Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Category: journey

End of week 1: reflections and what's next

It’s the start of week 2 of my studies in a post-graduate teacher education program. Time for a bit of reflection and planning.

The experience so far

I’m studying at an institution at which I worked for 20 years, both as an academic designing and running my own courses and in an e-learning support role. From this I know the difficulties that an academic has to overcome to create and maintain a good learning environment. This is by way of a disclaimer. In the following I will identify the factors that haven’t quite worked for me in this first week, not to criticise, but to help identify where things might get better. (Not to mention to fulfill the on-going pleas from senior university staff to give feedback.)

To satisfy the namby-pamby, fluffy bunnies amongst you who desire some good news first. The staff associated with this program have been great. Going out of their way to help, being contactable, responding quickly and for the most part demonstrating aspects of good teaching practice.

Time on task

The institution uses Chickering and Gamson’s 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education as part of its teaching framework. Time on task is one of those principles and an aspect of time on task is that students aren’t wasting their time trying to figure out what they are supposed to do.

This has been my biggest problem this week. What am I supposed to do next? Some of the contributing factors to this problem include

  • Broken links on Moodle course sites.
    Come on, automated link checkers were one of the first tools to be available to support web authoring. Surely the institution could help academics by having some form of link checker on course sites to identify when links are broken.
  • Out of date information.
    eStudyGuides have mentioned Blackboard or course mailing lists. etc. Things that no longer apply.
  • Inconsistent and/or duplicate information.
    As a student, what am I supposed to do each week in the course. Some courses have eStudyGuides, some have Moodle resources to described this, some have both and in some cases the duplicate information is inconsistent. Some aspects of this seem to arise from the understandable practice of the courses in this post-grad program having much in common with courses in other programs.
  • Moodle slowness/unavailability.
    There were a couple of times in the first week that Moodle was really slow, both while I was on-campus and off. In some case, so slow as to be unusable. I believe there was a network outage at one stage that brought most institutional services off-line. This is a problem because all of the resources and activities for these courses are on Moodle, or accessed through Moodle. When it’s down, we’re wasting time.
  • Broken Moodle features.
    One of the courses tried to use Moodle Wikis within groups. It didn’t work. Apparently the institutional Moodle technical support couldn’t identify why it didn’t work. This wasted time.
  • Differences within the use of Moodle.
    There is some evidence of the great “consistency program” in terms of course site design, but there still remains some significant variety in how different course sites are structured. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if those structures were effective, but some of the points I’ve made above suggest that there are problems with those designs and hence the variety causes problems.

I feel this is perhaps the biggest problem faced by other students and it’s especially problematic in a program that is acknowledged to require a lot of work. I have observed some students taking the pragmatic route and deciding what to do next by starting at the assessment and working backwards identifying exactly what they need to complete the assessment.

Encourages Active Learning

Another one of the 7 principles. All of the courses have attempted to do this. I must admit, however, that at times some of these exercises have felt a little contrived or ineffective. e.g. getting us to give examples of literacy and numeracy without defining what it was, or without bringing the activity to a close with clearer definition and reflection on the discrepancies.

I think there’s also a potential tension between some of the more practice, teaching oriented tasks from later in the term (e.g. preparing lessons plans etc) that are generally also assessment tasks and some of the more reflective learning activities (e.g. reading various articles).

Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students

There have been efforts at this. Especially in one course, however, that has been hampered by technical difficulties. Much of what has arisen has probably been through the extra efforts of some students, and consequently is necessarily spread across all students.

Encourages Contact Between Students and Faculty

I think this is perhaps the other major downfall of the institution. I make the clear distinction here between the individual teaching staff and the institution. It’s been my experience that the teaching staff have tried as much as possible to be available for contact. The trouble is that only two of the four courses is being taught by a permanent members of staff. The other two have permanent/full-time members of staff as the “coordinator”, but are actually being taught by casual staff. This is the institution’s common band-aid solution and it typically doesn’t work well.

Reading between the lines, it appears that full-time members of staff are being drawn away by projects and research. An apparent ramification of the increasing emphasis on research.

This is not to say that casual staff can’t be good teachers, many are. But a casual staff member brought on to teach someone else’s course – especially if they are unfamiliar with the institution – is being placed in an incredibly difficult situation. And that’s assuming they are going into course that is in a good state.

My practice

The problems aren’t all the institutions responsibility. If it is to be, it is up to me.

Time on task has been my biggest flaw. A tendency to go too deep or off on tangents not directly related to the requirements of the program have slowed me down. In part, I need to be more pragmatic in focusing on the assessment requirements, hopefully, without sacrificing some of the important learning experiences along the way.

During my study I will not have to work. I do have family duties, but most days of the week I have free to study. Last week there were various events (dentists appointment, child’s vaccination and farewell lunch) that consumed parts of the day.

Some of the readings have also caused my eyes to glaze over and made it difficult to engage in them. I need to develop strategies to work around this.

On the plus side, it’s been an amazing week in terms of learning from the folk from twitter and the blogosphere. Arguably this has contributed to my going off on tangents, but it’s not something I’d give up. It has added a much needed richness and also significantly increased the feelings of reciprocity/cooperation between my learning and others and active learning aspect. Thanks to you all.

How many pages of a course profile are necessary?

This week brings the first formal tasks of my new phase as a teacher in training. We, the students enrolled in the Graduate Diploma in Learning and Teaching, are required to attend four days of a residential school. These four days coincide with Orientiation Week and we’ll be attending bits of standard O-Week, but mostly focusing on the res school.

Apart from pen and paper, the only items were advised to bring are printed versions of the course profiles. Now there was a time when the university provided print copies of the course profiles to all students. But now, mostly to save costs, these are distributed electronically and it is up to individual students to do the printing. Regardless of the course, the course profile follows a fairly standard template, which has me wondering. How many pages of a course profile do I really need to print?

After all, if it’s okay for the institution to save costs, it must be ok for me. Here’s what I found.

