Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Flexible Degrees from Multiple Universities for Australia?

Professor Heller
Professor Heller (Newcastle), suggests Australian universities provide open access educational resources, which students can use to "design their own degrees", with units from multiple universities (Heller, 2023). As they point out, this is not a new idea. The problem, I suggest, has been incentives. Why would universities give away their content for free? Why would academics write course content for no reward? Professor Heller suggests at least part of the answer would be to treat the published courses as the equivalent of a research publication, after peer review. This ide has merit, as at the moment, course materials and even textbook do not count as scholarly publications, as they are not considered original work (as a course is supposed to teach existing, not new, knowledge).

There are some incentives, as Professor Heller points out for materials sharing. In part this happens informally. For the last year I have been assessing applications for exceptions and credit from studnts, for what they studied elsewhere. To do this I have to compare courses from around Australia and across thew world. It is remarkable how similar they are, at least in my discipline of computing. This should not be surprising, as they are all working from the same codified body of knowledge, and assessment requirements,. Academics meet to exchange ideas, and also professional bodies, nationally and internationally, meet to set accreditation standards. While universities each market programs claiming unique features, the courses are really much the same.

There are some multi-university arrangements already in place. The most successful is Open Universities Australia (OUA), offering courses from 22 universities. These are online courses offered globally. The consortium includes leading institutions, but they tend to not promote their OUA membership. OUA is like Fight Club: many universities belong to OUA, but they don't talk about it. It perhaps would cut across marketing strategies based on claims of uniqueness, and the benefits of a campus experience, if students realized they could get the same degree from the same institution online, with option of including courses from others.

Even without OUA there is scope for students to DIY a qualification. For my Graduate Certificate in Higher Education, I wanted to learn more about online learning. So I obtained permission from my supervisor to undertake two courses (half my program), at an affiliated university. However, the paperwork need to do this was daunting. So I bypassed it, instead simply enrolling in courses as a professional development (non-program) student at the second institution, paying with my credit card, and presenting my results at the first for credit. This avoided using the complex inter-institutional procedures.

The Australian Vocational Education system already has full mutual recognition, and recognition of prior learning. The definitions of all units of learning at all institutions, public, and private are publicly available in one national database. A student can apply units from any institution for a qualification at any other. They can also obtain credit for work experience or prior learning for any, or all, of a qualification (I got 80% of a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment this way). It is unlikely universities would accept such a rigid system (and would not have staff competent to implement it). But they could do it at a limited level in disciplines, such as computing, which already are internationally standardized.


Heller, R. F. (2023). Plan E for Education: open access to educational materials created in publicly funded universities.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Killer Robots at ANU

Greetings from the Australian National University Law School, where Dr Jeremy Moses from University of Canterbury is talking on "Lethal Autonomous Weapons and Bias". He pointed out these may be called "killer robots", Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), Autonomous Weapons Systems (AWS), Robotic and autonomous systems (RAS), or Lethal autonomous robots (LAR). Dr Moses pointed out some Australian projects, including un-crewed trucks which follow others, and small surveillance sailing shops. These sounds benign, but then he pointed to the "Ghost Bat" autonomous aircraft for the RAAF, and "Ghost Shark" autonomous robotic undersea warfare vehicle will be armed. 

Dr Moses referred to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which called for international law in 2012. He commented that little progress has been made since then, not just because states who want to use them are not keen to advance regulation. But he argued that it was likely that someone would be held responsible for the use of autonomous weapons. There is still concern that this may make war more likely, both by states, and non-state actors, or the robots may run amok. But I would be much more worried about deliberate misuse, than accidents.

Dr Moses pointed out that biases have been found it what otherwise were claimed to be unbiased automated systems. Also the ethics of the use of weapons varies between people.

Anduril Dive-LD Ghost Shark XL-AUV, 
made in Sydney

I have suggested that Australian universities should assist in the development of military drones. Some of my students worked on part of an anti-missile system, which has a automatic mode. This is not an advanced AI system, and would be under supervision of human operators, but does raise ethical questions.

