Sunday, February 27, 2022

Distribute the University?

The Distributed University
for Sustainable Higher Education,
Heller, 2022
In The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher EducationHeller has  produced a short, readable personal diagnosis of the problems with the modern university, and suggested solutions. As a bonus the book is available free online. 

After a very brief history of the university, Heller quickly jumps to diagnosing the problem today as managerialism. He provides an example from his own experience of at first being able to spend a grant as required, but then having increasing rules, committees, and procedures interposed. He then provides anecdotes to illustrate the problem of finances becoming a higher priority than educational outcomes, leading to competition between institutions, and duplication of effort.

None of the problems Heller catalogs are new. The priority for research over teaching is well known, as has been concern over pursuing fee from international students. Heller is also critical of the ‘sage on the stage’ form of teaching. What is unusual is the inclusion of the university's environmental footprint as a problem.

Unfortunately Heller's solutions are long on wishful thinking, and short on an understanding of the fallibility of academics. The first proposal is to trust academic staff, rather than impose professional management. However, I suggest that with trust goes responsibility. Academics are willing to require much study and testing of their students, but are they willing to undergo training and testing, to become certified in management techniques?

For the relatively simple management the average academic undertakes, a a Vocational Education certificate would be sufficient, but how many would be willing to do this? As a former public servant I have had in service training on how to manage projects, including how to do this within the law, and keep records. Unfortunately many academics seem to think they should be able to spent public money however they wish, not realizing this can get them arrested.

Heller's second solution is collaboration, within and between universities, as well as with industry. They suggest having collaboration as a learning outcome. Heller appears to be a little out of date, as this is already a common for professional qualifications. In computing, where I teach, we require students to work together on real projects for real clients, provide feedback to each other, and reflect on the experience. In teaching this over several years, it stuck me that these are skills which the average academic has never been trained in, or tested on.

To avoid duplication of effort, Heller proposes an "International Degree Program" for higher education, inspired by on the school International Baccalaureate. This would be available under a free under an open licence for universities to use. However, I don't see how this could be usable for all disciplines. There is already the Bologna Process to provide high level compatibility of qualifications, in the computing discipline, there is the Seoul Accord for accreditation of professional computing qualifications, and detailed global curricula guidelines from ACM/IEEE. But universities, or consortia of universities, customize how they teach to the curriculum. Even with a global discipline, such as computing, it would be difficult to have one  standardized degree.

Heller's proposal to make use of volunteers as educators is problematic. Professionals may well be willing to assist with education. But they will need to meet the same standards as salaried staff. The burden this imposes was brought home to me this year, as after 20 years teaching, I was required to undertake new requirements to teach at a university. This has involved applying for a Working With Vulnerable People Card, undertaking a day of training on legal obligations, and a week training on teaching (even though I already have a Cert IV in T&A, a Graduate Certificate & a Master's of Education). Many professionals would be unwilling to undergo this additional training and testing, even with reimbursement of cost, without the prospect of payment.

With the suggestion that universities move to primarily online learning, Heller is five to ten years out of date. Even before the changes brought by COVID-19, most Australian university students were studying primarily online. The students were registered as on campus, & the university offered lectures, but most students did not attend. This uncomfortable truth was denied by university administrators, who would insist on booking a 100 seat room for an enrollment of 100 students, when they knew only 25 to 30 would actually turn up. When COVID-19 struck, universities suddenly "discovered" that they had almost everything needed for e-learning already. With two years experience of e-learning, even the most conservative of Australian universities are redesigning courses to better suit blended delivery in the long term.

Heller is unusual in including environmental issues, alongside funding and delivery methods of universities. Even more unusual Heller can back up his assertions with research, estimating e-learning saved about 8,000 kg CO2e per international student (Heller, Sun, Guo & Malik, 2022). 

Environmental s
ustainability is talked about by some at universities, but tends to be management plans, without academic involvement. There are exceptions. When teaching an online course in ICT Sustainability, I was surprised to find a professional development student enroll from Canada. I was more surprised when they topped the class. This turned out to be the CIO of a Canadian university who was interested not only in improving the environmental footprint of their institution, but also teaching the course to their students. 


