Saturday, October 16, 2021

Web Camera with Zoom Lens for Zoom

Recently I upgraded my home office with a web camera featuring a zoom lens and manual focus. This allows adjusting the image to just include me, without having to move the camera. I selected one with a 720P HD sensor (although they are also available with full HD). The lens is a modest 2.8-12mm zoom, suitable for use on a desktop. For something like a lecture theater, a higher power zoom might be needed. 

The camera sensor is housed in a very rugged, small black metal box, with a standard camera mount thread on both the top and bottom. The lens has screws to lock the focus and zoom in place once set. This is not a camera for live action, as it is difficult to focus, but one you set up, lock in place and leave. The camera has a USB plug, and operates as any other web camera. Similar products are offered on Amazon.

When the COVID-19 pandemic stuck last year I had to set up my home office for teaching by video-conference. However, I decided I should not have anything out of reach of a typical teacher, or student, as education should be accessible to everyone. So I used a low cost, low speed broadband connection, a modestly priced laptop, and a consumer grade web camera. This worked fine, especially with Zoom. However, I decided it was time for an upgrade.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Integration with Universites Proposed by Private Training Providers

The Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia has proposed  "Seven Priorities For A Skilled & Educated Workforce". ITECA is made up of private sector vocational training providers, and their proposals aim to integrate that sector with the mostly government funded university sector. The federal and state governments run separate funding and regulatory systems for the university (which are mostly public) and the vocational sectors (which has more private providers, both not and for-profit). Part of the difference is due to Australia's universities having dual roles of both research and education, and a resulting level of autonomy which neither the public or private sector vocational institutions enjoy.

Australia already has an integrated tertiary education system, at least conceptually. Universities and vocational education are part of the ten level Australian Qualifications Framework, with VET at the lower levels, university at the upper end and an overlap in the middle. Some Australian universities are dual sector, typically offering students a vocational qualification with the option of articulation to university. However, the level of standardization which exists in the VET sector, does not apply to university. As a result a student who has undertaken studies at VET, can't be assured of receiving full recognition at a university (or even from one university to another).

While a fully integrated system with student choice, and less red tape is appealing, it would not come without risks and costs. The Australian government previously expanded funding of student loans for VET without putting in place adequate controls. This resulting in billions of dollars being wasted, by unscrupulous providers, signing up students who had no hope of completing their courses. As well as a loss of public money, and damage to Australia's reputation as an education provider, this caused harm to thousands of students. Any new system will need to ensure there are checks and balances in place to prevent a repeat of this happening again. The use of real time online reporting, and industry self regulation would help.

The seven priorities proposed by the ITECA are:

  1. "An integrated tertiary education system: That the Australian Government develop a five-year strategy to deliver an integrated tertiary education system, in which the higher education and vocational education and training sectors operate as one, yet retain their separate and distinct strengths and identities.
  2. A more cohesive approach to regulation and reporting: That the Australian Government places tertiary education red tape reduction on the agenda at National Cabinet to develop a strategy that delivers a convergence of regulatory and reporting obligations, eliminating duplicative, redundant and burdensome regulation and reporting at a state/territory and national level.
  3. An investment that strengthens students choice in higher education: That the Australian Government expand the highly successful investment it has made, enabling students to study in a Commonwealth-subsidised place with a quality independent higher education provider and engage in the critical thinking and learning needs they choose.
  4. An approach to skills funding that empowers student choice: That the Australian Government’s investment in skills be provided only to those jurisdictions that award funding on the basis of empowering student choice, allowing students to study with a provider (whether independent or public) that has a demonstrated ability to help them achieve their life and career goals.
  5. An approach that funds courses where the skills shortages are: That the National Skills Commissioner, working with states and territories, identify where an increase to skills funding is required by identifying the qualifications to be subsidised with the support for students (and made available to an RTO) reflecting the cost of achieving excellence in training outcomes.
  6. A single student loan program that supports lifelong learning: That the Australian Government overhaul tertiary education student loans programs, creating a single lifelong learning account (incorporating FEE-HELP and VET Student Loans), enabling students to access income-contingent loans, without the existing Student Loan Tax, available from Certificate IV through to post-graduate level study in a seamless way, throughout their working lives.
  7. A bold new plan for international education: That the Australian Government immediately put in place a plan to rebuild Australia’s capacity and reputation to support international students, backed by a new International Education Commission tasked with implementing the new Australian international education strategy."

Monday, October 4, 2021

Learning to Improve Student Satisfaction Through a Personal Experience Enhanced by Technology

Gary Martin
, chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA, recently asked what gave a quality experience for Australian university students ("Creating an X-factor Experience", Business News, 22 August 2021). Professor Steve Blackburn and the team at ANU Engineering and Computer Science have answered that with "Teaching computer science in a pandemic". I suggest, as the video demonstrates, student satisfaction can be improved though personal attention, enhanced with technology. 

For the last 18 months the narrative has been students, and staff, suffering though online learning. But it doesn't have to be that way. Well implemented systems, with trained staff, can make learning better, on and off campus. Students can be guided in how to work together, in person, and online, to enhance their learning, and as a foundation for a future career.

