Saturday, May 25, 2024

Aligning Computer Professional Skills With the Nation's Needs

Greetings from the Australian Computer Society (ACS), Canberra Branch Hub, where I am taking part in an ACS Professional Standards Board meeting. ACS sets the standards for the education of computer professionals in Australia, and in conjunction with sister societies, world wide. In the usual bureaucratic processes of being on any committee, it is easy to forget how important the work is. We need to ensure what Australian universities and vocational institutions teach is what industry needs, and aligns with international standards. We also need to ensure that working professionals can keep up with developments in the industry, either individually or through their employer. All of this has to be acceptable to Australian governments, and industry. 

Being professionals, we first try to find an existing standard, but often have to enhance, or on occasion, write the standard from scratch. Not surprisingly new technology requires new skills of computer professionals, such as blockchain, and quantum computing. These are relatively easy to address. More surprising, and much harder, are soft skills, such as emotional intelligence. How do we define these, help professionals get them, and perhaps hardest, convince people they need them. Recently an assessment question I wrote for students was criticized by one of my colleagues as not being "academic", because it concerned soft skills. I look forward to being able to say "We are required to teach and test these professional skills".

The work of the board on skills standards goes all the way from high level definitions, down to how to document this, using digital badges, in electronic portfolios. This may all sound very esoteric, but it can result in someone being hired for a job much more quickly, a company getting a contract, a nation increasing productivity, and citizens being safer.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Black Duck With Robots?

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra where Bruce Pascoe and Lyn Harwood are talking about their new book "Black Duck". Best known for "Dark Emu", this is a personal memoir of that experience, life and traditional farming. This is part of the ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author series

This is a very personal story of Australia, rediscovering achient knowledge of land management. One point emphasized was how labor intensive practices such as pulling out wattle saplings by hand after fire is. Perhaps, I suggest this can be combined with new technologies, such as robot gardeners.

PS: A few days ago I was in a Sydney bookstore looking for Black Duck for a friend. I didn't know a few days later I would be on a room with the authors, in an event run by Colin Steele. This is after discussing a talk on quantum computing I have been asked to give in Singapore. Before that I agreed to write procedures to assess prior experience of students and teach social media skills to academics. That is the nature of higher education.


Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Nurturing an Academic Community Online

Much as been written about how the Internet is undermining scholarship, and isolating us, but it can also be a way to bring people with common interests together, especially when isolate physically. When COVID-19 struck in early 2020, I found myself physically cut off from colleagues. One thing I did was join the Mobile Learning Special Interest Group (MLSIG) of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE). That proved useful in overcoming isolation, and productive, in writing conference papers, and giving presentations with members of the group. It was not for three years that I actually met any of the members of the SIG, face to face, when I attended an ASCILITE conference face to face. How the groups works is now published in an open access paper, from some of the members.

Reference

Narayan, V., Cochrane, T., Stretton, T., Chanane, N., Alizadeh, M., Birt, J., … Vanderburg, R. (2024). A model for nurturing a networked academic community: #ASCILITEMLSIG mobile learning special interest group. International Journal for Academic Development, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2024.2349930

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Digital Concierges for Recruiting

Greetings from the Australian National University where Techlauncher students in "The Hive" are exploring possible future careers. They are hearing from Bryce Undy on how his company Grow Right Digital provides AI for analysis of job applications. He cautioned students not to leave generative AI to write their CV, as this may make claims they can't support. He claimed AI could be used to remove implicit and explicit bias, for example summarizing what qualifications the student has, while removing details of gender, and what school was attended. The students are learning about future careers under the guidance of ANU Careers & Employability.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Australia’s International Education and Skills Strategic Framework


The Australian Department of Education has released a 41 page draft "Australia’s InternationalEducation and SkillsStrategic Framework" for consultation (10 May 2024). The report has an odd mix of conflicting objectives, based on false premises. There is nothing wrong with the Australian Government setting targets to meet national priorities. This could be to maximize student fees, meet national skills needs, or to aid regional development. However, measures to do any one of these will work against the other two.

The report makes the claim several times that integrity issues are due to "unmanaged growth" (pages 5, & 15), rather than the obvious failure of government regulation. Also it blames international students for a housing shortage, rather than successive Australian governments failure to invest in public housing. However, the major problem with the report is that it doesn't seriously address the need to offer online education, and broaden the countries Australia draws students from. I suggest the way to broaden the market is with online education (Worthington, 2018). Also the report does not mention the threat, and opportunity, of Artificial Intelligence, at all. This is surprising, as it is not possible to attend an education forum at present, without AI dominating the discussion (I will be talking about it at EduTech Asia 2024).

The report envisages international students providing a trained workforce for Australian industry, as well as assisting economic development of the countries the students are from, and also strengthening ties with those countries. In the past these separate and conflicting objectives were supported by individual, separately funded and administered programs. This report does not acknowledge, let alone attempt to resolve, these competing mutually exclusive goals for international education.

