campus".


Lefebvre, Henri. 2009. State, Space, World : Selected Essays. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Accessed October 1, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

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ps: An online symposium 'This changes everything?'! Australia and the post-pandemic world is being hosted by the Australian Studies Institute at the Australian National University, 22 October 2020. I will be speaking on "Higher Education in the Post-pandemic World".

Monday, October 5, 2020

Will Microcredentials and Certificates Change Australian Higher Education?

Following the adage "never let a good crisis go to waste" the Australian Government is introducing reforms to
higher education. While proposals to charge different fees for different degrees has received attention, those promoting shorter qualifications may have more long term impact. The Australian government funded graduate certificates and a new undergraduate certificate (equivalent of about 12 weeks full time study). These were introduced as a short term measure due to COVID-19. The government is also encouraging microcredentials, which university are implementing by re-purposing units of about three weeks of full time degree content.

Both certificates and short courses do not seem a radical change for universities, however, if students start enrolling in these in place of degrees, it could have a profound effect. Universies would hope students would take some microcredentials, then use these for a certificate, then a diploma or degree at the same institution. But students may find they don't really need the degree, or that they want to mix and match microcredentials from different institution for their degree. This is routine in the vocational education sector, where training units are standardized. But universities have been miserly in granting credit for study elsewhere, arguing their programs are unique.

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