Sunday, July 30, 2023

Study Says Optional Class Attendance is the New Normal

Matthew Cooper
Cooper, and Cardenas-Vasquez (2023) suggest COVID-129 has accelerated optional classroom attendance to be the "new normal" for university students. This was a small study of capstone students from one US university, but useful for the clarity of the way the researchers explained their conclusions, and jot just because they cited a paper I help write (Cochrane, et al. 2020). ;-)

"This study has shown that students have become comfortable engaging with these online materials, and that access to these materials has impacted their decisions to attend class due to tangible benefits such as time savings and convenience. It would appear that these expectations and factors are unlikely to change – indeed, this is likely the new normal." (Cooper, & Cardenas-Vasquez, p. 9, 2023)

However, I don't agree with the researcher's suggestion that an attendance policy be used. The problem is that the paper details why students don't attend, but then  frames non-attendance as if it was a problem to be solved, rather than a good thing for students. I suggest online learning as the new normal, except where there is a need to attend in person to meet learning objectives. Most studnts will be graduating into a blended workplace, so it makes sense to teach them in one. Failing students who can't attend class must only be done where there is a very good reason.


Cochrane, T., Birt, J., Cowie, N., Deneen, C., Goldacre, P., Narayan, V., ... & Worthington, T. (2020). A collaborative design model to support hybrid learning environments during COVID-19. ASCILITE Publications, 84-89.

Cooper, M., & Cardenas-Vasquez, E. D. (2023, June). Is Poor Classroom Attendance a Virtual-Learning Hangover or the New Normal? A Qualitative Study. In 2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

Friday, July 28, 2023

Australian Universities Accord Interim Report

  Australian Universities
The  Australian Universities Accord Panel, chaired by Professor Mary O’Kane, has released a 152 page Interim Report (19 July 2023). I have been putting off reading such a daunting document, but it is actually very readable. The report rightly highlights the under representation of First Nations low socio-economic (SES) background, and students with a disability. Also the difficulty of access from regional, rural, remote and outer suburban areas. The need for lifelong  flexible and adaptive learning is also mentioned. These are areas which can be addresses using a mix of online and work integrated techniques. However, that will require news skills of university academics, similar to those vocational teachers already have.

The report argues that "... too few Australians are going to university". In support of this it cites research saying 50% to 55% of jobs in the next few decades will require a degree or other higher education qualifications. However about 40% of the workforce already have a degree, so this only needs an increase of about 10%. Meanwhile only about 30% of the workforce have a vocational qualification, so I suggest that is were the main effort needs to go.

The interim report provides some early recommendations. Here are some comments on them:

Priority Action 1: More RUCs

"Extend visible, local access to tertiary education by creating further Regional University Centres (RUCs) and establish a similar concept for suburban/metropolitan locations."

As the report notes RUCs, essentially small university shopfronts, have been successful. What is not mentioned is how these can complement online learning. Online studnts feel isolated, and this can be overcome with a local facility. 

This is a recommendation which will be politically palatable, being something tangible, and which a politician can cut a ribbon on. 

Priority Action 2: Drop 50% pass rule

"Cease the 50% pass rule, given its poor equity impacts, and require increased reporting on student progress."

This change has already been accepted by government. However, a

Introduced as part of the JRG package, the 50% pass rule disproportionately disadvantages students from equity backgrounds. Enhanced reporting on student progress will increase the focus on improving the success rates of at-risk students. While the Review believes other aspects of the JRG package need reform, this change should proceed at the first possible opportunity.

Priority Action 3: Funded places for all indigenous students

"Ensure that all First Nations students are eligible for a funded place at university, by extending demand driven funding to metropolitan First Nations students."

This is a relatively easy and low cost recommendation for government to implement. There should be a higher take-up rate from metropolitan areas, simply because access to university is easier. However, that leaves many impediments in place. Also I suggest the measure apply to Vocational Education.

Priority Action 4: Extend HE Continuity Guarantee to 2025

"Provide funding certainty, through the extension of the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee into 2024 and 2025 ..."

How long can the can be kicked down the read without rethinking these measures?

Priority Action 5: Improve university governance

"Through National Cabinet, immediately engage with state and territory governments and universities to improve university governance ..."