Course 1

3 pages of what appears to be reasonably important information, but information that is common can go. Surely it is covered in one of the myriad of guides and primers that we’ve been encouraged to read. In addition, having worked at the institution for 20 years in learning and teaching, I’m familiar with most of it.

Each assignment includes a rubric for marking. It appears to be a direct copy of what might be used by the marker. Even down to the dotted lines for comments, the lecturer’s name and a list of grades to be circled. Can’t see the need for that, especially when for 2 of the assignments that information is the only think on the page (it’s the last bit of information before the next assignment which obviously they want to start on a new page).

16 pages down to 11.

Course 2

This is the minimal course. What I think of the traditional course taught that arises when by a long-term member of staff is teaching a topic he/she knows well. Shall be interesting to see the differences evolve as the term progresses.

For example, the original course profile was only 9 pages long. The same 3 pages first removed from the profile course #1 were removed.

9 pages down to 6.

Course 3

10 pages down to 7 – same three pages.

Course 4

Again, only the same 3 pages: 13 down to 10.


So, overall not that bad, but still 14 pages. With some work on spacing in the layout of the profile more pages could be saved. Of the 3 pages I removed, there’s an argument to remove them, but then there’s also an argument that some students have had problems by not knowing that information.

A glimmer of what I'm thinking

This time next year I should probably be teaching high school IT and maths. Because of this I’ve been thinking a lot about what type of teacher/educator/facilitator I’d like to be. What will be my ethos? I’m sure I’ll be asked that in coming weeks as I study.

This talk from Chris Lehman captures a significant part of what I’ve been thinking about.

Making high school not suck. Engaging with students in making stuff that matters.

How that can be achieved within the constraints of existing organisations should be interesting.

How hard is it to get a personalised class timetable?

Apparently, it is too complex to create a personalised class timetable for students at the institution I’m attending. I have previously described what I (as a student) have to currently do to create my class timetable as well as explaining that I helped implement a personalised class timetable system at the same institution about 10 years ago.

The purpose of this post is to find out just how difficult it would be to do it today.

The context

The institutional context includes:

  1. A collection of static web pages that contain class timetabling information.
  2. A newly introduced Google Apps for Education for students (i.e. students all have institutionally provided individual Google calendars).

The plan

The previous personalised timetable system at this institution was a stand-alone web application. With some input it created a one week summary timetable as a single HTML page. Given the change in context, in particular the availability of Google calendar, the plan is to respond to this change. Rather than having a stand-alone institutional application, the plan is to integrate with what students are using.

That is, the plan is

  1. Web scrape the institutional web page to get the data.
  2. Use the data to create an iCalendar file or similar with the timetable information.

The idea is that the student can then important the iCal file into Google Calendar or any other calendar program that supports that file format (which is most). If this were an institutional system, it might be able to automatically pre-populate all students’ individual Google calendars with their class timetable.

Missing access

The last time I implemented a system like this I was within the institution, this time I’m not. This means I don’t have access to information such as

  • The list of courses a student is enrolled in.
    For the test I’ll hard-code it with the four courses I’m enrolled in. Wouldn’t be hard to taken any list of courses and generate a calendar.
  • The dates for each week in the University calendar (e.g. week 1 is Feb ?? to Mar ??)
    I’ll also have to hard-code this.
  • Assessment due date information which could be added to the file.
    I’ll leave this data out of this little test.
  • Ability to automatically import information into the institutional Google calendar.
    Not sure if this is possible. If it were the institution could automatically insert into a student’s Google calendar their timetable.

Web scaping

I don’t think the web page format for the timetable has changed too much. Am hoping that I still have the code that can easily web scape the appropriate web pages.

Yep, there’s a bit of code from a couple of years ago, let’s see if that will work.

I think the hardest part here will be getting this ancient Perl code to run on my new computer when I haven’t done anything with it for years. Yep, get that working and hey presto it is extracting the information.

One of the limitations of the old Perl install is that the database stuff isn’t working. This is okay as I don’t need it for this little exercise. So, remove the database stuff and create a hashed data structure that allows manipulation.


Create an iCalendar file

Can this be done in Perl? Yes, a quick Google reveals the Data::ICal Perl module and some code that used Data::ICal to do something similar as I’ve planned (though only for the 2010 FIFA World Cup).

Say what you like about Perl, but CPAN rocks. Simple single statement and Data::ICal and all other necessary files are installed and working.

A couple of hours later (including a stop for lunch) and I have produced an ical file that will get imported into Google calendar. Main problem at the moment is that the timezone isn’t quite correct. Google calendar is showing the events 10 hours after they should have been – I think this is timezone related.

The big question now, “is there an easy way to delete all these entries?”. A google search reveals an option under setting for Google calendar.

Yep, slight change in the timezone setting and the times are okay. What about the dates?

Oops, week 12 dates showing up early (typo in hard-coded start date). Week 8 on a Tuesday, not Monday. Ahh, public holiday that Monday. So official week start date is the Tuesday. My code assumes the Monday. A more detailed version of this would need to figure out the public holidays. Same for week 9.

It’s all working

So, what’s been implemented is a script that

  • Automatically scrapes the institutional web page with timetabling information.
  • Extracts only the courses being taken by a student.
  • Generates an iCal file with the weekly personal class timetable.

Week 1 for me looks like the following. Click on the images to see a larger version.

Week 1

The monthly view on Google calendar, with one of the events highlighted looks like this


Concept proven, work to do

It took me just over 3 hours to complete this. There was a break for lunch and most of the time was spent remembering how to interact with Perl and the Webfuse code.

This is not an “enterprise” solution, not yet. But it wouldn’t be that difficult to do. It’s certainly not impossible.

If you have followed some of my previous work or blog posts it will not be a surprise that I believe there are significant barriers in the processes around institutional IT systems that limit the possibility of these types of innovations.

