Sunday, June 23, 2013

Australian Universities and the Global Gymnasium

Donald Meyers' book "Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline" makes an interesting counterpoint to "Raising the Stakes: Gambling with the future of universities" (2013) by Peter Coaldrake and Lawrence Stedman. Both books criticize government interference in the running of universities, but Coaldrake and Stedman have a much more positive outlook on the future. Another difference is that Meyers' book is available free on-line, whereas the reader has to pay for access to Coaldrake and Stedman's words.

For a short summary of Meyers' book, see "The Academy in Decay" (Ruth F. G. Williams in Agenda, 19(2), ANU ePress 2012). This is available free online as a web pages, as well as free eBook and conventional paperback.

Ancient Agora (place of assembly) of Thessaloniki. A modern glass floor has been installed to show excavations under the amphitheatre.
For those wondering about the title of the first section of Williams' article "The academy and the agora", "The academy" was the site of a sacred grove of olive trees near Athens and Plato's school of philosophy (thus the prototype university) whereas the agora was the ancient town square, used for both political meetings and commerce (depicted in the 2009 film Agora). But another ancient site of learning and physical activity may also be relevant: Gymnasium (more on this later).

Publications detailing past experiments in Australian tertiary education are timely, as Australia embarks on another grand experiment, with federal funds being redirected from universities to schools. Already this has lead to some rationalizations, with the University of Canberra cutting some language courses and sending student to ANU language classes instead.

A different perspective of higher education is provided by "The Idea of the Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education" by Frank Bryce McCluskey and Melanie Lynn Winter (2012). This book is about what lessons the "American Public University System" (a for-profit company), can teach the public system.

ANU Budget Consultation Process

The ANU has embarked on an exercise to save about $50M a year, asking staff and students for suggestions. I had an entertaining few weeks submitting eight suggestions for improving administrative, research and educational practices at ANU. Part of the fun is in seeing how the suggestions were edited by the ANU secretariat for publication. ANU has done a reasonable job consulting staff and made the brave decision to make the suggestions public. The summarization of the suggestions is reasonable and it will be interesting to see what decisions the ANU Council makes.

