Thursday, March 31, 2022

ANU 75th Anniversary Event

ANU 75th
Greetings from the Arboretum in Canberra, where the ANU VC is speaking at the 75th anniversary of the university. As the VC said, a university is not the buildings, it is the people. The VC mentioned the many experts from ANU, and alumni, who made important contributions to the fight against COVID-19.

Ally Howe on Jazz violin

The VC was followed by Ally Howe on Jazz violin, playing what sounded to me like an upbeat interpretation of Ashokan Farewell.

It has been an odd week, which says something about the role of a national university, in difficult times. While other universities may have some academics speaking abstractly about war in Europe and our region, ANU had eight ambassadors from Europe who are on the front line of the conflict in the Ukraine, the Ukrainian ambassador who just arrived from the conflict, the Japanese ambassador talking on the effect in our region, and the head of GCHQ.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Ukraine Destroyed the Myth of Russian Invincibility Says Ambassador Designate to Australia

Mr Myroshnychenko,
speaking in the ANU Moot Court.
Photo by Tom Worthington, CC-BY 30 March 2022

Greetings from the Moot Court at the ANU, where  Ukraine's Ambassador Designate to Australia is making an unscheduled speech, opening day two of
 "Russia's Invasion of Ukraine: A Colloquium". He said that the Ukraine destroyed the myth of Russian invincibility. Mr Myroshnychenko pointed out he doesn't have a background in diplomacy, but is a businessperson. However, his biography shows he is a specialist in strategic communications, and co-founded Ukraine Crisis MediaMr Myroshnychenko will become the ambassador to Australia officially on Friday.

In answer to a question Mr Myroshnychenko said that the US Starlink satellite communications system had been useful for both civilian and military communications in the Ukraine. He also pointed out how Russia sought manipulate public opinion using messages different for internal and external audiences.

Mr Myroshnychenko referred to the use of talk shows by Russia, 
which manipulate emotions, modeled on those popularized in the USA. He then looked ahead to how difficult it will be to reeducate the people influenced by Russian messages. He pointed out how difficult this was, with people in Germany after WWII. But perhaps a better analogy today would be with those convinced by QAnon conspiracy theories.

Information Warfare Division
Australian Department of Defence
The Australian Government yesterday announced a doubling of the staff of the Australian Signals Directorate, and expansion of offensive cyber operations. As well as technical operations, to hack into enemies computers, I suggest it would be prudent to spend some of this money on the softer side of cyber operations, with information warfare. Australian personnel have been assisting Ukraine with cyber-security training, but I suggest there is much Australia could learn from Ukraine about information warfare.

In the Q&A I asked if Australian could learn from the information warfare situation in Europe. Mr Myroshnychenko replied that Australia could play a useful role countering Russian propaganda in the Pacific. Also Dr Robert Horvath, La Trobe University, suggested Australia could learn from Estonia's experience countering cyber attacks.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Alliances, Nuclear Weapons and Escalation at ANU

Greetings from the ANU for the launch of the book "Alliances, Nuclear Weapons and Escalation" (Frühling & O’Neil, ANU Press, 2022, available online for free).

His Excellency Ambassador Shingo Yamagami spoke first, emphasizing he was giving his own views, not necessarily those of the Japanese government. He pointed out that China's nuclear arsenal was growing, without any international agreements in place to curb expansion. Also he pointed out the irony that if Ukraine had not surrendered the nuclear weapons on its territory  at the end of the USSR, Russia would be hesitant to invade. "The penalty for complacency on nuclear weapons is, quite simply, extinction".

Dennis Richardson, former Secretary of the Australian Department of Defence pointed out that operational matters for Australia's military can quickly become policy issues. He used the example of an Australian warship operating with the US 7th fleet, in the region. As he pointed out this might seem a routine matter, but the fleet could be called into action at any time, and Australia could not simply withdraw its ship. On a personal note I saw this first had, when I spent the day on the 7th Fleet Flagship. Working on as a civilian IT expert for the Australian DoD, I was visiting my US counterpart, a naval officer. While this a joint training exercise, it was clear the fleet was ready to go to war at any time. If they did, I would have to go with them, in my borrowed uniform.Dr Oriana 

Skylar Mastro, from the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University erased the idea of international alliances covering non military matters. One example was if China threatened to stop their students coming to Australia, the USA would ban them. Dennis Richardson pointed out that the USA and Australia have interpreted their alliance as covering cyber attacks.