Getting an overview of the term ahead

In the next couple of weeks I re-commence my face-to-face university education. This time in a Graduate Diploma in Learning and Teaching in order to become a high school teacher. As it’s less than two weeks from the start of term, the materials for the courses are now becoming ready. The following is an ad hoc collection of thoughts and experiences as I try to get an overview of the material and the term ahead.

Google being ruined?

Theoretically the institution is moving to Google Apps for Education for students. So the horrendous student email system originally being used is being replaced by gmail. It shall be interesting to see how the Google applications can be ruined by an institutional implementation.

Interesting to note that single-sign on still does not work for all applications. In this case getting the course profiles – the document serves as the “contract” between university and student – system requires another login.

Portals, timetables and ical

So there is a new look portal intended to bring everything into one place, to make life easier for students. However, it is still missing some fundamental elements. For example, a personalised class timetable, as I’ve complained about before.

There is a calendar in this new portal. Ahh, it’s Google calendar. But it’s not pre-populated with anything. I’m currently looking through the course profiles at the assessment. Slowly building up a calendar of due dates, wouldn’t it be nice if this could be done automatically? After all the institution has the due dates in a database, it knows which courses I’m enrolled in. At the very least, the ability to download an ical file or similar to import might be nice.

The absence of this sort of thing, especially if it remains absent in the long term, is another example of the problems facing institutional systems touched on briefly in the post around open source LMS. The IT folk at this institution are focused on package provision, not on the user. They will provide the calendar, but joining together two separate systems is not something they – or the applications – will do automatically.

Personal versus institutional

The other problem I face, is that I already have a gmail account, I already have a google calendar. I don’t want the institution to provide me with another gmail account and another google calendar. I want it to work with what I have. Ahh, there’s the Google docs link, I already use that.

Come on guys, catch up with the world.

Here’s an example. With the old student email systems – a web-based interface – the institution actually modified the system to remove the capability for students to forward email. So, instead of having the email all come nicely to the one place, I had another place to check.

So, can I automatically forward my new institutional gmail account? Yes, I can. It’s baked into gmail and I imagine they couldn’t convince (or pay) Google to remove it. Ahh, it’s also pop enabled, so I can bring it all into the one place (I use Thunderbird as an email client). Ahh, but will the screw around with hostnames, single signon get in the way? Yes, it appears like it does. Should I ask?

Bugger it, forwarding works. Will stick with that.

Of course, my decision here is another example of why institutional systems don’t improve. In the absence of anyone not complaining about the ability to use POP/IMAP the institutional IT folk will claim that there is no need for it, no-one wants it. It never occurs to them that people are smart enough (or cynical enough) to understand the futility of asking.

Of course, it now appears that forwarding may also not work. Actually, I just had to wait. It’s working now.

Bulk email to students

Oh dear, the uni is trying to increase response rates on student evaluation by bulk email to students from the institutional leader. At the very least you could limit this to students actually enrolled in the term. i.e. I was not enrolled in any courses during T3, 2010.


By course the assignments are

  1. Course 1
    1. 40% – 10 “investigations” – 2000 words equivalent.
    2. 60% – 3000 word report, a range of supporting activity.
  2. Course 2
    1. 20% – Learning design brief, 1000 words – essentially a reflective blog (on first skim).
    2. 40% – Blog including 1600 word reflective synopsis.
      Oh dear, you have to upload your blog url via a Word document into Moodle. Have these folk not heard of BIM? It’s even installed.
    3. 40% – 2000 words – a learning design?
  3. Course 3
    1. 50% – Lessons plans, implementation and critical de-construction – 23 May
    2. 50% – Unit of work and evaluation – 6 June
  4. Course 4
    1. 50% – 2000 words report – 21 April
    2. 50% – 2000 word report – 26 May

NAPLAN tests, task corruption and teaching to the test

In another 2 or 3 weeks I begin my formal education as a high school teacher. In preparation for doing that I’ve joined various online groups and started listening to K-12 education related podcasts. A common refrain in the podcasts has been the problems associated with teaching to the test. Both US and Australian education commentators have been pointing out that a major consequence of broad-scale, standardised testing – such as the National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests in Australia – is teaching to the test. i.e. the education of students suffers because anything that doesn’t contribute to the attainment of “good” test scores is ignored and other potentially harmful practices are adopted. For example, This article from the Australian context draws heavily on a Diane Ravitch article in the Wall Street Journal.

Not exactly news, but today I’ve come seen evidence of this first hand. An experienced high school teacher – someone I’ve actually known for sometime and have a lot of respect for – has posted to a national mailing list a message that goes something like this

Just back from a meeting with the principal. He’s been told by his boss that the most important task for the next 14 weeks is to improve NAPLAN results. We’re planning to do the normal things such as revision and practice; using intervention X and we’re thinking about direct intervention. Any recommendations.

In this case, direct intervention is taking kids that aren’t likely to do so well from other classes so that they can specifically work on the areas in which they need help.

This doesn’t surprise me. I knew that the secondary education system would have just as many problems as higher education, if not more. That is would have many examples of task corruption. But this is a bit of evidence that strikes very close to home and reinforces just how broken aspects of this system are.

It also reinforces the problem facing teachers within the system. There have been two responses so far, both offering suggestions on how to improve results. Nothing yet about the perceived negative implications of such practices. These people have to get on within the system. It also reveals something else about the teachers. The original email message was sent out by the mailing list at 10:30pm. The two responses so far we’re sent out at 11pm and 11:30pm.

Problems of service provision and why can't I have a personalised class timetable?

The next step in my journey as a full-time Uni student happened today when I saw a notice announcing the draft class timetable. As a result I offer some commentary on the problems of “service” provision as the metaphor for many modern universities/organisations.

A personalised timetable

As with most universities, the one I’m studying at has spent a significant amount of money on a ERP. In this case PeopleSoft. This is the system that knows what courses I’m enrolled in and is used to manage just about every administrative aspect of what I do (pay money, exam timetable etc.). But, at least at the institution I’m enrolled in, it can’t generate a class timetable. Well, there’s something called a “class schedule” but it’s empty.

