Edumageddon

So I read that Ernst & Young has released a report on the future of universities, saying bluntly that “Over the next 10-15 years, the current public university model in Australia will prove unviable in all but a few cases”.

With all due respect, bollocks.

E&Y’s document (embedded at the bottom of the ABC article) is not a report. It’s a 32-page pamphlet with meaningless “inspiring” background graphics — one appears to show a guy in a kayak — and an advertisement for E&Y’s own higher education advisory services:

Our higher education team — with deep strategic and operational experience in the sector — is ideally placed to advise university leaders on the transition to new models for the future.

Uh huh. There’s nothing like a bit of disinterested, objective analysis, is there? Certainly nothing like it here, anyway. In that context, let’s look at E&Y’s “drivers of change”.

Number one: “Democratisation of knowledge and access”. The Internet has given us all ready access to all human knowledge and wisdom (more or less). An inspiring fact, but one that was surely fairly obvious. But do not mistake access for learning. Mere access to all human knowledge and wisdom has not — and will not — transform us into a society of philosophers. This is well understood and appreciated in today’s universities as it is. We already know that the process of education ultimately requires face-to-face interaction and personalised feedback.

Number two: “Contestability of markets and funding”. E&Y assert that competition is high. Perhaps so, but there’s a distinct lack of quantitative reasoning. What level of competition implies disruptive change, and why? E&Y also assert that government funding is harder to find. This seems to be blamed implicitly on the global financial crisis and the Australian government’s insistence on a budget surplus. This is a rather short-term outlook that jars with E&Y’s overall discussion of next 10-15 years.

Number three: “Digital technologies”. This is little more than a repeat of number one. E&Y cite “Massive Open Online Courses” (or “MOOC”s, apparently), but we knew this was happening. It takes a certain willpower to believe that this will supplant traditional university course structures. Online courses are obviously a lot cheaper — far fewer resources aimed at much larger numbers of students. But stop for a moment and consider what those resources are traditionally spent on: face-to-face contact and personalised feedback. These facets of traditional education aren’t just important in themselves, but underpin the whole process. Setting complex assessment tasks is futile without the resources to properly mark and give feedback on assignment submissions. Face-to-face contact allows in-class testing with much less fear of cheating. Online courses try to achieve economies of scale largely by ignoring those parts of the education process that are inherently unscalable.

Number four: “Global mobility”. This is an extension to number two and three. If students around the world could choose any university to study at, they’ll all choose one of the top 15-20 university “brands”. Among online courses, this seems fairly logical. But for the wider university education, the inevitable resourcing problem will get in the way. It’s not enough just to have an internet connection. For most people, if you want a real education, you have to physically travel to the institute at which you will receive it, and the real world has certain physical limitations that do not exist online.

Number five: “Integration with industry”. In its last point, E&Y merely babbles on about university partnerships with industry. Yes, for many kinds of degrees, some sort of structured, supervised work experience is definitely a good thing. Yes, industry should most certainly be in the loop on the design and implementation of university courses. E&Y doesn’t even bother to get this specific, and there is nothing new here. I don’t see how this is a “driver” of change.

E&Y’s “methodology” covers 1 of 32 pages, hidden at the end of the document. It’s entirely opaque, except for this bit, which is only somewhat translucent:

We interviewed more than 40 senior executives from public universities, private universities, policy makers and sector representative groups across Australia, to understand their views on:
  • Drivers of change in the higher education sector
  • The long-term future of universities
  • Potential evolutions of the university model
  • Implications for their institution

Our interviewees included leaders of more than 20 universities, including 15 Vice-Chancellors.

E&Y’s document was sprinkled with choice quotes from their interviewees, but I suspect this process was more of a fishing expedition than an attempt at objective analysis. Even taken at face value, this methodology is extremely subjective — prone to the natural cynicism of those who have already seen disruptive changes.

The whole exercise seems just a bit cynical: E&Y’s information comes principally from those working in universities already, and yet the “report” seems intended as a “wake-up call” for those same universities. In other words, they’re using our own cynicism to make us afraid for our future, to further their own business. Universities are not blind to the challenges discussed by E&Y. Discussion of those challenges comes from universities in the first place.

Failing: a taxonomy of techniques

Not having posted anything for a while, it must be time for another excursion into the minds of the next generation of professionals and experts. Having spent the last month marking assignments, tests and exams, I present to you the following valuable categorisation of failure:

The Rainman: The student furnishes you with one or more curious diversions — simple facts or short calculations — that, in spite of being essentially correct, are hopelessly and obviously beside the point.

The Salad: A mashed-together assortment of words and phrases used in the lectures, often completely backwards and demonstrating a level of understanding lower than that of someone who hasn’t taken the course at all.

