Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Revolution Will Not be Streamed

Just received an invitation for delegates to attend leadership masterclasses at the 2022 Universities Australia Conference. Only two problems with this: 1. I haven't registered for the conference, and 2. the masterclasses are only in person, at the conference venue. It is a troubling if these workshops are, as claimed, an "... opportunity to gain an insight into how our sector’s top decision-makers approach the challenges of running a university". In that case, our universities are in trouble, run by poor administrators, and poor educators. 

We need universities which are familiar with the needs of their students, and offer education where the student is, not forcing them to turn up to a campus. Leadership amid change requires doing things differently. Influencing for impact requires using new ways of communicating. Building resilient cultures requires genuine communication. Our top university decision makers need these skills, if they want to stay in business. The way to learn is to do, not sit and listen.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Shorter-term Technical Certificates as a Path to Higher Income

In "If College Isn't the Pathway to the Middle Class It Once Was—What Is?"
, Lindsay Daugherty, Senior Policy Researcher at RAND, suggests that there may be better options than a four-year degree program for students seeing a job with a middle class salary. In Australia the answer is, or should be, easy: if you want a well paying job quickly and easily, got to TAFE. The government, and non-government VET providers in Australia offer sub-degree programs, which are nationally recognized. Some of these are required for entry into regulated jobs, while others are in high demand job categories with subsidized fees. The VET sector has forms of education and assessment designed to suit less academically accomplished students. However, even in Australia, this form of education has an unwarranted poor reputation, being seen as second best, compared to university. Australia's new government should be  boosting the reputation of the VET sector, and ending the downgrading of TAFEs, so this is seen as the first option for those wanting a step up in employment.

Learning from Wuhan on Helping International Students

While western universities have focused on the problems of their own students during the COVID-19 pandemic, it should be remembered that China also has international students. There are some interesting papers emerging from the experience of students, some at the epicenter of the Pandemic.  English, Yang,  Marshall, and Nam (2022) have written about the experience of international about 1,500 students facing Wuhan's 76 day lock-down (out of 8,000 pre-Pandemic). The authors note that the stress from the pandemic is in addition to the stress international student face from studying abroad.

Wuhan was locked down earlier than other locations, when little was know of the virus, which will have increased the stress level for students. Also, as the authors note, those in Wuhan faced the stigmatization and discrimination as being perceived as the source of the disease. However, it should be noted that Melbourne (Australia) experienced six lock-downs, of 262 days in total, more than the rest of the world. It would be interesting to compare the experience of Melbourne's very large international student population to that of other countries. Australian international students were stigmatized by the then Australian Prime Minister, who with a breathtaking lack of compassion, said of the students: "it's time to go home".

The authors report the stress and anxiety students felt, fear, worry, uncertainty, which were made worst by misinformation. Students were homesick and felt  abandoned by those able to leave. However, they were able to continue their education online. In my own studies of the potential for online education in China, I noted that it was not widely accepted (Worthington, 2014). Despite this, as the authors note, Chinese universities were able to switch to online learning, at scale. Another positive point was that international students were helped by the local community, reducing the sense of isolation.

The authors suggest universities could apply the prosocial behavior exhibited at Wuhan in dealing with mental health issues of students generally. In particular, peer support, and practical help for students, with food, and transport. Also social support from outside the international student body will reduce a sense of isolation. 

Wang (2022) makes similar points. However, they also point to the direct role of university medical personnel, and students, in treating patients. This included online support for the psychological effects of the pandemic. The author emphases the sense of "belonging" of China's students, which aided response to the pandemic. This may sound a little odd, to western ears, but Australian universities are similarly attempting to cultivate a sense of care for students. The use of social media, specifically WeChat, is mentioned, but unfortunately not detailed. Australian universities now routinely use social media to get messages out to students, but these can tend to be more in the form of announcements, which do not have the power to engage. 


English, A., Yang, Y., Marshall, R. C., & Nam, B. H. (2022). Social Support for International Students Who Faced Emotional Challenges Midst Wuhan's 76-day lockdown during Early Stage of the COVID-19 Pandemic. International Journal of Intercultural Relations. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2022.01.003/

Wang, L. (2022). Belonging, being, and becoming: Tertiary students in China in the battle against COVID-19 pandemic. In J. S. McKeown, K. Bista, & R. Y. Chan (Eds.), Global higher education during COVID-19: Policy, society, and technology (pp. 39-56). STAR Scholars. https://ojed.org/index.php/gsm/issue/view/152

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. https://doi.org/10.1109/ICCSE.2014.6926448

Monday, May 23, 2022

Global Energy Transition Accelerated by Ukraine Situation?