 Alliances, Nuclear Weapons and Escalation, table of contents for the free HTML version:

First Page

Monday, March 28, 2022

European Ambassadors Discuss Russia in Ukraine in Canberra

 Chancellor Bishop opening the
Greetings from "Russia's Invasion of Ukraine: A Colloquium", at the Moot Court of the Australian National University in Canberra. Chancellor Bishop is opening the colloquium. With a row of distinguished European ambassadors, flags, and a judges bench behind, it is perhaps a foretaste of the war crimes tribunals to come. But those are likely years away.  

The colloquium is an example of one of the uses of a research university. Whatever the topic,  you can likely find an expert on it at a major university. This event has the ambassadors today, and the the ANU's strategic experts give their views Wednesday. 

One ambassador, mentioned the effect of cyber attacks on European countries, another the unexpected unity, but this will be tested as sanctions harm European economies, as well as Russia. Unexpected unity was mentioned again. The claim was made the war was "unprecedented", which seems at odds with Europe's bloody history. The prospect of chemical, biological and "other" (ie: Nuclear) weapons were mentioned, with the suggestion European countries needed to be ready with a response. Option may be limited as US doctrine call for a response in kind, if a weapon of mass destruction is used against it. So what happens if a stray chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon which causes mass causalities of US personnel deployed to a European ally? Also it was chilling to hear ambassador's saying their countries were preparing for war, and that under the NATO alliance, an attack on one country is an attack on all. In particular the representatives of the smaller European countries on the western edge of the EU think of themselves as already at war, by proxy. 

In his response Mr Kyle Wilson, Visiting Fellow,  ANU Centre for European Studies, suggested that the conflict started with a cyber attack on Estonia in 2007.

"Day 1: A diplomatic perspective from Europe

Panel 1: Collective responses to shared challenges

  • H.E. Dr Michael Pulch, Ambassador of the European Union
  • H.E. Mr Michał Kołodziejski, Ambassador of the Republic of Poland
  • H.E. Ms Satu Mattila-Budich, Ambassador of the Republic of Finland
  • H.E. Ms Kersti Eesmaa, Ambassador of the Republic of Estonia

Panel 2: The future of Europe’s security architecture

  • H.E. Mr Jean-Pierre Thébault, Ambassador of the French Republic
  • H.E. Ms Pernille Dahler Kardel, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Denmark
  • H.E. Dr Thomas Fitschen, Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany
  • H.E. Ms Betty Bernardica Pavelich, Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia

Day 2: Liberal democracies and threats to the rules-based international order

Date and time: 30 March, 9.30am-4.30pm

Australia’s leading authorities on Eastern Europe will examine Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from political, strategic, historical and cultural angles, and will reflect on the possible threat the conflict poses to the rules-based international order.

The speakers include Dr Robert Horvath (La Trobe University), Prof Paul Dibb (ANU), A/Prof William Partlett (The University of Melbourne), Dr Stephen Fortescue (UNSW), Mr Petr Kuzmin (President of Svoboda Alliance VIC), Mr Bertil Wenger (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung), Dr Matthew Sussex (Australian Defence College), Dr Sonia Mycak (ANU), Dr Elena Govor (ANU).

See the program and speakers here."

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Universities are still the future of higher education

EY Global Education Leader

In "Are universities of the past still the future?" Ernst & Young (34 pages, 19 Jan 2022 ), argue that the sift to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic is just the start of change in post-school learning. EY suggest this threatens institutions unable to change. However, I suggest the move online happened years before COVID-19. Students were mostly studying online, the pandemic forced institutions to formalize this change. While presenting some challenges well, EY have the wrong solutions. Instead of EY's old fashioned big corporation thinking, I suggest taking an agile entrepreneurial approach instead.

One intriguing idea the EY authors present is that we have reached "peak education", in developed countries. The idea being than like “peak oil” we have reached the point where all those who need a university degree are getting it, and there will not be an increasing supply of international students to fund expansion. While intriguing, this is nonsense. There is still demand for education, perhaps in a different form, domestic, and international. Already Australian international student numbers have bounced back. Initiatives such as the Australian and Indian governments faciliting mutual qualifications recognition will open new markets for Australian education.