The List-o-Matic: A more readable (but no less fanciful) variant of the Salad, in which the random assortment of words and phrases are at least arranged in a convenient bullet-point list. This is sometimes (but not necessarily) employed in the dying seconds of a test or exam when any last hope of coherent thought has long vanished.

The Auto Prompter: In an open-book test or exam (whether restricted or not), an answer copied verbatim from the lecture notes. This tends to stand out when employed by more than one student for the same question.

The Zombie: A non-textual answer (e.g. a calculation, diagram or code listing) based on a superficial, mechanical understanding of some procedure (or perceived procedure), motivated by complete incomprehension of the question and in fact much of the course, and facilitated by the mindless appropriation of whatever random disconnected pieces of information happen to be lying around.

The Motherhood: An overenthusiastic attempt to heap blind praise upon the concepts raised in the question with a slew of sickly, vacuous adjectives.

The Speech: A generally well-written essay constructed based on keywords found in the question, incorporating many of the essential points outlined in the lecture notes, but in which the student has not apparently noticed either (a) what the question actually was, or (b) that it was worth 5 marks out of 100.

The Demonstration: A non-textual version on the Speech (e.g. a calculation or diagram). The student demonstrates great proficiency in deriving a solution that was (a) not asked for, and (b) considerably more difficult to derive than the correct answer.

The Metaphor: Something bizarre and irrelevant, having inexplicably drifted into the student’s consciousness, has been seized upon in desperation as an explanatory device.

The Square Peg: An answer that the student is determined to make fit the question, despite seeming to realise — and sometimes explicitly complaining — that it just doesn’t. This differs from the Zombie, Speech or Demonstration in that the student apparently does appreciate the nuances of the question, and merely refuses to comply with them.

The Hammer: The student possesses exactly one recognisable piece of knowledge, and is determined to use it to answer every single question. The student’s level of awareness of any question here is impossible to determine.

The Relapse: An answer that begins on-topic, with strong hints of a solid understanding, but abruptly halts in a piece of reasoning so monumentally stupid that it wipes out any hope of redemption. See also: the Arse Cover.

The Rabbit Hole: An answer predicated on a misunderstanding of everyday life that no functioning member of society could plausibly have made.

The Deluxe Padding: An embryonic answer — “yes”, “disagree”, etc. — wrapped in layer upon layer of paraphrased versions of the question, apparently calculated to fill up all the space.

The Arse Cover: A mutually contradictory double answer, perhaps intended to demonstrate as much rote knowledge as possible while alleviating the need to apply cognition in pursuit of the correct answer. At least one of the two alternatives, of course, is completely wrong, and the other seldom makes up for it.

The Prayer: A heartfelt plea for leniency, often incorporating some awkward details of the student’s personal circumstances. This often appears as an annotation to another answer that is itself inevitably hopelessly wrong. This only serves to demonstrate that the student is well aware of their own impending failure.

The Confession: The student has finally cracked, and pours forth a brutally honest assessment of their own ineptitude. This is often accompanied by The Resignation.

The Resignation: An artistic depiction of any incidental concept from the question, or previous questions, or anything within visual range of the exam venue. No relevance is intended. This simply serves as a distraction for the student from their own situation.

The land of marking

Those less fortunate among us are, on occasion, forcibly sent to a distant (and somewhat two-dimensional) realm of existence to undertake grueling mental labour: the marking of student submissions.

I have mapped this land from what little remains of my mind after many hours crossing its ragged terrain, with naught but a red pen and enormous supplies of chocolate.

One brand to fool them all

As you might have realised, I work at Curtin University, formerly Curtin University of Technology (CUT), formerly – though conceivably somewhat apocryphally – Curtin University of New Technology (CU*T), formerly the Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT), formerly Perth Technical College, formerly Perth Technical School, formerly – and definitely more apocryphally – the New Holland Colonial Blacksmith and Breakfast Bar, formerly the East Gondwana School of Blunt Instruments.

We’re not good at names.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this particular institutional blight is how it plays out in the University’s ICT services. There are those who must spend long dark hours of their lives dreaming up grandiose names with which to inspire the huddled masses to come forth and be dazzled by yet another online service. The problem is that we have hundreds of such services, and it’s an act of cognitive warfare to suggest that we should memorise that many bizarre acronyms and cute but hideously overly-generic terms and the circumstances in which they must be applied. Without wishing to blame anyone in particular, it’s all getting a bit ridiculous.