Professor Jotzo,  Ambassadors Pulch,
& Myroshnychenko, at ANU 
Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where Dr Michael Pulch (European Union), and Vasyl Myroshnychenko (Ukraine),  Ambassadors to Australia, are speaking along with the ANU's own Professor Frank Jotzo on the energy implications of the situation in the Ukraine. The obvious solution is more use of renewable energy, but that is not easy, or cheap to do, especially quickly. The event is in a theater of the ANU Research School of Social Sciences, with a wonderful view of the Campus and Black Mountain. 

The EU Ambassador pointed that imported gas dependence had increased in the last few years, due to declining local extraction, and conversion from other fuels. Also they noted the spread of dependency was uneven across the EU. The Union this year decided to phase out dependency on imported gas, however that sound to me like the Captain of the Titanic deciding to buy more lifeboats, but only after seeing the iceberg. The Ambassador did note there are some short term moves possible, to increase gas imports other than from Russia, having more storage, and more use of coal. In the longer term the Ambassador said they were looking to follow Australia's example promoting rooftop solar. But they noted options would not be simple or cheap.

The Ambassador said they did not expect significant LNG exports from Australia, but Australia could increase experts to other regions, thus freeing up supplies for Europe. The Ambassador did not mention longer term opportunities for Europe to buy renewable energy from Australia, in the form of synthetic fuels, or Australian technology to reduce energy use.

The Ukrainian Ambassador noted Russian "weaponizartion" of energy policy. They argued previous German policy on gas from Russia propped up the Soviet Union. They referred to the "Schr√∂derization" of energy,  German politician, Gerhard Schr√∂der, advocating the Nord Stream pipeline, then after retirement taking up a board position. The Ambassador advocated phasing out Russian gas in Europe, facing up to the shock. They said Ukraine will buy more Australian coal and uranium. These will be unpalatable messages for European and Australian governments. Quickly phasing out Russian gas will have a local political cost, as would the new Australian government, which may dependent on cross benches, supporting coal and uranium. The Ambassador also may a very technical point that Australian LNG has a different composition, and so EU industry may need to make changes to use it for chemical production (simply burning it is less of a problem). 

Professor Jotzo pointed out that the Ukraine situation can lead to increased use of renewable energy in the long term, as well as energy trade within political blocks. However, there will be more investment in fossil fuels in the short term. What they did not mention was the potential for changes in behavior to reduce energy use. As an example of what can be done where needed, was the shift to online work and study during COVID-19. This was something many thought impossible, until their life, and livelihood, depended on changing behavior. 

National governments are understandably anxious to return to "normal" after pandemic restrictions. However, where "normal" involves the use of fossil fuel for travel, which could be eliminated with online work and study, government could productively work on a new normal. In my course "ICT Sustainability" (currently offered online from Canada)I invited students to consider how such changes could reduce emissions. So I asked the panel about this. Professor Jotzo suggested the energy savings from telecommuting would be marginal. ,  Ambassador Pulch pointed out the many small savings which could be made would add up. Ambassador Myroshnychenko pointed out that working from home has energy costs, may lower the quality of work decisions, and quality of life. He pointed out people were very keen to travel after the pandemic.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Is Ditching the Online Learning Option legal?

Meredith Wilkinson, writing in Times Higher Education suggests "Disabled students still need online learning options" (21 May 2022). They point out at least  17% of UK university students had a disability and online learning has  advantages for many of these students, and suggest universities should not withdraw this option with the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. I would put the case more strongly than that. The UK, Australia, and many other countries have anti-discrimination legislation. Withdrawing online learning would discriminate against sections of the community, and may therefore be illegal.

Laws prohibits discrimination based on disability, gender, religion, race, and other grounds. Universities showed they can deliver online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic (although some had been doing this for decades). That learning benefits students who have a disability, or can't get to campus due to work, family, community, and cultural commitments, or simply due to were they live. If online learning is withdrawn, those students will find study harder, or impossible. If online learning was very expensive, or technically difficult to provide, then universities would have a defense in law for not doing it, but it isn't expensive, or difficult, so they must do it?

In reality most students, at least in Australia, were studying mostly online before the pandemic. By 2019 universities had put in place learning management and video systems to supplement face to face teaching. These were the same systems needed for fully online learning (I was using them for teaching online at ANU from 2009). The removal of online learning options will not reduce costs, as the video and learning systems for it will still be in place to support courses officially classified as on campus. However, students will have their flexibility to study how they want, and need to, restricted, for no good reason.

