Monday, April 12, 2021

Is less online learning the answer?

Ian Bushnell
Ian Bushnell in "More online learning is not the answer for students or universities", suggests the internet "... can be a good servant but a poor master" (RiotACT, 12 April, 2021). He warns that moving courses online is not going to be a financial bonanza for universities looking for new international markets, and can make learning more stressful, dehumanized experience.  However, I suggest online learning can provide academic and student outcomes as good as a classroom, with adequate resources and staff training.

Online courses may be part of the solution to over-reliance on international students from one country. But this will require an understanding of what students in the region want from education and how to provide it, including the right balance of online and classroom education. However  it takes years to learn to train staff to teach online and to establish international partnerships.

Australian universities may not have long before the next crisis hits. So the sooner they start, the better equipped. There is no need to start from scratch, as Australian academics have spent years looking at how to provide international online courses to the region, while maintaining the human element.

The online lecture can provide a similar quality experience to a face-to-face one. But lectures are only one form of form of teaching and other more engaging ways work well, both in a classroom, and online.

The risk is that if Australian universities don't provide education where, and when, the students want it, they will get it elsewhere. It is not just international students who could be lost to overseas competitors, it is Australian domestic students as well.

The campus experience can be engaging, but I suggest can't be relied on as a key driver for student choice. Rather this should be offered as an attractive option, like leather seats for a car: get 'em if you can afford it, but this doesn't determine which car you buy.

The logistical issues with online courses around the world were solved years ago. Similarly, digital educators learn techniques to overcome technical problems and to assist student access. Two of the original categories of distance students were prisoners and military personnel on deployment. For obvious reasons, these groups have limited Internet access, but can still be online students.

Online students can have better access to staff and resources than on campus. Students can have high stress levels, both online and on campus if an effort is not make to help them make friends and feel part of the instruction.

Unfortunately online courses are not a money-spinner for universities, as most of the cost is in staff, which you need online or on campus.

The internet has not changed the idea of the university, which was never a place, but an experience. Over-reliance on campuses can  limit access to that experience. Before abandoning the progress made with online courses, I suggest academics and policy makers look at the body of work which has been published, on what works and how this aids graduates entering the workforce.

Online learning with well trained teachers can replace face-to-face

Professor Andrew Norton
Professor Andrew Norton, in  Online learning will never be a substitute for face-to-face, points out that Australian university student satisfaction hit its lowest point last year. He argues this was, understandably, due to students not having contact with each other and suggests a return to campus. However, if that is not possible, well trained teachers, using the right techniques, can produce a successful satisfying online student experience. Not providing that places the future of Australian higher education at risk.

Not surprisingly, as Professor Norton points out, it was on-campus students who had the largest decrease in satisfaction from 2019 to 2020. Results come from the  Student Experience Survey (SES) for undergraduates. 

Professor Norton argues that "A return to on-campus teaching is the obvious way to lift face-to-face contact between students.". However,  I suggest the students need contact with others students, not necessarily on a campus. and not necessarily in person. The instructor can help facilitate this, but that can be done online, if need be. 

A return to on-campus teaching is not necessarily the best way to promote student interaction. Universities can put in place resources, forums and activities for students to meet and interact online. Universities can also train their teaching staff online, to learn to teach online, preferably by experiencing being a student online

Professor Norton commented that "... it is hard to predict what campus life will look like in two or three years time.". I disagree: it is very easy to predict what higher education will be like. A few years ago I predicted that the typical student will be studying online by 2020. My rule of thumb is that the typical student needs to be in a classroom, or a relevant workplace, for 20% of their study, with the rest online. I have no doubt that is going to happen, the difficult part is ensuring Australian universities are part of that future. 

Unless our universities invest in training and support for educators in online learning, and offer students flexible programs which given them the option of studying online, the students, both domestic and international, will take their business elsewhere, offshore, to other providers.

There are other shocks to the Australian economy and education system which could happen, without warning, in the next few years. Individual academics, and institutions, need to be ready for them.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Online Education is More Flexible But Not Necessarily Cheaper

David Annand, has asked "How do we make university education more affordable and accessible?". He is a professor at Athabasca University, one of Canada's leading online institutions, but he is not just advocating for abolishing campuses.

Annand suggests face-to-face is needed for some new undergraduate students. He also points out the importance of informal social interactions for these students. However, he questions if this is really worth the cost of the campus and points out that online learners do just as well as face-to-face ones.

I suggest that while online learners do just as well academically, this is missing the point. Study is also a social experience. As an online student of Athabasca myself, I experienced a sense of loneliness. This is despite being a very experienced student, who was also on the staff of a leading Australian university at the time. But even so, online study was a less lonely experience for me than previous face to face study: just because you are on a campus, in a room full of people, doesn't result in social ties.

