MOOCs not in the money

Plus can Sydney Uni lecturers distinguish between a student and a stuffed pillow with Ray-Bans attached?

Cheesed off

Riaus ran a piece yesterday on how globalised supply chains can be a risk to food safety. Good-oh, but I wonder how the Tasmanian cheese brand prominently displayed in a pic for the story will feel, given the image sits right above a subhead, which reads, “what makes food unsafe?”

Professor Ludd protests

Thanks to Sydney University student paper Honi Soit for reporting staff protests at management recording lectures, unless staff specifically ask to opt out. Academics are upset that recorded lectures reduce the number of students attending, by a quoted 14 per cent, and erode the learning benefits of a lecture, which apparently require attending in person. With university managements across the country investing in online lectures and switching the campus focus to small group teaching this seems a protest from the past.

But what would CMM know? So, I asked a 2014 UniSyd graduate Eleanor Gordon-Smith. She explains what this is about, downpage.

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Gone but not forgotten

The National Health and Medical Research Council is calling for feedback on its fellowship programme, notably, the balance between the number it offers and research grants and “the responsibilities of employing institutions.” These are issues that especially interest Warwick Anderson, whose impact on the NHMRC continues still, with yesterday’s invitation to contribute attributed to him, despite his departing before Easter. The incoming chief is Anne Kelso.

Multinational in more than name

As some public sector universities struggle to keep economics alive private provider S P Jain School of Global Management is looking to establish a bachelor of economics, (accredited by TEQSA last year). No, I had not heard of Jain either, but a reader suggested that it’s Sydney Olympic Park campus is seriously schmick and its MBA is far more global than many programmes that universities consider cosmopolitan, on the basis of inserting “international” in course names. S P Jain requires masters students to split study between Sydney, Singapore and Dubai and undergraduates to do a four-year degree with 12 months each in Singapore and Dubai and 24 in Sydney.

On (solar powered) message

If anodyne prose and oft-repeated ideas were combustible Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane’s energy white paper could fuel the country in perpetuity. But having the industry minister also in charge of science (especially with the education minister being a bit busy) at least ensures the message on research strategy stays the same. And so the white paper repeats what Mr Macfarlane and Chief Scientist Ian Chubb have made clear for a year. For its $9.2bn research spend government wants academics to focus on applied research in nationally focused fields and work much more with industry. “Australia has a global reputation for producing high quality scientific research, but lags behind international competitors on measures of translating that research into commercial outcomes. Commercial outcomes include the ability to capture the spill-over benefits of research and technology development.”

Mr Macfarlane obviously gets the first law of political communication – when you can barely bring yourself to repeat a message again the audience is just starting to hear it.

Is that a student up the back or a pillow with Ray-Bans? Eleanor Gordon-Smith reports on the great debate on whether people should actually attend lectures

Lecture recording at the University of Sydney has historically been opt-in. Some courses used it, others didn’t, a Government professor of mine once struck a reluctant compromise by leaning into the microphone and carefully enunciating “for those listening at home, the question written on the blackboard will be in the exam”. But this semester, the university is piloting an opt-out system. Staff are resisting this move, saying if lectures are recorded by default, students won’t come; they’ll listen on their i-Nanos or their MyPods instead. In an open letter to the DVC education staff wrote “lectures are a learning experience based on being present”, and that this proposal does not respect “individual teaching choices”.

But what about respecting individual learning choices?

Let’s be clear: students who miss class have reasons. But the staff discussion is anaemic on detail about them. It asks “did you go?” instead of “why didn’t you go?”. Some students’ reasons for missing class are easy to understand, like the student who can’t afford to miss work to spend an hour with a lecturer who wouldn’t notice if they put a pillow wearing Ray-Bans in their place.

But other reasons seem more opaque to teachers. Why would someone who could attend class choose not to? Ask any student, though, and they’ll know: they’re boring. I have sat in lecture theatres where teachers fell asleep. I have sat in tutorials where teachers put their feet up and read fiction. When your teachers don’t care about lesson time, why should you? If the staff’s concern is that recording lectures will turn students away from class, it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to ignore that better teaching could bring them back again.

There are students who miss class for good reasons. Recording lectures is a simple way to let them access course material. Using lecture attendance as an excuse to avoid such an easy solution misses the point: if students aren’t coming to your classes, maybe students aren’t the problem.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith is a philosophy tutor at the University of Sydney

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Mark gets his teeth into it

La Trobe and Charles Sturt U show no sign of ever giving up on their proposed Murray Darling Medical School, despite government showing no sign in injecting the cash to create it. With project leader Dr Kim Webber moving overseas CSU university secretary has taken over. The thinking seems to be that as he convinced the feds to fund the CSU dental school a med faculty will be a doddle.

Trainers out of trouble

Easter was a circuit breaker for private sector training, stopping the horror stories about people being gulled into voced courses they did not understand or could not afford. Perhaps the failure of Labor to make TAFE funding an issue in the NSW election is why for-profit VET scandals are off the news-list. Perhaps the 12-hour spin-cycle (football scandals maybe twice that) is why for-profit VET scandals are off the news. Or maybe Training Minister Simon Birmingham and Australian Council for Private Education and Training chief Rod Camm are having an impact. Both have acknowledged the problem, accepted they had to fix it and outlined what they will do. Senator Birmingham has announced new measures to band “miraculously short” courses that qualify for subsidies and cancel debts students are duped into, colleges will be required to pay the government back. Mr Camm has new codes of conduct for members and is investigating one major provider, which ACPET may expel. None of this will take the ire out of the education union and Green responses – they hate the very idea of for-profits in education. But if prominent private providers are slammed under the new rules it may be enough to calm everything down, which is a critical first step for the sector to survive what is expected to be a hostile second report from the Senate committee inquiry into the industry.

MOOCs not in the money

After two years of courses Harvard and MIT now have a bunch of data on who studies what in the MOOCs they offer via their edX programme. The results are a great deal more ambivalent than what boosters originally anticipated, that by now campuses would be closing as MOOCs multiplied. Far from it, although growth is “significant” with 1.03m participants making 1.7m entries in 68 courses offered by the two institutions. But what does hint that the original assumed promise exists is that there are many participants looking for career relevant and certifiable training, creating both the possibility of course pathways and revenue streams. Older, career focused graduates are willing to pay for certification, reversing the assumption that edX would be used by young people looking for a college alternative.

As for a return on investment, the analysis points to the potential of other institutions using edX programmes and for MOOCs being used for on-campus courses, 80 per of MIT students have taken a course developed for edX.

But is edX making money, or even paying its very expensive way? The report is silent on the subject, but does state; “the diverse contributions of MOOCs have been obscured by a common expectation that MOOC certification would grow exponentially in number and value, especially among those without access to conventional higher education. That they have not yet delivered on this promise should not blind us to their other benefits.” Good-oh, but this does not scan as a verse of “we’re in the money.” Certainly not-for-profit institutions did not establish MOOCs as cash machines but surely they cannot be supported indefinitely as expensive experiments.

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Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au