Saturday, May 07, 2011

Reinventing Professional Education in the Internet Age

Greetings from the Faculty Board Meeting of ACS Education, the part of the Australian Computer Society which provides education to computer professionals. There are about 30 people around a table in the ACS South Australia Branch office. Each person has a laptop connected to the Internet to get the "papers" for the meeting from a Moodle web site. This is the same web site used for online teaching. While there is much hi-tech, the topics are as old as education: how do we make students partners in the education process, how do we make it relevant to the real world, how do we get useful feedback on student experience without lots of bureaucratic forms. Unique to these professional programs are how to balance the needs of professionals with the somewhat abstract academic requirements for tertiary institutions.

Professional Practice

Apart from e-learning courses using Moodle, which I help with the ACS proved a Professional Practice (PP) year. PP uses the Mahara e-Portfolio software. Students learning about "reflective learning" while filling in their online journal. This can be very difficult for students, as it requires the student to direct their learning and also reflect on what they do, rather than just answer questions from a teacher. There is a mentor for each student to help them, but like a Zen master, the tutor is not there to tell the student what to do.

The PP outcomes for a student are:
  • Understand and appreciates the importance of career planning and continuing professional development;
  • Completes an ePortfolio consisting of skill assessment and career plan used for personal development and career advancement.

From: Professional Practice (Core Subject), ACS, 2010

PP is a process I don't have experience of and would, like many students, feel lost with. One change propose is to give students some marks. Currently the students just complete, or not complete at the end. Also it is proposed to give the students more detailed training on reflective learning.

Another part is to provide an interactive tool for structuring their work using the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA). SFIA is a complex categorisation of skills in the IT area. I had to come to terms with it in designing courses and it must be very difficult for students to understand the complexity of it.

One daunting aspect of PP, is that it is something which few traditional tertiary institutions worked out how to do. By their nature, programs tend to break up into individual units and students concentrate on passing each unit separately. There is little time to think holistically about how all they are learning fits together. However, this creates difficulties for the students and mentors, in terms of motivation and resources.

Another interesting issue discussed was having student assignments submitted to their employer. The courses I design have assessment items written from the point of view of professionals preparing advice for their client. In some cases the students write official reports for their organisation and submit them. I get reports which have the organisation logo and file reference numbers on them. However, this is not possible for all students.

New Courses

The meeting then turned to proposals for new courses. This is an interesting challenge as the courses have to be useful and academically sound. One aspect which works well is using the SFIA framework for defining the skills for new courses. SFIA provides standard definitions of what IT professionals need to be able to do. These therefore become a very useful way to define what the students will learning (the "learning outcomes"). Rather than make something up, the course designer can use an agreed definition. What also is interesting is the depth of experience of the ACS course designers, with decades of experience working in the fields they are teaching, they re not just getting it out of some textbook.

Textbooks still help for courses and it is handy that these are now available in electronic as well as paper format. During discussion of a new course I was able to find and search through an electronic copy of the book. There also seems to be a trend for new e-books to be avialable at a lower price than the paper copies, which should help students.

An issue for students is the amount of work they have to do for a course. This particularly the case for those who have not done formal tertiary studies recently (or at all). There recent experience of courses will be short hour, half day or day slide show sessions. The students are shocked to find they really have to do ten hours work for the course each and every week, regardless of holidays and whatever is happening in their life. The students are also surprised that the tutors prompt them, instead of waiting to the end of the course.

The next topic was an induction process for students not familiar with study, particularly online study. The problem is how detailed to make such an induction process, without overdoing it.

The issue of keeping online courses up to date came up. It is very useful to be able to reference online and up to date materials online in a course. However, links change frequently and some materials are now being protected and require some form of registration or payment.


ACS Education has set up a LinkedIn Group for Alumni. It will be interesting to see how this works. The group for the Australian National University Group has been in existence since 2007 and now as more than 1,000 members.


The meeting took on the elements of Zen, with a discussion of the meaning of zero. The ACS Education assessment generally use two elements: a mark for weekly contributions to forums (usually worth 20% of the overall mark), and two assignments worth 80%. Using the educational jargon, the weekly assessment is formative and the assignments summative. The contentious issues were the limited scale used for the weekly assessment which is a mark of 0, 1 or 2 and the level of contribution needed at each level.

As an example of the scale used, this is the one for the ACS Information Security (Elective Subject):
0 = no contribution
1 = standard below expectation, and
2 = standard at or greater than expectation.
So each week, a student gets a mark of 0, 1, or 2. What does a student have to do for that mark? Are only three levels sufficient? This is a topic which created a lively debate. I had some initial doubts about this system, but found it worked very well in practice: A small mark each week helps encourage e-learning students to keep working. This is also an effective way for the tutor to give feedback, as that feedback comes with a mark which counts to the final result. The limited scale is appropriate as this does not count much to the final mark.

After these heavy academic issues, we changed to talking about course marketing. This is a major issue for e-learning courses. There is a need to explain the mode as well as the quality of the results. ACS has created a short Vodcast on ACS Computer Professional Education Program.

Improvements to the Software

The ACS' LMS provider Brightcookie, then described the upgrade of the ACS e-learning system from Moodle 1.9 to Moodle 2.0. There is not much change in the way the system looks to the student, but the software has been rewritten to allow better access to external resources. This allows extra pieces of software are being used with Moodle.

The new ACS Education "Landing Page" will be provided with Webpress. To provide a way to share materials between Moodle courses, Alfresco will be used as the repository. There will be a better interface to Mahara, allowing the student's e-Portfolio contributions there to be visible in Moodle.

Conditional activities will allow the tutor to require the student to have completed some part of the course before they can move on to the next. Cohorts will allow groups of students to be defined across courses.

One feature I welcome is that Alfresco provides facilities to convert documents from word processing to HTML formats automatically. What I would like to be able to do is have a hierarchy of folders with WP documents in them which are converted into a Moodle book. The book is much easier for students to manage, rather than many separate documents and is more efficient in the use of system resources.

Some future possibilities worth exploring later with Moodle 2 are interfaces to other open source software, such as OJS (for students accessing academic papers) and AContent.

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