Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Skill-up to escape the academic treadmill

Linus Tan
The Research Whisperer has a helpful article on "Starting a consultancy can be like finding a date" (by Linus Tan, 27 April 2021). As they point out, universities are laying off academic staff and not renewing contracts. This most effects casual staff and those on short contracts. So many are looking for non university work, some as consultants. Suggestions provided are: 1. Let people know you are available, 2. Make yourself presentable, 3. Don't do it alone, 4. Select the right area, 5. Select the right project, 6. Keep working part time at university. This is all good advice, but I have a few more suggestions, from 20 years as a freelance consultant and part time academic. After all, as the saying goes: Those who can't research, teach; those who can't teach, become consultants. ;-)

More suggestions:

1. Job skill-up at your university

If you are considering work outside academia, I suggest taking advantage of the training and support provided to university staff and students. Universities provide detailed training and tools for students in how to work out what sort of job you might get and to apply. I work with people at ANU Careers teaching computing students how to think about a job, as their last assignment before graduating. 

2. Business skill-up at your local start-up center

Universities also provide training in business skills. Don't dismiss entrepreneurial training at start-up centers around the universities. Even if you don't want to set up your own business, the training in how to plan, budget and present is valuable. I have taken part in the workshops at the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN). 

3. Get training and insurance cover from your professional body

Also I suggest looking to your professional body for training and assistance. As an example, the Australian Computer Society provides training and also low cost liability insurance . Keep in mind that if you are going to be a consultant, you or the company you work through, will need to have insurance, which can cost thousands of dollars a year. 

4. Teach your students to be professionals, not just academics

In the longer term, as I suggested before COVID-19, universities and supervisors should start educating graduate students first of all for jobs outside academia, as there are very few secure well paid ones in it. If you are supervising a student, I suggest you have an obligation to make it clear to them that they have next to no chance of a secure, well paid job at a university. So encourage your student to first get skills and qualifications for work outside academia. If they are exceptionally gifted in research, they may then consider that, after they have ensured they will not be trapped in the academic system.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Working toward a fault tolerant university system

In "Working toward generous scholarship – during and after COVID-19" Professor Andrea MacLeod at the University of Alberta, suggests changes to reduce the impact of the pandemic on careers. I suggest going further and building in permanent changes to the university system to be ready for future shocks and improve conditions for all students and staff.

Like Professor MacLeod, I was in a good position to cope with the pandemic. As an "honorary lecturer", I don't depend on a university income (rather I donate money to the institution). Also I am trained to design and deliver courses online. My focus in recent years has been on how Australia's research intensive universities could deliver a quality experience to to students not on campus. However, for academics dependent on a precarious income and who have been told by their supervisors for years that working and teaching online was not worth worrying about, these are difficult times.

Professor MacLeod suggests using the shared experience of reduced productivity to build a more generous academic community. Rather I suggest we need to train our academics in new ways of working which are at least as productive, if not more so. We can first educate ourselves on how to do this and then teach our students. 

There is a need, as Professor MacLeod proposes, to extended deadlines for doctoral students with extended funding. However, funding providers are unlikely to look favorably on this unless universities also put in place long term changes. One area would be improved metrics to measure research output. More real world impact measures, rather than grants got, papers papers published and citations received, can be developed. These new metrics will reduce the discrimination in the current system against those who have interrupted career paths.

The pandemic did not bring about a radical change in the way I worked. In 1994 I went on a trip to Europe with a pocket computer, a modem and an Internet account. While away I collaborated on a policy paper with a colleague in Australia. Internet access was patchy, and I had to beg, borrow, or steal access at places like the Oxford Computer Center. I applied this experience to help the Department of Defence to work online. In 2018 I gave my last lecture and moved my teaching online for ten years, then developed a flipped, blended approach with optional face to face teaching, a year before COVID-19 stuck. This was not easy, taking years of training. Such techniques are now better developed, but it will take effort and money for academics to adopt them.

Individual academics, universities and policy makers need to get past the mindset that sees the current pandemic as an abbreviation. Disasters happen, and there are changes occurring in how education is delivered and research is conducted, with new competition for traditional institutions. There will be reasons in the future why students and staff suddenly can't get to campus, but most will not need to be there anyway. Technology has for decades provided a way for people to work and study at a distance. National and state systems, universities and individual academics, need to learn to use the tools and techniques, if they wish themselves, their students, their institutions, and their community, to prosper.

ps: As it happens I studied open, digital and distance education at Athabasca University, in Alberta in Canada, the same province as Professor MacLeod, not far away but a very different institution. I have never been to Athabasca, having studied entirely online. I was able to complete graduate studies, and design a course which is still offered at Athabasca, without ever setting foot on campus. I have a productive relationship with the staff, but have only ever met two face to face, at conferences in Hong Kong and Sydney.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Australian Universities Rank Well for Impact Globally

Australian universities have come out well in The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2021, having 4 in the top 10 and 17 in the top 100.

Times Higher Education assesed universities against the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Out of 1,115 universities, the University of Manchester (UK) comes first, followed by three Australians: University of Sydney, RMIT and La Trobe. University of Wollongong comes in sixth. 