This may seem absurd, but then so did the idea that services must be provided online. Surely a sporting organisation is not required by law to have a web site blind people can use? The answer is yes they are, as established in the human rights case "Maguire v Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games" (2000), which I was an expert witness for. The Beijing Olympics later asked me to go over to help them not make the same mistake.

ANU Technology Showcase on Tuesday, All Welcome

The students at the Australian National University will be showing off their project work on Tuesday, 12 Noon to 2:00pm. All are welcome in person at the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN) in Canberra, or online via Remo, but please register. These are mostly the ANU Techlauncher computer projects, but there will be some others, from across disciplines. I help the students think about what career they may want.

Why Do Online University Staff Have to be at a Campus?

Times Higher Education report that "Ministers demand online university staff live in remote town" (Paul Basken, May 20, 2022). The Alberta government wants staff of Athabasca University, a Canadian online university (similar to Australia's University of New England), to live in the town of Athabasca, where the campus is located. The idea of forcing staff to live where the campus is, and have to clock in each day is not just misguided, it is contrary to the ethos of the institution, and could damage its reputation. The Alberta Government doesn't appear to appreciate the very valuable resource it has in Athabasca University, and is damaging the reputation of their government, and province. 

Tom Worthington in
Athabasca Master of Education regalia
I designed a course offed at Athabasca University, and am a graduate, where I studied how to provide distance education, via distance education. I never visited the campus in Canada, in three years of study, from 13,000 km away in Australia. The only time I met staff face to face was when we happened to be at an international conferences on my side of the Pacific. The administrative support and the tuition was superior to my on-campus study in Australia. The whole idea of Athabasca University is to provide a quality education to people wherever they are. Saying the staff have to live near the campus doesn't help, and could harm the university.

My studies were on how to provide quality learning for international students, including during an emergency which kept them off campus. That was key to my being able to support students in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I am sure other graduates were key to supporting education across Alberta, and Canada. If Alberta doesn't want Athabasca University any more, perhaps it should move to another province, or country, where it would be welcome, and appreciated.

Friday, May 20, 2022

A Day in the Life of the MLSig

MLSIG presentation at ASCILITE 2021

Members of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE) Mobile Learning Special Interest Group (ML-SIG) are going to do a Zoom introduction. What would you like to know?

Designing for scale: How to use mobile devices to recruit, train and equip the extra 18,500 defence personnel

 I will be speaking on "Designing for scale: How to use mobile devices to recruit, train and equip the extra 18,500 defence personnel" at the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE) Mobile Learning Special Interest Group (ML-SIG), 10 am AEST, 26 August 2022. Any suggestions would be welcome.

Some of my defence related posts:

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Thursday, May 19, 2022

How Much is International Distance Education Worth to the Australian Economy?

Graph of education exports per year
from ABS data by Mary Clarke, 18 May 2022
In 2020 Australian higher education made a sudden pivot online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A question for Australian policy makers is how much of this will remain online. However, there is no way to tell from the statistics published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as it doesn't record this. What they do have is a category for "Correspondence Courses". However, this shows as only a tiny fraction of export income from education over the last few years, so it is clearly not a proxy for online learning, as almost all students have been learning online. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Lower Socioeconomic Status Students Don't Have Lower Aspirations But Are Rightly Wary of University

The University of Newcastle's course for teachers "Aspirations: Supporting Students’ Futures" references Gore, Holmes, Smith, et al (2015). While 2015 now seems a long time ago, the issues it investigates are very current. As we (hopefully) emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a good time for educational institutions to rethink who their potential students are, and what they want. 

The researchers set out to find if low low socioeconomic status (SES) students don't consider university, and contact by universities in schools, would change their minds. They asked about 3,000 NSW school students, in Years 4 to 10, split evenly between city and regions, at mostly government schools. As the authors point out, conventional wisdom is that Year 10 is too late to change a student's views on studying at university (as well as being too late for them to select suitable courses to get into university). 

The researchers found that earlier year students were more certain about a future career than later year ones. They therefore suggest discussion of careers in primary school, with the aim of maintaining this interest in later years.

The researchers also found that the assumed preference of higher SES students for more prestigious occupations (requiring university qualifications) was relatively small. Most students aspired to skilled, para and professional jobs (vet, teacher, sportsperson). The exceptions were two occupations: mechanic (aspired by low SES, and doctor (high). It was noted that low-SES students were aiming for financial security, with high were more often selecting a career out of interest. 

A key finding was that how the students had done in their study was more important than SES in determining their view of a future career. Those who did well aspired to higher status jobs. However, the researchers could only account for a small minority of the variation in career choice (13%). While they speculated what might account for the rest, they do not know.