The report highlights some of the measures previously introduced to address flaws in the system. However, it fails to acknowledge how the ad-hoc nature of the measures, where the Australian government went from under to over regulation, harmed students, and the reputation of the Australian high education system. As an example, in 2023, the Australian Government restricted students ability to switch education providers. This was done to address a practice where students would switch providers after arriving, to facilitate work, rather than study. Had effective measures been in place, this ad-hoc measure would not have been needed.

Previously the Australian Government introduced domestic student loans for Vocational Education and Training. This was followed by scamming of the system by unscrupulous providers. The Government seems to have not anticipated this, and took years to respond, resulting in hardship for students, and a loss of a large amount of public funds. It is surprising that government would repeat this experience, being caught unawares, repeatedly, by sharp practices by international training providers, and student agents. Assuming that organisations which can obtain large amounts of government money will act honestly, being surprised when they don't, then overreacting with restrictive regulations, doesn't make for a well ordered international education system.

To add to the conflicting aims in the report, it attempts to promote regional Australia, through international education (page 21). As the report notes international students are concentrated in metropolitan areas, particularly capital cities. However, this is also where domestic students prefer to study. Regional Australia might provide students students with "unique experiences", but these are ones they, domestic and international, don't want to have. Forcing students to study at regional campuses would be good for the local economy, but what incentives would be required for students to study where they do not want to? The report suggests promotion of sustainable energy jobs in regional Australia, but that is likely to have regional appeal.

An option not mentioned is to use regional campuses as part of the growth of non-capital Australian cities. As an example, the NSW government is considering high speed rail options from Sydney to Newcastle. Newcastle already offers an attractive location for students, with its beaches, and fast access to Sydney would make this a much better offering. One option would be a battery powered high speed rail line from Newcastle to Canberra, via Sydney and Woolongong, with trains recharging via overheard catenary while decelerating and accelerating for each station.

References
T. Worthington, "Blended Learning for the Indo-Pacific," 2018 IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering (TALE), Wollongong, Australia, 2018, pp. 861-865. doi: 10.1109/TALE.2018.8615183 URL https://doi.org/10.1109/TALE.2018.8615183


Thursday, May 9, 2024

Generative AI to Boost Productivity?

Justin Hutchings, GitHub 
Greetings from Microsoft's Canberra office where I am attending a glitzy GitHub presentation. The bold claim made was that Copilot, Microsoft's implementation of ChatGPT, could end the computer productivity paradox. 

The paradox is that computers have not increased office productivity. We were invited to photograph the slide of claimed productivity increases. However, I can recall claims made decades ago for 4GL languages, not far from where we are, which would allow programs to write themselves. In practice they allowed amateurs to get into a mess. The current attempt is not like that, with tools for professionals. However, these tools only do the easy bits.

Some of the features demonstrated could be useful for teaching computing. In particular implementing rules about what code libraries can be used and what coding practices must be followed. The billing features might also be used for student hurdles, the idea being that to pass the course the student must put in a set amount of work (the quality of the work would determine their grade).

ps: At question time someone asked about legacy code. I guess we need Copilot COBOL. ;-)

pps: It is a long time since I have been in a corporate environment, and find sales pitches excruciating. One yesterday from a plagiarism detector company was particularly bad. But this Microsoft event today is okay.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Academic integrity through digital proctoring of assessment at EduTech Asia in Singapore in November

Looking forward to speaking on a panel on "Safety check: maintaining academic integrity through digital proctoring in assessments" in Singapore, at EDUtech Asia 2024, 7 November, 11am, Stage 4, with Girija Veerappan, & Mohd Rozi Ismail. I have lost count how many EduTechs I have been to. ;-)


ps: Edutech Asia 2024 asked me to make a video to invite you to my talk.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Australian Universities Need to be Ready with an Online Learning Option

NUS  eLearning Week Video, 2014
NUS eLearning Week Video, 2014

This is to suggest Australian universities test they have an online learning option ready for use in an emergency. There is no specific threat at this at this time, but it would be prudent to be ready. Two developing situations are Avian influenza being tracked by the World Health Organisation, and military tension in the Yellow Sea.

Universities were forced to implement adhoc online teaching in 2020, due to the SARS-COVID-2 virus. This was ad-hoc, because university academics and administrators failed to learn from the experience of universities in our region, which a decade before were shut down due to the SARS-COVID-1 (Chandran, 2010). After that experience some Singapore campuses implemented annual e-learning emergency drills. Unfortunately the experience with COVID-2 at Australian campuses is now fading from memory, without the staff training, and procedures, in place.

A natural disaster could close down a campus at any time. A disease outbreak could happen without warning. Regional tensions could cause international students to leave Australian within days, as well as forcing all Australian staff to evacuate overseas campuses.