You can see how and why it happens. The University’s ICT infrastructure has grown organically, bits and pieces being added over time with no real coordination. This is probably inevitable in a large, diverse organisation. The plethora of different ICT services resemble a market, with each different product competing for mind share. However, it’s not a market, and in theory we’re supposed to use all of the relevant services. So, when a new service is added or updated, it suddenly becomes Very Important that everyone bow down before the mighty ingenuity involved, and recognise the sudden urgency with which the new technology must be adopted. The next service to be added or updated after that requires the same thing, and so on. To make it happen, each of these new services can’t just be named – they must be branded. ICT services are not just provided at Curtin – they are, in the marketing sense, sold.

Several years ago, University management commissioned the “OASIS” website, with the aim of integrating all the disparate online services (and introducing our beloved Official Communication Channel). OASIS originally stood stands for “Online Access to Student Information Service” (a backronym, one presumes). Now, however, it doesn’t seem to stand for anything. It’s just a meaningless name, and thus is itself a perfect example of the problem at work.

OASIS was originally marketted as the “One Site to Rule Them All”, which it sort of is, but only at a very superficial level. There’s a lot of delegation involved, and the “ruling them all” bit only goes as far as logging in. Once you’re logged in, you still need to navigate a maze of services that are still essentially separate niche applications. The fact that these are not fully integrated, functionally and stylistically, is not the first problem. The first problem is what they’re all called.

Names of these services include “eVALUate”, “StudentOne”, “eStudent”, and “eAcademic”, among others. My point is perhaps more easily grasped by an outsider, for whom these names must seem rather useless as descriptions of what the systems actually do. Indeed they are – eVALUuate has nothing to do with grading or student results, StudentOne is inaccessible to students, eStudent provides nothing that students will find useful on a regular basis, and eAcademic is actually used to access student information. (The true functions of these systems are, of course, better understood by Curtin staff and students than by outsiders, but only by being forced to use them.)

Now, there are many ways in which these services might be better integrated, but a not-insignificant amount of confusion and cognitive waste could be alleviated simply by coming up with names that actually make sense. By this, I mean intuitively obvious, not requiring large-scale internal marketing programs. The ICT branding we have at the moment is a complete waste of resources at every level. In my ever-humble opinion, all these services should have purely functional names. They should not stand out. They should not be cute, or cool, or inspiring, or grandiose. They should be simple, accurate, no-nonsense descriptions of the services provided. For instance:

  • OASIS should be called “Curtin online services”
  • eVALUate should be called “Course/teaching feedback”
  • StudentOne should be called “Student database”
  • eStudent should be called “View/update your enrolment details”
  • eAcademic should be called “View student details”

At least, that gives you some idea.

I don’t know how the mind of a marketing person might react to this. I’d hope that a good marketing person might recognise the merits of functional naming as a means of encouraging the use of ICT services.

Fire drill

I do respect fire drills. Honestly, I do. However, when the alarm started sounding at around 11:30 this morning I happened to be naked, wet and soapy, as a result (fortunately) of being in the shower. I was fairly certain it was a drill because I’d seen another drill earlier in the morning for the building next to us.

I actually managed to finish up and get dressed just as the fire warden began hammering on the door. I inquired what one is supposed to do in such situations. He dismissed me and said simply that he didn’t care whether I was naked and wet. He just wanted me outside in the muster area with everyone else. And it’s true – this individual (who happens to be one of our senior lecturers) really wouldn’t care. However, I suspect I’m not be alone in feeling that if I’m going to be running outside dressed in nothing but a towel and shampoo suds, it had better damn well be a real emergency.

The colloquium

An “official communication” from early June demanded that all Engineering and Computing postgraduate students take part in the Curtin Engineering & Computing Research Colloquium. Those who didn’t might be placed on “conditional status”, the message warned.

A slightly rebellious instinct led me to think of ways to obey the letter but not the spirit of this new requirement. Particularly, the fact that previous colloquiums have been published online introduced some interesting possibilities:

  • a randomly-generated talk;
  • a discussion of some inventively embarrassing new kind of pseudo-science/quackery; or
  • the recitation of a poem.

In the end I yielded, and on the day (August 25) I gave a reasonably serious and possibly even somewhat comprehensible talk on a controlled experiment I’d conducted on defect detection in software inspections.

A while afterwards, I received in the mail a certificate of participation, certifying that I had indeed given the talk I had given. It felt a little awkward. Giving a 15 minute talk isn’t something I’d have thought deserving of a certificate. It might be useful for proving that I’ve done it, since it now appears to be a course requirement, but a simple note would have sufficed.

Interestingly, I later received another certificate, identical except that my thesis title had been substituted for the actual title of my talk. In essence, I now have a piece of paper, signed personally by the Dean of Engineering, certifying that I’ve given a talk that never happened.

From a campus

I found this somewhat random piece of work (sung to the tune of Bette Midler’s From A Distance) while digging through my hard drive. I did have to change “John” to “Rudd” though.