I remember back in the late 80s as an undergraduate trawling through the UQ handbook manually trying to find the times and locations for the classes for the courses I was enrolled in. On the plus side, UQ had the timetable set in stone with sufficient lead time to produce a printed handbook. The current institution has a draft timetable available a few weeks before the start of term.

Given the wonderfully expensive ERP systems it would make sense to me that I could login some system with my student number and the information system could find out what courses I’m enrolled in, compare that with the timetable information and generate me a personal timetable. Such a system would be easy to use, save all the students time and probably reduce instances of human error.

What I have to do

Instead of a personalised timetable system, I have to

  • Visit the institutional timetabling site;
  • Pick the right link for the 2011 draft timetable;
  • Pick the link for my campus;
  • Pick the link for the faculty to which the program I’m studying belongs to (assuming that I’m aware of this information); and
    Of course, I’m in trouble if I’ve enrolled in an elective that is run by the other faculty.
  • Manually search through a web page with timetable information for 145 courses for the four courses I’m enrolled in.
    This assumes that I know the course codes for the courses I’m enrolled in. Now I have to go look those up. Oh dear, all face-to-face sessions are on Mondays. 9 to 6 with an hours break for lunch, that should be fun.

Moving backwards

The funny thing is that the institution had a personalised timetable system around late 1999/early 2000. I should know, I helped write it and published a description of it in a paper explaining how to thrive with an ERP.

And it’s not as if that system couldn’t still work. The institution is still using the broader system that personalised timetable was a part of for other purposes and the personalised timetable system was designed to scrape data from a web page. Just like the one I had to manually trawl through above. It was smart enough to automatically update the timetable as the draft changed.

Why isn’t there one?

I was going to write something new about why the institution doesn’t have a personalised timetable system for students, but have decided to start with the explanation I gave in 2003

  • Mismatch between system owner and users.
    The system owner of the CQ timetabling system is CQU’s student administration division. Their major timetabling role is managing the allocation of space and time. Distributing this information to staff and students is a secondary smaller task of less importance. As a result the choice and use of the supporting information system is driven more by the requirements of the management role than the distribution role.
  • Organisational Silos.
    Contrary to CQU’s “one University” approach there is significant distance between CQU’s commercial and CQ campuses. There is even distance between the two largest commercial campuses, Sydney and Melbourne, and their smaller cousins at Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
  • Organisational Holes.
    There is no central software developer allocated to helping support divisions like student adminstration support and implement systems like timetabling (unless they hire their own). Instead most rely solely on the features of commercial packages that are known for their inability to integrate with other systems..
  • “Bad” technology.
    The software used on the CQ campuses is not designed to integrate with other software and offers limited support for the distribution of timetabling information. The system used at the commercial campuses is based on infrastructure that does not scale well.

Some of the details will have changed, but the categories are about right. Today, I would probably add in

  • Misaligned governance structures.
    The apparently rational and logical governance structure that guides information systems development at the institution is biased toward the senior managers located within the existing organisational structure.

The problems of service provision

Which brings me to the problems of service provision. A big part of the governance structures that have arisen within higher education institutions is based around the idea of service provision. That is, the faculty’s – the large organisational gatherings of academics – are clients of the service divisions (information technology, library, student administration, central L&T etc.). The aim of the service divisions’ is to provide the services requested by clients, and only those services. It’s generally the role of the governance structure to determine this process.

But there are problems, including:

  • The dumb idea;
    This is the situation where the professional within the client organisation knows that the request service is a “dumb idea”. But there job is not to question, there’s is to provide the service.
    For example, the situation where a senior academic leader will require a central L&T organisation to expend vast amounts of time and resources on a capstone course that has a design which requires students to write thousands of words of prose each week. The capstone course is delivered primarily to non-English speaking background students.
  • Gaming the client;
    The dumb idea problem and a range of other factors mean that the service divisions have to start “gaming the client”. One example of this is the under promise and over deliver tactic. ie. when important senior manager asks the job X be completed, the appropriate response is to explain how difficult and expensive job X will be to complete. This generally involves lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth before finally agreeing to try, but reinforcing that it probably can’t be done. At which stage the service provider assigns one of the junior programmers the 10 minutes required to complete the task. Once complete, and at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner the impossible task is revealed as completed.

    There is a reason why experienced service provision divisions employ special “client liaisons” who have significant similarity with used car salesmen.

  • Blame the budget;
    This one generally occurs in the 2nd half of the budget year and involves a great deal of agreement about the value and importance of the requested task before explaining how it could be done, if only we had the resources/money. This is typically followed by the suggestion of getting together to generate a joint proposal for the next budget to ensure that the necessary resources are available. The success of this budget proposal ensures the purchase of The machine that goes ping
  • The next version will do that;
    This is a special, prevalent example of “blame the budget” usually invoked with enterprise information systems. In these situations it is usually considered inappropriate to mention that simply because the next version will have this feature, that doesn’t mean the organisation will ever be able to complete the tasks necessary for the feature to be usable. For example, the “class schedule” feature in the ERP at the start of this post.
  • The thicko client liaison;
    This is where the service provider’s representative in the governance structure (either a client service manager or the head of the service provider, depending on how many other senior institutional managers are in the room) says “yea” or “nay” to some request without realising that the request is either utterly impossible (always when they said “yea, we can do that”) or is almost trivially simple (always when they said “no, that can’t be done”).

    This is why client liaison folk absolutely hate having the technical expert in the room with clients. They inject too much knowledge into the conversation.

  • Fall between the cracks;
    Since representation in the governance structure is based on the organisational structure and limited to appropriately senior folk, there are significant problems and opportunities that are never seen and fall between the cracks. This is the problem which I think the personalised timetable above suffers from.
  • Everyone is different;
    If a service provider has to deal with x clients. Then every “widget” the service provider puts in place will have x versions. One for each client. One potential example is the case of 2 student handbooks (where 2 equals the number of faculties) I mentioned previously.
  • If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
    This is a particular problem when it comes to fads and fashions. For example, if the current fad is e-portfolios or iPads, then every time a client asks the central L&T division for advice, there’s a chance the answer will be “e-portfolios” or “iPads”. In the case of IT divisions the answer will almost always be one of: ERP, CRM, LMS, Data warehouse, student portal, staff portal etc.