Athabasca's online courses had forms of group activity built in. Also was not assumed that you would somehow meet other students outside class, with ways to meet people online. 

The assumption that eliminating the campus will make courses much cheaper also needs to be challenged. According to a report for the UK DoE, only about 10% of the cost of a course at a conventional university is the campus (KPMG, 2019). A third of the cost is teaching staff and another third central student service costs. Most of the rest are overheads in running an institution. So eliminating the campus is not going to make courses from a conventional university much cheaper. Ways to provide student services, and reduce other overheads, online might be more cost effective than eliminating the campus. 

Also, even before COVID-19, at least in Australia, most students had voted with their feet and were not attending lectures. Universities campuses were already evolving to be business parks with commercial tenants and leisure centers with fee gyms, bars, and cafes, plus accommodation. The University of Canberra's 2025 plan is an example of this.

Annand points out that there is a high financial and social burden for those remote from a campus. There are also barriers due to child minding and employment. These are the areas distance education, and in its recent form, online education, were primarily developed for and have been delivering to for decades. 

Online students tend to pay about the same fees as on-campus ones, as Annand points out. It did annoy me when a student of the University of Southern Queensland, that I was paying to maintain playing fields which I had never seen, let alone played on. But this was only a small proportion of the fees. As it happens I paid slightly less in Canada, about the amount of the cost of the playing fields. ;-)

Athabasca University has no classrooms, and most staff now work off-campus, Annand points out. However, most teaching at conventional universities was done by part time and casual staff who didn't have their own offices before COVID-19, so their is little scope for savings in this way.

Athabasca University receives a subsidy from the Alberta provincial government, Annand points out, at a rate about a third that of conventional universities. However, those universities may be providing courses where costs are higher, such as medicine. The issue of the applicability of government funding models to online universities is one which has come up in Australia, most particularly at the University of New England (UNE), an institution which has been pioneering distance education for more than 50 years. UNE staff have expressed frustration that the federal funding model limits their ability to provide innovative programs. 

The Australian government did force through a change which increased the cost of less employment related degrees (ironically making some cheaper to provide courses more expensive). So there is some appetite by legislators to use product differentiation for university fees. However, if based just on campus cost, the difference in fees would be small, and the political cost of the reform may not be worth the effort.

Perhaps a better reform to import from Australia would be to provide more funding for shorter programs. In response to the pandemic, the Australian government introduced undergraduate certificates, and  increased funding for graduate certificates. These were focused on areas relevant to the emergency, particularly health, and have proved popular. Universities did previously provided some sub-degree programs, but there was no incentive for them to offer these.

Online universities may do better lobbying government for a different funding model, because they provide superior, more flexible, more vocationally relevant forms of education, rather than focusing on the costs of conventional universities.


KPMG, "Understanding costs of undergraduate provision in Higher Education, Costing study report", UK Department for Education, May 2019, Page 21. URL

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Will an Electric Ute Plugged into a Shed Save the Australian Electricity Grid?

Car charger at ANU
On my way to the cafe opposite my office at the Australian National University this morning, I stumbled across a new shed, holding the future of Australian motoring and perhaps the salvation of our electricity grid. This shed holds an electric car charger, as part of a vehicle-to-load (V2G) trial. Not only can an electric car be charged, but the energy fed back to the grid later.

I like the very understated, practical and Australian style of the ANU charging station. It is a plain grey steel shed, with a corrugated steel roof, like a rural bus shelter. The corrugated steel roofed shed is part of the Australian ethos. So this could be called V2S: Vehicle to Shed. ;-)

Using a car to power the grid might seem a waste of money: why not just buy a stationary battery? However, range anxiety, along with Australians love of large vehicles, plus business finance and tax deductions, may come to the rescue of the grid.

The average commute is less than 40 km per day, but consumers are demanding electric cars with ranges of more than 200 km. Drivers worry that they will run out of energy and be stranded (so called range anxiety). So the electric cars will have excess battery capacity which could be used to store energy for a home or the grid.

Some newer vehicles come equipped with a plug to not only charge the car, but also return surplus energy back to the household (V2H), or the grid (V2G). A medium sized electric car has sufficient battery capacity to power the average Australian home for a day and still have more than enough power for the daily of commute. This could be particularly useful in Canberra, which has net renewable energy, but limited storage.

The question then is, having purchased an electric car with far more battery capacity than needed day to day, can you convince the consumer to make the surplus capacity available for the grid? One of my students is researching how to Cut City Air Pollution Using ICT.

The use of V2L is an example of where technology works, but how do you get people to use it? What type of interface will make V2L practical? Does this just need a button on the charger to request a top-up for extended driving, or does there have to be an app, where this can be scheduled? Could the system check the family's online schedule and predict when the car will be needed? 