Dr Moses argues that arguments from other aspects of the use of AI may not be applicable to warfare. This is because the campaigners are essentially campaigning against war in general, rather than the use of particular weapons. As examples, he argued that opposition to imperialism, or discrimination against particular groups, were not relevant to autonomous weapons, as imperialism and discrimination can happen without them. I am not so sure. Autonomous weapons may be particularity useful for oppression, and limiting or banning them may be appropriate. Of course such weapons may already be banned under existing international law.

An aspect which troubled me was that Dr Moses, and other lawyers in the room assumed that they had years to consider these issues. However, there is now the capability to mass produce cheap autonomous weapons. Shoulder launched missiles, in disposable canisters can be made with a cheap image sensor, and enough processing power to discriminate between different targets. 

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Ada and the Engine in the Blue Mountains

Daniel Aldrich

On Friday I attended a performance of Lauren Gundersons play "Ada and the Engine" (first performed in 2015 as "Ada and the Memory Engine"). This was by the Glenbrook Players, in the Blue Mountains behind Sydney. Normally I would write of a play in my other blog, Net Traveller. Previous plays I have seen on similar themes have been "True Logic of the Future" (Boho, 2010), and  Arcadia (Stoppard). But Gunderson covers far more ground about the development of the computer, issues of the role of women in STEM, funding of new technology, government tech policy, pure versus applied policy, and much else I write about in Higher Education Whisperer. In fact at times the play seems more an academic lecture, than an entertainment.

The pay is in two halves, the first about Ada Byron, at 18 years, a brilliant mathematician suffering under the burden of society's expectations of an upper class young woman, and the scandal from her famous dead father, Lord Byron. Ada meets Charles Babbage, then at the height of his success, having received government funding to build a mechanical calculator, the "difference engine".  The second half of the play depicts the end of Ada's tragically short life, with her collaboration with Babbage breaking down.

Sets and costumes were good, with subtle use of background projection (some set designers can tend to overdo the background projection). All the cast gave good performances, of what is perhaps an overly wordy play. The actor playing Ada (I can't find the program, so don't know who as who), was a little old for the first half, but just right for the second. Babbage looked and behaved just like some of my academic acquaintances, frustrated the government will not fund their pipe dreams. Lord Lovelace, Ada's husband was the suitably stiff, English nobleman, the script demanded (but Lovelace was well educated, and a noted engineer).

The play was permed at the Glenbrook Cinema, an old fashioned picture palace, which also puts on live performances. The adjacent Glenbrook School of Arts hall, featured a display of women of science in history. Some of these featured in the play, with some Australians added. Given the play's theme, it was surprising that Admiral Hopper did not feature in the display.

This play would obviously be a good topic for school, and university studnts to study and perform. As a dramatic work, it is a bit long and expositional. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Education's Role in Providing a Flexible Workforce for the Australian Public Service

Yesterday I talked to Lish Fejer on ABC Radio Canberra, about federal government plans to contract in. They were interested to hear about my own experience as someone trained by the public service, who then became a contractor. 

There is scope for the Australian Public Service (APS) to increase the recruitment of entry level professionals, through cadet and intern programs. Universities and the VET sector can assist with this by providing training while students are working. This can be in project and people management skills, as well as technical aspects. The problem comes at the upper level, retaining staff with advanced skills. 

The APS has difficulty paying such staff appropriately, as traditionally salary is based on how many staff you supervise. The Australian Defence Force uses direct cash bonuses to retain personnel with specialist skills, such as pilots. Something similar will likely be needed for high level internal contractors and consultants. 

A difficult problem which will remain is how to efficiently allocate staff to tasks. Agencies can currently use the market to decide the allocation. Whichever government department is willing to pay the most for contractors gets them. However, with an internal system, there is likely to be less scope for market based decisions.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Should students be trained in cheaper and better higher education options

In "Studying can be a costly choice", Tracey West (Griffith University, May 12, 2023) argues that students should be educated about ways to reduce their study loan cost. I suggest this could go further, educating students about cheaper and quicker non-university study options, and ways to accelerate their studies.

