17 May 2014

Conversation Piece

This week, the Australian Federal Government has outlined devastating cuts to the higher education sector. Many of our Vice Chancellors appear to have accepted these cuts as valid. I’m not sure what is worse: the fact that universities won’t be able to do their jobs as well as they should, or the wilful misrepresentation of the role of the sector which underpins the government’s position. Increases in fees have been presented to the Australian people as acceptable because a university-educated individual benefits from higher earnings over his or her lifetime. For many graduates this is true, but it does not justify higher fees.

The purpose of a university is not and never has been to produce flawless worker bees. Our best universities do not exist to graduate students who are perfectly work-ready, nor do we exist to deal with “clients” who purchase from us an experience that changes them into people that industry moguls rush to hire (because they will be the ones most easily slotted into the gaps in the workforce). We ought not to be basing the price of a university education on how well we are able to convince our students that we will make them irresistible in the job market. Individual gain is not the sole purpose of our endeavour.

Universities don’t enrol “clients”. We don't have "customers". University students, either future or current, have a right to excellent, timely customer service when it comes to administrative matters like admissions, notification of results, assistance with disabilities and so on. They do not have a right to expect to graduate as a result of turning up. Our students are buying an opportunity to learn; the best of them make the most of that. Universities have a responsibility to give students the best possible learning experience and the best possible learning environments, face-to-face, online, and in every other of the modes in which we deliver our programs. Graduation is our warrant that they have learnt the expected amount during their time with us. Industry and government are not our “clients” either. Universities don’t have “clients”. We serve our communities and our society in a different way.

Universities exist to ensure that the nation has the knowledge necessary to solve the problems of society.

Universities are umbrella organizations for communities of disciplinary scholars ranging from novices (students) to experts (the best of our professors). Some of these scholars stay within the world of academia for their entire working lives, where they become custodians of the knowledge of their discipline, adding to it through research, disseminating it through publication and outreach (and occasionally commercialization), and inducting new novices to it through teaching. Others leave academia after a period, taking their disciplinary knowledge with them into jobs in industry or government where they use it to solve the problems of society (for which they are paid salaries and fees). University scholars are assisted in achieving these goals by administrative, specialist, and technical staff members, who provide and support systems, tools, technologies, and co-curricular and professional development programs. Their job is to assist all scholars of the institution to play their roles as well as they can, whether they be novices (students) or experts of varying experience and ability (academics). We are all working for a learned, more informed, more reflective world. That's the frame of our working lives.

Research and teaching are not different activities. They are equally important aspects of the same thing: our disciplines. The disciplines – the bodies of knowledge at the core of university activity – are shaped and nurtured by human experience. Communities of disciplinary scholars working in universities spend their lives involved in very pragmatic activity. They haven’t retreated from the world or abdicated their roles in wider society. They aren’t a luxury to be shed in hard times.

University scholars identify valid research questions (for the disciplines, for society) and they use the tools of the disciplines (methods and theories) to solve problems and to answer those questions. Novices (students) entering the community come to us to learn these things. Our graduates take these skills, along with the ability to understand, consume, and make use of disciplinary knowledge, into the workforce, where they are implemented by industry and government. Our academics are funded by the community (through funds administered by governments, for the most part) to continue to expand the knowledge available to humanity and to share that knowledge with the rest of the world.

It’s as simple and as complex – and as valuable – as that.

Our government is doing the country a great disservice by reducing funding for these activities. The value of a university simply cannot be calculated by dividing the amount of funding by the number of work-ready graduates in a given period. The contributions that universities make are far too valuable to be treated so cavalierly. 

03 June 2013

Students reflecting on research-led teaching

Today I attended a colloquium organized by the ANU Centre for Teaching and Learning where some of the most interesting presentations were from students working as tutors and students trying to figure out how to be better discipline experts. One of the best of these presentations was from a student of mathematics who has been thinking and writing about "mathematical skills, thought processes and mind sets and how we could introduce these to students earlier in their education". This is a student who wants to understand not only the content of her chosen discipline, but also the epistemology of the discipline. She has come to understand that the more she knows about the discipline, the better she will be as a practitioner and a researcher in the discipline.

