Thursday, August 31, 2023

A Larger Role for Colleges in Australian Higher Education?

Professor Brian Schmidt, Vice Chancellor of the ANU, is reported as suggesting private for-profit colleges will take over educating new professionals. This would leave universities free to research, & educate advanced students, the VC envisaged. However, I suggest specialist colleges, associated with public universities, and TAFE, could provide undergraduate education just as efficiently as the private sector, and should be allowed to do so. 

Even a research-intensive university can accommodate undergraduate students. Twenty years ago, I accepted an invitation to be a visiting fellow at one of our universities. I had expected to be conducting research, but within five minutes of sitting down in my new office, I was asked to give "some lectures". This started two decades investigating how to provide professional education, linking universities, vocational education, and industry. I now help a team of researchers, professionals from different disciplines, educators, and people from industry, to provide work-integrated learning to undergraduates, and post-graduates. For my MEd, I investigated how to do this for a mix of domestic and international students, in a classroom, in the workplace, and online. Fortunately, my investigations uncovered the need to prepare to teach online in an emergency, which kept students from campus, and proved useful when COVID-19 struck.

As I wrote in my submission to the Higher Education Review, Australian universities should continue to be funded to focus on educating professionals, and conducting applied research for industry, while supported by fundamental research. A wholesale de-Dawkinsation and privatization of higher education is not needed, and I suggest not in the public interest.

There is a role for specialist educational institutions with expertise in teaching, rather than research. But, despite the views put to government by private sector lobbyists these don't have to be exclusively, or primarily, private for-profit institutions. Professor Schmidt, mentioned on of the lobbyists, former minister Christopher Pyne. Alongside private colleges, Australia's universities could expand the specialist teaching arms they already have, and our major TAFEs can grow into the role. Also, the dual sector institutions, which are both universities and vocational, can do more. 

Only a very few students need a research-intensive education. Even fewer need such education at the undergraduate level. Most students are destined for industry, education, or government work. They need to know, in general terms, what research is, but more so they need deep technical knowledge of their field, and broad people and project skills. This is not a new requirement, and Australia's universities were founded to turn out working professionals.

There is a myth that there was a golden age when Australian universities were well-funded to produce pure research, with students whose only aim was to explore new knowledge. However Australian governments established universities to produce working professionals and do research to support the economy. The golden age of Australian universities was more about engineering facilities funded by mining companies needing staff, and better ways to dig up stuff, than fundamental research.

In the Dawkins Revolution of the 1990s, specialist teaching colleges in Australia were merged into universities. To remain accredited, the new university could not specialize in teaching in one field but was required to also conduct research in multiple disciplines. The new universities adapted, by conducting both research and teaching. The for-profit Torrens University was able to be accommodated in this system.

It is a fallacy to suggest that having a generalist university results in high costs, or that in some way academic freedom is expensive. Also, it is untrue that online delivery results in poorer educational outcomes, or that for-profit companies naturally produce better outcomes for students. 

Recent experience of expanding funding for vocational education shows what can go wrong. Private for-profit vocational education providers were allowed to accept government funding, with insufficient regulation, resulting in billions of dollars wasted, through poor quality training delivery, and in some cases outright fraud.

Rather than a new education revolution, Australia could have an evolution, with existing universities allowed to establish specialist teaching institutions. Australia already permits for-profit universities, and there could be a mix of not, and for profit, under the one, tight, regulatory framework. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Crisis Simulation for Teaching Next Generation of Leaders

Barrie & Worthington
in ACSS Control Room, CC-BY 29/8/2023
Greetings from the Control Room of the Australian Crisis Simulation Summit at the Australian National University in Canberra. There is a team of ten students sitting at computers, in a horseshoe shaped room running through the scenarios. Next week, 100 students in teams around Australia and the USA will respond to these in real time. It is not quite as high-tech as the control room in the Hunger Games, but works much the same way. 

The game-masters are using Conducttr crisis simulation software, coordinating the release of made up news reports, and social media posts about a fictional future crisis. While all the teams participating share the same simulated world view, they have different scenarios to respond to. These involve cyber and kinetic (stuff blowing up) attacks, and the participants need to work out what to do. There are then scripted events to keep the participants busy.