A problem with V2L is ensuring vehicles are plugged into be charged. Peak solar power is produced in the middle of the day, when a commuter's vehicle will not be at home. However, I suggest the vehicle could be plugged in at home, charging overnight from wind farms. After providing power for breakfast (the morning demand for power), the vehicle would be unplugged for the drive to work. Arriving before the mid-day solar peak, the vehicle would spend several hours charging. As the sun sets, the vehicle would be unplugged to be driven home, where it would power the evening peak demand. 

This scenario would require two charging stations for each vehicle: one at home and one at work. It has been assumed that domestic chargers could be low current, as they can charge overnight, whereas public charging stations require high current for driver convenience. An alternative would be to have a higher capacity V2G station at home and a lower capacity, lower cost, charge-only station at work. There would be a cost in installing and maintaining the chargers, and a problem if drivers wanted to use their car at lunchtime, which is the solar peak.

There has been some concern that electric cars would not suit Australia conditions, where large vehicles with long range are needed, as exemplified by the trade's Ute.  However, the world's largest, most powerful land vehicles are electrically powered and several companies are preparing large SUVs and Utes for sale. The large batteries in these vehicles could power a home for several days and offer a solution for grid storage.

Australia folklore has it that the Ute was developed for farmers to take produce to market during the week, and the spouse to church on the weekend. Dual cab utes are now very popular to take tools to work during the week and carry the family's sporting equipment on the weekend. What is less well know are the financial reasons for the ute: classified as a business vehicle the farmer could get a business loan for it. So will today's tradie buy an electric ute with V2G, using a business loan, and tax deductions? This could be called U2G: Ute to Grid, or U2S: Ute to Shed. ;-)

Before dismissing the idea of a ute powered grid, consider that Australia leads the world in solar panels on domestic rooftops. While other countries had policies for large solar farms, Australia almost by accident, has individual householders installing their own panels. Having shown a willingness to invest in home energy, will the same householders embrace V2G, to the extent needed to support the grid?

If 8 million of Australia's 20 million motor vehicles were plugged in with V2G, to provide 25 kWh of storage each for the grid, that would be 200 GWh in total, which is one thousand times the capacity of the SA Big Battery (officially the Hornsdale Power Reserve).

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Planning the future of international education in Australia

Hon Alan Tudge MP
The Hon Alan Tudge MP, Minister for Education and Youth issued a media release "Shaping the future of international education in Australia" (31 March 2021). The Minister was launching consultations for the Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030. I suggest a key part of the strategy should be to make international students feel welcome and appreciated. However, the Minister suggested maximizing the long-term benefits of international students for Australia. Unfortunately this may further discourage internaional students from enrolling in Australia, with them feeling exploited, rather than helped. This comes after the Prime Minister suggested that if students already here were short of funds, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they should go home.

The Minister suggested "... the disruption of COVID provides an opportunity to look at the sector and ensure it is working for students and for Australia in the long-term ...". This appears to suggest that international students in some way interfere with Australia students education and are a determent to the Australian economy. I don't understand how this can be the case, given that international students contribute billions of dollars to the Australian economy and also contribute to university intellectual life. Also I am not aware of any other sector where Australian government ministers set out to insult our major export customers in this way.

The Minister also suggested targeting international enrollments to Australia's skills needs. However, I suggest the students may object to being exploited in this way and the nations the students are citizens of may object to this form of reverse brain drain. We should offer education to the benefit of the students and their nation.

The Minister suggests investigating new delivery models in new markets. However, I suggest there is considerable scope for expansion of existing markets with already well understood delivery models. As an example, pre-pandemic, I studied the potential of distance education from Australia to students in our region. Markets which could be expanded are India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. In the last few years I have visited Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, meeting with their academics and government officials,. Australia is known and well regarded. One issue was the need to satisfy national authorities, business and students that online learning was legitimate.

Torrens Building Adelaide,
Photo by Bahudhara, CC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons
One approach proven by Australian universities is a partnership with institutions in-country. An example is the the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT). This private institution is affiliated with several Australian universities. I visited SLIIT in 2013 and it is accredited to deliver programs in Sri Lanaka.

Another approach would be to replicate the Torrens Building Adelaide in countries of the region. This building is shared by multiple international universities, to provide them with a local presence. There may be value in universities using Australia as a brand, while competing for international students. An example of this approach is Open Universities Australia, which provides a single brand for multiple institutions offering online education. That approach could be extended to naming rights for buildings in the region. International students could undertake face to face classes for part of their studies while attending other classes online at the Australian institution of their choice.

Some initiatives from the Australian Government for domestic students may be of interest to international ones. Last year an undergraduate certificate was introduced as a response to COVID-19. This allowed students to receive a formal qualification after only one semester of full time study. Universities could offer this to international students, with the option to go on to a degree. Flexibility to allow for this and online study while on a student visa would also help attract international students. The students could be undertaking work integrated learning, with an Australian employer, while studying at an Australian university.