On the SDG goal of "Quality of Education" (central to the mission of universities), Australia did not do so well, with only one in the top 10: University of Canberra at 5 and only 12 in the top 100.

The SDG goal of "Gender Equality" gave an interesting result, with a Saudi Arabian institution coming out on top: Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, followed by three from Australia: La Trobe University, Western Sydney University and Charles Darwin University.

Australia had no universities in the top ten for "Industry Innovation and Infrastructure", with University of British Colombia (Canada) on top. This is well deserved, I visited UBC in 2014 to look at education and innovation.

Of course not too much should be read into these type of rankings. Those universities without the resources to devote to filling in the information requests from ranking organisations will tend to not do so well. They might instead want to devote resources to helping with development. In particular thousands of training focused institutions, which are providing most of the practical assistance with development, don't appear in these rankings. The "Webometrics Ranking of World Universities" includes about 9,000 more institutions than Times. 

Unfortunately some universities choose to release misleading statements based rankings. As an example CQ University previously claimed "CQUNI RANKS IN TOP 25 PER CENT OF UNIS WORLDWIDE FOR SUSTAINABILITY" (23 April 2020). However, only about 1,000 institutions are included in the rankings. So we don't know how CQU performs against the many more thousands not included. While it might be assumed these institutions would not rank well against leading universities in terms of research output, that may not be the case in terms of quality of education or sustainability. Australian universities should refrain from making such misleading claims as it could damage their reputation and that of the nation. In 2017 the UK Advertising Standards Authority issued guidelines to stop UK universities making similar misleading claims.  Perhaps similar guidelines are needed in Australia.

ps: I made a submission to the Australian Senate on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2018, on "Education for Sustainable Development".

Wednesday, April 21, 2021


I am helping computer students at the Australian National University find a job. As part of that I have been working my way through the self-paced exercises the ANU Careers provides to all students. These help them think about what job they would like and how to get it. Somewhere along the way I did a reflection exercise. At then end of that I was emailed a certificate, which was a nice touch. It is good to know I have evidence I am self aware. ;-)

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Judging Universities by Papers Published and Grants Got is a Really, Really, Bad Idea

The Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) is considering how to measure the quality of research undertaken at a university. This is important, as Australian law does not allow for teaching only universities. If an institution doesn't have quality research, it can't be a university, regardless of the quality of the education provided. 

TEQSA's draft  proposed legislative instrument includes the volume of citations in peer-reviewed journal papers. Ironically, there is a considerable body of peer-reviewed literature to say citations are not a good measure of research quality. 

Australia's first university was established  to advance "... religion and morality and the promotion of useful knowledge ..." and  provide professionals with "... proficiency in literature, science and art ..." (Sydney University Act, October, 1850). The aims of universities to the present day are similar, for cultural and useful knowledge, plus the training of professionals. Publications in peer reviewed journals may go some way to do some of this, but I suggest measures of how useful the research carried out at universities is and how widely its is disseminated beyond the academic community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the value of the professional training provided by university, with medical researchers and professionals key to combating the disease. However, this has also shown limitations. The paper review process has been unable to respond quickly enough to need, with un-reviewed papers being relied on. Also the dangers of scientific research being misunderstood, and in some cases deliberately misrepresented has been seen.

Global warming is another instance where scientific publications have been of limited value. Researchers have show a lack of ability, and willingness, to engage publicly, thus making their research of far less value.

I suggest that universities need to be judged on the value of their research output to the community and on the effectiveness of their researchers to communicate the results. The quality and quantity of research graduates should also be part of this measure.

ps: Any discussion of research quality quickly gets philosophical, putting me in mind of Pirsig. ;-)

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

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 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/909349/Understanding_costs_of_undergraduate_provision_in_higher_education.pdf#page=21

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 by the Distributed Energy Resource Laboratory (DER-Lab). 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. So this approach could be called V2S: Vehicle to Shed. Add solar panels to the roof for Silicon Shed. ;-) The corrugated steel roofed shed was made a design icon by architect Glenn Murcutt, with his Lerida Estate Winery building outside Canberra.

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 V2G is an example of where technology works, but how do you get people to use it? What type of interface will make V2G 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? Does the car owner need a cash incentive to plug in "Plug in now and receive a $5 cash bonus".

A problem with V2G 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 peak demand), 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 (something as simple as an ordinary power point). There would be a cost in installing 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 one quarter of homes with their own solar 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 half of Australia's homes with PV panels were each plugged in to a vehicle providing 20 kWh of storage for the grid, that would be 20 GWh in total. This is one hundred times the capacity of the SA Big Battery (officially known as the Hornsdale Power Reserve). 

However, V2G also presents a challenge to the current energy providers. With enough storage for several days use, available essentially for free, a household could decide to provide its own energy from their rooftop solar for all but a few days a year. Energy companies will receive no revenue from selling energy for most of the year, as it is used is "behind the meter", but then have to provide on demand for a few days. Companies will need to provide households an incentive to have their batteries for part of a grid system.

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.