References

Chandran, R. (2010, May). National University of Singapore's Campus-Wide ELearning Week. In Global Learn (pp. 2062-3302). Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). URL https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/blog.nus.edu.sg/dist/0/119/files/2011/03/national-university-of-singapores-campus-wide-elearning-week.pdf



Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Secret Lecturer: A book of what goes on in the head of one windging British academic

"The Secret Lecturer : What Really Goes on at University" (Anon, 2024), is a very annoying book. I would like to say, despite that, it makes some good points, but it doesn't. The book is innovative in that a UK academic, who wisely chooses to remain anonymous, has taken the sort of thing we might think, and in a lapse of judgement write in a Tweet, and set it all down in a book for people to buy. 

When a graduate student. I made the mistake of accepting the instructor's invitation to the class to provide comment and suggestions on the program. They were so upset by my comments, I had to study at another university, for a year, until they calmed down. After that, I used a private journal to express my frustrations, with the though some researcher might be able to use it for background one day*. However, Anon has taken their stream of consciousness, about everything wrong with UK universities (real and imagined) and put it out for all to read.

This work is not a particularly engaging read, it doesn't make suggestions for improving the university system, nor does it suggest alternatives. Hopefully it was cathartic for the author, assuming it wasn't written by generative AI. This book becomes tiresome long before the end of its 224 pages.

This book should not be confused with "The Secret Lecturer: An Insider's Guide to Working in a Modern University" (Anon, 2016). Despite the same main title, this appears to be by a different annoyed academic: Australian, rather than British.

* In three years study wrote 1,200 postings in my journal, made up of about 100,000 words: enough for me to write my own tell all book, if I did not have more sense. ;-)

Monday, April 22, 2024

Australia 4.0 Communiqué

Pearcey panel at Aus 2.0 Launch
Greetings from the Australian Computer Society, in Sydney,where Ed Husic MP, Minister for Industry and Science is launching the Pearcey Foundation's Australia 4.0 Communiqué: Collaboration to Transform the National Electricity System. The Pearcey Foundation is named in honor of computer pioneer Dr Trevor Pearcey, and does good works in the industry. The foundation has convened forums to work out what to do about climate change. I provided some ideas, and previously wrote course on ICT Sustainability for the ACS.   which outlines five pilot projects to accelerate the progress towards the ultimate goal of a net-zero energy system for Australia. Through the wonders of technology, Ed isn't actually here, but on video.

A panel of industry people started by discussing expanding the engineering workforce, and opening it to more women. The point here is you can't refit the grid for renewable energy without trained people. One issue is recognizing the overseas qualifications of professionals (something I help with at ACS & ANU). Another issue is male biases built into technology courses.  Another issue is consumer education, and if AI could help. 

Curiously, some of the issues in terms of consumer behavior are not new. An example raised by the panel was controlled load hot water: the water heater turns off during time of high energy demand, and in return a lower tariff is charged. New technology allows this to be done with smart meters, but the problem from decades ago when it used a signal sent over the power lines, the consumer needs to be convinced it is worthwhile. 

The panel touched on international collaboration to apply lessons from elsewhere in Australia. However, I suggest the reverse also applies, as Australia has the highest use of domestic rooftop solar in the world. That is something Australians can teach about, and charge money for. 

Energy is a national security issue. One scenario discussed by the panel was cyber attacks on smart meters. This could be used to disconnect consumer's power, on a large scale. But I suggest it could also be used to attack the grid: of all the demand load is turned on during peak energy use. One of the panelists pointed out the national telecommunications control centers are at secret locations., whereas those for the electricity grid are not. 

Professor Lachlan Blackhall's "light switch" was mentioned several times. He isn't here, so I asked the panel what it was. Apparently it is in the 2.0 report, and is the idea that consumers want a switch to control devices in their home, not trusting remote control. I suggest that this consumer sovereignty will have limited application. If the grid can't cope, the consumer will not be permitted to turn on non-critical appliances. The form of control will be like fly by wire pioneered on the Apollo Lunar Module, and no common on airliners. The flight controls are input to a computer, which can override the pilot. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Job Interview Skills


John McCluskey, & James Bletcher, 
from Whizdom Recruitment
Greetings from the ANU Techlauncher job skills workshop. Staff from ANU Careers and Employability are going through interview skills. I was surprised to see that few of the students have ever been to a job interview. Some of the tips which careers advisers give, such as how to  read the job ad, might seem obvious, but they aren't. One surprise what research shows that body language and tone of voice have more impact in a job interview than what the interviewees actually say. This can be a problem for someone from a different culture. 

Something that hadn't occurred to me were tips for team exercises during job selection. With this a small group of about a half dozen applicants have to work together, while being observed. This is to see how potential staff will work with others. I flippantly suggested I would undermine the rest of the team to get the job, and the flippant reply was I would be good at the Defence Department (I actually worked there nine years). ;-)

Staff from Whizdom Recruitment talked about hot job areas. One obvious area is AI, but less obvious is nuclear submarines, which don't just need physicists, but computer people as well. One suggestion which surprised me was to attend industry conferences such as MilCIS.


Monday, April 8, 2024

What have you done to improve online student engagement?