It is generous of EY to present some options for future universities. But it is not as if academics themselves have been backward about inventing new educational options. Ten years ago I decided to give up giving lectures, and move my teaching online. Around the same time I decided examinations were not a good form of assessment. Rather than throwing me out, my colleagues shrugged and accepted this, provided I could meet the required quality standards. After seven years training, mostly online at Australian and North American universities, I had a reasonable idea of how to teach in a flipped blended mode. Then COVID-19 struck, and this became an essential way to do education. Even the most recalcitrant professor did not refuse, they covered their chalkboards and started using Zoom.

EY ask five questions: 

  1. "What if ... the cost of learning is driven down to zero?
  2. What if ... learning journeys are entirely flexible and customizable?
  3. What if ... higher education providers are accountable for results?
  4. What if ... commercialized research pays for itself?
  5. What if ... technology could solve the global supply-demand mismatch?"
These are good questions, but they are not new, and there are a range of answers. EY imagines self placed learning online from multiple providers in 2030. But millions of people have studied this way, long before COVID-19 struck.

I was studying online way in 2013. Enrolled at ANU in Canberra, I was able to supplement local courses with those offered online from USQ in Queensland. Then I enrolled at Canberra Institute of Technology (very close to home, but all classes were online). To further my studies I enrolled at Athabasca University in Canada, as an international online student and completed an entire degree by distance education. 

Each time there is a new communications technology developed, be it printing, gramophones, radio, audio cassettes, TV, or the Internet, it is pressed into service for education. Visionaries then talk about the technology making education universally available at low, or no, cost. However, while each technology lowers cost, it does not eliminate it.

Computers offered flexible and customizable learning decades before the Internet. However, that flexibility required very rigid programming. As a result much of the flexibility was illusory. Also laws and industry regulations need to allow this flexibility. One example of flexibility is the ability to mix and match courses between institutions. Some consortia already offer this feature, such as Open Universities Australia.

Some university research already pays for itself. However, funds from university research as to be a byproduct, not an end in itself, otherwise there is no reason for a university to undertake such research: it might as well be done by a for profit company. Turning research into products requires specialist skills which most university academics,, and private sector business people do not have. Centers for teaching these skills have grown up around universities. I visited Cambridge University in England to see how they did it, and recommended something similar for Canberra. The Canberra Innovation Network was setup up next to the ANU campus. 

I don't have imagine what it is like to be a postgraduate student in one country 
Luanda (Angola) accessing globally recognized teachers online. I spent three years in Canberra, studying with experts in open, digital and distance education in North America. I met one of my teachers when the were giving a conference keynote in Hong Kong, and another chairing a conference in Sydney. This is achievable now, in fields with global skills standards, such as university teaching, computing and engineering. 

EY recommend these approaches to get to the education future:
  1. 'Be clear about your long-term purpose
  2. Think “future-back” to set your reinvention agenda
  3. Build new value with new capabilities
  4. Invest across the three time horizons'
These approaches appear to be designed to appeal to cautious executives at large corporations. But universities are run by small academic teams. They can, and do, take bolder, quicker moves. Also it is not a case of having to leap into a far distant future of unproven technology. The educational techniques discussed in the EY report are here now, proven, and mostly available for free. A large university will have experts in these fields already working this way. The VC just has to walk next door to the learning center, or the computer lab, to ask about it, then to the innovation center to get help scaling it up. The limiting factor are the speed at which educat
ion laws can be changed and staff trained. 

Hamburger University?

Athabasca University as announced McDonald’s employees will be able to get a  degree while they work. Many jokes are possible: "Hamburger University", "Do you want fries with that degree?", but this is a worthwhile initiative. The students will undertake McDonald’s Canada Management Development program, and get credit towards a business related degree.

Students are already encouraged to undertake work integrated learning. However, it is extremely resource intensive for universities to vet individual employers, and supervise the students on placements. It is difficult to find employers willing to go to the trouble to be part of the program. It is also difficult for students to make the connection between what they are studying and their work. A program which the employer has which is designed for learning make things much easier.

This is not the first Canadian institution to have an agreement with MacDonald's, Ontario colleges already has a deal.

And there is no risk that if I ask for a replacement MEd certificate, it will not say "Hamburger University". ;-)

Friday, March 25, 2022

Some Thoughts on Learning and Teaching Strategies

Hot Air Balloon Over Canberra,
Photo by Tom Worthington CC-by 3.0 1996
Some thoughts on Learning and Teaching Strategies:

Don't Fight the Last War

A well-known saying in the military is "Fighting the Last War". This is the tendency to make plans around whatever challenge was last. There is much talk of universities learning the lessons of COVID-19. However, those lessons were known before COVID-19, many were not learned then, and in any case, may not apply in the future.