From a distance the campus looks green and orange,
and the concrete buildings grey.
From a distance OASIS meets the screen,
and the grant cash has been paid.

From a distance, there is harmony,
and it echoes through the labs.
It’s advice of hope, it’s advice of peace,
lecture notes in browser tabs.

From a distance we all have enough,
and no one hates the dean.
And there are no scales, no fails, and sound degrees,
no paying customers to please.

From a distance we are researchers
writing worldly documents.
Giving talks on hope, giving talks on peace,
They’re the talks of common sense.
Rudd is watching us. Rudd is watching us.
Rudd is watching us from a distance.

From a distance you look like my friend,
though you’ve plagarised before.
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
what all these meetings are for.

From a distance there is harmony,
and it echoes through the labs.
And it’s the test of hope, it’s the test of love,
it’s the students’ study plan.

It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves.
They are all basically human.
And Rudd is watching us, Rudd is watching us,
Rudd is watching us from a distance.
Oh, Rudd is watching us, Rudd is watching.
Rudd is watching us from a distance.

Unstimulated

The ATO’s tax bonus eligibility calculator informs me that I’m not, after all, eligible to receive the $900 tax bonus. I was above the tax-free threshold in 2007-08, but my tax was erased by offsets. It’s not clear whether I’m eligible to receive the $950 “training and learning” bonus either. I’m unknown to Centrelink and I’m not receiving a scholarship, but the Council for Australian Postgraduate Associations is apparently “confident that administrative measures included in the package will mean that no other students are left out.”

Jolly good then. I have no idea what these “administrative measures” are, but I’m sure I’ll find out eventually, for better or worse.

On a philosophical note, it’s tough to decide whether I should be upset (hypothetically) about not being stimulated. We would rightfully complain if the needy were to miss out on welfare. In general, it’s natural to complain about not being afforded the same benefits as those around us. However, this isn’t really about wealth redistribution – it’s just a mechanism to get money circulating again – a once-off event. It’s also not as if I’m going to be any worse off, whatever the outcome. However, that 75kg of chocolate may have to wait.

Students

Here’s what diversity means to a university tutor.

Student A appears with a deer-in-the-headlights look at the door to the senior tutor room and asks (in a bewildering tone that sounds as if a layer of righteous outrage has been suppressed and petrified beneath another layer of sheer blinding terror) if there is going to be a tutorial now for the unit that I tutor. I stumble through an explanation of the weekly tutorial times – there are only two, and neither of them are now – and leave him with a look of deep suspicion and confusion. This is half-way through semester.

Student B appears at the door to the senior tutor room with a demeanour that could very well be those transfixing headlights. She doesn’t have a question – she’s just bored. She bounds over to see what I’m doing and recoils at the tutorial exercise I’m preparing to give in an hour. Nevertheless, I begin to explain it and within a minute she rips the paper out of my hand and sits down to undertake the exercise: disassembling a Java class file by hand. She isn’t even enrolled in the unit, and won’t be for another year.

The university of technology

All Curtin students and staff know about OASIS.

OASIS purportedly stands for “Online Access to Student Information Service” . Is that the best they could do, you ask? Evidentially, that full name is now such an embarrassment that it doesn’t seem to appear anywhere on the official OASIS website. However, I’m still not sure which is sillier – the full title, the abbreviation (a transparent backronym), or the slogan bestowed upon us when it first launched: “One site to rule them all”.

It’s bigger than Jesus!

The centrepiece of OASIS is the OCC (Official Communication Channel), through which students receive official correspondence from the University. Replacing physical mail with electronic mail is commendable, but OCC has two small drawbacks. One is that you can’t choose to receive OCC messages via email, or even to receive email notifications. You must remember to log in to OASIS. The other is best illustrated in the following pie chart, representing all the messages (now archived) I’ve received:

oasis_occ

In the past 27 months, I’ve received 21 useful messages: about 0.18 per week. I realise that at some level the University is obliged to send me the other messages as well, but that’s not the point. Logging into OASIS isn’t hard, but you quickly forget because it’s usually such a fruitless exercise. According to the official policy, one “performance indicator” for the OCC is: “The percentage of students with active OASIS accounts that access their official correspondence at least once per week.” They’re not advertising this metric, of course.

It’s not until a library book is recalled (whether you’re the original borrower or the recaller) that you appreciate the true splendour of the OCC. I simply didn’t know about mine until after fines had already started accumulating, and the person who’d recalled the book probably wasn’t too happy about it either. With email, I’d have returned the book the same day.

Not to be entirely defeated, however, I created a script on my laptop that automatically logs into OASIS for me at 11:30 am each day and forwards all new OCC messages to my email account. The Curtin bureaucracy hasn’t quite mastered that idea yet.