I have the role of a mentor, pro diving advice to the game-masters and participants. This is a new experience. I have participated in a paper based version of a simulation at what is now Australian War College (AWC), but on a much smaller scale. Next to me providing advice is the patron for the ACSS, Professor Admiral Chris Barrie.

The scenarios the students have prepared are set about a decade in the future. Even so they reflect current events, to the extent when someone mentioned a Chinese submarine may be missing, I had to ask "Is this real world or exercise?". 

I am mentoring, for ACSS, using my experience from working at DoD. But also I would like to see how such exercises can be incorporated as part of student's formal learning and assessment. I talked about  "Projects & internships for student employability" at EduTECH, Australia last week. Simulations can provide a form of quicker, work relevant learning. 

Friday, August 25, 2023

New Student Modalities

David Kellermann from UNSW
Greetings from the last day of EdutTech 2023 in Melbourne. The session is on new modalities, this includes on studios specifically design for online learning. David Kellermann from UNSW is talking on what to do with online students post pandemic. His definition of hybrid has every student online and in the room can communicate with each other. He has had a classroom built for this mode. This was prototyped in a conventional lecture theater. Students can book to attend the face to face class, with a BBQ after as an incentive. This looks to me a good setup for the "sage on the stage", where students are focused on the instructor. A different room design, is needed for workshops with more student teamwork. I am on next on  "Projects & internships for student employability". 

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Can't Get Away from AI

EduTech 2023 Australia Plenary
Greetings from day two of EdutTech 2023 in Melbourne. The exhibition is buzzing, with plenty of free coffee,. I tried to go to a panel on assessment, but it was standing room only. So I am in the plenary session, in a room that can seat thousands. I thought it was a panel on training more tech workers, but AI is being discussed. I suspect, whatever the official topic, the discussion is going to stray onto AI. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Using Generative AI for Education

Greetings from the Melbourne Convention Center, where EdutTech 2023 just started. This is a big conference with many streams, covering pre-school to professional development. One big question being asked, and perhaps answered, throughout many of the streams, is what do we do about generative AI? First up is Dan Hickmott with "Grok Academy - Unlocking the power of Generative AI in education".

A very useful technique is being used for the introduction of the workshop. The presenter is getting us to do paper based exercises, then demonstrating the AI equivalent. This avoids getting lost in the mechanics of the tool, and instead explore the concepts by which it works. One issue being explored is the bias built into the tools, due to the bias in the text it was trained on. What I find interesting is what the tools might tell us about ourselves. 

If you are in Melbourne, there is still time to come along to the free trade show with talks, or the paid conference. I am on Friday morning speaking on "Projects & internships for student employability". 

ps: I never thought "Go the Newcastle Knights", would be in an AI talk

Monday, August 14, 2023

Agile Thinking for Agile Projects

ANU Hive in action
Greetings from "The Hive" at the Australian National University, where Dr Sabrina Caldwell, running a workshop on agile development. There are a lot of myths about agile: it is not the same as making it up as you go along. Sabrina emphasized the value to the customer: there is no point building a product quickly, that no one wants. 

Presenting in The Hive is challenging, as there are people coming and going all the time in the open plan area. There is a low level mum of voices, with meetings of teams with clients going on in the background. Eminent academics and industry professionals can wander in, sit down, and join in. This is useful for emulating the industry environment. 

Rarely in government or industry will there be a polite fixed group sitting down listening to a presentation. Students need to cope with a slightly messy, changing, but therefore creative, environment. An extreme example of this were where I witnessed three people at a startup, all writing on a whiteboard at the same time, and shouting at each other, while a crowd watched them, like it was a competitive sport. Another was a hackerthon on weapons development for use in the South China Sea, where an Admiral suddenly appeared and "asked" for a briefing on progress.

For soft skills (or professional skills as careers expert Tempe Archer prefers), of communication, teamwork, leadership, emotional intelligence and relationship-building Dr Bernardo Pereira Nunes runs sessions in the Escape Room, in The Hive.