I will be speaking on "Teaching Green Computing Online: 15 Years of Student Engagement via Nudging" at the free Online Engagement in Higher Education Special Interest Group Webinar, of HERDSA, 1pm, this Wednesday, 10 April 2024. HERDSA didn't want this to be just me talking, so as well as ten slides, I prepared four questions for the participants to answer, & discuss live:
"1. What have you done to improve online student engagement?
2. What level of granularity is best for feedback to students: hourly, daily, weekly, monthly?
3. Do students get tired of boilerplate replies?
4. Will they get annoyed by AI generated feedback?"

"In 2008 the Australian Computer Society commissioned Tom Worthington to design an online course in green computing. This course formed part of the Australian Computer Society’s professional development program. This was later run at the Australian National University as a masters course, and is still offered fifteen years later through Athabasca University (Canada).

The course uses a conventional text-based distance education format, with no video, and no webinars. Why? What was the rationale? This presentation shares key design principles of this unique format that has positively impacted student engagement. As a means of facilitating student engagement nudging techniques have been employed.

This HERDSA Special Interest Group, Online Engagement in Higher Education, will discuss the factors that have improved online student engagement and consider implications and applications of their own online courses, including a coordinated nudging process. This event will provide insights for those looking to adopt a nudging approach to better facilitate student engagement and learning.

Join this to see how this works, and can be applied at your institution."

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Good Online Learning Design is Good Learning Design

Associate Professor Elaine Huber,
University of Sydney
It is good to have a study which confirms, with scholarly rigor, what educators already knew: engagement is most important, with a focus on the student experience, and a supportive environment (McEwen & Huber, 2024).

What makes good teaching applies equally in a classroom, & online. It is just easier to hide bad teaching in a classroom. As an educator I have found that students are just as happy with well designed online courses as classroom based. There is plenty of research over decades to say the learning outcomes are much the same. 

Educators need to stop treating learning online as something new and novel. This is the normal way students have been learning for at least the last decade. It is just taking a long time for educators to admit this.

I first tried to teach online in 1999, shortly after joining a university faculty. Being a computer professional, I had no problem with the technology. The problem was my fixed idea as to what university teaching was: I was trying to emulate the lecture online, & failing to engage students. What I had to do was give up the idea that I was central to the student learning, and instead the student was. I then had an Epiphany, when I found myself announcing, at the end of a lecture series, it would be my last. I stopped giving lectures, & accepted a commission to prepare an online course, after being trained in vocational education techniques. After teaching vocational students, I discovered the same course content, & techniques, worked fine for university students.

Later as an online student myself, I experienced what it was like at two Australian universities, a vocational college, & a North American university. What was surprising was how achingly lonely & frustrating the experience was, how it was much the same on both sides of the Pacific, & how despite the problems, online 14,000 km from home was a better experience than being on campus at an Australian university.

Reference

McEwen, C., & Huber, E. (2024). Developing an Analytical Framework to Compare Students’ Experiences of Online Learning with Indicators of Good Online Learning Site Design. Advancing Scholarship and Research in Higher Education, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.59197/asrhe.v5i1.8317

Preparing for Solar Storms

Tom Worthington with the Telstra Tower in the distance.
Picture by Gary Ramage, Canberra Times,
published 25 March 2024. Reproduced by permission
In an interview with
The Canberra Times last week, I pointed out that space based telecommunications are vulnerable to solar storms, so terrestrial facilities such as Telstra Tower remain useful (Why Telstra Tower could save us in an apocalypse, Lucy Arundell, March 25 2024). As it happens, the Australian Space Weather Forecasting Centre (part of the Bureau of Meteorology), issued a severe space weather WATCH the day before the article was published: "The effects are expected to be significant. Increased awareness of critical infrastructure is advised." The alert was cancelled the next day. The following Tuesday I was interviewed on radio about the same topic.

My comment on solar storms was a throwaway remark, but the journalist identified it as the most interesting aspect of the interview. I often find such insights when being interviewed by journalists.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Machine Learning, Games, Economic Systems and The End of the World

Greetings from the Australian National University where  Dr. Yun Kun Cheung is speaking on "Machine Learning in Games and Economic Systems" at the weekly AI ML & Friends seminar. One question raised was if algorithmic trading can cause stock markets to collapse, as well as deliberate attacks which incorporate algorithmic learning.

This is my second AI seminar of the day discussing the adverse effects of AI. The first was Arvind Narayanan & Sayash Kapoor (Princeton University) on "AI and Existential Risk". At question time I asked if the use of AI might be an acceptable risk, where it reduces the risk of nuclear war. As an example, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released an article discussing the use of Australian nuclear powered submarines to defend Taiwan, and attack the Chinese mainland ("Punishing the Dragon—it’s not about Tomahawk missiles from SSNs", Malcolm Davis, 20 Mar 2024). Such a strategy risks escalating into nuclear war. As an alternative, I suggested small AI enabled drones, with limited offensive capability, could be used in place of nuclear submarines. As well as being more effective for defending, they have less capability for strategic offensive use.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Supporting students during placements

Dr. Romany Martin, University of Tasmania, talked just now on "Supporting allied health students during rural placements" in the regular ACEN Research Conversations webinar. It struck me how much there was in common with computer students on placements at small organisations. 