This one presentation alone was worth the trip ... But there was more!

15 April 2013

Why do we need universities?

Last weekend, the federal government announced plans to slash $2.3 billion from its spending on higher education in order to fund the Gonski school reforms, the biggest cut to the sector since John Howard's 1996 budget. The short-sightedness of this decision leaves me in despair.

I've taken advantage of my democratic right to express my opinion and have written to the Prime Minister and to the Federal Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research.

This is the text of my letter:   "I am writing to you to express my anger and dismay at your decision to cut $2.3 billion from higher education announced last Saturday 13 April 2013. Whilst I support increased levels of public investment in our schools, one sector of education should not be cut to finance initiatives in another.   It is my great concern that in making this decision, you have demonstrated a heartbreaking lack of understanding about the purpose and the real value of universities.   Universities exist to:
  • extend the boundaries of the known, to create knowledge new to humanity using the tools and techniques of the disciplines,
  • make discipline-specific bodies of knowledge (including newly discovered knowledge) available to all humanity, through scholarly publications and other media,
  • provide discipline-specific programs of education, and thereby to induct novices into the role of custodian-expert-researcher of the knowledge of the discipline, and
  • educate and graduate specialists to work in industry and government who have the skills and expertise to seek out, commission, contribute to, assess, and use this discipline-specific knowledge to solve the day-to-day problems of society and the greater problems of humanity.
A pragmatist would say that a university (also, or perhaps even only) exists to provide accreditation and certification: to warrant that its graduates are competent and have demonstrated suitable achievement in their chosen area of expertise. There is no doubt that for a significant number of university students, the main objective is the testamur – the piece of paper confirming that a graduate has earned a degree – because without a degree, many employment opportunities evaporate. This pragmatic casting of the institution, with its focus on credentials and warrants, does a grave disservice to the traditions and cultures of the university. Creators, curators, and custodians of the knowledge and expertise that underpins humanity’s capabilities are deeply embedded in their disciplines. They have known for centuries that an education is more than a qualification and that a university education differs in significant ways from educational programs developed for delivery by other educational institutions. Specifically, universities bring together the tasks of research and teaching, and it is when these are woven together elegantly that profound and invaluable discoveries are made for humanity, by individual scholars of all ages. It is important that those who provide our funding also take the time to understand this as well.

Those universities offering research-led education (and almost all Australian universities provide research-led education in one form or another) are preparing two kinds of graduates. The first category (by and large, those who stay within the walls of the university) includes those who take on responsibilities as custodians of the body of disciplinary knowledge. These are the researchers, the teachers, the writers, and the academics operating from within the discipline. They have a responsibility to maintain and develop the body of knowledge, to disseminate existing and new disciplinary knowledge, and to set the standards for those entering and operating within the discipline. These graduates go on to careers in academia, as teachers, theorists, and researchers. The second category (those who will have careers outside the walls of the university) includes those who use their disciplinary knowledge to solve the problems of society and perhaps of humanity. These are policy advisers, technical officers, managers, and practitioners whose jobs in industry and government are informed by their disciplinary expertise. They use the content knowledge of the discipline, along with the methodologies, theories, tools of analysis and problem-solving, techniques, skills, language, and forms of communication of the discipline. Both groups see the world through the lens of the discipline, and approach their work from the perspective of a discipline expert. Both groups have a responsibility to extend their disciplinary expertise over time. They are more than competent technicians; they are disciplinary pioneers.

The best of our disciplinary experts have a foot in both worlds.

Therefore, on behalf of my colleagues, all Australian university students, and every single Australian, I ask you to reconsider these cuts."

I can only hope that good sense will prevail, but I foresee a long, hard battle ahead of us.

22 January 2013

2013: starting out

In Australian universities, for the educational design and development community, January is the month of reflection. Our academic colleagues aren't usually back on campus, and we get to spend some time planning for the rest of the year. This year is going to be busy for me and my colleagues - but that makes it no different from all the other years I've worked in universities.