What are the problems I’ve missed?


The above argument is not to suggest that “service” divisions shouldn’t aim to perform the tasks required by their clients. I lived through an organisation where one of the service divisions dictated too much. It’s a worse situation.

But it is to argue that the “client/service” metaphor is far from perfect. It creates a power differential that encourages, often even requires, the weaker party (usually the service provider) to work around the stronger party. It is to argue that the focus should be on developing better metaphors (e.g. teamwork, partnership), while at the same time realising that nothing will ever be perfect and it will require hard work, collaboration and good does of cynicism.

The power of organisational structure

I find myself in an interesting transitionary period in learning. I’m in the final stages of my part-time PhD study, just waiting for the copy editor to check the last two chapters and then its submission time. I’m participating – participation that has been negatively impacted recently by the desire to get the thesis finalised – in a MOOC, LAK11 and looking at returning to full-time study as a high school teacher in training. It is from within this context that the following arises.

Yesterday I read a reflection on week 2 of LAK11 Hans de Zwart in which he quotes from a MIT Sloan Management review article on Big Data and analytics. The quote

The adoption barriers that organizations face most are managerial and cultural rather than related to data and technology. The leading obstacle to wide-spread analytics adoption is lack of understanding of how to use analytics to improve the business, according to almost four of 10 respondents.

This doesn’t come as a great surprise. After all, I think the biggest problems for universities when approaching many new technologies is grappling with the fact that most new technologies have biases that challenge the managerial and cultural assumptions upon which the institution operates. Being aware of and responding effectively to those challenges is what most institutions and those in power do really badly.

One contributing factor to this is that organisations and those in power work on assumptions that seek to maintain and reinforce their importance. Let’s use my experience as a starting university student as an example. As a new student at the university I am receiving all sorts of messages designed to help me make the transition back to study. Do you want to know what strikes me most about these messages and the transition assistance being provided?

That the organisation and communication of these help/transition resources correspond more to the structure of the organisation than to what might actually be useful to a new student. Some examples.

The “we’re here to help” message is a list of the different organisational units, which perhaps is not that surprising. But how about the “guide for students”.

Structure of a university guide for students

How would you expect a University guide for new students to be structured?

  1. By program?
    i.e. I’m enrolled in a Graduate Diploma in Learning and Teaching, a guide for those students?
  2. By discipline?
    i.e The GDL&T is within the education discipline, a guide for those students?
  3. By organisational unit?
    This university divides academic staff into schools and then schools into faculties (e.g. the Faculty of Arts, Business, Informatics and Education)
  4. One for the whole university?

Which would make the most sense? The more specific the guide, probably the more useful. But that might require more work (each program having its own guide) and lead to some fragmentation within the institution.

One of the whole university would reduce the workload and increase the commonality between students, however, it would fail to capture the diversity inherent in disciplines. I’m pretty sure that as a graduate education student, I’ll probably need to know things that are a bit different than an undergraduate engineer.

At this institution it is by organisational unit, by faculty. The institution only has two faculties. So there are two guides.

Content of the university guide

So, if the student guide is divided by faculty, then it must contain faculty specific information. Otherwise, why would there be a division.

The first really specific information mentioned was on page 12 of 19 when it mentioned residential schools for GDL&T students. However, some in the sciences and engineering do residential schools as well. On page 18 of 19 there is mention that Law students need to use a special referencing style. Apart from that there is no information that wasn’t generic to all students. Much check what’s in the other student guide.

Oh, this one starts differently. It has a letter from the Dean of the Faculty. Of course, it was only a couple of months into 2010 (by the way, both guides are still the 2010 guides, 2011 guides haven’t been uploaded yet even though a global “have you read the guides” message has been sent to all students) and the (acting) Dean had moved onto another role.

Another difference, this one mentions clothing and safety within laboratories and on field work. A lot more mention of RPL in this guide. Ahh specific information for engineering students. Must be a great help to all those non-engineering students in the faculty. And this one has screen shots of how students are to get assignment cover sheets, rather than the paragraph of text in the other guide.

So it does contain some different stuff, but still mostly institution level information and information that is already available in other forms elsewhere.

Why have these two guides?

In short, my answer would be, that the management of the two faculties have to do something. There doesn’t appear to be any other explanation why the student guides would be provided at this level. Not to mention that given they simply repeat information that is given elsewhere (and have yet to be updated for 2011) there’s probably no need for them. But it is something that has been done in the past, so it must be done now.

Organisational and cultural influences and problems for learning analytics

For me, this is an example of how organisational and cultural influences impact upon the effective delivery of learning and teaching within universities. Much of what is done, and why it is done, says more about the existing cultures, structures and agendas within the management of the institution than it does about what is best for learning and teaching.

And it won’t be any different for learning analytics. In many universities, the questions that will be asked of analytics will be those deemed important by management. It will be difficult for the questions asked to be designed to cater for the diversity of needs at the levels of discipline, program, teacher or student.

Which is why I’m worried when the Sloan article recommends this solution

Instead, organizations should start in what might seem like the middle of the process, implementing analytics by first defining the insights and questions needed to meet the big business objective and then identifying those pieces of data needed for answers.

The insights and questions that are defined are more likely to say something about the organisational and cultural influences of the host institution, than about what is best for learning and teaching.

Charity begins at home, doesn't it?

In the first few years of teaching information technology at university I met a number of mature age students who were returning to study to get degrees. These were amongst the most enjoyable students to teach, not to mention simply being the best students. One of those students struggled with aspects of the technology, but stuck at it and did well. So well, she ended up completing her PhD years and years before I even looked like completing mine. She even ended up being the head of the school teaching IT.