As an example, students can do part of their studies in the vocational education and training (VET) sector, which has lower fees, & shorter programs. These programs have been shown to lead to higher incomes than university courses. Students could be shown how to plan their studies strategically, to receive a VET qualification and credit for university studies.

Students can also be trained in how to get credit for prior work, & learning. Work Integrated Learning is another option studnts could be encouraged in, so they earn while learning. These options are more common in the VET sector than universities. The federal government might put in place programs to encourage them in university, and train staff to run them.

While universities might have a moral obligation to educate students about these options, it would be contrary to their financial interests. Given that Australian universities have occasionally stolen wages from staff, and carried out other illegal acts, they can't be relied on to act morally. So some form of incentive from government, or legal penalty, would be needed for them to give them an incentive. The exception would be the dual system institutions, which already combine VET and university education. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Cyber Gets Funding in 2023/24 Budget

The 2022/23 Australian Federal Budget Papers are available online. Here are some items of interest on information technology and higher education. 

From Statement 1: Budget Overview, Page 31 (emphasis added):

"Small business cyber security program

The Budget provides $23.4 million to support small businesses to build resilience to cyber threats. Small and medium businesses are the target of 60 per cent of cybercrime, which is now costing Australia more than $33.0 billion in reported losses per year. The Cyber Wardens program will address this vulnerability by equipping small businesses with the foundational skills they need to improve cyber safety. This program will be delivered by the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia and will support more than 15,000 small businesses.

Investing in a stronger, more productive and safer digital future

Data and digital transformation continue to present new opportunities for governments, businesses, communities, and households to change the way Australians live and work. This Budget ensures Australians are at the forefront of the digital economy while protecting them from the potential risks of the digital transformation. The Government is investing more than $2.0 billion in 2023–24 in digital and ICT to deliver easy, accessible, and secure services for people and businesses.

Consumer Data Right

The Government is continuing its investment in the Consumer Data Right (CDR) with $88.8 million to support the CDR in banking, energy and the non-bank lending sectors, progress the design of action initiation and undertake a cyber security uplift. This provides Australian consumers, both individuals and small businesses, with a more secure way to safely share data online. The CDR gives consumers an enhanced ability to control and benefit from the sharing of their data. The CDR will empower consumers to make better informed decisions and find better prices from everyday utilities to the most competitive home loans for their circumstances."

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Social infrastructure stronger than concrete

Daniel Aldrich
Greetings from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, where Daniel Aldrich is speaking on "Modest but critical: how we overlook social infrastructure at our peril". He argues that facilities like parks, churches, and libraries make communities more resilient when there is a disaster, to such extent that they reduce deaths due to a disaster more than hard infrastructure, such as sea walls. I asked about online social infrastructure and Dr Aldrich suggested that hybrid was best, combining physical infrastructure and online. 

It occurs to me that hybrid also makes public funding easier. It will be much easier to convince a politician to spend money on online forums, if they are associated with a building they can open. However, this may require new skills, and tools of those managing the infrastructure. As an example, public libraries host events, but these are purely physical. Similarly the act of going in to borrow a paper book is social, in that you might bump into someone. However, if you borrow an e-book, or audio book, online, it is just you and the computer. It would not be difficult to add some social aspect online, given you know what books people are interested in. However, libraries tend to use off the shelf electronic borrowing systems without a social aspect.
In answer to another question, Dr Aldrich speculated that there might be social spaces where leaders congregate. There are, and occasionally I stumble into them. One is the green room at a conference, and another is the cafe at Parliament house Canberra. There are a plethora of such places for different groups, such as the Bangalore Club (which I stayed at recently),  and affiliated institutions.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Does speaking a language other than English really make you cheat more on assignments?

I am doing the "Detecting Contract Cheating" course from TEQSA. In Module 2 "Supply and demand" under "who are cohorts likely to cheat" lists "Students who speak a language other than English". That is, if you speak a language other than English, the claim is you probably cheat. But isn't that most of the people in the world? I find it hard to believe that English speakers are inherently honest, or not speaking English makes you dishonest. The course cites Bretag et. al (2019), but my reading of it doesn't support that conclusion.

