Saturday, 26 April 2014

What will the "most dramatic changes to the higher education in decades" really change?

I was excited to turn to Peter Hartcher’s article last weekend which began with the prediction of an imminent announcement of “the most dramatic changes to the higher education sector in decades”. Exciting, I thought, and good to see debate about what I see as much needed change in higher education. 

Australia urgently needs a plan for achieving massive educational reform to ensure that we have a workforce skilled for the future, not the past. With the increasing number and range of jobs moving off-shore at a rapid rate, combined with the predicted automation of others, we cannot continue to educate students for a world that no longer exists. Clearly, Australia can no longer compete on the cost of labour, so where is our plan to compete on the quality of labour? What kinds of graduates should we be producing for Australia to be competitive on the world stage? What capabilities do we need for the modern economy? Where is the true innovation in education that is needed to support Australia's future? 

We need to a plan to harness the transformative potential of new technologies to support new approaches to innovative learning centred around the development of skills for the 21st Century. These include a new focus on creativity and innovation; fostering higher levels of critical thinking, problem solving, decision making; collaboration and communication; technological literacy; being a local and global citizen; and personal and social responsibility. We also need much greater levels of literacy and numeracy.

But reading on, the changes predicted in Hartcher’s article are all about driving competition through “freedom and autonomy” for the sector and expansion of the "demand-driven” system to include government funding for both private providers and for sub-bachelor qualifications. Presumably fee deregulation is to be part of this package. The big question is however, what will ‘competition’ do for Australia, its taxpayers, the students and their families? Will it drive the kinds of educational reforms we need to produce graduates equipped with 21st skills?

If Hartcher’s predictions are correct, our future is likely to play out in the following ways.

Private providers (especially those publicly listed) are likely to find the cheapest ways possible to offer Australian Qualification Framework (AQF) compliant courses in order to make the profits their share-holders demand. Their students are therefore likely to encounter the mass information dissemination systems already available in the form of mass lectures, and smaller group tutorials with little or no focus on 21st Century skills.  It’s not the ‘mass education’ that’s the problem, it's the lack of innovation and reform in what and therefore how students learn.

The information acquisition aspect of learning is already easily achieved though online lectures, books, websites, open education resources and from peer-reviewed journals for those enrolled in a formal education system licensed to access them. Most of these are easily accessed, right now, from the Internet (including MOOCs). As I've said before, that being the case, any university that can be replaced by a MOOC, should be. Universities should no longer be primarily about acquiring and disseminating information, but should be focused on the "what you can do with what you know’ – can you solve problems and propose creative solutions, working in teams across cultures for example?

Alas, Hartcher seems to have adopted the "MOOCs as disruptive force" discourse that is so prevalent in the media. There are well established facts about learning via MOOCs in their current form: firstly, the experience of learning in this way is so unattractive that only around 5% of those who enrol actually complete the courses, and secondly, by far the greatest proportion of those who do complete, already have a formal university qualification. Thus it is difficult to see that MOOC providers will get far by "kicking down the doors of local universities and offering high-quality courses at very low cost over the Internet." Apart for these dire statistics, the most common approach to learning (the xMOOC approach) is via videos of lectures, readings and online tutorials. In other words, using the technology to automate existing approaches to learning and teaching. Hardly the kind of educational innovation we need or the "high-quality courses" Hartcher describes.

Undoubtedly some universities will double or triple student fees. Will that extra funding result in innovation and educational reform? Highly unlikely. The extra funding will quietly be directed towards more research so those institutions can achieve a higher ranking in the international rankings system.

Other higher education institutions will not be in a position to raise fees and hence will struggle to innovate as they compete for already scarce funds, and thus also highly likely to resort to mass information dissemination teaching methods that are so attractive because they are inexpensive to run.

So what will competition do for the Australian taxpayers' $6 billion annual outlay? Very little to ensure a sound future. Students attending the universities who have increased their fees will get pretty much the same education as they do today, but at double or triple the cost. The extra fees however, will mean that their university may rise a couple of places in the ranking systems.

Finally, I can't resist a plug for UTS as it progressively rolls out its new campus: purpose-designed for the kinds of learning innovations Australia needs - using a combination of the best of online learning with high quality face-to-face on-campus learning, so that students have the best possible experience and outcomes.We need more of this at scale!

Friday, 17 May 2013

The challenge of moving to a new approach to learning and teaching

In 2014, three new buildings will be opened at UTS, each with a radically different design of its learning spaces. Instead of traditional large lecture halls, and tutorial rooms with chairs and desks in neat rows, the learning spaces in the new buildings maximise opportunities for engaging, active learning experiences for students.

One of a number of challenges however, is how to engage and support staff in making the significant changes to teaching and learning required for this move. This is the focus of the Learning2014 project.

Traditional approaches to “staff development” for higher education academics have centred around formal activities such as Graduate Certificates in Higher Education, series of workshops on topics such as “how to teach large classes”, specialised conferences such as enhancing assessment, specialised journals and so on.

My experience is that these reach a small but enthusiastic minority. So, how to engage the rest?
In thinking through an approach I have been influenced by George Siemens (2004) Principles of Connectivist learning and also generative theories of learning.