Australian universities knew the risk that the flow of international students to Australia could be interrupted. As one of many, I warned of this (Worthington, 2017). Rather than practice teaching online in an emergency, as the National University of Singapore did in 2014, most of Australia's universities chose to instead hope this never happen, and when it did, claimed no one could have anticipated it.

Universities faced COVID-19 in an otherwise relatively benign environment, which can't be assumed to be the case in the future. An example of an upcoming challenge is high levels of cyber-attacks, which could commence without warning, and persist for months or years (Whitehouse, 2022). A longer-term challenge is increased online competition from international universities, and  institutions associated with China's education plan for the belt, and road program (Worthington, 2014).

Balance Research and Education

While useful for marketing, a university's research activities are of little practical value for student learning, if anything they are an impediment. Staff selected, and promoted, on their research record are not necessarily good educators, nor do they have an incentive to become skilled. Governments could solve this inherent conflict by un-Dawkinising Australian higher education, again splitting research, and education into separate institutions. Research universities would then only teach a few research students. To avoid that drastic solution, universities need to raise the status of teaching, with specific recruitment and promotional practices.

We already knew how to teach better before COVID-19

COVID did not bring disruption to those of us already trained and qualified in teaching, who were providing online, flipped, and blended learning. Some even had a contingency for online teaching in an emergency in place, activated for the pandemic.

The challenge for universities is not in imagining what learning, and teaching could be as that is already known, but how to provides incentives for our academics to skill-up to do it.

We already knew exams were a bad idea

Apart from being administratively convenient, examinations have little
to offer
in terms of quality assessment. Alternatives are well developed
and proven. The challenge is to train staff in modern assessment techniques.

Large classes are manageable when broken into small groups

There are well-established techniques for large classes. These involve the use of group work, peer feedback, and projects. The challenge is to train academics in how to use these techniques in a team, with educational specialists. ANU Techlauncher is one model for this approach.

Learning and teaching support

The key to systematic uplift of digital, and teaching skills is through the university's major teaching asset: tutors. These most marginal university employees, like non-commissioned officers of the army, are on the front line with students. They are also easier to influence in their teaching practices. While convincing a tenured professor to learn digital teaching techniques is difficult, it is much easier with tutors. Courses for tutors can be re-imagined as showcases of modern teaching techniques. The tutors would learn these techniques, by using these techniques.

Learning Spaces with flat floors and furniture on wheels

The flat floor classrooms of the ANU Marie Reay Teaching Centre provide a suitable model for future learning spaces (Worthington, 2019). These can be supplemented with some tiered spaces similar to ANU Manning Clark Hall.

Lifelong learning

Lifelong learning can be addressed through micro-credentials offering credit in certificates, nested into diplomas, and degrees. The major challenge here is to have staff with the needed skills in the design, delivery, and assessment of this form of education. There is much to learn from the VET sector, but academics are very reluctant to do so.

Development, and reward of teaching

There is no easy solution to getting academics to take the time, and effort needed to become skilled in teaching. One way is to get them when they are new, requiring new staff, especially early career academics, to undertake training.

Universities can offer courses, micro-credentials, certificates, diplomas, and degrees in education to both their staff, and students. This would signal that the sector is taking education seriously, and imposing discipline on those delivering it. Tutors who are students could be offered credit for their studies in education as part of their programs. As an example, education is recognized internationally as a skill for computer professionals, under the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).

Flexible for a sustainable future

One way sustainability can be improved is to build flexible options into educational offerings. By default, programs should be offered in blended mode, with the option of students studying entirely remotely online. While the typical student could be expected to be on campus for 20% of their studies, the option for this to be 0% should be built-in. As well as providing flexibility for individual students, this allows for future emergencies, which keep students from campus (I suggested Canberra's universities do this in 2016).

Some Frequently Asked Questions

What Should our Digital Infrastructure Look Like?

There is enough free open source educational software for universities, such as Moodle, and Mahara. What is needed is the training in education, and technology, for staff to use it effectively. Changing the LMS would be treating the symptoms, not the problem.

What does a Good On-campus Experience Look Like

ANU's Kambri is a good example of a lively modern campus experience. It looks like an entertainment center, but there are quality teaching spaces behind the bars, cafes.

