Thursday, 21 August 2014

Connecting the Nation: Co-evolution of Research & Blogging

Reflecting on how one develops a research profile is a worthwhile experience. It has led me to change the name of my blog. It has also become the catalyst for me to develop a research philosophy that will inform my future research priorities. This is the story of how my blog and my research have co-evolved over the last eight years.

My honours thesis was entitled National Security versus Civil Liberties: Does Australia Need a Bill of Rights? My first academic publication shared the same theme. When I commenced my PhD research in 2005, I was interested in how we might curb the power of executive government. Consequently, this blog for a few weeks back in 2007 was entitled "On the Wallaby", named after the poem Freedom on the Wallaby by Henry Lawson. The song just happens to be the theme for the radio show "The Rebel Chorus: Folk with a Political Edge" which I have co-presented (usually every third Saturday from 10am to 12pm) on Canberra's 2XX 98.3 Community FM since late 2006.

Of course, like most bloggers, after about six or seven attempts at solving the world's problems I had little else to say, but at that time nobody was paying much attention to blogs. After much consideration, I decided that there was no proper research question in my proposed thesis and that, along with my blog, it represented little more than my polemic reaction to the disappointing turn in Australian politics. Yet I believed a Dixonian approach to curbing executive powers, 'reinforced by an informed and vigilant citizenry', might be an adequate cure to the political ills of the time.

This led me to the Internet, what I then considered to be the most effective way of bypassing the information gatekeepers, and to focus on how citizens' access to the Internet might be improved. Having considered cyber-citizenship during my undergraduate degree (inspired by Dr Andrew Vandenberg at Deakin University, who also happened to be the lecturer who taught me how to write an essay, and all by distance education) and being encouraged by Professor Linda Briskman to publish my work after writing an essay "Blueprint for Telstra: Privatisation by Stealth", the lack of broadband access was an obvious impediment to a vigilant and informed citizenry and my research direction stemmed from these early influences.

I was keen to establish a blog and immerse myself in social media and new communications technologies and to experiment with technology in my teaching. Most of my colleagues warned me that there was nothing new in communications technology and that blogging was little more than a "career killer" to be avoided. However, after meeting Professor Michael Geist at the University of Ottawa while conducting fieldwork for my PhD thesis, I discovered that it was not unusual for academics to have their own blogs. Well, at least not in Canada. I have since learnt to be more discerning.

So I decided to blog about my research, and the blog itself emerged as "Broadbanding the Nation". This blog became a space for me to explore my ideas in writing and to focus specifically on my area of research interest. This was also my thesis title and the phrase appeared in the title of a book chapter I wrote in 2008. However, by the time I finished my thesis, I had compared the deployment of the major communications technologies in Canada and Australia from the time of the telegraph until developments in broadband at the time of my thesis submission in 2012. This period encompassed the introduction of the NBN but "broadbanding" was no longer an accurate description of what I had covered in my research. In the end, my thesis became "Connecting the Nation: An historical institutionalist explanation for divergent communications technology outcomes in Canada and Australia". The change to "Connecting the Nation" has some history.

My intention was not to specialise in communications technology research so much as to understand the nature of communications technology policy and how this, in turn, affected citizens' ability to be "informed and vigilant " through access to information via the Internet. In order to focus on my main interests in political science, it became clear that focusing on one industry was quite limiting in terms of theory development and the application of political science theories in general. As my teaching specialisation covers both government-business relations and leadership (both focused on institutions and how these tend to govern behaviour in the absence of an exogenous force), my reading encompasses far more than communications technologies alone.

Yet network infrastructure (not only telecommunications) fascinates me, and looking back on all those years since I completed a traineeship in warehousing (hydraulics and pneumatics spare parts and later seals and bearings and managing the Comalco account for the Cairns branch of SKF), then later as an Artillery officer and later still, as a Pay Corps officer (where I completed my Logistic Officer Intermediate Course at the Army Logistic Training Centre), I haven't been far away from the field. "Connecting the Nation", then, takes on a whole new meaning.

My latest research project will consider high-speed rail and other transport and logistics infrastructure, focusing on the Brisbane-Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne corridor. In the immediate future, I hope to investigate high-speed rail policy developments in Australia in comparison with other nations in the region such as New Zealand and Singapore. While the Rudd government had signalled an intention to develop a high-speed rail link, this quickly disappeared following their election defeat. Nonetheless, with an offer from the Japanese on the table that may result in an interesting public-private partnership to utilise a new tunnelling technology, high-speed rail appears to be back on the policy agenda.

