Saturday, April 25, 2009

COMP7310: Green ICT Strategies

The Australian National University, College of Engineering and Computer Science are now advertising my "Green ICT Strategies" course (COMP7310:). While the ANU now has a sophisticated system for delivering flexible web based e-learning courses, the marketing and administrative system for informing potential students and enrolling them is still catching up with the Internet age.

The university has:
  1. Official course description from the online handbook.
  2. Course flyer.
  3. General information page.
  4. Enrolment information page.
  5. Online independent registration form
It is not clear to me what the role of all these different web pages are. But at least independent students (that is ones just doing this one course) can register online via the web. This is appropriate for a course which can be done online from anywhere (with an Internet connection).

Students wanting to do the course as part of a Master of Information Technology Studies can apply using an online form. However, those adding it to studies at another university, have to navigate a list of different PDF forms, print out the appropriate form, fill it out on paper and mail it back.

The university system (not just ANU) has a whole lot of categories which do not seem very relevant for a blended, flexible, web based course. There is a distinction between on and off campus courses, a difference for Australian and overseas enrolments and between those people doing a postgraduate course at the ANU, at another university or not doing it as part of any course. No doubt all this is relevant to the institutional administration; it may effect how much money the university gets or a particular part of the university gets, but does not seem relevant to the student or the actual course.

It would seem to make more sense to have the enrolment process from the point of view of the student and for their convenience: the student would say "I want to do this" and the university system would work out how to do that, what it costs and who gets paid what.

It doesn't matter where in the world the students are, at which institution they are enrolled (or none): the actual course will be the same. If they happen to be near the campus and feel the need, they can come to an optional seminar, or not. If they are not near the campus, or do not feel the need for a particular part of the course, they need not attend in person. This is what of think of as a "flexible" course, not one where the student has to decide months in advance if they will be in a particular place every week at a specific day at a specific time.

It might be simplest if universities (and other educators) thought of their courses as being distance education plus. That is the administrative processes for the course can be provided online and as much of the course as makes sense. Then deal with the complexities of the bits which need to be synchronised in time, but not place (by web conference for examples), then the parts which need to be at a place but not a particular time (such as having to visit some sort of specially equipped lab) and the parts of the course which must be in the same place at the same time. Current university processes assume that "same place, same time" is usual and the other modes are the exception, but this could be reversed, making it much easier for the student. This could also simplify the university administration and lower costs.

Obviously this approach would have implications for the way universities are run and charge for their services. If you don't know how many students are going to turn up on any particular day, then how will you know how many staff to allocate or how big a room to book? In practice it is likely that a predictable pattern would emerge (I know fewer students will turn up on Mondays and Fridays). Some institutions might run face-to-face classes like budget airline flights: with bookings and incentives for standbys. Some teachers fear that if classes are not compulsory, then no students will ever turn up, but I doubt it and in any case it is not a worry as long as the learning happens.

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