Heller RF, Sun YY, Guo Z and Malik A. Impact on carbon emissions of online study for a cohort of overseas students: A retrospective cohort study [version 5; peer review: 2 approved, 1 approved with reservations]F1000Research 2022, 10:849 (

Heller, Richard Frederick. The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education. Springer, 2022. URL

Thursday, February 24, 2022

One Way to Revive Higher Education Learning After COVID-19

Erin Lief
Monash University
In "Five Ways to Rethink Online and Blended Learning Post-COVID" Erin Lief (Monash University), provides a list of very useful techniques to improve university teaching. However, without incentives for higher education techniques to provide quality learning, institutions, and individual academics are unlikely to make the upfront investment needed.

As Lief points out, Australian universities did not really shift to online learning due to COVID-19. Some, particularly the regional universities, had already embraced online learning (a few have been doing it for decades). I suggest the more conservative capital city universities were doing a form of ad-hoc blended learning, but not admitting it. They provided recorded lectures and online assignment submission, while lecturers expressed mock wonder as to why students were not turning up. This was not good online learning, but it was online learning.

Distance education has been offered for 100 years for students from marginalized groups, and with the advent of the Internet over the last few decades, this continued online.  There are decades of research, and how to books, and training courses on this. 

The problem, I suggest, is not the availability of techniques, but providing incentives for universities and academics to use them. There is a large upfront cost in technology and training, which many institutions, and individuals are reluctant to invest in. 

Universities are well aware that reputation based on research output attracts students, even though this has little to do with teaching quality (and may even detract from it).  Promoting campus life has proved good marketing, even if it has noting to do with learning outcomes, and many universities see no reason to change this approach.

Individual academics know they will be promoted for research output, even if they spend most of their time teaching, and that is how they bring in the most money for the university. Until there are measures of teaching quality, and academics are rewarded for this, there will be little incentive for change. One way to do this is for universities who value quality education to develop and promote measures of it. The Webometrics World Ranking of Universities, from the Cybermetrics Lab is Spain, is a good example of how to do this.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

More DIY Green Screens

Found myself out of town and in need of a green screen for a Zoom background presenting to students. So I purchased 2 m of 1,470 mm Pongee Lining Fabric in lime color ($8 per m). This was held up with clothes pegs, and worked well.

Also I tried "PPE Moulded Fabric". This is far stiffer, harder to hang, and the color did not work as well. This is a non-woven polyester fabric similar to that used for reusable supermarket bags. I am not sure about the claim it is suitable for Personal Protective Equipment face masks.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Incident with patrol aircraft following hypothetical script

HQ JOC storyboard of PLA-N ships, in the Arafura Sea.

In 2016 I presented a hypothetical for IT Ethics at ANU. This was a fictional incident involving a maritime surveillance aircraft. The question for the students was what, as an IT professional, what military response they could participate in. This scenario became real last week when an Australian P-8A Poseidon aircraft reported being targeted by a laser from a Chinese warship, just north of Australia. Fortunately the real situation did not escalate, unlike the hypothetical:

The real report:

"On 17 February 2022, an Australian Maritime Patrol Aircraft P-8A Poseidon detected a laser illuminating the aircraft while it was conducting a routine surveillance flight over Australia’s northern approaches.

The laser was detected as emanating from a People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) vessel. Illumination of the aircraft by the Chinese vessel is a serious safety incident. ... sonobuoys were used after the incident ... ahead of the PLA-N vessel. ..." 

From: Chinese ship lasing of P-8A Poseidon on 17 February 2022, Australian Department of Defence, 22 February 2022.

My fictional report:

"At 02:20 Zulu, 1 April 2017, one of our maritime surveillance aircraft was reported missing. The aircraft was conducting a freedom of navigation flyover ... signals from a fire control radar ... aircraft's flares and electronic countermeasures were activated ... "

From: Briefing by Cyberspace Operations Wing at Headquarters Joint Operations Command (COW/HQJOC), 12:30 Zulu 1 April 2017 (Notional For Exercise Only)

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Digital Inequality: Academic Heal Thyself

The University of Canberra is hosting what is claimed to be the "First International Symposium on Digital Inequality and Social Change" (ISDISC). The theme is  Bridging digital inequality for a better and inclusive society. Researchers, practitioners and policy makers are invited.

But I suggest university academics need to set their own house in order before being able to claim the moral high ground on digital equality. The scramble to convert university courses and research participation online over the last two years has shown a lack of thought given to this area by academia. Courses were converted from hard to access lectures, to hard to access video lectures. Assessment was changed from hard to access paper based examinations, to hard to access web based examinations. The sad part of this is that there were open online distance universities with decades of experience in how to provide equitable access to a wider range of people, but elite institutions willfully ignored the freely offered advice, as it would place their campus based business model at risk.