With the Sydney-Melbourne air route ranked the fifth busiest in the world and the Sydney-Brisbane route ranked twelfth, a high-speed rail link appears to be a feasible solution to a congestion problem that can only intensify if government does not actively enable new infrastructure. Unlike telecommunications, however, the federal government does not have clear jurisdiction for rail. Indeed, this is the opposite of the situation in Canada and makes for an interesting policy problem of how federal systems address infrastructural policy development (and the related interoperability issues with various transport and logistics technologies) where it crosses different jurisdictions.

Expanding my research focus to transport and logistics is an important part of the logistic continuum to support the digital economy. Indeed, the telegraph was an important part of railway development, and telegraph infrastructure went hand-in-hand with the deployment of rail networks. It is the same today: the digital economy requires ever-increasing efficiency in physical distribution management. Like broadband, it is obvious to the international traveller that Australia is lagging the world in adopting modern transport and logistics technologies and I am hoping that some of the research approaches I have developed to explain divergent communication technology policy outcomes will be equally applicable to transport and logistics. "Connecting the Nation" represents this new research direction.

In many ways, this expansion of my research interests is leading me to consider developing a "research philosophy". Given that my teaching philosophy informs my pedagogical approach to curriculum design, it is logical that my research should be similarly informed. I hope that this blog will continue as a space for me to explore and record my research interests. Much like the development of my ideas about broadband, my wish is that "Connecting the Nation" will help me to remain focused in my area of research interest, and hopefully that others will also find it a useful resource.

It is interesting that my interest in the co-evolution of institutions and communications technologies reappears here in the form of the co-evolution of my research profile and this blog.

Friday, 8 August 2014

e-Learning: Putting student choice to the test

A recent Boston Consulting Group report suggests that, to remain relevant, universities need to tap in to the "evolving educational behaviors and preferences" of the Millennial generation. What appears to be driving this is "the shift in the definition of an expert from only those who have professional or academic credentials to also include peers or close friends [coupled with] this generation’s overall tech savviness”. 

But does student choice lead to an improvement in graduates’ skills?

It’s time we put student choice to the test.

Anecdotes abound

Endless anecdotes about student expectations dominate the higher education sector. These are then used to determine the strategic direction of universities.

The expectations materialise in TV advertisements where professors individually call their students to provide feedback or where students are told they can determine their own learning priorities simply by using tablets, apps and other gadgets. 

Some common anecdotes include:
But most of these ideas originated with the rise of communications technologies and the desire to increase student choice in an increasingly consumer-driven economy.

What is the impact of technology on quality?

Many suggest that modern communications technologies mean that the shortcomings of the traditional university education can be overcome by providing technologically savvy students with greater choices about where and how they obtain a qualification.

On the flip side, technology and being technologically savvy play their part in reducing the quality of university education through the increase in academic crimes such as plagiarism. Some YouTube-style “edutainers” even suggest that plagiarism is an outdated way of thinking about individual skills’ development as opposed to how we actually operate in the economy.

Yet most educators would agree that if you cheat by copying the work of others, you are simply “cheating yourself out of your education”. Further, the formal, face-to-face exam is a sure-fire way to prove that the person sitting the exam is the person who will be receiving the qualification. Hardly high technology yet very effective.

Providing greater student choice and flexibility through technology is one thing, ensuring the student has the skills expected of a certain level of education is quite another.

Some evidence that student choice doesn’t work

A recent report on the training and assessment for gaining a “White Card” – the safety qualification required for construction workers to enter building sites – found some disturbing trends driven by student choice:
  • Online training meant that it was difficult to ensure that the person undertaking the assessment was actually the person issued with the White Card
  • Most online courses were too short to allow for adequate training and assessment
  • Most courses assessed knowledge and not skills
  • Many traditional ‘face-to-face’ training providers where leaving the market as they could not compete with those delivering online
In this case, student choice led to less expensive options dominating the market place. Regrettably, this has also resulted in a lowering in the level of skills attainment by these same students. Where safety is concerned, there is general agreement that expert opinion has more substance than student choice.

Student choice

Labor’s “Education Revolution” led to one of the biggest changes in higher education in years: the provision of university education based on student choice. From a consumers’ perspective, this is a sure thing.

Not surprisingly, student choice drives efficiencies in universities. Consequently, courses or fields that are no longer cost-effective have been routinely removed from universities. Efficiencies mean more students can become “customers” of universities.

Yet if the growth in numbers of university students increases, students can expect to see “increasing class sizes, more sessional staff, small enrolment classes closing, ageing facilities”. This will make it more difficult for universities to meet students’ expectations.

What is most disturbing is that student choice appears likely to lead to a lowering in the standard of skills development in university graduates.