One issue not discussed was the problem of scale. Dr Martin mentioned a supervisor who personally delivered groceries to a student isolated at home with COVID-19, but you can't do that if you have many hundreds of students. One way to overcome that is with software. If provided some advice for development of the Student Practice Evaluation Form- Revised Package, produced by University of Queensland. But that is for keeping track of, and assessing, occupational therapy students on placements. Is there anything more general?

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Catastrophic Risks in Artificial Intelligence

Greetings from the Australian National University Colloquium on Artificial Intelligence and Catastrophic Risk. Normally I attend weekly AI, ML and Friends Seminars in the ANU School of Computing, but today I am in the social sciences building, with philosophers. The colloquium is by the ANU Machine Intelligence and Normative Theory Lab. In the first presentation by Professor Seth Lazar points out that "transformer based" generative AI is less brittle: much harder to get it to produce weird results. He also claimed Google was barely able to match Chat GPT's performance. Professor Lazar argued catastrophic and current risks of AI could be addressed together, including through regulation. 

On a positive note Professor Lazar argued AI could be used to efficiently improve human welfare, more than inefficient manual systems. However, I suggest this presents a rosy view of human nature. Resources are not inequitably distributed today due to inefficiency, but because those who have the resources have made a conscious decision to deprive others of them. With an efficient AI system they could implement this deliberate inequity much more effectively. 

Some feasible catastrophic risks Professor Lazar mentioned were discovering new chemical and biological weapons, cyber attacks, and safety critical attacks. A current worry he mentioned is targeting conventional weapons using complex computer systems, as is being used in Gaza now

At question time I asked Professor Lazar what advice would give the federal government, which has announced a trial of Microsoft Copilot in 50 government agencies. He suggested a Chief AI Officer in an AI Agency to oversee this. Also he suggested funding an AI Safety Institute. He hoped that Copilot would just be used for wording letters.

Professor Lazar  used computer generated images to illustrate his talk. These were based on the poem 'The Second Coming' by William Butler Yeats. This theosophical work has echoes where I am sitting today. The location of the ANU was decided by two theosophists Walter and Marion Mahony Griffin.

Professor Cameron Domenico,
Rutgers University–Newark
Professor Lazar, will be followed by Professor Cameron Domenico, Rutgers University–Newark, and Professor David Thorstad, Vanderbilt University.

ps: If all this catastrophic risks of AI sounds excessively alarmist, consider that Australia is going to build six optionally crewed ships. Each armed with 32 missiles, these ships will be able to sail thousands of kilometers with no one on board. Given the possibility of an enemy jamming the link to the ship, it will be tempting to build in an autonomous mode. 

Saturday, March 9, 2024

SoundPEATS RunFree Lite Open Ear Headphones for Webinars

The SoundPEATS RunFree Lite Open Ear Headphones work well for webinars. I have tried a lot of headphones, earbuds, and more exotic gadgets, but these seem the most practical. The sound quality is good, they are loud enough,  easy to put on & stay in place. They don't interfere with my glasses. The battery lasts much longer than Bose Smart Glasses, for a fraction of the price. 

One great advantage over earbuds is that the controls are not, touch sensitive, and can be located with touch. Unlike ear buds I can yank the SoundPEATS off with one hand, and stuff them in a pocket. A bonus is the SoundPEATS work very well for Zoom calls, being relatively inconspicuous from the front.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

March First Wednesday Connect

Greetings from March CBRIN First Wednesday Connect at Canberra Airport. At the moment we are hearing about how the Airport uses robot mowers. I am not sure where the robot dog fits in.

Australian Government Trial of Generative AI for Law, Education, Health, and Aged Care

The Digital Transformation Agency has announced 50 Australian Public Service (APS) agencies are conducting a 6-month trial of Copilot (Microsoft's implementation of Chat GPT), ending June 2024. Staff first take learning module. Agencies have also been given some general guidance, on Accountability, Transparency, Explainability, Privacy, Fairness, and Wellbeing. Agencies where AI could be controversial include Attorney-General's, Education, Health and Aged Care, Home Affairs, and the National Disability Insurance Agency.

A previous Australian Government got into difficulties with relatively simple technology in what was known as the "Robodebt Scheme", which resulted in several deaths. Careless application of AI has the potential to cause human misery and casualties, on a much larger scale. It is to be hoped the APS applies the technology with thought, so there is no need for a Robo 2.0 Royal Commission.

ps: As it happens I will be running ANU computer project students though some Generative AI exercises using Copilot, over the next few weeks. Some of the students are studying programming AI in depth, but this is more general on how to use it.

Open Education Week, 4-8 March 2024

Greetings from Athabasca University (AU), Canada, where I am attending an Open Education Week event on "Exploring Openness in Education 2024". The audience is mostly M.Ed. and Ed. Doc students and faculty. Am one of the alumni, having completed my MEd in 2017. The panel includes Dr. Rory McGreal, who was one of my Professors when I studied at AU. I am not actually in Canada (I have never physically been to AU), but using a video conference.

