Going forward

One of the challenges facing a higher education institution trying to choose a new learning management system is the blind taste test that passes for product demonstration.

Typically this involves being hustled through a demo site that’s been populated with made-up students in imaginary classes exchanging imaginary one-liners with each other via a discussion board, while imaginary academics set up imaginary course content, and the whole thing flows through to imaginary gradebooks or generates imaginary tracking reports. Because the number of dummy identities is invariably about 20 or so, and their communication is limited to brief sentences (although some only manage to mutter “test test test”), it’s a highly contained exercise in imagining how online learning actually works.

Really, it’s like trying to compare the liveability of two different cities by flying over them. Once you’re far enough above the ground, they all look more or less the same. Continue reading


What we’ve got here …

As the Chilean ash cloud wafts through Australian airspace for a second time, we’re all thrown back into the science of prediction. What will it do next? Nightly news footage of passengers sitting in grumpy heaps in airports has drawn an unusual degree of national attention to Darwin. It turns out that we have one of the world’s nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers right here in Australia, and they’ve been putting on their good shirts for the TV cameras night after night to tell us that they know where the plume is, and they’re keeping an eye on it.

Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres and their regions (image courtesy of Darwin VAAC)

Australia specialises in this kind of one-step-ahead-of-nature risk communication, because we do live in a difficult natural environment where prediction takes on biblical tones. Fire, drought, earthquake, flood, locusts, cane toads, mice (seriously) and now ash. We’re really clear on the importance of being able to see all these things coming.  In fact, we have a public culture of disaster planning, which is not to say that we’re nationally unique in planning for disaster, but we communicate it well.

But when it comes to planning the expansion of higher education, communication gets a bit murky. Continue reading

Vertical thinking

The “education vertical” sounds a bit more thrilling than it is.  The first time you hear it, it seems to share the weird poetic syntax of “the body electric” and “the life everlasting”. It’s education, on an updraft.

A bit of googling fishes up a turn of phrase that has more concrete aspirations. This vertical is both market and solution  (“Callista cracks open education vertical“) and it continues intermittently to appear in the promotional talk of software vendors and government procurement. So it’s one of those ways of thinking about what we do that slips off the tongue a bit more readily after a slurp of the corporate Kool-Aid.

But it hasn’t really entered the vernacular or the affect of the higher education workplace. We don’t feel ourselves to be operating in a client vertical of any kind, and we mostly don’t use this kind of language to describe our position in a complex network of learning experiences. Dimly, we’re aware that the students currently sitting with us have come from somewhere, and are on their way to somewhere. But we have our heads down, concentrating on our bit of the conveyor belt. Continue reading

Open all hours

Ben Wildavsky has a message for Australian universities.  He’s the author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World, just out from Princeton U. Press. He’s keen to promote the benefits of free trade in higher education, not least of which is that “knowledge is not a zero sum game”, and that if we create more of it in one country, we don’t lose it in another.

Somehow this is calling to mind the joke about what emigrating New Zealanders do to the average IQ in both Australia and New Zealand.

In both cases, the answer to the riddle involves mobility, deriving from a lovely bit of maths called the Will Rogers phenomenon.  If more of us, and more of our students, and more of our ideas, move around global systems more freely, there will be more of everything for everyone. All the boats will rise. Continue reading

Houston, we need to talk about content

One of the features of Australian life that surprises visiting American students is that we’re watching the same movies and TV shows they just left back home, only with the neat variation that ours are seasons out of date. So they arrive at the airport having been told to expect novelties of all sorts (usually, some variation on kangaroos in the suburbs, laid-back anti-authoritarianism, a funny accent, and sharks), to find that they’ve stepped back in time to their own recent TV-watching past.

This is because Australia is a net importer of pre-loved media content. Continue reading

Online charlatans?

Today the Sydney Morning Herald has lent its editorial elbow to the effort to figure out whether online learning represents the end of traditional university teaching, in much the same way that the Buggles taught us back in the 70s that video killed the radio star. They way they tell it, defeat is inevitable:

In cyberspace, the ivory towers of academia are undoubtedly crumbling.

Thrilling stuff.  It’s like that middle section of The Lord of the Rings where everything has gone wrong (and the walls are definitely crumbling) and no one can yet see how the situation will right itself in the future.  But there’s more: Continue reading