Similarly with research: it is open to anyone who  can afford to get to expensive conferences, and passes the entrenched gatekeepers of the academic publishing system.

Fortunately the University of Canberra is leading by example, offering virtual attendance for those who can't get to Canberra, with a low fee.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Amateur managers of weapons system projects?

The amateur managers: a study of the management of weapons system projects
"The amateur managers" (Bennett, 1990) is a book I wish I had read when I worked for the Defence Department, reviewing IT projects. While most of these were not weapons, they had a level of complexity beyond the usual civilian administrative systems. As Bennett says, the office politics of civilians (such as myself) trying to advance projects in teams with military personnel from three services, with occasionally competing priorities were difficult*. His solution looks a good one: focus on good people, rather than processes: "Weapons systems project managers require experience, skill and especially good judgement to cope with complexity ..." (p. 59). While there were people with engineering and IT backgrounds with project management training in Defence, many were seconded from civilian administrative areas, or military jobs, with no training or experience. It is decades since I was in DoD, and I don't know if Bennett's suggestion has been adopted.

* I gave up and left Defecne when the committee I was chairing had almost agreed on draft 46 of a report. Then the military members were rotated out and people who have been driving tanks and aircraft were rotated in. I gave up and became a consultant/educator.


Bennett, F. N. (1990). The amateur managers: a study of the management of weapons system projects. Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, 1990. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Provide Learning Content in Alternate Formats

I had a very compelling unplanned lesson in accessibility today. In a Zoom session, we were asked to watch a video. Rather than play the video via Zoom, which has problems, links to the video on three platforms were provided. But I could not get any to work. Normally I would read the notes, or the transcript, but could find neither, so I had no idea what it was about. I then took part in a discussion of the video and spent about ten minutes feeling excluded and a but of a fool, as I had no idea what they were talking about. As I can normally see and hear, this is not a common problem, but for those who can't, it is. I need to remember to include alternate formats in my own teaching, especially as I helped make this Australian law

Monday, February 7, 2022

Being a Student is Stressful

Last week I spent many hours preparing for the tutor training course I am a student in this week. I went through the materials for the week, checked ever link, read the readings. But this morning it all went wrong. I had to move cities due to a family emergency, and had an ad-hoc video setup. Also my laptop had updated its software. As a result the video did not work. While I was trying to fix that I discovered I did not have access to the resources for the live interactive activities. Eventually I got the video to work, sort of. Also I found an arrow which took me on to the resources, so in the end it all worked out fine, and it was energizing to be in small groups with enthusiastic new tutors. But this again emphasized the main point I relearn each time I do such a course: being a student is a really stressful experience, where what seems to me  as a teacher is not obvious to the student, and small seemingly unimportant items take on a overwhelming importance.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Perplexing Unconscious Bias Tests

As part of teacher training I am required to undertake some unconscious bias tests. This is to allow the teacher to realise they may have biases towards particular students, even if they don't think they do. That sounds reasonable, but I had difficulty with some of the tests. These are from the Harvard Implicit Project

First I tried the Race ('Black - White') test. This flashed a series of cartoon images of people with captions. These seemed to use made up names, to prevent a bias there. I was required to respond quickly, but it was not clear how to: an image would flash up briefly, but a mouse click, or key-press did nothing.

One test I was able to get to work was "Gender - Science". This first flashed up a series of gender words, and I was required to indicate if these were male or female. Then a series of discipline words were displayed, and I had to indicate if these were liberal arts or science. These appear to be training, not part of the study, but to ensure I knew how to click the correct button. However, then the disciplines were displayed again, but requiring me to choose from two combinations of gender and type of discipline (such as "Chemistry", "Male or Liberal Arts", "Female or Science" ). Initially I did not know how to respond to this, as the combinations did not make any sense. 

After a few minutes thought, I worked out the idea was to try to trick me to respond with a gender bias, for example, respond to "Engineering" with "Male", rather than "science". While knowing this consciously, I still found it difficult to press the right button quickly, and not select "female" for "Humanities" and "Male" for "Science".

The results of the test surprised me, showing a "moderate automatic association for Male with Science and Female with Liberal Arts" (which is the most common response). I would have expected more than "moderate". The results did not give any more details, such as a numeric indication of how biased I was.