Not long after that she did a funny thing. At least it seemed a funny thing to me. She gave it up and got into doing volunteer work overseas. At that stage I couldn’t understand why she’d leave the safety and challenge of an academic job to do such a thing. These days I have a much better idea of why that might be attractive. But increasingly, the main reason I didn’t get it is captured by the phrase “charity begins at home”. Sure there are a lot of people in some really horrible situations overseas and they need all the help they can get. But the same can be said of situations closer to home.

Closer to home

This has been reinforced to me over the last 5 or so years. The small town closest to our home has a reputation for being rough. As far back as 30+ years ago when I was in primary school my friends in the rugby league team spoke with just a touch of fear of having to play the team from this small town. They were tougher and rougher than most and even at, or perhaps because of, that age it was assumed because they did it harder than us. And that was from kids who were in one of the other less well off areas. Observations of this small town over the last 5 years or so has reinforced this impression.

I was wondering if this impression is an ill-informed prejudice. So I went looking for some statistics. The Australian Bureau of Statistics maintains a socio-economic index for areas. From that list it is possible to identify 158 local government areas in the list. Ranked from most disadvantage to least, the small town I’m talking about comes in at 35. Perhaps not so bad. But then from my quick look, the majority of areas worse off are indigenous communities. What is happening in those communities is perhaps Australia’s greatest shame. That the local small town is ranked close to these communities suggests (within the limits of such statistics) that my impression has some foundation.

This then brings up the link between poverty and performance. As here and in related resources, “the strongest predictor of academic underperformance is poverty.” A finding that doesn’t bode well for the children of the local small town. The school’s 2009 annual report provides some support for this. On the year 9 NAPLAN tests the school’s average in all areas is less than the Australian average. Only 58.3% of Year 10 students at the school complete Year 10. In 2004, ABS figures suggest that between 1994 and 2004 average completion rates ranges from 60%-64% for males and 71%-75% for females. In the six years since 2004 the state government has been pushing for increased completion rates, so not great.

Where to teach?

As part of my studies next year I have to teach for periods of time in two local schools. We get to nominate our top 3 selections. For some student teachers, the schools they teach at during their training end up offering them positions. So, what sort of schools do I want to gain experience in? What sort of schools do I want to teach in? If charity begins at home, then surely I should be aiming to teach at the high school in the local small town? I think I will be a reasonable, if not good, high school teacher and there is a lot of research supporting claims that good teachers can make a difference.

Or, should I go with the local private school. A school that is currently turning students away and subsequently has a student cohort drawn from a much higher socio-economic group? I’ve been told I’d be attractive to such a school as I’ll have a PhD but still be on the salary of a first year teacher. i.e. I’m cheap and help tick some prestige boxes.

Isn’t it time to give something back?

The constraints of the systems

George Siemens has recently suggested that in his experience innovation within the systems of formal education such as k12 “is not producing the impact it should”. This resonates with my experience of the university sector and much of the experiences I’ve been hearing about within k12 recently. The nature of the formal education systems is getting in the way of change.

I spent much of my 20 years in universities fighting the system. Do I really want to spend the next phase of my working life fighting another system? I’m thinking I could probably make some difference working within the constraints of the system, but would it be enough? Could I be happy with that? Isn’t making do with the constraints of the system one of the contributing factors to the stability of the system?

All these and more will be answered for me personally over the coming years as I get into the process. Wondering what others who are going or have been through this process think?

Interesting times ahead

As described earlier the next couple of years probably has me becoming a high school teacher. A transition I am planning to blog about, perhaps eventually to do some research about. This comment by Scott Aldred suggests that this might be an interesting experience. Scott’s point is that various constraints and factors arising from the nature of public education and its organisation within Australia and Queensland are such that reflective blogging is not as straight forward as you might hope. Given that I’m generally somewhat cynical/critical, this might become problematic.

It is ironic that Scott’s comment is made on an article by Dean Shareski arguing/stating that having teachers blog is a great way to make them better teachers. It shall be interesting if I see evidence of the constraints Scott has seen.

He should know as he’s been a teacher educator at the University I’m returning to as a student. And if you look at the list of followers on his blog you can see quite a list of current/previous students from that university. Most of which appear to be keeping blogs about their journey as student teachers. Mostly as a requirement for their studies. Interesting times.

Delving into institutional information systems

As recently noted, I’m about to return to university study. Have decided that I’m going to keep a journal of the entire experience. Perhaps with some intent later on to use this as data for research around the student experience. This may be of some interest as I will be studying at the institution I worked for as an academic for 20 years.

Completing enrolment

My current task is to complete the enrolment process. This means I have to use the dreaded institutional ERP system. In the dim dark past this system did not have a good reputation, I’m wondering if it has improved?

Starting with downloading the guide

The first recommend step is to download the user guide. I don’t remember Amazon or similar online commerce sites requiring a user guide to be downloaded. Why should completing an enrolment process for a university be any different?

Oh dear, not only should I download the guide, I should also print it out. So, this not only suggests a somewhat less than usable system, it’s also not particularly sustainable.

Mmm, this is what is shown on the page to download the guide

please download and print the XXXX Student User Guide. This guide can be found here or by clicking on the words ‘XXXX Student User Guide‘ throughout this webpage

The underlined text represents links. Given that I am being advised to download and print this guide, I’m assuming I’ll get a PDF when I click on the link. Ahhh, no.

Instead I get taken to another page titled “Student user guides” which offers me a choice of three separate student guides. One for enrolment, one for Moodle and one for assessment. Each of these guides have their own sections on the page. The enrolment section contains exactly the same text as I’ve included above. Only this time when I click on the link I get the PDF.

At this stage, I have to remember to use the back arrow on the browser to return to the enrolment system. Ahh, no. That was just a web page with a list. You have to login elsewhere to get to the actual enrolment system.

The lovely portal

And you have to love this. The pages don’t give me the link directly to the system in which I have to complete my enrolment. I actually have to go to the student portal first, and then see the link to the enrolment system.