As someone from a low SES background I found this of interest. It was not until after completing a graduate certificate and masters of education, that it occurred to me I was a low SES background, first in generation to university student. As a child I had aspirations of being an engineer, which was likely influenced by a strong mechanical bent of all males in the family (my nephew now designs robots for assembling cars). I ended up on the academic staff of an Engineering and Computer Science College of a university. 

Obviously there is self interest in universities wanting to attract low SES students, as the pool of high SES ones dries up. However, is this in the interests of the students, and the public interest? I find talk of striving for excellence by by academic colleagues troubling. As a student myself, as recently as 2016, I was not striving for excellence, I was aiming for the minimum required to complete my studies (or just a bit above the minimum , to be on the safe side). Even though I am now financially secure, and it doesn't really matter if I pass or fail, I can't break the habits of a lifetime, aiming to complete as quickly, cheaply and safely as possible.

Rather than trying to lure low SES students into university courses which they, for very rational economic reasons, may be avoiding, I suggest providing options which make sense to them. As an example, students can be offered a path from VET, where they can get a qualification for a secure well paying career, through further study at university to a higher paying career. That will make more sense to someone needing to aim for financial security, than asking them to aim for excellence, but likely end up with no qualification after several years of university study, and a large student debt. 


Gore, J., Holmes, K., Smith, M. et al. Socioeconomic status and the career aspirations of Australian school students: Testing enduring assumptions. Aust. Educ. Res. 42, 155–177 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13384-015-0172-5

Teaching Teachers to Support Diverse Students

The University of Newcastle is providing a free 20 hour course for teachers "Aspirations: Supporting Students’ Futures" to teach students "... from diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and socio-economic backgrounds". This is intended for school teachers, but may also be of value to those teaching in VET and universities. As well as the content, it would be useful for university academics with limited teacher training to see what a well designed online course looks like. In particular the ways the course directly references professional skills standards provides an example of what universities should aspire to. 

The course is implemented using Newcastle's Canvas LMS, in a conventional online course format. There is also a 41 page learning journal, in the form of a Microsoft Word document, with versions to print, or fill in online. This contains the same course content as online, with places for the student to fill in answers. That may seem a little old fashioned, but makes the course backward compatible for students who do not have Internet access, or prefer a printable workbook.

The course has six units:

  1. Introduction (10 minutes)

  2. Introduction to aspirations (2 hours)

  3. Aspirations matter (2 hours)

  4. Factors that matter (2 hours)

  5. Relationships and connections that matter (2 hours)

  6. Schooling and teachers matter (2 hours)

I was able to quickly register with UoN's system and enroll in the course. Canvas provides a text rich usable interface. 

There is a glossary included in the workbook, but buried in Unit 2 (it would be better if separate). Some of the definitions are a bit difficult to understand, for example, "Cultural capital: Symbolic assets such as cultural awareness and knowledge, skills, mannerisms, and credentials". I am not really sure what a "Symbolic asset" is or what makes a mannerism an asset. The author's biases might be showing also, for example with "Cultural capital" being measured, in part, by the student's interest in classical music. Apparently only formal Western music has culture. ;-)

The course invites teachers to think about how their background shapes their aspirations, as well as those of their students. For example:

"What are some of the reasons why you chose teaching as a career? What other careers might have brought a similar sense of fulfilment?

How might you use the reasons given by your students for their occupational aspirations to broaden their sense of possible selves?"

Some of the questions are very relevant to the future of higher education in Australia, such as:

"Thinking about the students you teach, what might be some of the reasons behind misalignment in university and VET aspirations?

What role can teachers play in ensuring that students understand differences between university and VET and the educational pathways required to reach a particular occupation?"

This is a question which might be asked of the leadership of universities which seem to be trying to be everything to any possible student, trying to provide everything from vocational training to graduate research. 

The course is not peppered with long reading lists and quotes from research papers, which makes many university courses so annoying. However, a few embedded references and readings would be useful. The course apparently draws on a study from  draws on a study from Newcastle, however only a title "the Aspirations Longitudinal Study" is provided, with a broken hypertext link. As an experienced online learner I am used to hunting down web pages in the Internet Archive, but this link appears to have broken two years ago. It would have been useful to have a full formal citation of the research report, which took me a couple of minutes to track down (Gore, Holmes, Smith, et al, 2015).

As it is there is a reading list section at the end of the course, but I was unable to get this to display, instead getting an error message (which I have reported):

Integration Failure

Reading List Display Failure

Unable to display the reading list due to the error below. Please review the error and if the error persists then contact support

Error code user_is_missing
eReserve Plus was unable to create the necessary records when processing the launch from the platform (https://canvas.newcastle.edu.au). Please contact support.