Among other things, I'm excited about changes to the techologies we'll be using to create our online learning environment and about the arrival of some new colleagues in the central support team that keeps the online learning environment functioning. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that "reliability" will be their guiding principle in 2013.

As always, the work of my colleagues here at the University and beyond is keeping me interested - and nudging me towards new approaches and ways of thinking about my practice.

Tony Bates, truly an elder of my tribe, is also reflecting this week. Tony's been working in the field for 44 years, and his posting on seven "aha" moments is worth reading.

The very excellent Megan Poore has just published a new book, Using Social Media in the classroom: a best practice guide, which comes with a companion website. This is one for your back pocket, whether you are a whizz yourself or not. Meg's expertise in the practical application of the tools is informed by a deep understanding of why we use them, which comes from her original training as a cultural anthropologist.

It's going to be a fantastic year!

01 October 2012

MOOCs: the next Big Thing? or What about the teachers?

Ahh, yes … the next Big Thing.

Let’s have a definition first. According to Wikipedia (today at least), a MOOC – a massive open online course – is “a type of online course aimed at large-scale participation and open access via the web”, a recent development in the area of distance education, and a progression of the kind of open education ideals suggested by open educational resources. Typically, such courses are non-award courses, although some institutions are starting to offer credit for such courses and to certify those who complete them, if participants successfully complete some form of associated assessment.

So, what does a MOOC look like?

The first MOOCs were offered by enthusiasts very familiar with web tools and excited about the possibilities they open up for wide-scale participation and collaboration. Notions of constructivist learning were strong drivers for these early MOOCers. In 2005, George Siemens listed these:
  1. Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions. 
  2. Learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources. 
  3. Learning may reside in non-human appliances. 
  4. Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. 
  5. Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning. 
  6. Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill. 
  7. Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities. 
  8. Decision making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.
More recently a number of “MOOC-like projects” have developed – Coursera, Udacity, and edX. These are driven in part, I suspect, by American notions of benevolence (or possibly American notions of entrepreneurship if we are to accept Greg Graham's recent comments in the Chronicle of Higher Education*). These “MOOC-like” courses rely less on constructivist principles, and more on a belief that it’s a good thing to give the poverty-stricken masses access to the vast bodies of knowledge available to the well-educated. They tend to be associated with respectable US universities. In the case of the first two, this is because the founders are or were employed by Stanford University, and the last because it has grown out of MIT’s open courseware project and now involves Harvard University.

Characteristics of MOOCs:
  1. Courses have many, many participants, only a small proportion of whom will be active contributors or even complete the course.
  2. MOOCs of all flavours provide participants with access to content selected and arranged into coherent topics by course designers who may or may not be involved in the delivery of the course.
  3. Some MOOCs, particularly those designed on constructivist principles, include opportunities for conversation, collaboration, and communication between participants. There may be some light facilitation or moderation, but this is not an essential element of the design of the course.
  4. Some MOOCs offer opportunities for assessment and some do not.
  5. MOOCs designed with a constructivist model in mind rely on peer review and group collaboration to leverage learning (rather than formative and summative feedback from a teacher).
  6. MOOCs designed with a more traditional mode of learning in mind replace teacher feedback with automated “pre-made” feedback provided via automatically marked, objective, online quizzes and examinations.
  7. And finally … and for me, this is the defining characteristic of a MOOC:
    While learning may occur in MOOCs (and apart from those that offer some form of assessment, the only people who will be able to attest to this are those who participate), teaching is practically non-existent.
By teaching, I mean proper, old-fashioned interaction between lecturer and student, where the lecturer gives the student information (tells, models, or shows course-related content) and goes on to provide learning experiences, monitor student learning, provide formative feedback, and judge how well students have achieved the learning outcomes for the course as a result of participating in structured learning activities. This sort of old-fashioned teaching may happen in a face-to-face context, but it could happen equally well in an online environment. Wherever it happens, the teacher is essential; it is the teacher who guides, nudges, demonstrates, models, tailors the learning experience to suit the students in this particular class, and provides personalised formative feedback just in time to ensure that students are provided with the bespoke designed experiences that they need to achieve course learning outcomes. Just as each class is distinctive, a good teacher will ensure that each version of the course is customized to suit that unique class. Each class will need something slightly different; a good teacher understands and provides that.