The ANU suggestions were grouped into four clusters and here are some I found most interesting:
  1. Revenue
    • Grow student numbers (14 suggestions): The commentary suggests that domestic undergraduate students are the largest potential growth area, with the current deregulated environment, but ANU aims to remain a research-intensive university. Another reason not to pursue more domestic students is that the federal government, will likely introduce measures to curb government subsidies for these students in the next year. In Suggestion 101 "Professional development single courses" I proposed 'Rename the “Fee paying non-award” course option to “Professional development single courses”, as at USQ: This would encourage more full fee paying students.'
    • Pursue on-line courses (13 suggestions): Surprisingly, the commentary indicates that ANU has no strategy towards on-line courses. This is curious, as the university has invested in the technical infrastructure to support  on-line courses and use it to run the on-line ANU course COMP7310. The ANU  did not embark on a growth path with multiple Australian and international campuses, which has caused other universities financial problems. I suggest a relatively modest investment in training staff in on-line learning techniques and additional educational support staff could produce a growth in international student numbers (and revenue). Using new educational techniques this could also improve student outcomes. In  Suggestion 201 I proposed to "Convert the ... University Teaching and Learning modules to e-learning format. Make these a formal postgraduate course. Offer the course to ANU students. Encourage staff to use the course as a template for their own courses."
  2. Non-staff expenses
    • Improve energy efficiency and actively reduce usage of energy (27 suggestions): The commentary envisages a saving of 10% on energy use (about $2M per year). This seems easily achievable from the work my ICT Sustainability masters students have done, assessing energy use of campus buildings
    • Examine ANU procurement and enable areas to seek best value for money – examples include office supplies, IT, refurbishment and cleaning (41 suggestions): The commentary discusses consolidation of purchasing to save costs. However, it would be worthwhile first looking for over-provisioning. As an example, as part of energy reduction measures, I have students categorize staff in an organization and then allocate the appropriate IT equipment. As well as save energy, this can save costs.
  3. Staffing
    • Tighter and more transparent performance management, enforcement of performance expectations (28 suggestions): Measuring performance in a university can be difficult, with research delivering returns over a very long period and education subject to many external pressures. One measure not discussed by the commentary are performance measures on university departments (called "colleges" in ANU).
    • In Suggestion 178 I proposed 'Merge all the staff at ANU who support learning and course development at ANU into one organization along the lines of UniSA’s “Learning and Teaching Unit” (LTU)'.
  4. Administration and systems
    • Consolidation/removal of duplication – general (46 suggestions): The commentary notes that ANU professional (non-academic) staff numbers are higher than any other GO8 university. However, ANU's emphasis on research requires more support staff. As an example, the ANU can't just use off the shelf computer hardware and software to support research into new IT systems and these bespoke systems (which will become the products of tomorrow) require more support. One example is the development of new e-learning software. But streamlining can be a false economy, in Suggestion 258 I proposed "Move ANU email to servers in Australia, using commercial contractors and/or a consortium of Australian universities.".
    • Streamline business and student processes into single processes for the entire University – general (31 suggestions): The commentary notes ANU's paper-based approach to administrative processes, but questions how quickly this could be changed. One way I suggest the change could be accelerated is through training of staff in on-line working. In many cases paper based forms with signatures (or their PDF equivalent) are devised where there is no need. I discussed this in
      Suggestion 234 "Remove most paper and PDF forms from ANU administration. Make use of the ANU’s on-line systems to record information.". To improve the quality of coruses,as well as streamline processes, in
      Suggestion 190 I suggested 'Add a field to Study-at for each course, to indicate if the Student Experience of Learning and Teaching (SELT) survey is conducted and make “yes” the default. Course conveners would have the option of changing the setting to “no”. The ANU’s IT system would read the setting in Study-at and issue the survey if the setting is “yes”. Also include a one to five star rating for each course in StudyAt, with a link to the detailed SELT results.' In Suggestion 98
      I proposed to 'Flip the Graduation Process
      Make awards to students within one week of their completing their program. Send an email with a link to the electronic copy of their certificate and details of how to receive an optional paper copy and attend an award ceremony. Issue electronic tickets for guests to attend the ceremony.' In Suggestion 200
      I proposed to "Flip ANU’s governance, by using on-line tools for consultation and decision making, in the same way the “flipped classroom” improves education. Rather than communicating detailed information verbally face to face at meetings, it can be placed on-line and then the valuable meeting time used for discussion and feedback"

Open Access e-Publishing Part of the Academy

Getting back to the commentary by Williams, they note that Meyers' book is only available as a free PDF document with commercial and university presses declining to publish it. However, this may be due more to commercial decisions as to what would sell, rather than a form of censorship. The PDF version of the book is very well formatted and at less than 1 Mbte is easy to download so is not limited in its distribution by not being released by a commercial publisher of a quasi-commercial publisher (ie: a loss making university press). The book is cataloged by the national Library of Australia, with a link to the PDF.

Meyers might consider making a print edition available through a Print on Demand service, such as Lulu. As it is, the typesetting of the book is much better done than many commercial and university presses.

Back to the Gymnasium

Williams' article used the academy and agora in discussing the academic and financial pressures facing universities. I suggest another inspiration from ancient Greece is the Gymnasium. This word is now used in English to refer exclusively to a place for physical exercise. However, in ancient Greece there were also for scholarship (the word gymnasium refers to an advanced secondary school in much of Europe).

In the original Gymnasium of ancient Greece,  scholarship existed alongside physical exercise and academia was not isolated from the everyday world of politics and commerce. More integration with the world would help Australian universities.

In 2008 I visited Delphi in Greece. Walking the sacred way I received no advice from the oracle, just a phone call. On returning to the Australian National University a few weeks later I had the curious feeling of being back at Delphi. As I walked from my office to the cafe opposite, I noticed covered walkway outside the sports centre with adjacent trees resembled the stoa the Gymnasium of Delphi. At the cafe, as athletes go past, staff students, public servants and business people discuss matters large and small, much as they would have done at Delphi thousands of years ago. For me the task of universities is how to retain this dialogue in an on-line world.

ps: I will be speaking on "MOOCs with Books" in the CSIRO Seminar Room at ANU, 4pm, 8 July 2013.

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