However, the course, so far, is mostly good. In particular I like the section on how to deter contract cheating, by providing the students with the help they need. I had to give this some thought, because it is easy to say there is no excuse for cheating. However, if your family, or your entire village, have invested everything they own in your education, if you are having difficulty with the language, you have limited time for study away from family or job (or both), if the universality does offer you any help getting up to speed with the topic, it is very easy to be tempted to cheat.

The course consists of some short videos, which like a typical student I play at high speed and read the subtitles. Curiously, the videos kept referring to "expectations" for what higher education intuitions would do about cheating. This is odd as TEQSA are overseeing legally mandated practices, which I would have thought were "requirements", not expectations.

The course contains so odd phrases, such as "collective competence", to describe a team of people who, between them, have the necessary skills to deal with academic misconduct. This appears designed for individuals to avoid responsibility. The example of a surgical team is used. But every member of such a team is tested for individual competence. No hospital would allow a team to operate where it was not clear that every member had the required skills.

The course also contained a weird video explaining the usefulness of subject matter experts. It was as if universities normally use random individuals to do assessment, and using experts is an innovation. This was followed by a video about the value of "investigators". This is a term I learned a few months ago. It is something unlikely to be familiar to most who teach at university, and needs more background, explanation, and justification. Also the full title of the role should be used, not just "investigator", as this is also a term used in academic research (I have been a chief investigator). While not mentioned in the course, I assume investigators are required to be qualified, to a similar level to those who carry on investigations in Commonwealth agencies, with a Certificate IV in Government Investigations (PSP40416).

The course has some views on the seriousness of plagiarism charges I don't agree with. As an example a finding of plagiarism resulting in a 10% grade penalty is classified as low severity. However, as a student I found the one and only time I was accused of plagiarism as very serious. Fortunately this was a mistake by my instructor, as they had accepted Turnitin's text matching report. Turnitin matched my assignment with the published paper I produced from the assignment (I hadn't expected the paper to be published so quickly, so hadn't mentioned it in the assignment).

Some of the legal advice in the course may need checking. As an example, it is suggested if an institution receives a report from a contract cheating service that one of their students is using it this may be blackmail, and so the institution should report this to TEQSA, but that cheating at an institution is not a crime. I am no legal expert, but thought blackmail is a crime, to be investigated not by TEQSA, but by the police (or in some states under the jurisdiction of a corruption commission). Also cheating at an institution may be a crime, where the student profits from it. Also the course argues that the saftey and well being of the students should be the priority. However, if cheating is resulting in many incompetent people being licenced to carry out dangerous procedures, the public interest may outweigh the student's interests.

Some of the approaches proposed by the course will throw suspicion on innocent studnts, and unfairly discriminate against specific groups. As an example, those with a disability who use accessibility tools will likely have the metadata stripped from their documents. If the investigator, as suggested here, looks for the name of the student and the time they took to edit to be consistent will suspect cheating when all the happened as when student prepared their answer in their accessibility tool, then pasted it in. I have this problem with some online systems, which do not allow me to spell check. I have to compose offline, then paste the answer in. That can look like I am getting someone else to write it.

Another approach which might cause unfair suspicion is bibliographic forensics. The course suggests checking that the references a student uses match their expected level of knowledge. However, I was a student in a topic I had two decades experience in, but the rules required me to do the introductory units. To avoid the tutors saying (as they occasionally did "Tom what are you doing in this class?"), I would hind my knowledge of the topic and pretend to be an ordinary student. But using the techniques in this course that could make me look like I was cheating.

The course suggests LMS logs as a source of evidence, but doesn't discuss under what conditions this, or other, information can be used against the student. Do investigators need a reasonable suspicion, or can they simply sift through the LMS logs looking for any wrongdoing? To use an extreme analogy, they could also use face recognition on security cameras in student dorms to look for collusion, but a court would likely find that an unreasonable invasion of privacy.