There is also a discussion forum called "Community". I was able to read the postings there, but could not register to participate. It is not clear why this forum is not using the same ID I was provided with for the rest of the course (which I was able to get access to).


Gore, J., Holmes, K., Smith, M. et al. Socioeconomic status and the career aspirations of Australian school students: Testing enduring assumptions. Aust. Educ. Res. 42, 155–177 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13384-015-0172-5

Monday, May 16, 2022

Canberra Toolkit for International Student Promotions

The ACT Government provides a free online toolkit of materials for promoting Canberra. This includes for promoting international students to come to Canberra to study. As someone who writes a blog about education (highereducationwhisperer.com), I signed up for the toolkit. First thing I did was search for resources on "innovation". What came up were photos of Petr Adamek and Rachael Greaves from Canberra Innovation Network, and a couple of photos of the Mugga Lane Solar Farm. Those are relevant, but more pictures of students would be good, perhaps from CBRIN events.

But having found some images I am not sure what to do with them. I ticked a box below each image. I clicked on the basket item. But what happens next. Do I have to go to a checkout? Do I have to pay for them? I clicked anot basked icon further down the page and was at what looked like a checkout. This required me to describe what the photos were for and who the client was. The system, I assume, is designed for professional marketing companies.

This all seems a little old fashioned. In the modern era, you do a web search for materials, if the licence suits, you use them. You don't waste time explaining to some gatekeeper why you want to use them, or have to order and download them. You don't want to wait while your order is processed (why do stock photos have to be processed?)

It is useful to have attractive images, videos and test to show Canberra as an attractive place to come and study. However, university will need more than this to attract students, as they mostly study online now. In some ways this makes the city around the university more important, as the student will be spending very little time on campus (at least not in the classrooms). Also what will be important are employment opportunities in the region, during and after study.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Is Atlassian University Accredited?

Atlassian, an Australian IT company, offer training though Atlassian University. However, the use of the term "University" is restricted by Australian law to accredited institutions. So I wrote to Atlassian suggesting they might like to use a more generic term, such as  "Atlassian Institute", or make it clear the organisation is not based in Australia, and not a registered university. The reply I received was disappointing (I removed the name to save embarrassing the individual):

02/May/22 5:37 AM

"Hi there, Tom!

Thanks for reaching out to Atlassian, I hope you're doing well.  My name is *** from the University Team and I'm happy to help you today!

We do acknowledge honest reviews of those who purchase our products and help us turn things around and try to make this positive public feedback. We do want to preserve the positive perception that we have built over time by respecting the public opinion of our customers, whether good or bad, as this creates a chance for them to be heard.

Your comments have been forwarded to the relevant team to review as we continue to improve our products and make your journey with us better.

Meanwhile, regarding your question, we are currently checking on this with the relevant team. An update will be provided at the soonest.

Appreciate your patience as well as your help in making us further improve our services.

Have a great day and stay safe!

Customer Advocate"

"Wed, 11 May 2022 02:55:39 +0000 (UTC)

#### commented:

Hi there,

Our goal is to have your issue/case addressed the soonest time possible. We sent an email two days ago on this ticket but haven’t heard back. If the issue has been resolved, please let us know.

Otherwise, if there will be no response after 7 business days, the ticket will close automatically.

Thank you! 

Do Students from Low Socioeconomic Status Backgrounds Cost More to Teach?

Devlin and others (2022), estimate that it costs about six times as much for an Australian university to support a low socioeconomic status (SES) student as a high one. As someone who was a low SES student, I found this a startling claim, as I don't recall extra resources being lavished on me. In fact it was only when I became an online student, with minimal resources provided, but ones expertly crafted by qualified educators, that I became a successful student.

The authors report the additional costs for SES students come from: "increasing aspiration and capital prior to university; academic, personal and financial support provided while studying; establishing, maintaining and appropriately staffing multiple university campuses, particularly in highly disadvantaged areas; and supporting highly complex student needs". Of these only three sound plausible: academic & personal support while studying and supporting highly complex student needs. 

