Friday, July 23, 2021

Australia Should Aim for the Stratosphere with Online Learning

In "Nation-building moonshots and why they matter" Georgie Skipper argues Australia should "aim big", as the USA did with the Apollo program. However, history only remembers the winners of a race, and I suggest we should also learn from the losers. Like the USA, the USSR had a space program shooting for the moon. But their big rocket failed and the vast expense was wasted, placing the country further behind. Australia can't afford all-or-nothing moonshots and should adopt the more cautious approach exemplified by the Chinese space program, focusing on smaller goals and learning from others. I suggest an area which Australia can safely reach the stratosphere, if not the moon, is online education.

China has had success with rockets and automated probes. But because of the risk, time and cost in developing technology for crewed space travel, China instead purchased proven technology from Russia. China's  Shenzhou spacecraft is an improved version of the Russian Soyuz, and China's Feitian space suit is derived from Russia's Orlan-M. Each new Chinese version incorporates more local technology, but starting from a proven base.

Australia should adopt the same approach, not reinventing what is already available for the sake of being different, but instead adding local unique features. We should choose projects with ambitious, but achievable goals which have real tangible outcomes. We can't afford to build moon rockets in the hope it might lead to a better powdered orange juice. A little symbolism is okay, but better are projects aimed to help people here on earth.

The USA new approach to space may also be useful in Australia. While Elon Musk's Space X private space venture has been rightly hailed, it is backed with funding from NASA and the US Government. The US is funding private space ventures, offering competitive tenders for delivery of people and cargo to orbit, and the construction of a lunar lander. Like the Chinese approach, this takes older proven technology developed by government and updates it.

The COVID-19 vaccines delivered by Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, and Johnson & Johnson are another example of government funding combined with private enterprise. Governments around the world funded fundamental research into vaccines over decades. When COVID-19 hit, governments provided billions of dollars to companies for development. However, this was not a moonshot, this was a measured response to a very real threat to the world. 

History shows that a big bet sometimes pays off, but a slow steady, modest investments can also give good returns. While vaccines have received most attention, there are other technologies, such as online education, which have been key to dealing with the pandemic. Few realise that the Moodle learning management system, used by schools and universities around the world for teaching students online, was developed in Perth, Australia. Australian governments failed to back the development of Moodle, and Australia lost the opportunity to lead the world in online education. Moodle is still based in Perth, but in 2018 announced a new Barcelona headquarters. While Moodle will not say so publicly, this was due to the lack of support from the Australian and WA governments. 

After mining, international education is Australia's major export industry. However, Australian governments have failed to back this industry, in the way they back mining, even though it employs far more people. It is not too late to aim for orbit with online learning, if not the moon. Australia's current international export industry is under threat from new competitors, as well as new technology. We need to invest now to save this industry and see it flourish.

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