One of the communication skills I highlighted to the studnts is to identify all the issues without making the client feel you are getting at them. One team simply listed all the things they thought their client was doing wrong, and sent it to them. The team was surprised when the client stopped talking to them.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Designing Relationship Building Into University Programs

Lambert, Artze-Vega, and Tapia (2023) suggest five ways for college students (what in Australia are university undergraduates), to meet new friends and mentors. They suggest this is important to student success. I agree this is important, so important it should not be left as an ad-hoc extra curricular activity, it should be built into the core compulsory program. Rather than design courses and assessment where students learn alone, and are then punished for collaboration, instead teach studnts to work together, and reward them with grades for doing so. Delete technical content from the curriculum and replace it with vital teamwork skills.

The authors suggest that "Connections are everything" is good advice for new students. If that is the case, why don;t introductory courses devote more time to making connections? Perhaps the reason is that the experience of today's students differs from that of their professors. University marketing shows happy carefree studnts sitting around chatting in a leafy environment. Perhaps that was the case in the professor's day, but today's student is more likely to be rushing from their job to the classroom, then out to pick up their children.

The Conversation article accompanies the publication of a book by many of the same authors (Felten, Lambert, Artze-Vega, and Tapia, 2023). Whhile titled "Connections Are Everything: A College Student's Guide to Relationship-Rich Education", I couldn't help thinking a better tile would be "Education for the Rich: Time to Make Connections to Stay Rich". That may sound harsh, but the advice given will be hard for a low SES student from a disadvantaged background to follow:

1. Talk to a professor

If there is a professor for 200 , or more students, exactly when and how long do you talk to them for? As a student if you focus is on passing, as quickly as possible, any interaction with staff has to focus on that. You need exemptions, and extensions. There is no time for an idle chat. 

2. Make a friend in class

University is a lonely, frightening experience, and not just for young undergraduates. As a graduate student I had a decade of experience teaching at a university, and was an adult, but even so the old nightmares about assessment returned, and I found I had little in common with the rest of the class. What helped me was where there were class activities devoted to meeting other studnts, and group projects. But even so study was still a frightening, agonizingly lonely experience.

3. Use the resources that are there for you

Universities do have staff and resources to support student learning. But unless you are introduced to these in a course, and told to use them, students are unlikely to do so. As a student you are focused on studying enough to do the assessment. So the use of these resources have to be built into your assessed coursework to be useful. An example of this is the Techlauncher program at the ANU. Rather than suggest students go to see a career councilor before they graduate, the councilor are brought into the classroom to teach the students. In conjunction with the councilors, academic staff administer assessment which requires students to look at what they have learned, and possible futures. This empowers the time poor student to do what would otherwise be an option extra-curricular activity, which they therefore would not do. I will be talking about this at EduTech 2023.

4. Participate in a ‘relationship accelerator’

Internships, undergraduate research, writing-intensive seminars, study abroad, and campus employment are all good, but only if they are for credit. If they are not compulsory, or provide credit to the student's degree, there is little point in providing them.

5. Connect with yourself

Imposter syndrome is a real thing at university. Telling students who feel anxious to talk to a professor will compound the problem, not solve it. Professors are not trained in student counselling, and likely to make the student more anxious, not less. The first step I suggest is to admit that study is a stress inducing experience, not the happy go lucky one depicted in university marketing. This is hard surprising as most of the staff the student interacts with are casual, or on short term contracts. The staff are constantly anxious about their jobs. What can be done is help students cope with the anxiety, or at least understand this is a normal part of the university experience.


Leo M. Lambert, Isis Artze-Vega, & Oscar Miranda Tapia. "Building relationships is key for first-year college students – here are 5 easy ways to meet new friends and mentors", The Conversation, August 11, 2023 10.37pm AES. 