Reducing the costs of support with good course design

One of the lessons of accessible design could be applied more broadly to support low and disadvantaged students, while reducing cost. The traditional approach was to wait for students with a disability to come forward and request assistance, the craft this for them. The modern approach is to assume there will be such students and build in access for them. This reduces the overall cost, and provides a better education for all students. Another is to provide well designed study materials and assessment items, so students know what they need to do, and nothing they don;t need to do. Other supposed costs of SES students sound like general, optional, university costs to me: 

Increasing aspiration and capital prior to university: These are programs for school students to interest them in university and empower parents. Another name for such activities is "marketing". Universities run such programs with little evidence these are of value to the students, parents, or even the university. If the cost of such programs is excessive, universities could run them jointly, if the purpose really is to benifit the students, rather than the individual university, or move them online, or simply cancel them.

Financial support provided while studying: Universities charge student fees. Any financial support provided is, in effect, a discount on the fees. Universities provide such support so as to attract, and retain high performing students, thus boosting rankings, and to meet government mandated quotas for specific disadvantaged groups. If the financial support is not meeting these goals, then the university can discontinue it and try another way to boost their rankings. In particular universities could offer flexible programs, which allow students to work and study at the same time, and provide course credit for work experience.

Campuses in highly disadvantaged areas: Curiously, the authors do not seem to think it is providing a subsidy when universities place their main campus in a high SES area, as most of Australia's older universities are, only a subsidy when a satellite campus is placed in a disadvantaged area. However, campuses at the current scale are not needed for quality education. COVID-19 showed that mass online learning is feasible, for providing quality university education is possible, with less campus use. This was, of course, already known, with distance education provided for decades. If universities wish to reduce costs, they could shut down campuses which are using high value real-estate, and open smaller ones in low cost areas. Also, rather than build their own satellite campuses, universities could form consortia, and partnerships with the VET sector, for regional shared facilities. Smaller facilities could be co-located with upper secondary schools, and public libraries.


Devlin, M., Zhang, L. C., Edwards, D., Withers, G., McMillan, J., Vernon, L., & Trinidad, S. (2022). The costs of and economies of scale in supporting students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds in Australian higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2022.2057450

Research Harms Student Learning?

One of the mantras of university is that research improves the quality of teaching. However, Loyalka and others (2022), suggest the opposite: "... research has a negative effect on student learning, suggesting direct trade-offs between the university’s dual mission of producing research and learning ...".

The researches looked at test results of about 5,000 third-year computer science and electrical engineering undergraduates is China, India, and Russia. They also  surveyed instructors as to how many papers they published. A quasi-experimental research design was used to show a causal relationship, not just a correlation: more papers, poorer student results. However, I suggest there is a possible third factor: teacher training. It may be that productive researchers don't spend as much time learning to teach, & so are not as effective educators.

It may also be that good researchers have a different attitude to students to good educators. I recall a study at University of Canberra (which unfortunately I now can't find), which found that their PhD tutors who had not undertaken teacher training tended to help the better students, whereas those with training helped the struggling students.

I have met many researchers who are well respected in their discipline, who erroneously think they therefore know how to teach. Their false assumption is that teaching is about knowledge transfer, and easy to master for someone with considerable knowledge. As a result, these researcher make very basic mistakes in teaching, wasting a lot of their time and frustrating their students. This is unfortunate, and it is very difficult to convince them to undertake even basic teacher training. The solution, I suggest, is to train academics when they are starting out, when they can be compelled to undertake training.

There are, of course, other solutions, such as education only academic positions, and institutions. However, that would require a restructuring, and make marketing of courses and institutions difficult. Even if teaching only staff and institutions produce better graduates, this will be difficult for the students, government, and the public, to accept.


Loyalka, P., Shi, Z., Li, G., Kardanova, E., Chirikov, I., Yu, N., Hu, S., Wang, H., Ma, L., Guo, F., Liu, O. L., Bhuradia, A., Khanna, S., Li, Y., & Murray, A. (2022). The Effect of Faculty Research on Student Learning in College. Educational Researcher, 51(4), 265–273. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X221090229

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Toby Walsh not in conversation with Andrew Leigh on the Morality of AI

Toby Walsh
Andrew Leigh at
ANU Meet the Author 
Greetings from the Australian National University (ANU) where Professor Toby Walsh is supposed to be in conversation with Andrew Leigh MP, on Toby's book "Machines Behaving Badly: The Morality of AI". Andrew, is our local MP, and a former ANU lecturer, but he stuck on his way back from Jervis Bay, where he has been working on improving telecommunications (Ironic given the topic of the talk, and that this is Australia's high tech capital). Toby started with an anecdote about a Google AI system which umms in its synthetic voice to sound more human. Andrew turned up and apologized his Tesla ran out of charge due to a non-functioning super charger (also ironic).

Toby gave a broad definition of AI, as being something a computer does which would be considered intelligent for a person. That seems reasonable to me. In practice most AI works by "training" software with lots of examples.