State and national government are hardly in a position to provide an example of good government, given recent scandals. These include Robodebt, involving illegal demands for payment causing deaths, and the cancellation of the Commonwealth Games, due to a multi-billion dollar cost blowout. Universities have had their own scandals, but are these due to a systemic problem? Who are the people with "expertise in the business of universities" who would join governing bodies? Few academics have qualifications in education. I have a MEd in digital education, and would be happy to be on a few boards. ;-)

Part 2: Areas for further consideration

    A. Putting First Nations at the heart of Australia’s higher education system

Placing First Nations at the heart of Australian universities would require first removing the discrimination which prevents indigenous studnts enrolling, and graduating

    C. Meeting Australia’s future skills needs

I suggest that Australian governments first look to the vocational sector for vocational education, then to universities to supplement that. This requires a transfer of funding from universities to the TAFE system. This also requires incentives for university to train some staff in vocational education techniques. At present proposals such as a national skills passport is not feasible, as university academics lack the skills needed to implement it.

    D. Equity in participation, access and opportunity

While well meaning, talk of "encouraging students from underrepresented groups to aspire to higher education and fulfil their potential" is insulting and misses the point. A student from a group barred access to opportunity doesn't lack aspiration, they just know they will be denied a fair chance. That said, there are some easy changes which can be made. The first and simplest way is to provide online access to learning. 

    E. Excellence in learning, teaching and student experience

It is unfortunate the Review is perpetuating the myth that online learning started with COVID-19. Millions of studnts had studied and graduated online, in the decades before then. Detailed studies had been undertaken to show that students did at lest as well in this environment. The impediment to advancement is a business and marking model for universities to function this way. 

    G. Serving our communities

Universities play a role in communities, however these should not distract from the university's primary missions of conducting education, and research. If those can have local connection, all to the good, but universities should not be positioned as a form of political pork-barreling.

    H. Research, innovation and research training

Australia’s university research is subsidized by international student fees. These have proved remarkably stable, but can't be guaranteed. But this is outside the remit of the Higher Education Whisperer, and I will leave it to the Research Whisperer. ;-)

    B. Strengthening institutional governance 

University governance might be strengthened by increasing democracy. As an example, a majority of places on university councils, and departmental committees for elected students and staff. 

    C. Sustainable funding and financing

The Reviews assertion that "The success of the Australian higher education system relies on a secure, predictable, enduring and sustainable funding system" shows a lack of understanding of the real world. Organisations need to be able to survive despite insecure, unpredictable, funding. Australia's universities have had a relatively stable supply of grants from government, and fees from students. Deteriorating geo-political conditions could see this situation worsen. Universities need to ensure they can operate in less certain financial conditions. As an example, in 2016 I suggested universities be ready to teach online in an emergency, if international studnts could not get to Australia due to a regional emergency. COVID-19 gave a small taste of what such an emergency might be like, but it could be much fater, and more severe, next time.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Canadian Digital University Transcript Less Useful Than Australian Ones

Athabasca University offered a digital version of my MEd transcript. This is not as useful as the one issued to me by ANU. That has both the testamur, and transcript. The former is the fancy looking certificate you hang on the wall, the latter is the details of your course results. Athabasca just provides the transcript electronically, and so somewhere you are applying to might still ask for a genuine paper copy of the former, negating most of the value in having an electronic transcript. Also the company Athabasca have contracted to provide the electronic service charges $10 Canadian per year for access, whereas the company ANU uses charges nothing.

The Canadian transcripts are provided by MyCreds, which is owned by the Association of Registrars of the Universities and Colleges of Canada (ARUCC).  

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Timing is Important in Comedy, But is no Fun for Some Students

Please keep in mind that some students (I am one of them) have difficulty with timed quizzes, especially ones featuring animations and music. As a student I try to avoid avoid doing these, or push buttons at random to get it over with quickly. If the class features a lot of them, I will leave. If the course has a lot, I will cancel my enrollment.

I just took part in a training session for using an online pooling tool. These are now commonly used to make live learning more interactive. The tool can be used in a face to face classroom, or via video. The student is presented with questions on their computer, laptop, or smart phone. These are typically multiple choice. This is presented as a way to make learning more fun, but can be stressful for some students.

One of my worst recent learning experiences was going into a classroom and being told to do a quick poll. Flashing animated stuff, accompanied by video game type music then started on the large screen, along with a large countdown timer. Everyone else picked up a gadget and started clicking buttons. Then the screen said "Times UP!". Before I could ask for help, it started all over again. After a few rounds of this agony, it ended. It took me several minutes to work out how to get the application on my screen. I felt I was ready, but then all the flashing and music started again. After a few such quizzes I managed to answer some questions, but it was not a fun experience.

The poll tool I was being trained on today had the advantage of not including music, and had much less distracting animations. But it was not without problems. At one point I was told about the countdown timer, but there was no countdown timer on my screen. So I just picked answers at random, fearing I would run out of time. It turned out the countdown time doesn't display on the quiz page, but on the presenter's screen in Zoom. However, I had minimized the Zoom window, so I could see the quiz.