And to top it off, if lecturers are reduced to the same status as their students, it is hard to see how any of this can be good for the nation. Indeed, if students are increasingly in charge of their own learning, how could we know if they have developed the skills expected of graduates?

How could we know?

Research suggests that low levels of adult numeracy and literacy “hurt Australians and our economy”. Despite its unpopularity with many commentators, NAPLAN has gone a long way to focusing the foundational years of education on these important skills. At the very least, it continues to highlight the shortcomings of the education system.

Indeed, a recent NAPLAN report has led to suggestions that teachers (who also happen to be university graduates) do not have adequate skills to raise numeracy and literary standards. Much like NAPLAN, addressing the shortcomings of the consumer-driven model by assessing graduates’ skills through a national approach makes a lot of sense. It would provide the evidence to either confirm or invalidate the anecdotes.

A university-level NAPLAN or similar designed to test the general skills expected of university graduates would provide greater assurance to the real consumers of university courses – the communities and industries those graduates serve. 

Only then could we be sure that students did not choose to take the easy course.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Moodle: Higher Ed's Great Open Source Experiment

What is Moodle?

Moodle is an open source educational platform that has a global reach with millions of users worldwide. As part of this open source experiment, many Australian educational institutions have adopted Moodle as their primary Learning Management System (LMS). Unlike proprietary LMS, which tend to be pedagogically neutral, Moodle’s “social constructivist” underpinnings have changed the nature of how education is delivered in these institutions. But is the change for the better?

Open source versus proprietary software

Unlike proprietary or commercial software, "open source" means that the software code is freely available and institutions do not have to pay licence fees based on the number of users. However, institutions pay for support services such as their own (or third-party) help-desks and technicians to implement and manage the software on their servers (whether owned by the institution or controlled by a third party).

In contrast to commercial LMS, Moodle has a huge fan base of teachers, technicians and enthusiasts who enjoy participating in the Moodle community. Many of Moodle's followers are ideologues who are pleased to see educational institutions getting away from commercial providers.

Essentially, the difference between Moodle and commercial LMS is that Moodle's code can be edited by anybody, whereas proprietary code can only be edited by the developer. The ideologues suggest that this gives educators greater control over the learning space.

The Moodle Army

Moodle’s philosophy of social constructivism emphasises that learning occurs in collaboration with others and through interaction with one's environment. In effect, explaining ideas and receiving feedback in a social setting leads to deeper learning. This pedagogical approach suggests that, in a shared learning environment, learners can be teachers and teachers can be learners as we learn from each other.

This is quite different from the traditional model where the expert teacher transfers knowledge to the passive, inexpert student.

In theory, Moodle’s open source code allows anybody to create and recreate the learning space. In practice, however, most educators have very little influence over the development of Moodle, with a huge army of developers and teacher-teachers controlling its evolution. As Moodle's reach increases, the egalitarian philosophy underpinning the software dissipates because the number of technicians with sufficient skills to edit the software are relatively small in number.

The problem then is that the social construction of Moodle's learning space, much like a polity, is necessarily governed by technical elites who act to protect the integrity of the system and ensure it is governed efficiently. As with a democratic polity, this problem is overcome by development priorities being voted upon by the army of Moodle followers. This way, users still have a say in its development.

Moodle is outgrowing its philosophy

However, as Moodle grows, its underpinning philosophy suffers.

During the preceding decades of technology-driven education, institutional helpdesks did not exist for commercial LMS (outside of the normal corporate IT helpdesk). Further, central teacher training facilities focused on teacher development in pedagogically-driven curriculum design and learning practices. However, with the implementation of Moodle, separate LMS helpdesks have been established and teacher training facilities have been over-run by technicians, many who have little to no teaching experience or actual contact with students.

While enthusiasts can vote on development priorities for the software, many teachers are not aware that their future curriculum design priorities are at the whim of the Moodle Army. Often these priorities are driven by Moodle’s previous problems rather than good teaching practice.

There is a major downside to the open source model. As the design problems now belong to the community, rather than the commercial developer, a great deal of a teacher's time is spent on making Moodle work, rather than designing curricula and teaching.

The silent critics

The Moodle Army ensures a constant supply of followers who prevent criticism of the system, with almost all reviews of Moodle captured by the Moodle community itself. Dissenting voices are rarely heard in the mainstream and are effectively relegated to blogs and social media sites.

But water-cooler discussions between coal-face teachers rarely celebrate Moodle's successes. Rather, lecturers will often be heard complaining about how much of their research time was wasted by dealing with endless Moodle problems.

A common problem with open source software is that it is rarely ever "finished" as it is constantly under development. This puts added demands on educators as what was typical in one teaching term suddenly disappears without rhyme or reason in the next.