Toby seems, as he says, to be a glass-half-empty person. One negative outcomes of cheap mass air travel, he claimed, was the spread of Hong Kong flu. He went on to mention that most of the small number of people developing AI are while males "on the spectrum", so the rest of the world gets left out.

However, not all the faults of AI can be blamed on the AI, or the people who built it. Another example given by Toby was software making sentence recommendations in the USA, which turned out to be biased against non-white defendants. However, the software was just doing what humans previously did. The software highlighted an existing bias. 

In the Australian situation with Robodebt, there was systematic persecution of a group of disadvantaged people by the Australian Government.  However, this can't really be blamed on AI. There was not very sophisticated software used for this project, so it is not the case that the discriminatory behavior emerged from AI, it was designed into the project. It was clear from the outset that disadvantaged groups who did not vote for the parties making up the government were to be targeted. In a way it might have been better had AI been used, so the illegal nature of the project could have been clear from the outset.

Toby went on to mention intelligence is not just one thing, and consciousnesses is an illusion: we are a collection of intelligences. Andrew raised an interesting question as to if robots should have rights. I was not convinced by Toby's response that robots are not self aware and so do not suffer. However, the same argument used to allow the mistreatment of animals, which today would get you arrested.

The conversation then got on to free will, and consciousness. Toby argues AI research might provide insights. 

Toby ended by proposing "Turing's Red Flag". The idea is to have a warning sign to say you are interacting with a machine, not a human. I don't find this convincing as many people working for organisations are so constrained in what they can say and do their behavior is just as constrained and predetermined as a machine.

ps: One of Professor Walsh's previous books "It's Alive!: Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots". Economist William Stanley Jevons, best known for the Jevons paradox, had a Logic Piano built in 1886, after living in Sydney.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Australian University Staff Shedding During Pandemic

In "Australian University Staff Job Losses Exceed Pandemic Financial Outcomes" (09 May 2022), Frank Larkins from University of Melbourne carries out an analysis of job shedding during COVID-19. He concludes that "... staff losses were greater than warranted based solely on 2020 financial results ...". Of course, universities may have been anticipating an uncertain future, and so making cuts in anticipation of further problems. 

Not surprisingly, Larkins found that casual staff were most impacted, being the full time equivalent of two-thirds of cuts. However, if universities were making long term structural changes, reducing casual staff didn't make a lot of sense. Casuals have a low separation cost, not receiving the benefits permanent staff do. So if long term change to respond to an uncertain future, it would have made sense for universities to reduce permanent staff, particularly non-academic professional staff. The casual workforce could be retained in the knowledge it could be quickly reduced, if required.

The underlying cause of the changes might be the artificially high casual academic staff pool available. Universities have to compete with other industries for professional administrators, HR, computing, marketing and accounting staff. If offered a low pay casual job, potential employees could choose to not work at a university. However, in contrast academics have only a very limited range of non-university employers (some research organisations and government). Those wishing to be academics therefore have a choice between a low pay casual employment, or none at all. Universities were then able to discard casuals, knowing a pool would be available if need increased.

From an economic and human welfare point of view, having a large pool of underemployed academics is not good. The solution, for government, would be to end preferential subsiding of research doctoral degrees, to reduce the excess supply of PhD graduates. 

Friday, May 6, 2022

How Do Employees Learn

In "How Do Gen Z Employees Learn?" Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) provide a summary of research findings on what young professionals want from education.  It is a very long time since I was a young professional, so I read this with interest. However, I have doubts over the idea that different "generations" have different outlooks. Human nature doesn't change within a decade or so.

The so called "Gen Z" (mid-1990s to late 2000s) are "true digital natives" according to SNHU, growing up with smartphones. However, my experience is that doesn't make them any better at using the tech. Also it seems unlikely that today's beginning professionals face greater challenges. As a beginning computer professional, I had to correct a program in a language I did not know. So I had to learn the language, the subject matter and fix the bug. For my staff, a decade later, it was no easier: they had to learn HTML, and what the agency did, to be able to help me prepare the first web site for the Defence Department. 

A degree is "just one step" as SNHU point out, but I suggest that is not anything new. Old hands have delighted in pointing out to new graduate staff how little they know (I did). The issue I suggest now is not that training is needed, but if the employer will provide it, or at least provide time off for it. As a recruit to the Australian Public Service I was provided with extensive training by world class experts in small classes. This was followed by professional development over decades, supplemented by that by my professional body. SNHU cite a Deloitte survey of Generation Z graduates who felt their university education was not sufficient for the job, but is this different to previous generations? 