At another point we were being told about how you could have students click on images to make a choice. On screen were a row of different color simile faces. Then dots appeared over one. It turned out this was a quiz question, being run live. It hadn't occurred to me it was a question. Apparently the dots indicated what everyone (but me) answered, but I still have no idea what the question was. 

If such polls are used for assessment this will increase the stress level for some students, and for some, exclude them from the course. But even where there is a general mark for "participation" it will be stressful for some students. I suggest such polls be used with caution.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Defence Innovation in Canberra

Greetings from the Defence Innovation Network Canberra Showcase opening at the ANU in Canberra. DIN is a made up of ANU, Macquarie, UNSW, Newcastle, Sydney, Wollongong, and UTS universities.

Western Sydney University logo. This is showcasing the capabilities of academia in areas such as AI, Robotics, cyber security, Quantum communications and optical systems. The Defence Innovation Network is Defence Innovation Network (DIN) is an association of eight leading universities in NSW and ACT. The purpose of the DIN is to bring together industry, universities, State Government and Defence to address Australia’s defence needs. The DIN also supports business innovation in the global defence market by harnessing world-class research capabilities available within our universities.

At the opening Professor John Blaxland raised the topic of collaboration with US universities, particularly given the AUKUS partnership.  

Given the deteriorating international situation it is timely for universities capabilities to aid defence to be boosted. However it needs to kept in mind the primary way university can help is with trained people, both in uniform, and in civilian roles in government and support industries. Training personnel, and building systems takes years, and in some cases decades.

As a former adviser on technology in the Defence Department I mentor students who work in the Defence Origination and tutored ones testing new weapons systems for defence companies.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

What do Computer Group Project Students Need to Know?

For the last eight years I have been helping out with the Australian National University's Techlauncher program. Computer students undertake a group project for a real client, over two semesters, towards the end end of their degree. One of the features of the program is that students from different backgrounds, at different stages of their study, work together. There are undergraduate and postgraduate, domestic and international students, some have extensive industry experience, some have very little.

You will not find Techlauncher in the university handbook. Instead the program is listed as three course codes: Software Engineering Project (COMP3500), Software Engineering Practice (COMP4500), and Computing Project (COMP8715). Occasionally there are some students from other disciplines. But however the students enroll they end up in the same class together, to go through team formation.

What the different courses which make up Techlauncher have in common are learning outcomes of learning, reflection, communication, teamwork, and project management. It is assumed the student has completed studies in Professional PracticeSoftware ConstructionSoftware Design, Software Engineering. This is in addition, and distinct from courses in Structured Programming, and other forms of programming. The elements the student needs to be able to integrate to work as a computer professional here are:

  1. communication both within a team and to external stakeholders, 
  2. programming small pieces of code, or other tools such as interface design, 
  3. designing larger structures from the components, testing and maintaining them,
  4. working as a member of a team,
  5. deciding what new skills are needed both as an individual professional, and for the team.
As Techlauncher is attempting to emulate real world working conditions, and using real if limited) projects, each will demand different skills of the team, and its members. It is not possible to specify a comprehensive curriculum for every student to undertake. Instead students will need a smörgåsbord of learning resources to choose from.

Some resources:

Software Design Methodologies Notes, slides and some videos.

Weaponized AI Countermeasures

This is to suggest the Australian Government invest $100M in an institute for developing weaponized AI countermeasures. One area for research will be automated real-time fact-checking. Generative AI has the capability to create fake text, image, audio, and video content. This can be used to spread confusion and destabilize a country. There may not be time for manual fact checking to determine what is fake and put out alternative views, or have the offending material taken down, and there might not be enough information specialists available to manually handle the volume of fake news. The Institute would develop tools to identify, check, debunk, and respond to fake news automatically. Within microsecods of a fake news item appearing, a response and take-down notices would be issued. Where authorized, the fake content would be modified and reissued, to undermine the credibility of the adversary.

Supporting diverse graduate career pathways through AI

Chapter Zoom Meeting
Greetings from "Supporting diverse graduate career pathways" at the NSW/ACT ACEN Chapter, and "The Re-Conception of AI and Robotics as Complementary Artefact Intelligence and Augmented Capability" by Roger Clarke at ANU. I am actually sitting in the seminar room at ANU, where Roger is presenting. That is also going out on Zoom, but I am listing to the ACEN seminar instead. This is because they happen to be on at the same time. Perhaps because I have been reading a book by William Gibson, and think I can mash these up. ;-)

Rodger is taking AI back to first principles ( see the the slide-set). The main point is that AI should complement human effort, rather than replace it: Augmented Intelligence.