Dr. McGreal is enthusiastic on using AI to create educational content, and help teach students. Other panelists are more skeptical, and working on guidelines for this. 

ps: I hope to will have the opportunity to discuss these issues in person at OEGlobal 2024 in Brisbane, 13-15 November 2024.

pps: The audio cut out on my laptop after a few minutes, so I dialed in for the sound. I had just purchased low cost SoundPEATS RunFree Lite Open Ear Headphones. These look a bit odd, but worked remarkably well. I was inspired by Johnnie Moore, who uses a similar headset for making short philosophical videos..

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Education and the Ripple Effect With China's Presence in SE Asia

Greetings from the Australian National University School of Regulation and Global Governance, where Associate Professor Enze Han is talking about his new book "The Ripple Effect: China's Complex Presence in Southeast Asia" (Oxford University Press, 2024). Dr. Han talked about the economic, as well as political support which China provides to countries of the region. At question time he was asked about the effects of education. He pointed out that Chinese language learning was popular in the region, but also that Chinese parents send their children to universities in the region. 

One element missing from the analysis was how this differs from that of previous growing economic powers. One of the audience asked Dr. Han about this. He pointed to South Korean influence in Vietnam.

Friday, March 1, 2024

Automated Misspelling

While I was pontificating about AI for learning this morning, my bemused colleagues were looking at the spelling mistakes in my blog. A check of the browser's list of spelling exceptions showed that somehow I had told it these were acceptable: adfvice, aemail, aletr, amagating, arile, benifit, faciliting, preditions, quailty, realise, and (worst of all) studnts. I have now deleted these and will also check the exception lists on my email. 

Australian Universities Accord Final Report: According to Generative AI

For the fun of it I asked Microsoft Copilot to summarize and critique the Australian Universities Accord Final Report. Here is what it came up with. ;-)

Summary:

The Australian Universities Accord Final Report, released by the Hon Jason Clare MP, Minister for Education, contains 47 recommendations aimed at reforming higher education to meet Australia’s future skills needs. Here are the key points:

  1. Reform Goals: The report sets a vision for the next decade and beyond. It aims to enhance the higher education sector’s effectiveness and responsiveness.

  2. Workforce Qualifications: The report recommends that at least 80% of the workforce should have either a vocational education and training (VET) or university qualification by 2050Currently, this figure stands at 60%1.

  3. Long-Term Plan: The Accord Final Report provides a long-term reform plan to address the evolving demands of Australia’s workforce and economy.

For more detailed insights, you can refer to the Summary Report prepared by the Department of Education2. It outlines the themes and issues identified in the full report.

Remember, this is just a concise overview, and I recommend exploring the full report for comprehensive information.

Critique:

Let’s delve into a concise critique of the Australian Universities Accord Final Report. Here are some key points to consider:

  1. Ambitious Goals: The report sets ambitious targets, such as aiming for 80% of the workforce to have either a vocational education and training (VET) or university qualification by 2050. While this goal is commendable, achieving it will require substantial effort and investment.

  2. Implementation Challenges: The report outlines several recommendations, but translating them into effective policies and practices may face challenges. Implementation across diverse universities and regions could be complex.

  3. Equity and Access: While the report emphasizes workforce qualifications, it’s essential to ensure equitable access to higher education. Addressing barriers faced by disadvantaged groups, including Indigenous students and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, is crucial.

  4. Funding and Resources: The report doesn’t delve deeply into funding mechanisms. Sustainable funding models are essential to support quality education, research, and infrastructure.

  5. Industry Collaboration: The report highlights the need for stronger collaboration between universities and industries. However, striking the right balance without compromising academic autonomy is critical.

  6. Digital Transformation: The report acknowledges the importance of digital skills. Universities must adapt swiftly to technological advancements and prepare graduates for a rapidly changing job market.

  7. Research and Innovation: While workforce qualifications are vital, universities’ role in research, innovation, and knowledge creation should not be overshadowed. Balancing practical skills with intellectual growth is essential.

In summary, the Accord Final Report provides a roadmap, but its success hinges on effective execution, stakeholder engagement, and ongoing evaluation. Policymakers, educators, and industry leaders must collaborate to turn these recommendations into meaningful outcomes for Australia’s higher education sector.


Thursday, February 29, 2024

Australian Universities Accord report: Some Final Thoughts


Australian Universities Accord
Final Report
, 25 February 2024
It has taken me a full day to work my way through the 44 recommendations of the Australian Universities Accord final report (25 February 2024). The headline items are the later recommendations are the later ones to do with funding. What was disappointing was that the Panel did not explore new forms of tertiary education. There is mention of micro-credentials, stacked qualifications, regional education, and support for indigenous, low SES, and disabled students. However, there is a lack of recognition that the average student now learns primarily online, while working, undertaking many courses at different institutions. 