How Can We Respond to Student's Concerns

Train, the teaching staff to teach, with an AQF qualification in education.This could be at a level somewhere between the certificate VET teachers must have, an the Masters for school teachers.

How can we make teaching easier in large classes?

Train, the teaching staff to teach, with an AQF certificate in education.

How can we make the experience of learning meaningful to students?

Train, the teaching staff to teach, with an AQF certificate in education.

Then teach the students to be professionals, who take responsibility for their learning. Have them undertake group project work from their first year.

How can we provide students flexibility?

Offer all courses in blended mode, with a pure online option. Eliminate
traditional examinations.

How do provide digital equity?

Include digital skills introductory courses. Ensure that course
materials meet accessibility requirements and will work over low
bandwidth broadband to a mobile device.


Act Now to Protect Against Potential Cyberattacks, The Whitehouse, US Government, March 21, 2022

Worthington, T. (2014, August). Chinese and Australian students learning to work together online proposal to expand the New Colombo Plan to the online environment. In 2014 9th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (pp. 164-168). IEEE.

Worthington, T. (2017). Digital Teaching In Higher Education: Designing E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment. ANU Open Research Repository

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.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Expert Analysis of Russia's Invasion of Ukraine at the Australian National University

The Australian National University is holding a free two day event on "Russia's Invasion of Ukraine", 28 and 30 March 2022. This will feature eight ambassadors of European countries on the first day, and strategic scholars on the second.

COVID-19 closing campuses has caused many to ask what universities are for. This event answers one of those questions: at times of crisis, universities provide experts, with a depth of experience, to help answer very difficult questions. It is easy to dismiss the views of academics, but some of us have direct experience of working in defence organisations.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Will Conferences Remain Online Post-pandemic?

Steven Fraser
Had a message from Steven Fraser at Innoxec asking me to pass on a Future of Conferences Research Survey. I miss being on the stage at a conference, wandering through the trade show, and bumping into acquaintances. But I also don't want to give up the convenience of being able to attend an international conference online, without a 10 to 20 hour flight. 

During the pandemic academic conferences transitioned well to an online format. Keynotes worked fine, as did panel sessions. ASCILITE 2020 & ASCILITE 2021, made a good attempt at including a casual get together. EDUtech Asia did reasonable well with commercial online conferences, with sponsored round-table sessions.

However, hybrid events which offered both in-person and online options did not work so well. This requires organizers to work very hard balancing the needs of in-person and online participants. Perhaps as more experience is gained with this workable formats will be found.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Australian Universities Can Reform and Have More International Students

It is something of a boom time for books and articles on reform of the higher education system. In addition to Heller's Distributed University, we now have "Australia’s Universities: Can They Reform?" by Salvatore Babones, University of Sydney. A very readable 205 pages, Babones takes a timely look at where our universities came from, and where they might go. The author starts by making a plea for data collected by parties without a vested interest on which to make policy (p. 3). That seems a naive wish: why would anyone who doesn't have a vested interest go to the trouble of collecting data about universities? Babones claims to be offering "disinterested policy advice" (p. 4), but holds a position at a Australia's oldest university. His somewhat jaundiced views on 'autonomy without responsibility" perhaps come from association with a university has a lot of history.

Babones argues Australian universities do not have a financial or free speech crisis, but a moral one: taking government money but not acting in the public interest. Perhaps the problem is that the interests of government are not necessarily the same as those of the public. A long way from University of Sydney, I hold an honorary position at the Australian National University (ANU). A much newer institution, and one with a mission written into federal legislation, with significant funding from the same government. However, I see no sign of this moral problem: the ANU accepts money and then interprets how it sees its public responsibilities. That perception mostly aligns with government objectives, but where it does not, the university asserts it academic independence, and that of its academics. 

More usefully than the moral landscape, Babones gives a brief overview of higher education's structure and history in Australia. As the author notes, Australian universities follow a European model. The universities decide their own curricula, largely free from government interference. As a member of professional body which accredits degrees (the Australian Computer Society), I have more say in what computer students learn at university than any government official does.

One point Babones doesn't emphasize is that universities are not the only higher education bodies in Australia. He points to "University Colleges", but only mentions in passing the vocational education sector, with state government TAFEs, and private registered training organisations (RTOs). As Babones notes, public discussion tends to focus on the public universities, but is guilty of the same mistake of ignoring the important role of TAFEs and RTOs (p. 15), as it happens I been a student at the then ACT TAFE, as well as more recently in the guise of the Canberra Institute of Technology.