The test was frustrating, as it diagnosed a bias, which I was aware of anyway, but did not give me any strategy to correct it. This is similar to when in primary school it was quickly established that I had difficulty with spelling and I spent many lunchtimes in detention for years afterward as a result. That did not help me spell, and I still can't (I am only literate with a spell checker). I suspect it will be much the same with the gender bias: something which I know about, but am unable to change. The ways to address this would instead have to be external, such as blind assessment, where I don't know the gender of the person who's work I am grading (easy to set up with a Learning Management System). 

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Johari window a legitimate training exercise?

As part of tutor training, I have been asked to undertake the Johari window exercise. With this the subject first picks keywords from a list, describing themselves. One or more peers then pick from the same list to describe the subject. The words selected are then tabulated into a quad chart, showing those the subject and peers agree on (Open or Arena), those from subjects but not peers (Façade), peers but not subjects (Blind), and those selected by no one (Unknown). There are 57 words to choose from. 

I am deeply suspicious of all such tests. But I gave it a shot. I looked down the list of words. At first I tried to find some which applied, then which did not apply. However, I was not able to do either and did not find this useful.

To get over not being able to choose a set of adjectives, I used a random number generator to select. This produced: warm, mature, reflective, witty, and intelligent. That sounds far to positive and boastful, but for the purposes of the next part of the exercise (comparing my description with others), I guess it will do as well as any.

My skepticism is shared by some researchers, with Newstrom, and Rubenfeld (1983), suggesting a revised window.


Newstrom, J. W., & Rubenfeld, S. A. (1983, March). The johari window: A reconceptualization. In Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning: Proceedings of the Annual ABSEL conference (Vol. 10). URL

Do theories of teaching help?

Fox (1983) suggests four ways to think about teaching: transfer, shaping, travelling, and building. The first is bout transferring knowledge (and presumably skills, although Fox doesn't mention them), from teacher to student. The second is shaping the student in some way, which I guess might be about skills. The third is about having the teacher as a guide on a learning journey (a bit too metaphorical?). Building theory I did not really understand: perhaps constructionist? Experiential Learning, and growing theory were also mentioned.

It wasn't clear to me how this laundry list of theories was helpful. There was no attempt to conduct an experiment to see if these were actually evident in the way teachers teach, or was useful in practice. Also there was not attempt to see if one theory, or another, improved student outcomes.

The European HoTEL (Holistic Approach to Technology Enhanced Learning) project has an even larger list of learning theories. Here 24 theories are related to practice, but again not in a way which is useful to a practitioner wanting to improve their teaching: 

HoTEL Learning Theory Map
Richard Millwood, 2002 


The Harder You Make the Students Work, the Less They Think They Learn

Louis Deslauriers, 
Harvard University
Deslauriers et al. (2019) have identified a curious problem for keen teachers: if you have students actively involved they learn more, but think they learn less. This could be a problem where teachers are evaluated based on student surveys. 

The authors conducted an experiment using introductory university physics students. One group had conventional lectures, the other used active techniques, but with the same materials. The latter group liked the active learning, and learned more, but did not think they did. The authors speculate this may be because the students are rating how smoothly the class ran, rather than how much they learned (an active class is inevitably a more messy activity than a lecture). A second theory was students new to university were not good at knowing how much they have learned (I wonder if students ever learn this). Thirdly, the authors suggest that students are not used to a "student-centered" classroom (that would not be the case in Australia, where secondary schools are very "active").

The authors suggest instructors explain the value of active learning at the beginning of class, along with a diagnostic test, so students better understand how much they learn. However, they do not make the obvious suggestion: student feedback scores should not be used to measure the quality of teaching. While teaching students more about how they learn will be good for their learning, it should not be used to simply bolster results on a survey of questionable validity, and I have found a far better way to game the student surveys. ;-).


Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences116(39), 19251-19257. URL

Do Teachers Make a Difference?

At the start of a new year I am learning a little more about teaching. This is not by choice, it is compulsory tutor training. But it is years since I have done a formal course, so a useful refresher, at least to remind me how hard being a student is. Otherwise it is easy for someone who teaches to forget how difficult, frustrating, stressful, and occasionally frightening being a student is.

One thing I have learned is that however experienced, as soon as I enroll in a course I start behaving like a student. One manifestation is to complain about readings: do I really have to read all this stuff? ;-)

Professor John Hattie, 
University of Melbourne

The first reading is Hattie (2003), who claims that teachers account for 30% of the variance in student results, the students themselves accounting for 50%, with home, school & peers each accounting for 5 to 10%. Hattie then presents a table (unlabeled), showing a long list of influences on student outcomes, the top ones being feedback, students’ prior cognitive ability, and instructional quality. The point here is that two of these are up to the teacher, along with most in the list. 