Felten, P., Lambert, L. M., Artze-Vega, I., & Tapia, O. R. M. (2023). Connections Are Everything: A College Student's Guide to Relationship-Rich Education. JHU Press.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Digitisation of Pacific Countries

Nick Thieberger
University of Melbourne
Greetings from "Digitisation for Pacific cultural materials" by Nick Thieberger from University of Melbourne, at ANU Department of Pacific Affairs. This is a fascinating presentation about Paradisec, an archive of digitized audio and other cultural material of the Pacific. One sad point was that Tuvalu is considering a digital backup of the country, if it disappears underwater, due to global warming. It will not be the first such endeavor as Estonia a ready backs up government data in some embassies in case the country is overrun, and government records are destroyed or must be erased to keep them out of enemy hands.

Friday, August 4, 2023

Funding Indigenous Students is Worthwhile if Suitable Courses Are Provided

The Australian Government has extended study funding of indigenous students to those in urban areas, as part of a package of changes in response to the  Interim Report of the Australian Universities Accord inquiry. Professor Andrew Norton has asked if it will make much of a difference? I suggest funding for indigenous students will be beneficial, but only if there are courses, & services, for their needs. As Professor Norton points out, indigenous Year 12 completion rates are low, so bridging will be needed, but the Australian Government is not going to pay for them. I suggest that problem can be sidestepped, by building the needed training into the degree curriculum. This will help all students: urban, rural, indigenous, non-indigenous, domestic, and international.

Professor Norton points out that sub-bachelor programs were excluded from funding previously. But there is an easy workaround which universities use for other studnts, the Professor did not mention: tell the student to enroll in a Bachelor program, then exit early with a diploma (or now the option of a certificate). However, at present such a sub-degree program will likely be just the introductory units of the bachelors degree. What is needed are enabling courses on how to study, and communicate. Such courses would also be of use to non-indigenous, domestic and international students. Particularly in STEM programs, there is a tendency to do the hard science first, and leave the communication and teamwork skills to second and third year. I suggest reversing this for all students, teaching them how to work and learn at the start.

Building what are normally part of enabling courses into degree programs will go some way to solve funding programs. Professors will grumble that all this non-core stuff is at the expect of core subjects. But learning very technical content is of no use if the graduate can't communicate it, can't work in a team, or can't get to graduate because they don't know how to learn. As I have discussed previously in this Blog, these communication, teamwork, and leadership skills are key to the success of any professional.

Another way to support indigenous and other studnts is with online and mobile learning. Students learn best when in the community, not on a campus. Universities can provide all courses online, by default. This allows studnts to meet work and cultural commitments more easily, while studying.

First Legislative Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report

The Australian Government has reacted remarkably quickly to the Interim Report of the Australian Universities Accord inquiry, with legislation: "Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023". This abolished the rule that said a student had to pass 50% of their courses to keep getting government funding. But Professor Andrew Norton has raised concern about the measures added to ensure universities help these at-risk students may be a burden. However, I suggest good course and assessment design can reduce the need to provide special help to students, & better target when needed. For example regular small assessment tasks can be used to identify students needing help, but with a flexible assessment scheme which doesn't penalize them. Also students can be routinely provided with an online option for their studies (failing to do that, I suggest may breach anti-discrimination law).  

"Providers must have a support for students policy

             (1)  A higher education provider must have a policy (a support for students policy ) that deals with the support provided to the provider’s students to assist them to successfully complete the units of study in which they are enrolled.

             (2)  A higher education provider’s support for students policy must:

                     (a)  include information on:

                              (i)  the provider’s processes for identifying students that are at risk of not successfully completing their units of study; and

                             (ii)  the supports available from or on behalf of the provider to assist students to successfully complete the units of study in which they are enrolled; and

                     (b)  comply with any requirements specified in the Higher Education Provider Guidelines.

             (3)  Without limiting paragraph (2)(b), the requirements may relate to the following:

                     (a)  requirements for the higher education provider’s support for students policy to include specified information;

                     (b)  requirements about the presentation, format and availability of the policy.

Provider to comply with support for students policy

             (4)  A higher education provider must comply with its support for students policy.

Provider must report on compliance with support for students policy ..."