One Australian university is very different to all the others. As Babones points out Torrens University Australia is privately internationally owned. Ruling it of for analysis on that basis (p. 17), I suggest, is exactly the wrong thing to do, as it has many interesting characteristics. Torrens provides blended learning at campuses worldwide. In this respect it was ahead of many Australian universities. Also Torrens has an emphasis on vocationally orientated hands-on education, for example, having a hotel for its hotel management students to train at in the Blue Mountains.

Another misstep is that Babones focuses on the Group of Eight (Go8) research intensive universities. As the author writes this group (of which my own ANU is a member), has been effective at influencing government strategic thinking. The education intensive regional universities are less influential, but I suggest no less important to the nation, and so deserve further consideration (I have been a student at USQ). 

In the chapter "Are Australian Universities Underfunded" Babones concludes they are not, with federal funding being "medium high" by world standards, with international students being a "low margin" addition to this, in " a futile search for everlasting growth"  (p. 54). At this point the author's own bias comes out in the statement "It's not clear that universities should grow at all" (p.55). They seem to want to return to an era when universities were sleepy backwaters for a few. 

 Babones argues that the ANU, in particular, saved itself from more severe losses during COVID-19, by setting a 20,000 limit on international student numbers. I suggest that instead, ANU, and other Australian universities were saved by educational technologists who had put in place online education, in part for this contingency. ANU had previously suffered a number of campus closures due to natural disasters, during which administration, research and education had continued online. In 2016 I warned Canberra's universities that international students could be prevented from getting to campus, and we should be ready to teach them online. While no all academics welcomed, or heeded, this advice, there was a cadre of educational technologists ready to help the recalcitrant, when the choice the alternative they faced was poverty and disease.

Babones argues Australia has the largest ratio of international to domestic students, and the second largest number absolutely. This is put as a negative, with these being low margin, high volatility market. However, in what other industry would it be argued that Australian in an international market, despite its volatility and low margins, be a bad thing? The author's suggested alternative of fostering on the domestic market has not been a success for many Australian industries, simply because there are not many Australian customers.

In the next chapter Babones asks "How many students are too many?". One odd metric used is that native English speakers should be in the majority in the classroom. If English is the language of instruction, provided the proficiency of the instructor, and the students, is to the required standard, whatever languages they may be able to speak is not relevant. Having students from many countries is of benifit to Australian studnts, as this is the world they will have to live, and work, in. Graduates will likely work in teams of people from, and in, many nations. 

Babones is correct in asserting that Australian universities pursued international students when they could no longer grow the domestic market. However, the author seems to think the universities doing this in a highly professional way, using materials in the student's language, is in some way a negative. Torrens is singled out for having 61% international students, as if this was setting a bad example for the public universities, "... behaving as for-profit businesses ...". But what is wrong with a university earning revenue for the benifit of their owner (in the case of a public university, the public). It appears that the greatest sin our universities have committed in Babones' eyes is to have run a successful business. By this criterion, major US and UK universities are similarly at fault. On several visits to Cambridge University UK, I was able to see how this very successful money making machine operates. This university educates students and conducts research to a very high standard, but it also turns the research into very profitable goods and services.

Applying Bowen's Law Babones argues that Australian public sensitivities should do the best they can to educate Australian students, with the money given by government. This is a very narrow view of how not-for-profit organisations can operate. If it is the case that Australian universities should not be earning income from international students, then the solution is obvious: change their charter to allow for what they have been doing so well. 

Babones uses a comparison of a "poorly funded university ... taught by obscure scholars with few publications" versus a richly funded one "... taught by Nobel laureates". The implication is that the students at the first will receive a poorer one than the latter. This is not the case. Researchers do not necessarily make good teachers. This can be seen in Australia, where the regional education intensive universities consistently outperform the research intensive ones, simply because well trained educators are better teachers. 

The central part of Babones thesis is made clear in the chapter "How many international students are too many?". The author notes that Australia has a much higher ratio of international students than other countries, even with NZ students classified as domestic. He suggests "too many" financially speaking is when the per student revenue is less than domestic. However, this assumes a very limited view of what a not-for-profit institution can do. There is no reason I can see why there need to be any link between fees, or revenue, from domestic and international students. 

