Trip report on Australia visit: The Higher Ed Times are a-changin’

November 28, 2011 at 10:03 am Leave a comment

As I mentioned last week, Barb and I spent the week visiting Australia.  We gave talks in Melbourne (keynote at Melbourne Computing Education Conventicle and teacher workshop), Adelaide (presentation on MediaComp at Festival of Teaching and Learning and on CS outreach), and Sydney (joint keynote at Sydney Computing Education Conventicle, then MediaComp talk at alumni end-of-term BBQ).  I’ve uploaded all the talk slides at http://coweb.cc.gatech.edu/mediaComp-plan/1, if you’d like to see any of them.

It was a really interesting time to visit Australia.  Higher education is going through some dramatic changes there.  I don’t understand the current system all that well, so I don’t understand exactly what’s changing.  I did hear a lot about what the new system will look like.

Higher education enrollment used to be “capped,” with a certain number of well-ranked students being given access to Universities.  There are almost no private Universities in Australia.

Under the new system, there are “no caps.”  Universities can take as many students as they wish (where Universities have some say on their goals for their enrollment, e.g., to keep a high test score average for an entering class vs. having increased diversity).  Private Universities will be allowed, maybe even encouraged.  There will be funding for Universities associated with taking students from lower socioeconomic status (SES) high schools.  Funding will be tied to retention and graduation rates.  All of these changes start in 2012.

The new system features TEQSA, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.  I heard a presentation in Adelaide about TEQSA and how the University of Adelaide is responding to it.  Currently, there is a huge effort in establishing standards for all their undergraduate and graduate programs, and starting next year, there TEQSA will also be part of accreditation (a “regulatory function,” in the words of their website) starting in January 2012.  I was a bit worried about the standards process from the presentation I heard.  It’s all “demand-driven” (their emphasis) with interviews with literally hundreds of stakeholders, especially industry.  After my talk on Media Computation, someone asked me, “But is industry asking for Liberal Arts majors to learn to program?”  Of course not, I explained.  Teaching all Liberal Arts majors about programming is about enabling innovation and creating a market differentiation.  I told one of my stories about students in Liberal Arts, Architecture, and Management getting interviews and jobs because they have a unique computer science background that peer students might not.  I explicitly said that that’s the problem of being “demand-driven” in setting standards — how do you plan for the future where your students are going to live?  (Our host in Adelaide, Katrina Faulkner, said that the Dean of Humanities approached her after my talk and asked if the Adelaide CS department could offer a similar course.  Someone from their Education school came up to me and said that her eyes were opened — she’d never thought about teaching CS to high school teachers before.  A good start for a conversation!)

I suspect that some of the higher education changes were drivers for our visit.  Some funding for our visit came from the Australia Council of Deans of ICT programs.  I heard a presentation in Sydney from Tony Koppi of ACDICT, where he talked about a study that they had just completed about why students leave computing programs.  The most common complaints were the same ones that drove the design of Media Computation, e.g., that students found the CS courses irrelevant and boring.  Tony explicitly called for exploring contextualized computing education.  Retention is clearly on their minds nowadays, and that’s one of the outcome variables that MediaComp has had the most success influencing.  They are also quite concerned with drawing more students into computing, especially among women and members of underrepresented minorities. Barbara was pressed for her lessons learned on CS outreach in all three cities.  I don’t think ACDICT is telling Australian computing departments to do as we do, but they are asking computing departments to think about these issues.

One of the most interesting interventions I heard about from ACDICT was their ACDICT Learning and Teaching Academy (ALTA), whose goal is: “To contribute to improvement in the perception of and the actual quality of learning and teaching across the ICT disciplines.” I thought the “perception of and actual quality” combination was particularly realistic!  I heard a presentation on ALTA in Melbourne, where they emphasized that they want to address “Grand Challenges” in computing education.  I’m interested in watching to see what they identify!

P.S.

Yes, we found Australia interesting and fun.  We took our two daughters. (Our son is a Sophomore at Georgia Tech, and had class through Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so couldn’t afford the time off.)  We pet kangaroos in Melbourne; had dinner in an Australian home in Sydney that sat on a peninsula directly between Sydney Harbor and the ocean, with beautiful views to both sides; and saw a play at the Sydney Opera House Friday before heading home.  Melbourne was so interesting (Royal Botanic Gardens are a must see), Adelaide was so beautiful (probably the prettiest campus I’ve yet visited), and Sydney is probably really nice when it isn’t raining for four days straight.  The visit to the Sydney Hyde Park Barracks was a highlight for me, learning about how Sydney grew into the amazing city it is from a society of convicts.  I’m really glad that we got the opportunity to visit and learn about Australia.  Thanks to the ACM Distinguished Speakers Program, ACDICT, and funding from our hosts.  Our hosts took great care of us, and we’re grateful: Catherine Lang at Swinburne, Katrina Falkner at U. Adelaide, and Judy Kay at U. Sydney.

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