Much of the report is irrelevant to my recent experience of being a university, and TAFE, student. I did undertake a half semester on campus, but the rest of my studies were online. At one stage I was enrolled in three institutions at the same time. The fact that my university was in another state, or another country, made very little difference to my student experience. What mattered to me as a student was what credit I would get between systems. 

With increasing number of students undertaking micro-credentials, and other sub-degree programs, involving multiple institutions, I suggest more attention needs to be given to the administrative burden for government staff, institutions, and the students. When I attempted cross institutional enrollment in a course, I could not find any way to complete the required paperwork (each institution required me to get permission from the other first). The prospect of registering with the Australian government for student support for just a couple of courses was too daunting, so I paid the course fees with my credit card. Similarly, when enrolling as a TAFE student at the same time, I simply paid directly. As an international online student, I avoided any government paperwork, paying fees directly by credit card (the fees were lower than I had paid for similar courses as a domestic Australian student).

Some initiatives worth expanding did not get a mention in the report. One of these is Open Universities Australia, where institutions (not all universities) cooperate to provide flexible online education. Learning hubs in outer suburbs of cities, as well as regional areas, might be set up under a similar shared scheme. 

The Panel has made useful recommendations about Work Integrated Learning (WIL). However, what is lacking in this and several other areas are academic staff who are qualified to teach these subjects. The major challenge is to either implement mandatory requirements requiring academics to be qualified to teach using these techniques, incentives to encourage them, or both.


Universities Accord Report: No New funding model

Australian Universities Accord
Final Report
, 25 February 2024

Australian Universities Accord final report (25 February 2024), waited until recommendation 40 to get to what is always the big issue in tertiary education: the funding model. The Panel focuses on skills needs for Australia, equitable access for students, balanced with a demand driven approach. Part of this already mentioned are fee-free preparatory courses (although a convincing case has not been made as to why these need to be fee free).

The Panel also recommends to "stop the practice of providing only partial funding for additional students when a university is overenrolled". As an educator, rather than an administrator, I don;t really understand what this is about: if the system is demand driven, with students paying fees, how can a university be "over-enrolled"?

Recommendation 41 provides more detail on funding. One point is that the Panel refers to "publicly funded universities". However, is there any reason why the Australian government would not support eligible students at any accredited institution: public, private, for-profit, or overseas.

The Panel is not proposing to change the current system, where funding is partly to the institution, and partly a subsidized loan to students. In particular a voucher system, where the money only goes to the institution when a student enrolls. Also, while proposing more funding for the VET sector, this would be kept separate from allocations for universities. The Panel proposes students can choose a microcredential, diploma, bachelor degree, postgraduate degree, or other. However, if institutions don't provide these options, or make them hard to enroll in, students will not be able to do that. Flexibility may be contrary to the interests of larger institutions, who want to lock students into a full degree. There may need to be regulations requiring, or financial incentives to support, flexibility.

The Panel take a traditional, and flawed approach, of proposing additional funding for First Nations, low SES and students with disability. This assumes these are a tiny group of students who are in some way deficient, and need fixing. I suggest abandoning this approach and instead fund the design and delivery of students with a wide range of interests, and abilities.

Higher Education Future Fund

In Recommendation 43 the Panel proposes a $10B Higher Education Future Fund. This is a relatively modest sized fund. The uses for the fund also seem unadventurous: digital infrastructure and student housing. The cost of digital infrastructure for a university is tiny compared to salaries, and seems hardly worth setting up such a fund for (unless building of new software, data centers, and the like are proposed). Funding student housing seems an odd choice for funding. Most students study from home, while working part time, and so do not need student housing. Co-contributions from universities are likely not worth the political trouble it would cause, and the Federal Government is more likely to simply provide all the money for the fund, perhaps as part of a deal with the minor parties in the Senate. The Government could force a university co-contribution, by diverting part of additional funding for universities to the fund. This way the Government would get the political kudos for increased university funding, plus kudos from expenditure from the fund.


Universities Accord Report: International and Regional Education Needs Credible Online Offerings

Australian Universities Accord
Final Report
, 25 February 2024
Despite the export revenue from, and controversy over, international education, the Australian Universities Accord final report (25 February 2024), waited until recommendation 22 before addressing the topic. The focus of the recommendations is aligment between what Australian tertiary instutions, both universities and vocational education and training (VET) institutions teach, and Australian economic needs. This assumes that the international student's aim is to migrate to Australia (I was an international student but did not move to Canada). The Panel also proposes growing international education in regional and remote areas. Unless there are specific jobs for the students, such as in mining, this seems unrealistic.

Why would a student, particularly a young student, prefer to student in a remote area, which they could study in one of Australia's exciting cities? The mining industry has to provide very high salaries to attract workers. Will regional universities be prepared to offer cut price courses, or a guarantied high salary part time job to students?

More realistic are proposals from the panel to streamline visa processes. Australian universities are dependent two markets: China, and India. As I warned in 2016, a regional crisis could result in the loss of most on-campus international students. Universities need to diversify markets, and delivery methods.

The panel suggests improving alumni engagement in the region. This is certainly one way to boost links, but other more direct forms of marketing should also be used.