Usernames and passwords

Okay, they haven’t fixed this year. Student numbers at this institution come in three flavours, each starting with a different letter. The pre-peoplesoft student numbers have the letter followed by 8 digits. The post-peoplesoft student numbers have a letter followed by 7 digits. The pre-peoplesoft students have to remember to remove the last digit from their student number in order for the authentication system to work.

That’s right, all the documentation has to tell students to use different approaches depending on their student number. Why not just make the system accept both? Sounds like a perfect example of misplaced PEBKAC.

Now, new students are supposed be given a default initial password that lets them in. I’m thinking I might have some problems as I was enrolled as a Masters/PhD student at this institution a good 10 years ago. So I am guessing that my student number doesn’t have the default password.

It failed the first time, but this seems to have been user error. I tried again, very carefully and it seems to have worked. So I know have a very non-institutionally branded page from the SUN access manager to set options.

Ahh, restrictive password rules. Minimum 8 characters, must have 3 of 4….making passwords so difficult to create and remember that people have to write them down.

Ok, no its telling me that the current paswword I entered wasn’t correct. Which is interesting, as I was very careful to enter what I thought was correct. No, that didn’t work a second time……Ok, very carefully now. Caps lock is off. Nope, that didn’t work.

So, ignore that and see what else I can do. Change password reset options, that seemed to work. Not real well, but it worked. What about change my email address, I’d prefer it to go to my gmail account. Ahh, I get the error “mail-User does not have sufficient access”, but the changed value is there.

Ok, so what do I do know? I was trying to login to the enrolment system. Let’s click on “Help”….Ahh no, a 404 error.

Moving on

Regardless of the above, I am able to get into the portal and the enrolment system. So, let’s press on while it works. After all the aim here is complete my enrolment, not diagnose intermittent problems with institutional authentication systems.

Oh dear, the start page of the enrolment system is littered with “important” notes all in bold and centered. Making it difficult to read. Oh wait, there’s another link to the student guide. Of course, all of the important stuff has no connection to me at all. Why doesn’t the enrolment system know that I’m currently trying to complete my enrolment? Why isn’t the first thing I see when I login to this system direct guidance on completing my enrolment?

Oh, and I’m being a naughty boy using Chrome. Best viewed with IE7, IE8 and Firefox. The addition of Firefox is a step up from previous advice.

So, I’m past the important information and into “David’s Student Centre”. I’m here to accept my offer. Surely there has to be a prominent link on this page to help me do this? Ahh, there it is. Down the bottom. Ahh, a popup which Chrome rejected, thought it accepted it from another institutional page.

Ahh, it’s an acceptance wizard. Only 13 steps. First step was click accept. No I have a page and a bit of text with HTML elements mixed in with content, perhaps due to using Chrome. But come on, it’s just a page of text. How can you do that in a non-standard format?

Bad formatting

Page 3 doesn’t have any bad formatting, but page 4 does. And page 3 had various form elements….not even consistent? And now onto the “HEC form” and the problems are horrendous, see the image.

So, I have to login with Firefox. Don’t want to go through the portal, so type in the direct URL. Ahh, just the host name doesn’t work, click on “Peoplesoft login”, ahh, redirected to authentication system. Logging in again. The default password seems to be working.

The system knows that I haven’t completed the form. So it asks me straight away to complete it. Why didn’t it use this before?

Okay, so the pages are displayed fine with Firefox. Gees, it’s just text and a couple of check boxes. That’s done.

So now I have to select a specific plan for secondary. I thought I’d already done this, but apparently have to do it again. Okay done.

“Tacit” knowledge

I’m just thinking what this process must be like for someone with no experience of this institution. There’s a lot of knowledge I’ve built up over the years that makes navigating all this much easier. I’m finding simply navigating the system a little challenging. If I had the extra cognitive load of not knowing the terminology….

Adding courses

Oh, this is interesting. When I’m selecting specific courses to enrol with, I can see that

Your enrolment shopping cart is empty

The student as customer message is being established early.

Okay, to add a course, I have to search for it. Course codes are the traditional peopelsoft XXXXYYYYY, where XXXX is a subject code (e.g. EDED), and YYYYY is the catalog nbr (e.g. 20491). The trouble is that only peoplesoft and folk who feed it really care about this distinction. For everyone else a course code is EDED20491.

This is important because the “search” form for courses requires that you know that EDED is subject code and that the number is a different part. Even though all the printed docs accepting me don’t make this distinction. In addition, the search form by default has “Course Career” set to non award. The system knows that I am studying a postgraduate program, but it hasn’t set this properly. So I have to know how to change this.

All this is increasing the cognitive load of the student. I can imagine students without knowledge of the institution having to waste time looking up the guides, looking for that bit of information that helps get them past each little step.

At least the search form has remembered the settings I created from the first search. It shows it can be made easier.

Of course, this program has a fixed set of courses. I have no choice. I have to complete the courses that are set. So why should I have to actively choose the courses via the system, why aren’t the courses already set?

A hold on your record

So I select the courses and go to finish the process. Only to find out that there is a hold on my record. So I can’t enrol until that is removed. I wonder what it is?

There is a “Fix Errors” button which when pushed takes me back to the start of the add courses process. This is not going to do anything about the hold. At least, my understanding suggests that.

I saw another part of the home page mentioning holds. If I go back and look at that it is apparent that the Division of Financial Services at the institution thinks I owe it almost $5000. That’s interesting.

Also interesting that in processing my application and accepting me into the program, there was no mention of the holds. Seems I’m destined not to complete my enrolment today. Time to email the debtors address.

Student email

Actually, I’m wondering if my student email account has any insights to share on this. The student email system was purposely modified not to allow students to forward official email to their personal email accounts. And I haven’t ever checked it. Maybe there is something there.

Oh, my session has timed out. Okay, log back in. Oh dear, no there is a 404 error on the portal. What’s more, it’s for that absolutely essential resource – dtfavicon.ico – the little icon for the browser to show!