Offering help to studnts may be ineffective, if the studnts do not know it is available, don't know they are eligible for it, don't know they need it, or don't want to take it. As an example, it was only long after being a student I realized I fell into several of the disadvantaged categories. It would have never occurred to me to ask, or accept, help. I would have, and did, rather fail a course, than seek help. Later, with more maturity, I realized I could withdraw from a course before failing, but that was a very confronting, lonely experience. 

Australia an Exporter of Renewable Energy Embedded in AI Models?

The energy use of AI was discussed by Schwartz, Dodge, Smith, and Etzioni (2020). The authors noted that Amazon AWS was 50% powered by renewable energy. Perhaps Australia could become an exporter of renewable energy embedded in Green AI models.

In 2017 my colleagues at ANU initiated a project to cover large areas of northern Australia with solar panels, and export the energy. The university invested $10m in research, and some of it is now being commercialized.

Options investigated included a cable to Singapore, & synthetic fuel in tankers. But an alternative was "Green Steel". The energy would be used to refine iron ore in Australia. The embedded energy would, in effect, be exported in the steel. The steel is much easier to ship than electrons, hydrogen, or ammonia. The same thing might be done with AI.

The world would send AI requests to Australia. These would be forwarded
to data-centers located at high capacity grid connections to solar and wind farms. AI models would be trained using the renewable energy, making an "AI battery", with the embedded energy stored in the models.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Catastrophic Events as the New Normal

Greetings from the ANU Disaster Solutions Update 2023 at the Australian National University. This event from the ANU INSTITUTE FOR CLIMATE, ENERGY & DISASTER SOLUTIONS is a bit like a disaster move. The part where the scientists calmly tell the decision makers about all the terrible things which are going to happen, which can't be prevented due to previous inaction, just mitigated. We can take measures to lessen the impact of fires, floods, and storms, but we can't stop them increasing in frequency, and intensity.

ANU is also offering a  Disaster Solutions Professional Short Course16 August.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Billion Dollar UNSW Canberra Campus

Greetings from First Wednesday Connect in Building K at Canberra Institute of Technology. Normally this is at Canberra Innovation Network's office and I went there finding only two confused students. We found the event at the other side of the city, after a quick number 3 bus ride. We are here to celebrate approval of UNSW's new campus and new CIT courses.

The catering for this event was excellent, as Building K is the CIT Hospitality and Culinary School. ;-)

Canberra Triangle Super-cluster of Innovation

The CSIRO has identified a "triangle super-cluster" of innovation in Canberra (CSIRO, p. 35, 2023). The points of the triangle are Belconnen, Phillip and Canberra Airport, with Civic is the center. Previously in 2015, I identified a much more concentrated "Canberra Start-up Business Boomerang", on the eastern edge of the Australian National University campus.

The report argues that co-location is important, citing Silicon Valley, and Cambridge UK. 

"The Canberra triangle super-cluster is the workplace for 19,362 workers in digital occupations representing 3.3% of the national digital workforce. We estimate it contains the headquarters of 2 digital technology companies listed on the ASX with a combined market capitalisation of $60.14 million as of January 2023." 

However, the Australian examples are much less concentrated, than the USA, or UK. Segal Quince & Partners (1985) explored in detail the way the concentration of startups around Cambridge University came about. That approach has been applied in Canberra.


Segal (1985) The Cambridge phenomenon : the growth of high technology industry in a university town, Segal Quince & Partners, Hall Keeper's House, 42 Castle Street, Cambridge CB3 0AJ, England, 1985, ISBN 095102020X (copy in ANU HANCOCK Library, & summary available)

CSIRO and the Tech Council of Australia, The geography of Australia’s digital industries: Digital technology industry clusters in Australia’s capital cities and regions. 3 Jul 2023.

Manager, of Digital Capabilities Needed In Canberra

A few minutes ago, the Australian National University advertised on LinkedIn for a "Manager, Academic Competencies & Digital Capabilities".  The job is in the university library, but libraries are not what they used to be, teaching students (and staff) how to use digital technology both to find, and create, information.