There are some power imbalances in the procedures suggested in the course. As an example, the student is required to provide proof of identity at an interview, but the interviewer is not. It is a well worn cliche of police procedurals that investigators show their identification to suspects. Another example is that it is suggested that a support person not be permitted to speak extensively to the student in a language the interviewer does not understand. Unless it is slowing down the interview, what right does the interviewer have to prevent the student and their support person communicating in whatever language they are most comfortable with?

The course suggests having studnts bring their device to the interview. I find it disturbing that investigators would conduct a search of a student's device, as this is likely to contain a lot of personal, private, and sensitive information, both their own, that of family and friends, and of their employer. If asked to do this, my first thought would be to wipe the device clean of all records and logs beforehand to protect myself, family, and clients. That act in itself might then be considered suspicious by the investigator.

It is a little annoying as when I stopped to fill out the workbook, I ended back at the start of the module, and had to fast forward through the video again. The modules seem far too large to each do at one sitting. But if I stop, I risk having to go back to the start.

The workbook is in PDF. To enter my work I had to import it into the word processor, where the formatting went askew. I have to create a text box for each answer, and hope it will be readable in the final result.

Also I received a warning I had an unreliable Internet connection, and my progress may not be saved. That seems odd, as I am sitting in my university office with a very high speed internet connection. Most of the time everything loaded quickly, although the final reflection video stuttered. 

Overall the course was of some use for learning more about how to investigate cheating, but was based on an approach using formal investigators. I would have liked some background as to why and how a decision had been made to introduce this role, and if all universities are required to implement them (if so, when?). Also I signed up for the course so I could go to a workshop. But I now can't see any details of the workshop, and it took me so long to do the course (about 7 hours, whereas it was supposed to take 3), that I have forgotten where I saw the workshop details. In hunting around I found a Situational Judgement Test which was taken before the course (and I had forgotten about).

Curiously I was not prompted to take the test as part of the course, but had to stumble over it. Finding what I might have to do next is difficult as I have the text enlarged to make it readable, so all I see is "Modules Situational Situational", not what the modules are, or what "situational" is.


  1. Tracey Bretag, Rowena Harper, Michael Burton, Cath Ellis, Philip Newton, Pearl Rozenberg, Sonia Saddiqui & Karen van Haeringen (2019) Contract cheating: a survey of Australian university students, Studies in Higher Education, 44:11, 1837-1856, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2018.1462788

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

The digital world is costing the earth

Guillaume Pitron

Greetings from the ANU, where Guillaume Pitron, is talking on his new book "The Dark Cloud. How the digital world is costing the earth". This reveals how apparently clean computers have a dirty secret: they use energy and materials. The discussion ranged wider over how green smart cities are. 

Of course none of this is new to computer professionals. In 2008 the ACS commissioned me to write a course on green computing. In this students learn to estimate and then reduce carbon emissions and materials from computers. The course is still running 24 years later in Canada. Along with our colleagues in engineering we have been working on these issues for decades. Guillaume, as a journalist has provided a valuable service by relating what we knew in an accessable way for the public.

We don't have to stop using computers, just use them better. Hopefully this will form a central role at COP28. I asked Guillaume how we could get this on the agenda. He suggested it is a role for NGOs, and not expect Internet companies to act.

What to Expect at the Next UN Climate Change Conference

Greetings from the brand new ANU Research School of Physics auditorium, where Emirati Minister Reem Al Hashimy, host for the next UN Climate Change Conference (COP28), and a panel of experts are speaking on what to expect from the event. We are under the Chatham House rule, so I can't say who says what. 

One thing which struck me about the discussion was that trade and innovation featured prominently. This is a better approach than gloom and doom: we can, instead, at least in part, grow our way out of disaster. COP28 will be aiming to keep the 1.5 degree warming target. But the developed world having grown wealthy from carbon pollution can't tell the rest of the world they have to remain poor for the good of the planet.

One of the participants commented that the UN process was at best obsolete, but we have to make the best of it. Having a global meeting is not fun. The green (civil society) and blue (officials) zones will be colocated at COP28.