Professor Martin pointed to the latest Good Universities Guide, showing Bond University and Notre Dame Australia, beating the public universities for student satisfaction. He suggests the priority should be providing a "transformative student experience", but is not sure what that is, or how to provide it. The answer I suggest is in something he mentions later: a "personal experience", in the service the university provides, connections with students, academics, industry, and community. From the time the students first considers enrolling, though study, and as an alumnus, they need to feel a personal connection to people at the university. 

The challenge for universities is to provide a personal connection with thousands of students. The solution, paradoxically, is better computer mediated communications. This requires well designed university systems, but more important is staff trained in how to administer and teach online. 

For my latest university experiences, personal attention, at a distance, was the X-factor. I studied online long before COVID-19, at two campuses I have never seen, but where people made me feel welcome. 

This welcome started long before enrollment. University of Southern Queensland had an excellent online pre-enrollment system. But at one point I typed in a question & my phone rang, as that was the easiest way to answer. I enrolled online shortly afterward. Through my study I never visited the campus, or talked face to face with staff. Even so it was a very personal experience, as the administrative and teaching staff were trained and equipped to work this way.

Because of time zones, it was not possible to have much real-time contact, when studying at my next institution, Athabasca University in Canada. I was in Canberra, on the other side of the world. Even so, they made enrollment & study a personal experience. This was far better, than most of my on-campus experiences as a student in Australia. Like USQ, Athabasca has staff qualified in, and expert at, the design, delivery, and administration, of education. Administrative processes and courses are designed on the assumption the student will be a long way away, rather than this being treated as a special case.

My topic of study was how to provide a good online experience for international students at Australian institutions. So I became an online student myself at an Australian vocational education provider, an Australian university and a Canadian university. This was while teaching professional development and university courses. The X-Factor I discovered in this were instructors who had been trained and educated in how to teach online.

Those Australian universities which can provide personal experiences, on and off campus, will prosper in the next decade. Those which instead invest in buildings with complex multimedia learning labs, will not. The key is to start with administrative and educational processes design for distance students, then add the campus experience. Unfortunately most Australian university have tried to do the opposite: modify campus based procedures and courses to make them online. 

There are plenty of companies which can help universities set up quality administrative online processes (if not, the people at Canberra Innovation Network will help you set one up). But I am an educator, so lets look at education.

The student wants to complete their program of study as quickly as possible. This is one way Bond University excels: by providing speed without compromising quality. Students also want a vocationally relevant qualification, which is where Notre Dame Australia gains points.

Where the more traditional Australia public universities fall down is in failing to recognize students need both training and education. Concurrent with some of my university studies in education, I was undertaking  did some training in the vocational sector to provide step by step instruction, & some education at university to provide deeper learning. But in practice I suggest both are needed.

This is very clear when teaching project management to computer students. They need step by step instruction, so they have a common language and set of techniques to work together. But they also need education in the subtleties of how to work with people, and in the process learn more about themselves.

The vocational sector has long offered learning in smaller chunks. The Australian government has been nudging universities in that direction with funding for undergraduate certificates.

Work Integrated Learning (WIL) was also a positive factor for me. I was able to use my work as the topic of assignments, and immediately apply what I was learning (I now teach this way to computer project students). For less mature students, I suggest "Life Integrated Learning" would help. Provide the sort of extra curricular activities universities traditionally offer, but integrate them into the formal curriculum (and give course credit). This can be done with e-portfolios.

I will be discussing the challenge of providing a personal experience enhanced by technology  in my next webinar

Further Information

  1. Worthington, T. (2019, December). Blend and Flip for Teaching Communication Skills to Final Year International Computer Science Students. In 2019 IEEE International Conference on Engineering, Technology and Education (TALE) (pp. 1-5). IEEE.

  2. Higher Education After COVID-19, six webinars from August 2020, by Tom Worthington, for the Microlearning Series curated by Manisha Khetarpal at Maskwacis Cultural College, Canada
  3. Engaging students in the online environment, five webinars from February 2021, by Tom Worthington, for the Microlearning Series curated by Manisha Khetarpal at Maskwacis Cultural College, Canada
  4. Learning to Reflect Module Version 5.0: Hybrid Edition by Tom Worthington, for the  module for the ANU TechLauncher program, 2018 to 2021.Extend the online course into the physical classroom: This is much easier than trying to take a classroom based course and put it online. 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Fluorescent Green Screen for Virtual Zoom Background

Fluorescent Green Screen
I have repainted my Folding Green Screen with bright green fluorescent paint, for better virtual background contrast. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, I was unable to get to the hardware store for paint, so used poster paint instead.  

Image added to green screen
The poster paint is half the price, but produced a less smooth finish than the interior water based house paint I used previously. Fortunately the imperfections don't show up when the virtual background is added. The paint looks much brighter, and yellower, than it does in the photograph. Dark lines where the panels of the folding screen join are masked by Zoom's algorithm, but any light shining though the gaps show up.