Babones also notes that some Australian universities are large by international standards, and international student numbers were reduced 10% they would be more in line (p. 82). But the author leaves much larger non-Australian universities out of the comparison, such as Open University UK, with 175,000 students is twice as large as Australia's largest. The chapter concludes with the assertion that Australian universities sought international students to fund research. This is presented as if it was a negative, rather than, as I see it, as a positive. The author seems to want Australian universities to limit their research budgets to whatever the Australian Government chooses to provide. Leading international universities do not do that: they seek other sources of revenue. It just happens that Australian universities have proved adept at getting revenue from international students, rather than wealthy benefactors, and intellectual property. 

In the chapter "Is rankings mania warping university priorities" Babones takes a needed look at the league tables produced of universities. As the author points out, while these ranking schemes use different methodologies, they produce similar results, and Australia rates well. I suggest this should not be a surprise, as the rankings are based mainly on research output and research reputation, where Australia does well. What Babones doesn't point out is that these rankings have little, if anything to do with the quality of the education provided. If anything, a high research ranking may lower the quality of education, as researchers don't necessarily make good educators. Despite this, students, and their parents, use the research based ranking in deciding on a university. As a result some Australian universities have used misleading marketing, claiming their institution is in the top few percent in the world. There are alternative ranking schemes, such as the "Webometrics Ranking of World Universities". 

Continuing a list of hot topics, Babones next asks "Have Australia's universities been corrupted by China?". This is a serious charge, suggesting the leaders of our universities acted dishonestly for personal gain. The author concludes that Conffucius Institutes were not been financially rewarding for the universities which hosted them. Similarly Babones expresses concern about China's Thousand Talents program, but can't produce solid evidence of corruption. 

One area Babones does't address, and I suggest will be increasingly difficult for Australian universities, are the human rights records of countries they wish to collaborate with, and draw international students from. The Group of Eight (Go8) Australian universities issued a statement "... condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s people and sovereignty" (Go8, 4 March 2022). The ANU went further cutting ties with Russia (ANU, 4 March 2022). However, Australian universities have few international students from Russia, and few joint research projects. Will they be willing to follow this precedent in future, to call out human rights abuses in countries where they have much more to loose?

As an educator, rather than a researcher, I found Babones' question in the next chapter "Why are teaching and learning such low priorities?" easy to answer. Unfortunately the author missed the point completely. They suggest that low student engagement with a proliferation of increasingly online courses is a problem. Babones slates how some blame to the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). However, this fad had ended before the COVID-19 pandemic began. What universities pivoted to online as an emergency measure were video versions of old fashioned face to face courses. This combined the lack of engagement of a boring old lecture with the problems of technology based access. Given the lack of trained teachers in Australian universities, and the lack of interest in online learning from the leaders of Australian universities, there was little else could be done. 

The question "Why are teaching and learning such low priorities?" was actually answered by Babones in a previous chapter on university ranking. As students, particularly international students, select a university based on ranking, and the rankings are not based on teaching quality, this is not a priority. Universities select staff based primarily on research ability, which is, at best, unrelated to teaching.

There are ways to address the quality of education at universities. This requires staff to be trained to teach, and for specialists in education to help design learning and assessment. However, such initiatives are deeply unpopular with academics trained and selected for a completely different set of skills. Even if implemented, the university would not be rewarded with a higher ranking, or more students. Babones suggests more government oversight, but that would have little effect, given the powerful perverse incentives against quality teaching. What government might do is fund and promote new metrics which value teaching. 

I agree with Babones that Australian universities can reform, but not on what those reforms should be. The COVID-19 crisis could have been less severe, not as Babones suggests by having fewer international students, but by being ready to teach them online. Contrary to the narrative presented by Australian VCs, the crisis in international students getting to campus was anticipated. Some Singapore universities put such measures in place after SARS outbreaks closed their campuses. This was not secret: they produced papers and videos on the topic. I was one of those who urged Australian university to be ready. Even now, many academics appear to be wishing for the return of the good old days when students came to lectures, rather than preparing to face new foreseeable challenges.

Babones asks some very worthwhile questions for Australian universities, but I suggest comes up with the wrong answers.

Students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes because learning is not synchronous

Frank R. Castelli
Cornell University
Castelli and Sarvary (2021) have investigated why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and suggest ways to encourage them. More useful they offer alternative ways for students to show their involvement in an online course. I suggest these support my assertion that "synchronous" online learning is a myth (Worthington, 2013).