Hattie then goes on to argue that expert teachers make a difference, not experienced ones. However, the definition of what an expert was seems to mix up methods with results. As an example, expert teachers were said to be able to provide feedback, but also influence student outcomes. The former is something you could train a teacher to do, while they latter would be the outcome of successful training.

Having presented the case that teachers can make a difference, and that "expert" teachers make a bigger difference, Hattie does seem to have any useful advice on how to improve teaching. Perhaps the use of the term "expert" does not help. All teachers should be competent, in the sense they should have the required level of expertise, both in the field they are teaching, and how to teach. In Australia, school and vocational education teachers are required to have formal qualifications in teaching. University lecturers are only required to be qualified in what they are teaching, not how to teach. So it may be premature to worry about how to make them expert teachers, until they have reached the level of basic competence.

This paper is useful in giving university teachers some hope that they can make a real difference to student's education. But it doesn't help much with what to do. 


Hattie, J.A.C. (2003, October). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Paper presented at the Building Teacher Quality: What does the research tell us ACER Research Conference, Melbourne, Australia. Retrieved from

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Learning Hybrid Teaching in a Dual Delivery Room

Ceiling microphone in Room N101
ANU's major teaching rooms are being upgraded for "dual delivery", so I attended a session today in the famous room N101 at the Computer Science and Information Technology Building, to learn how to work the new equipment. 

The terminology used at ANU is:

"Hybrid: ... more than one method, though NOT at the same time.

Dual Delivery: ... with students in the physical space on campus while simultaneously having students online for the live session. ..."

So ANU hybrid is what is called blended elsewhere, and ANU Dual Delivery is called hybrid, or hyflex, elsewhere.

N101 is no stranger to advanced equipment, being the seminar room for the computing researchers, as well as previously those from CSIRO. In this room I have helped run global events, including ones helping set networking policy for the nation (with a Senator and two cabinet ministers at one event). This tended to make the room difficult to use for ordinary seminars and teaching, as you could never be sure what equipment was installed, and working. For a time there was a super high definition projection screen covering the whole front wall of the room, used for experiments in remote collaborative working. However, this made it difficult to just show some slides. There were also sockets for connection to different ultrahigh speed networks, but sometimes it was difficult to get ordinary Internet. 

Diagram of the operation of the
Sure MXA910 Ceiling Array Microphone

The room has now been set up with the ANU's standard teaching equipment for "Dual Delivery (High)". There is a panning camera on the ceiling, along with the largest, most sophisticated microphone I have ever seen, to cover the entire room (a Sure MXA910 Ceiling Array Microphone). The control console on the lectern has been reprogrammed to operate these.

Some other rooms have a "Dual Delivery (Basic)" setup, with a web camera on the lectern pointed at the speaker, and a desktop microphone. Other rooms are "Dual Delivery (BYO)", where the lecturer has to bring their own camera and laptop, to plug into the room system. 

By default, the "Dual Delivery (High)" room works much as in the past. If there is a lecture scheduled, sound and vision will be automatically recorded, and provided to enrolled students after the lecture (what ANU calls hybrid mode). If the lecturer wants remote students to be able to join in live to air (synchronously), they are required to manually start Zoom, or Teams, on the computer built into the desk, or on their laptop. This is what ANU is calling Dual Delivery mode. The control panel on the desk can be used to select vision from the inbuilt computer, a laptop connected by HDMI, or a wireless device via WiFi. 

Inevitably, this is a complex system, with many options. The lecturer needs to have the options explained to them, and try it out, to become comfortable. After that they will likely decide on a way of working they are comfortable with, and it will likely all just work. 

ANU has been through floods, fire, hailstorms, and a pandemic, in the last few years. So it is a good idea to be ready. I now design my teaching to allow for students to attend class on campus face to face. If that is not possible, they can attend live online. If that is not possible, they can download videos and documents, to interact asynchronously. All these options can be available at all times, without changing the course content, or assessment. The key to this is to design first for old fashioned distance education (asynchronous), then add the synchronous online option, and lastly add the classroom option. Starting with a face to face design and then trying to add online options does not work well. That may seem a bold claim to make, but I have been doing, researching, and training in how to do this for ten years.

Back on Campus

Greetings from Coffee Grounds cafe at the Australian National University. I have come in to prepare for the semester after many months away due to COVID-19. I was telling Elijah, the barista that this felt like déjà vu: I started my teaching at ANU 20 years ago, right here.