The recommendations on international students from the panel are excessively timid. Rather than see international students as a source of funds, and workers, it can be a way to provide a more vibrant environment for domestic students, who are preparing to be part of a global workforce. I presenting a proposal in 2018 to have students of the region working together online.

Producing new knowledge and using research capability


The panel rightly chose to put learning issues before research. With recommendation 24 the panel proposes a an examination of
national research funding. However Australian universities should have already being doping that, routinely, as part of their normal planning.

Professor Lachlan Blackhall,
ANU
Deputy Vice-Chancellor
(Research and Innovation).
Panel recommends Australian governments use university research output. However, that presupposes that universities have staff with consulting skills, which are different from research skills. If universities want the results of their research to be used, then academics have to learn new skills. Many universities have made a start with this, by establishing innovation centers to teach entrepreneurial skills. Some of promoted academics with exceptional entrepreneurial knowledge, such as Professor Lachlan Blackhall, the new ANU
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation).

Unfortunately the most important recommendation for using research capability is buried down in 26:
"e. ensuring that training in entrepreneurial, business, teaching and leadership skills is offered through additional qualifications in parallel with research training in preparation for careers beyond academia"
However, it is not clear that professional skills should be optional for doctoral graduates, and not a core part of their training. The government could take an alternative approach, and require this training, or transfer some of the funding to support professional doctorates, which have as their primary purpose the application of knowledge.

Establish an Australian Tertiary Education Commission

The panel recommends an "Australian Tertiary Education Commission", as an umbrella agency over existing federal higher education bodies. The idea has some merit. However, I spent some time working for the Commonwealth Schools Commission (more on this later), which lacked the powers to be truly effective. Whatever the administrative structure, education will remain a highly political issue.

Improving workforce capability and capacity

Recommendation 31 "b. encourage minimum teaching qualifications for higher education teaching roles" would not be acceptable for schools, or VET, and I suggest should not be for universities. There should be mandatory minimum teaching qualifications for universities. A simple approach would be to set these at the same level as VET, with a Certificate IV, although universities might find it easier to offer undergraduate and graduate certificates (although I found my Cert IV in T&A of more practical use than my Grad Cert in HE).

Centre of Excellence in Higher Education and Research

Recommendations 32 to 36 I suggest could be addressed together. The first is for a "Centre of Excellence in Higher Education and Research". That could then work on the others: 33 Tertiary Education Racism Study, 34 A First Nations-led review, 35 First Nations governance, supported by the last: 36 Data, measurement, and reporting.

Planning the tertiary education system of the future

Recommendation 37 is for the Australian Tertiary Education Commission to look at what tertiary education providers are needed and where. However, there are more fundamental questions to be addressed, in terms of the mix of VET and university, the mix of online and on-campus, and the mix of not and for-profit universities. One major question the Panel did ask is if specialist university should be permitted, which address one area of research. A question the Panel did not ask is if non-research institutions should called universities.

Regional tertiary education and communities

Curiously, than recommendations appear to be listed in order of importance, with the lost important last. Recommendation 39 addresses higher education delivery in regional and remote Australia. Unfortunately the Panel had confused delivery to regional, rural and remote areas, with the location of campuses in those areas. Australia was a pioneer in paper based distance education, 50 years ago. That was enhanced with the Internet and made mainstream by the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea that a student's first consideration of where a campus is belongs in the past. The Panel have some useful recommendations, such as renaming and expanding Regional Study Hubs. However, Australian Government need to seek advice on how to structure higher education more widely, or risk building a system for last century.

In 2013, when considering further study, I first looked at universities in the city where I lived. I then looked at universities within commuting distance. But I quickly dismissed these options, and enrolled at a campus 1,700 km away. For follow on studies I enrolled 17,000 km away, in another country. This was much simpler to do, and cheaper, than enrolling at an Australian university. It is this world Australian universities need to be able to compete in. Campuses are still useful to supplement learning, and research, but are no longer the main game.


Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Teaching Green Computing Online: 15 Years of Student Engagement via Nudging

I will be speaking on "Teaching Green Computing Online: 15 Years of Student Engagement via Nudging" at the HERDSA Online Engagement in Higher Education Special Interest Group, 1pm, 10 April 2024.

"In 2008 the Australian Computer Society commissioned Tom Worthington to design an online course in green computing. This course formed part of the Australian Computer Society’s professional development program. This was later run at the Australian National University as a masters course, and is still offered fifteen years later through Athabasca University (Canada).

The course uses a conventional text-based distance education format, with no video, and no webinars. Why? What was the rationale? This presentation shares key design principles of this unique format that has positively impacted student engagement. As a means of facilitating student engagement nudging techniques have been employed.

This HERDSA Special Interest Group, Online Engagement in Higher Education, will discuss the factors that have improved online student engagement and consider implications and applications of their own online courses, including a coordinated nudging process. This event will provide insights for those looking to adopt a nudging approach to better facilitate student engagement and learning.

Join this to see how this works, and can be applied at your institution."

Presentation available.