ACEN's discussion is around how we prepare students for a career which may not be based on a few long term permanent jobs. Obviously a career may be even less certain due to AI, but perhaps we can design AI to work with the graduates, and train the graduates to be able to use it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Asian Military Evolutions

Greetings from the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, where the book "Asian Military Evolutions: Civil–Military Relations in Asia", edited by Alan Chong and Nicole Jenne, is being launched. I guess from the title, the authors believe there is something different, and common among asian military. One commonality mentioned is a colonial past. But that applies to many African countries, as well as the USA, Australia and New Zealand. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Learning to be Entrepreneurial in Cambridge

King's College Chapel at Dusk, 
by Tom Worthington 1996
Inger Mewburn, the Thesis Whisperer & ANU Director of Researcher Development, will be speaking on Learning to be Entrepreneurial, Monday 10 July at King's College, University of Cambridge. Professor Mewburn has been researching the  the UK job market, looking at who needs research graduates. There will be a more in depth event the next day, "After Academia? : Connecting with Industries Outside Academia", 11 July. I wish her luck, as I found Cambridge students a very tough audience at my first talk there.

My first visits to Cambridge was to investigate how they interacted with industry. On my return I recommended Canberra adopt a similar approach. That seems to have worked reasonably well, with initiatives such as the Canberra Innovation Network, just next to the Australian National University.

Should Australia's universities merge across state borders?

The University of South Australia and University of Adelaide are merging. This will make an institution with about 60,000 students,  & one of the biggest in the country (after Monash). No doubt staff at both institutions have been crunching the numbers to see if the merged institution will go up in national and global university rankings. At present University of Adelaide is the bottom ranking of Australia's' Group of Eight top universities, and UniSA is not on the list at all. A bigger question is if a large geographically based university is a good model of the 21st century. 

Australia's capital city major universities are each a product of their state governments (apart from ANU, which was established by the national government). As a result each university operates mainly from the state capital, and within the state boarders. However, Australia is a nation, and education is now a global business. Should other smaller universities in Australia, which do not have the same state government patronage, seek to merge, but not restricted to state boundaries? In particular smaller regional universities could form larger geographic groupings, such as northern, eastern, southern, and western (the latter is of course, also a state boundary).

Monday, July 3, 2023

IEEE AI Ethics and Governance Workshop in Canberra Hosted by the Australian Computer Society

Ruth Lewis, workshop facilitator
Greeting from the Australian Computer Society Canberra office, where I am taking part in an IEEE AI Ethics and Governance Workshop. Over the next few days we will be looking at ethics and technological development. Obviously AI is going feature prominently in this. Last week I attended a seminar on weaponizing Chat GPT with defence & AI experts from around the world. This makes me think I need to produce a new hypothetical on the ethics of AI in warfare. 

IEEE have produced the 294 page "ETHICALLY ALIGNED DESIGN" (2019), and a suite of standards: 

  1. 7000-2021 - IEEE Standard Model Process for Addressing Ethical Concerns during System Design
  2. 7001-2021 - IEEE Standard for Transparency of Autonomous Systems
  3. 7002-2022 - IEEE Standard for Data Privacy Process
  4. 7005-2021 - IEEE Standard for Transparent Employer Data Governance
  5. 7010-2020 - IEEE Recommended Practice for Assessing the Impact of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems on Human Well-Being
IEEE has been producing ethics standards for many years, but these do not appear to have had much effect on practice. The current public, government and industry interest in AI, and Generative AI (such as Chat GPT) is a good opportunity for IEEE to kindle interest in ethics. If there is an area needing consideration of ethics is AI.

An interesting issues, I suggest, is how standard largely developed by western couturiers will be seen in China, and Asia. In standards development the Golden Rule applies: "Those who have the gold make the rules". As China's economy expands, they will have more influence over global standards. 

While considerations of ethics in computing and engineering development is useful, it has its limitations. As an example, application of IEEE standards would not have stopped the RoboDebt system, as those in leadership positions had an different ethical framework. This held that persecution of disadvantaged citizens was acceptable, provided it boosted the government's ratings with its supporters. This approach was described as Authorized System Harassment in the UK dystopian TV series "1990" ("Ordeal by Small Brown Envelope", 1978), and the possibility of it resulting in suicide was explored. RoboDebt was not ended because it was clearly abhorrent to the ethical standards of most Australians, but because it was found to be technically illegal.