Academics can engage with Learning2014 through the website where there are videos explaining the links between learning spaces and learning design, there are case studies of academics engaged in interesting work, and a Pinterest site containing links to interesting work in areas such as flipped learning, inquiry-based learning and so on. Users are encouraged to annotate these and recommend others.

But access to information is not enough. If, as Siemens’ principle notes, “Learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources” how might these connections be facilitated?

Several initiatives are being trialed to facilitate these:
  •  four academics who have been engaged in cutting-edge learning and teaching work have been identified as “Future Learning and Teaching Fellows” to promote connections between staff in their faculties and to document their experiences via a blog;
  • a number of specialised Communities of Practice have been established including inquiry-based learning to “nuture and maintain connections”; and
  • a twitter feed to promote establishment of personal learning networks.

Academics also have access to Vice-Chancellor’s grants to develop aspects of the Learning2014 model.

So, how will this play out? Will support for building connections make a difference? 

Links and References

Learning2014 website

Future Learning and Teaching Fellows

New learning spaces at UTS

Siemens, G. (2004) Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

A high-risk Twitter experiment

Just one of the strategies for the Learning2014 project (described in the last blogpost) is to provide opportunities for staff to have the experiences we are planning for our students. This post describes one such experience.

At the end of each year, the Vice-Chancellor hosts an all-day Senior Managers Forum which often involves groupwork (which many dread). This year, I was invited to lead a session on “The Future of Higher Education in the world of MOOCs” and decided to use a high-risk strategy of asking attendees to use Twitter within their groupwork. I am told there was a reasonably high level of angst about this across the university.

In the lead-up,  I gave a demonstration to the Senior Executive on how to set up a twitter account, how to participate, and so on. We ran introductory classes for others on 2 different occassions, but attendance was fairly low. 

In preparation for collating the responses to the groupwork, I posted the following tweet:

Is there an App that will produce a diagram of keywords from tweets with a common #hashtag? #cfhe12

I received a number of suggestions and reviewed them all, but ultimately decided to use the following tools.

I set up screens around the venue to display the general hashtag tweets for the forum using two different tools:    produced a tag cloud, and produced a colourful animation of individual tweets with the option to display as a tag cloud

This worked reasonably well, and there was polite interest J in them.

The really big pay-off was in the use of Twitter to collect feedback from the two groupwork activities. Each activity had a focus question to which they were asked to respond using a dedicated hashtag. I then used  to display a tag cloud for the responses (one of which is displayed in the header). At the podium, I could click on a particular keyword response and display all the tweets related to that word.

For the only time I can remember, the groupwork activities received the greatest praise for the day both in verbal comments, and in the following tweets:

Participants not groaning about groupwork. Lively debate on game changing or not #smfuts12_gc

Table engaged in f2f conversation and connected learning - sharing app

Kudos to senior managers at UTS - leading by example through #smfuts12 twitter stream. Making the future happen!

There was even a tweet from someone external to the university:

Loving the leadership & livetweets coming from #smfuts12 - UTS event w/snr managers. #research #strategy #transparency

So, thank you to everyone who sent suggestions on the best tools to use. They really helped make the day a big success in terms of demonstrating the value of the use of tools such as Twitter that many had previously thought to be of little value. It also dramatically improved the experience of groupwork – so many people commented that they felt their voice was not lost in the ‘group reportback'.

And finally, the majority of those who joined Twitter specifically for the event, continue to use it.

Towards Learning2014

Never has the phrase “May you live in interesting times” been more relevant to my role than this year – UTS is in the middle of spending over a $1Billion on its campus redevelopment  just as the explosion of free, online learning occurs.  Just a few weeks ago Minister Chris Evans was quoted in the Financial Review (3 Oct) as questioning “whether the government should continue to fund university infrastructure as higher education moves online at a rapid pace.” To say there was a level of anxiety in the higher education sector would be an understatement. But, as I said in my article in The Conversation, “any university that can be replaced by a MOOC, should be”. This blog explores why I think UTS won’t be replaced, and how we are achieving that.

So far the following campus redevelopment projects have been completed: new student housing (720 beds); a multi-purpose sports hall; a major refurbishment of our Great Hall; a new space for the conduct of short courses; and major redevelopment of teaching spaces in our faculty of Design, Architecture & Building.

But the biggest changes are yet to come. There are three new buildings in the process of construction: The Faculty of Engineering and IT Building on Broadway (made famous yesterday when the large crane caught fire and the jib collapsed); the new Business School (designed by Frank Gehry); and a new Science Building.

The first two buildings have been designed (long before the MOOC hysteria) to maximise opportunities for collaborative learning – there is not a single standard lecture theatre in either of the buildings – rather there are large collaborative spaces.

This poses the significant challenge of how to change the learning experience of students, so they experience the best of online and face-to-face learning opportunities. We are meeting these challenges through two projects: Learning2014 (the year we will occupy the new buildings) and Learning2020.

Learning2014 is concerned with changing teaching and learning practices to make best use of these new collaborative spaces. Learning2020 is a longer term project to make the necessary changes to larger systems for this change in learning to occur - for example timetabling and other IT systems.

This blog will discuss these initiatives - the successes and failures :)