Siemens, one of the earliest MOOC authors, tells us that MOOCs based on a constructivist pedagogy draw on the following principles:
  • Aggregation: A MOOC provides a starting point for a massive amount of content to be produced in different places online, which is later aggregated as a newsletter or a web page accessible to participants on a regular basis.
  • Remixing: The second principle is remixing, that is, associating materials created within the course with each other and with materials elsewhere.
  • Re-purposing: Aggregated and remixed materials are re-purposed to suit the goals of each participant.
  • Feeding forward: This material is shared with other participants and the rest of the world.
Participants construct new knowledge by building on and discussing the content initially presented in the course. This new knowledge is then in turn built on and discussed and woven into the fabric of human wisdom.

These are all very good things, and teachers in traditional institutions can learn a great deal from George’s take on constructivist pedagogies – but if any teaching occurs in George’s MOOCs, it is probably peer-to-peer.

In the end, for me, MOOCs are a great idea, just as libraries are a great idea. They provide opportunities for people to read and talk about ideas new to them, to learn about any number of things. They do not threaten traditional universities, even those that offer an online experience, because the thing that defines an educational institution – even a research-intensive university like my own – is teaching.


* 1 October 2012, Greg Graham, "How the embrace of MOOCs could hurt middle America", Chronicle of Higher Education, found at http://chronicle.com/article/A-Pioneer-in-Online-Education/134654/ if you are a subscriber.

05 August 2012

Pondering things technological

When I was a very young teacher in training, I was strongly influenced by the work of the Canadian Marshall McLuhan and by Neil Postman’s book Teaching as a subversive activity. I’ve been prompted to buy Postman’s book again. This time, it will be delivered instantaneously to my e-book reader, which is perhaps ironic, given Postman’s warnings that contemporary mass communications media make it impossible to share serious ideas.

Postman died in 2003, and while much of his work has a slightly old-fashioned tone because of his focus on television, his message is highly relevant. For example, Postman concluded a presentation he delivered in 1998 with these words:

"And so, these are my five ideas about technological change. First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price. Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners. Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on. Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates. And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.

If we had more time, I could supply some additional important things about technological change but I will stand by these for the moment, and will close with this thought. In the past, we experienced technological change in the manner of sleep-walkers. Our unspoken slogan has been “technology ├╝ber alles,” and we have been willing to shape our lives to fit the requirements of technology, not the requirements of culture. This is a form of stupidity, especially in an age of vast technological change. We need to proceed with our eyes wide open so that we many use technology rather than be used by it."
The full text is available at Wikiversity: http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Neil_Postman:_Five_Things_We_Need_to_Know_About_Technological_Change. It's only a few pages long ... you could read it in your coffee break. It might give you as much to ponder as it did me.

29 March 2012

My Other blog

In my last posting, I invited you to subscribe to a Moodle site I had set up, called Teaching Techniques. This site was to be a password-protected site where I collected ideas about teaching strategies and techniques, tailored for those teaching face-to-face and online in universities and other tertiary institutions. I had made a good start, with 16-17 good ideas for content-independent ideas that could be implemented in tutorials and lecture theatres.

In the last couple of days, however, I have transferred that material to a new blog, called University Teaching: strategies and techniques. I've done this for two reasons. The first is to do with my time: I realised that I didn't want to spend time creating Moodle accounts for people. The second is to do with the acquisition of NetSpot (my Moodle host) by Blackboard. I'm just not sure what will happen to the DeborahVenessAssociates Moodle sites in the long-term.

So - the good news is that you can sign up for the new blog all on your own.