The tail wagging the dog

Unless a coalition of voters is formed to "vote-up" system improvements, educational requirements are not prioritised in Moodle's development schedule. Indeed, the nature of crowd sourcing tends to have the same effect on Moodle as it does on web forums: a polarised community supporting one idea or another.

Nevertheless, this explains why each Moodle update tends to remove functionality and add a new, under-tested functionality that often requires an entire redesign of the curriculum to suit Moodle's whimsical approach to development.

And herein lies the problem: Moodle's philosophy is hamstrung by its own system. The learning space that is socially constructed by the Moodle Army becomes the technologically-determined learning space where educators have little to no involvement.

Macro-constructivism but micro-determinism

Social construction of technology theory holds that technology is constructed by humans as a tool - we are in control. However, technological determinism sees technology as self-perpetuating - we are not really in control and tend to be at the whim of technology.

At the macro-level, Moodle is socially constructed by its ideological army. However, at the micro-level - the coal-face if you will - educators are forced to teach according to the technology.

Moodle's tentacles

As Moodle gets bigger, it becomes further embedded in the fabric of the educational institution. Sunk costs, strategic partnerships and contractual arrangements, and embedded interoperability with other institutional information systems make it difficult to undo Moodle's impact. In the meantime, technical people, not specialists, determine how teaching and learning occurs.

Many Moodle supporters see its implementation as a victory for the open source movement and a move away from intellectual elitism in the classroom. However, the experiment in social constructivism has resulted in the antithesis of the software's ideologically-driven pedagogy. Indeed, the technology is determining how teachers teach and students learn.

As for higher ed's great open source experiment, Moodle has certainly not lived up to its expectations.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Despite NBN, Australia still lags behind the OECD average for broadband

The focus on broadband in the 2007 election, followed by the formation of NBN Co in 2009, means that we are now fast approaching seven years since Australia's poor international performance in broadband penetration appeared large on the policy radar. 

But how much difference has it made?

By June 2013, after cumulative losses by NBN Co of $1.8 billion, cumulative expenditure by NBN Co of $2 billion, and an administered investment in NBN Co by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) of some $3.4 billion (not to mention a great deal of pre-existing programs and other initiatives to market and promote broadband and later NBN - see Note 1), Australia remained below the OECD average for fixed-line broadband subscribers ranking 18th in the OECD with penetration at 25.6%. Conversely, Canada ranked 11th with penetration at 32.8%.

Back in June 2007, when broadband was well and truly the political issue of the day in Australia, Canada was ranked 9th with 25% penetration, with Australia ranked 12th with about 23% penetration. At this particular time, Australia was ranking above the OECD average (Note 2). Scratch the surface and look at price, speeds and download limits, however, and the picture is significantly gloomier.

One of the most interesting aspects of Canada's broadband policy approach has been the government's insistence on "forbearing" from regulating the industry and using targeted measures where required (such as the Broadband Canada: Connecting Rural Canadians strategy - see Note 3).

The policy of forbearance has ensured very little government involvement in the industry since the election of the Harper government in 2006. Nonetheless, Canada has extended its lead over Australia in fixed-line broadband services. Organically.

Industry Canada state the government's policy clearly and succinctly:
"The provision of broadband service is a private enterprise not regulated by government"
Then Fairfax CEO David Kirk hit the nail on the head way back in 2007:
"I think it's usually about market structure and regulation rather than technology or government policy"
Of course, people only really heard him mention "fraudband". Nothing about markets or regulation.

So what difference have seven years and billions of dollars of public money done for broadband in Australia? Regrettably, not a lot. Or to put it simply, it has enabled Australia to catch up to where Canada was when Australians first realised they were suffering from "fraudband".

  1. NBN Co and DBCDE Annual Reports, 2009-2013.
  2. OECD (2008) Broadband Growth & Policies, p. 25. However, Australia ranked 17th in 2006 and 16th in 2008, so the 2007 figure does not reflect that Australia was below average in the years before and after the election. Neither does it show how the ACCC was reporting Australia's broadband as 200 kbps before this role was dropped. See my earlier article here.
  3. Broadband Canada (archive)

Thursday, 24 April 2014

My Ranking: Lecturer of the Year 2013

Thank you to everybody who voted for me in last year's UniJobs "Lecturer of the Year"  competition. For the fourth year in a row, I have ranked number 1 at the University of Canberra. However, in 2013, I ranked number 10 nationally. You can read the original article at the link below:

Lecturer Of The Year - Vote for your favourite lecturer

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Broadbanding the Nation by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License, unless indicated otherwise. Based on a work at