The researchers analysed results of survey of  283 undergraduate US biology students. Of these 41% had their camera off some of the time due to concern about their appearance, 26% concerned about people in the background, and 22% having a weak internet connection. I suggest the last of these could be addressed by providing a low bandwidth video option, which maintains audio quality, but sacrifices video. A lower quality video, perhaps being cartoon like, might also help with the other concerns. 

Castelli and Sarvary suggest not requiring camera use, but instead encourage it, with the instructor detailing why it is important for communication. They also suggest the use of active learning techniques. I suggest is good advice: if you are providing a boring old fashioned one way lecture, the students might as well be watching a recorded video.

More significantly, the authors also suggest allowing students to provide input by polling, discussion boards, shared documents, and the text chat feature in the video conference system. I suggest these options need special attention, as they challenge the idea that a video conference is best for learning, as it emulates a face to face classroom.

I challenged the assumption that videoconferencing provides synchronous learning in a 2013 paper, arguing that neither face to face or video conference provide "synchronous" learning, nor is this best. Just because students are hearing and seeing the save thing at approximately the same time, they are not necessarily learning that. The approach I suggested was "synchronized", where occasionally the instructor checks where the students are up to. Tools such as polling, discussion boards, shared documents, and the text chat feature in the video conference system exhibit these features.

In the case of polling, the instructor will usually give students a deadline by which to complete the poll, and at that time report the results. While they are completing the poll the students are studying asynchronously, on their own. At the deadline, the students synchronize with the instructor. The same approach is commonly used with discussion boards, shared documents, and text chat. Students submit their contribution up to a deadline, then the contributions are summarized.

Rather than see students not wishing to appear on video as anomalous, and attempt this behavior, I suggest designing courses which assume asynchronous participation as the norm, and synchronous as an occasional adjunct.


Castelli, F. R., & Sarvary, M. A. (2021). Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so. Ecology and Evolution11(8), 3565-3576.

Worthington, T. (2013, April). Synchronizing asynchronous learning-Combining synchronous and asynchronous techniques. In 2013 8th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (pp. 618-621). IEEE.

What we know about student evaluations is reassuring

Katharine Gelber
University of Queensland
In "What we now know about student evaluations is much more depressing than you thought", Katharine Gelber (University of Queensland), reports that research confirms a gender bias in Students Evaluations of Teaching (SETs). Their research was of University of Queensland student surveys over three years from 2015 (Gelber, Brennan,  Duriesmith, & Fenton, 2022). The good news is that the numeric scores did not show gender bias, but the text comments did. Male and female identifying students evaluated teachers in some stereotypical gendered ways. This means that SETs may be rewarding female and male staff for behaviours that conform to gender stereotypes. It also may mean that female and male staff are rewarded for behaviours that have differentiated impacts on the amount of time and energy they have available for other activities, including of course research. 

The author's conclusion is that "These results on student evaluations are only depressing if you thought they were an objective measure of teaching quality". But who in any service delivery industry would think a consumer survey is an objective measure? Like any consumer survey, the results will reflect the biases of those surveyed. That the quantitative results are consistent is a positive result, and should be enough to use the surveys as a early warning indicator of a problem with a course or teachers.

If the numbers for one course or teacher is very low, then there is a reason to check why. But sifting through what students write on surveys to decide if one teacher is slightly better than another is nuts. Also such a survey should have nothing to do with the amount of time a teacher spends teaching. They should spend the time needed to meet learning outcomes for students, which have nothing to do with a popularity poll. 


  1. Katharine Gelber, Katie Brennan, David Duriesmith & Ellyse Fenton (2022) Gendered mundanities: gender bias in student evaluations of teaching in political science, Australian Journal of Political Science, DOI: 10.1080/10361146.2022.2043241

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Does online study reduce carbon emissions?

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a natural experiment on the value of online learning. As well as the effectiveness of this form of learning Heller, Sun, Guo and Malik, estimate it has saved about 8,000 kg CO2e per international student (2022). The authors used a relatively simplistic methodology, assuming on-campus international students travel to the city their institution is exclusively for the purposes of study. If an internaional student also works during their study, as many do, then the emissions from their travel can;t be attributed entirely to study. Also it is assumed that the university doesn't produce any extra emissions in providing education, on campus or online, compared to that of the average resident. The authors are advocates for the campus-less university. However, such a university still needs staff and equipment somewhere, which will product emissions. Also students studying will produce emissions. 


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 (