Ignore that, back to another page, into web mail. No, nothing there.

A turning point

I am unsure whether or not I believe in specific turning points. Perhaps life is a bit more complex. The metaphor of life as a road with specific forks which mark the turning points, seems a bit simplistic. But today does feel like a turning point due to two events:

  1. reaching closure on the PhD; and
    I’ve just sent off a complete draft of the thesis to ANU for a couple of folk to reading and the provision of pre-submission feedback. The thesis is no longer some Sword of Damocles hanging over my head, demanding attention and effort. Instead, I sit back, have a life, enjoy the family and think about what I might do (hence this post).
  2. acceptance as a University student.
    Today I received acceptance into the Graduate Diploma of Learning and Teaching at CQUniversity.

Changes in the blog and my PLN?

This turning point also marks, I think, a turning point in this blog. It’s going to take on a more educational/high school focus. The IT side of things will remain, but there will also be an increase in mathematics since I’ll be a math/IT teacher, probably. You are warned.

I’m also wondering how this will and should influence my PLN. I’m already feeling that some of the uni folk I follow are becoming slightly less relevant to my learning needs. Though they do remain interesting and insightful. I’m beginning to wonder if I prune and what I’d miss if I did.

Ideas and suggestions

You may want to skip the whinging diatribe about university L&T and jump to the more future looking perspective. This is where I outline what I’m doing to prepare for the future and would love some ideas and suggestions about “what should a novice high school teacher be thinking about?”.

Turning away?

To some extent I am turning away from being a part of the technologists alliance as described by Geoghegan (1994)

The last decade has seen the formation of an alliance between “technologist” populations concerned with instructional computing. Those involved include faculty innovators and early adopters, campus IT support organizations, and information technology vendors with products for the instructional market. Ironically, while this alliance has fostered development of many instructional applications that clearly illustrate the benefits that technology can bring to teaching and learning, it has also unknowingly worked to prevent the dissemination of these benefits into the much larger mainstream population.

In particularly, I was part of a group within a university charged with helping improve the quality of teaching. Increasingly, most universities have such a group or groups.

I am incredibly happy to be leaving this type of group. Not that there aren’t some great people (not to mention some silly and downright dishonest and hurtful) doing some great work. But the technologists alliance within universities, as a whole, is going the wrong way and most of the senior leaders of this alliance are actively enabling that trend. They seem to be actively creating systems that don’t value teaching. What’s worse, I see a system that is increasingly hurting the members of the alliance that work at the coal face. The type of frustration reported by Mike Bogle is more prevalent than those in leadership positions understand.

The fundamental problem here, at least for me, is the insidious growth of techno-rational approaches to “leadership” within universities. An approach that assumes that the leaders can identify what is required and then tell their staff to implement those solutions. This can never work because Universities and teaching and learning are much more complex than simple solutions. The trouble is that when those solutions fail, it’s never because the leadership identified the wrong solutions. It because their staff didn’t implement it well enough. The staff carry the can.

To make matters worse, by this time a new VC or other leadership have arrived at the institution. Leadership on a short-term contract determined to make a mark so that they can receive another short-term contract, preferably one step up the ladder. To make their mark, they need to argue for radical change. They need to hold up prior work as somehow flawed, identify some scape goats, identify some new solutions and implement them, preferably minus the scape goats who were suposed to implement the previous solutions.

I suggest that you can see some evidence of this process in the summary of the report of an ALTC project. This project was titled “Strategic Leadership for Institutional Teaching and Learning Centres: Developing a Model for the 21st Century”. The report looks at the findings from a survey of 31 of the 38 Directors of Teaching and Learning Centres at Australian universities. It’s first finding was that the average centre “would have been restructured sometime in the previous one to three years”.

The triumph of the techno-rational approaches to leadership has resulted in a university sector that is increasingly trying to improve the quality of learning and teaching by fiat. By telling academics you will do X, complete GradCert Y, use LMS Z, be guided by principles L. And at the same time ignoring the context within which academics operate and what those academics already know and are doing.

A few months ago I was interviewed for a position as the head of a group of educational developers. We were asked to provide a vision of the enhancement of learning and teaching. I provided one that focused on creating an environment that helped academics (and the broader institution) reflect on what was happening and struggling to improve. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

Based on the questions I was asked, both before and during the interview, the strong message was that they wanted someone who would manage the group as a service provider. I have some qualms about the impact of using the client/server metaphor, but lets leave those aside. The impression I received was not that the client in this relationship was not the teaching academics. The client was the Dean of the faculty. The service to be provided, was whatever the Dean thought was appropriate. See above points.

Needless to say, I am incredibly happy not to have gotten the job.

Turning toward?

Looking forward. In the short term, it looks like I’ll be a Math and Information Technology high school teacher. At least that is what I’ll be studying next year. I’ve already started reading and listening to more high school related resources. I’m increasingly interested in being more directly responsible for teaching and being able to experiment with all the insights, tools and practices which I think are important. At the same time, I’m also realistic enough to know that the school system has its own problems. It too has been invaded by techno-rationalist approaches to management. There are bugger all resources. Aspects of the system are as buggered, if not more so, than the university sector. But importantly, I’m hoping that there will be possibilities for taking some control of what I do in the classroom and subsequently what is inflicted upon students.

In preparation, I’ve been

  • listening more to the Future of Education podcasts and looking for more of the same;
  • purchased a bunch of books on mathematics in order to (re-)discover my inner math nerd;
  • joined the AAMT mailing list;
    And in a few days have already discovered that I have far to go before being a math nerd.
  • begun collecting online resources and sources related to teaching; and
  • beginning to reflect upon my thoughts on teaching and learning.
    George Siemens recent post is an interesting spring board, as is much of the above.

Either way, it’s a damn good feeling to be finally completing one chapter and moving onto another.

If you have ideas or suggestions that can help me be better prepared for this next chapter, fire away.

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