SNHU then switched to what employers want, as opposed to the employees. As expected “soft skills” are top priority. This perhaps should be taken as a vote of confidence in universities, who must be at least be teaching technicalities of a profession well. Some years ago the Australian Computer Society (which I am a member of) responded to these concerns by increasing requirements for training in communication skills, particularly digital communication, and teamwork. Universities responded with new courses and modules (otherwise their degrees would not be accredited). As an example, ANU requires Master of Computing students to undertake professional communications units. Students are also offered internships,and group projects, working for a real client. These courses are resource intensive for the institution, and something students really don't like doing, but very valuable experience. 

SNHU also claim Generation Z prefers video-on-demand, over scheduled lectures. But I find it hard to believe anyone ever preferred lectures. Students had mostly already abandoned lectures, years before COVID-19 made this officially okay. 

Similarity SNHU asserts Generation Z likes to collaborate. But as a baby boomer, one thing I learned as an online international student, was I wanted a gang to study with. 

Feedback is also something, I suggest, common to all students, and professionals. I was trained to provide feedback (and assessment) to all students at least weekly, and do so routinely. As a student I found it frustrating where I was answering lots of questions, commenting on mind numbing numbers of papers, but getting no feedback. What I have found works well in ANU Techlauncher is peer feedback, backed up by a grade from staff. Similarly it seems bizarre to contemplate that new professional would not get constant feedback, given what an expensive investment they are for the organisation. 

The article from SNHU is obviously intended to sell education to students. But beyond the basic first degree, what education is suitable for the working professional? The obvious answer is that it must be online, with face to face classes a desirable optional extra (I just don't enroll in face to face programs any more). 

The usual next study is a coursework masters, but that is a significant chunk of time and money. I spent about six months shopping around for a MEd, attending careers fares, before ending up on the other side of the planet (online). During the pandemic, the Australian Government funded graduate certificates and a new undergraduate equivalent. These proved popular, but are in effect, the first six months of a Masters. This makes them still a large lump of learning, and not particularly flexible. 

Universities were also encouraged to offer micro-credentials,  but example what they are, who would want them, and how they nest into a larger qualification, is not clear. An alternative, which I undertook between a Graduate Certificate and a Masters, were VET courses. The Australian VET sector offers very short, very targeted modules of vocational learning. Unfortunately for business and cultural reasons, most universities been unwilling to learn from, or incorporate VET education.

What Students Want

In "Beyond Zoom, Teams and video lectures Gedera, Datt, Brown, Forbes, and Hartnett (2011), ask what university students want from online learning. But I suggest this says more about the authors, than the students. To students, online is just a normal part of learning. You might as well ask them what they want from smart phones, to which today's student is likely to ask: "What other sort of phone is there?".

The COVID-91 pandemic did not turn learning "upside down", as the authors claim. Most students were mostly studying online already. It was just a shock for teachers, to be forced to face this reality. 

Since 2020, there has been a lot published on online learning, but revealing little which was not already known, from decades of prior research. For the authors to suggest the student voice was not heard is valid, but no more so that for other forms of learning. As a student of education myself, I learned early on to be careful in expressing any criticism of my instructors, lest I be punished. This was a painful lesson to learn, having being invited to comment on a program, and then being banished from it for a year, for doing so.

The authors surveyed 1,000 university students at eight New Zealand universities (NZ only has eight). That these  students, particularly online ones,  face "... financial hardship, family responsibilities and challenging study environments ...", should not be a revelation. Distance education, which online learning is derived from, was created specifically for students who faced barriers to conventional face to face learning.

As well as challenges, however, there also benefits online. More than half the students acknowledged not having to travel and having the flexibility to learn at their own pace and place was beneficial. But the benefits of online learning should look familiar, as they are mostly those of distance education over the decades: the removal of time and distance barriers.

The authors have conducted a useful study, but it would have been more useful if they had acknowledged that COVID-19 was not the start of online learning, and that online learning was not the start of distance education.

As for what students want, I was an online international student of education from 2013 to 2016. I wanted to complete as quickly and cheaply as possible. I wanted support from my instructors, and interaction with fellow students. What I found was the crushing loneliness of online study, and the frustration of poorly designed course materials. However, I found the online experience much better than any face to face Australian university experience: lower cost, less frustrating, better designed course materials, relevant assessment, and a successful outcome.

After seven years learning online without exams, this format came to be for me just normal education.  I would now not not contemplate enrolling in, or teaching,  a program requiring attendance, or exams. That would be like using coal powered car for daily transport: something which had been done in the distant past, but now so obsolete it is not worth considering.