higher education

My urgent wish list for Australian education

Each day this week, EduResearch Matters will publish the views of educational leaders on the state of education in Australia on the eve of the federal election. Today: Caroline Mansfield, Dean, School of Education, Fremantle Campus, University of Notre Dame in Western Australia

Tuesday, linked here: Jim Watterston, Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Monday, linked here: Susan Ledger, Dean of Education, University of Newcastle.

Wish 1: Strategic investment to build a better regional, rural and remote (RRR) workforce

The issue of attraction and retention of teachers working in RRR contexts is not new, yet preparing teachers to work in these contexts is challenging. Investment is needed to support a range of strategies to build a better RRR workforce in Education and to encourage pre-service teachers have at least one placement in a RRR context. Successful models of how this might be achieved can be found in other disciplines. For example, the Majarlin Kimberley Centre for Remote Health which is a collaboration between 5 universities, aims to contribute to increased recruitment and retention of the health workforce in the Kimberley through placements, skills and knowledge for working in remote locations, cultural safety and innovative models of care. A model like this multi-university training hub would make a significant difference to the education workforce in RRR contexts, and could potentially improve outcomes for students living in non-metropolitan areas. 

Wish 2: Supported collaboration between ITE providers and employers 

Collaboration and meaningful partnerships between employers and ITE providers are critical for supporting teacher quality, transition to the profession, ongoing professional learning and research. The recent QITE report advocates such collaboration specifically to support the early years of teaching, a welcome move. Funding schemes to support collaboration on areas of strategic priority, and research to provide the evidence base for successful interventions will be essential as we move forward.

Wish 3: An evidence informed, career-span approach to teacher quality

The issue of teacher quality in Australia is also not new, and reforms to improve teacher quality have largely focused on Initial Teacher Education (ITE), with little evidence provided to support the view that ITE providers are not graduating high quality teachers. Although a further swathe of reforms is due, there is significant lag time for these reforms to impact the profession – 2025 at the earliest. What happens between now and then? 

Focusing the quality teacher debate on ITE and prospective teachers neglects some broader professional issues of current teachers such as heavy workloads, stress, mental ill-health, increased external regulation and accountability, along with the declining status of teachers in Australian society. While these challenges are also well known, investment in school-based support to ease teacher workload (such as educational assistants, psychologists, allied health, administrative support) has not kept pace with demand. Investment is needed to improve working conditions for teachers, which in turn will increase attractiveness of the profession to potential teachers. 

Caroline Mansfield is Professor and Executive Dean, Faculty of Education, Philosophy and Theology. In 2016, she became an Australian Teaching and Learning Fellow, having won a National Teaching Fellowship to continue her work regarding resilience in higher education (www.stayingbrite.edu.au).

If only we really wanted to solve the problems

Each day this week, EduResearch Matters will publish the views of educational leaders on the state of education in Australia on the eve of the federal election. Today: Jim Watterston, Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Yesterday: Susan LedgerDean of Education, University of Newcastle.

As we head towards a federal election, commitments in the school education arena from the mainstream political parties seem to be both inadequate and misguided.

In my view, both the Government and the Opposition have taken a very limited policy focus from a school education perspective that does not effectively address the ‘so called’ problem. Put bluntly, the underlying rationale from both parties for proposed change is that the quality of students currently entering Universities to become teachers are not of sufficient standard. It seems that universities don’t really know how to adequately prepare the next generation of super-teachers who can turn around our academic fortunes! Simplistically, the rhetoric from both political camps goes along the lines of “if only we could attract the best students who have achieved an ATAR in Year twelve in the top thirty percent of the population, then we would be able to regain our once esteemed international PISA test results ranking and also improve the performance of all students in NAPLAN reading and mathematics testing”.

The recently released Quality Initial Teacher Education (QITE) Review commissioned by Minister (at the time) Alan Tudge, proposes seventeen curious and seemingly disconnected recommendations to improve the quality of new teachers graduating out of universities and transitioning into the profession. The Government report is the basis for reforms to lift school performance standards. More recently Shadow Minister, Tanya Plibersek has released a Labor policy commitment, should they be returned to government, that aims to ‘out-Tudge’ the government in the ITE problem solving domain.

The major problem is, however, that Initial Teacher Education (ITE) is not the easy answer to why national and international testing of student performance in Australia is in comparative decline. In addition to currently being a Dean of Education, I have previously headed up school systems in three Australian States and Territories and have been a principal of a number of small and large, rural, remote and metro schools. I know that while ITE could always be improved, there have been significant and highly positive national ITE reforms put in place over the past eight years which are making a difference but there is still no change to PISA and NAPLAN results. Why? Because ITE is not the fundamental problem or the direct solution to improving test scores!

Unfortunately, a quick survey of schools and particularly school leaders in Government and Catholic schools would reveal school performance standards are directly reflective of each school’s postcode.

In other words, the overall Socio-Economic Status (SES) of aggregated school families is, for the most-part, the determinant of overall school performance. Schools in poor communities generally get lower results than schools in high income locations. The real question should be that if we know this, then why aren’t we doing anything meaningful about it?

To address the stagnation and decline of student performance in Australia will require a brave and well-informed national government to first of all speak to and listen to those in all schools to find out that the problems of current practice stem from the inability to adequately fund challenged communities in order to provide equitable opportunity of achievement and life chances. As we reflect on the ten-year anniversary of Gonski funding which brought significantly increased funding to all schools, we should be asking the major parties to explain why the additional billions of dollars have not changed the achievement dial across all schools. We should ask them to invest more of the Gonski rivers of gold into paying high performing current and prospective teachers more attractive salaries to work in hard-to-staff communities and to use additional funding to provide better amenities such as quality housing, safety and increased capacity for travel in these locations so teachers can get the same access to services that metropolitan schools receive. What are these services you ask? Regular teacher professional development from experts at their school, access to professional support services within the school (psychologists, speech pathologists, nurses, access to quality relief teachers, student counsellors….and the list goes on), student engagement and disability support, and programs that build community connection and involvement.

The fact is, the further you move away from the metropolitan area the harder it is to attract the best teachers to move to under-resourced, understaffed, and unsupported schools. The most challenged schools in our country get the worst deal. Throwing a few dollars at students during their time in university will not ensure that ITE graduates go to the most difficult schools. My observation is that in our university, the highest performing students are quickly snapped up by the best and most inordinately resourced schools. I haven’t just read about this problem or have simply spoken to teachers and school leaders on Zoom calls or on the phone; I have visited thousands of Australian schools and have observed and listened to those in the field often describe the third world problems that exist in various locations. 

So, it is well beyond time to stop producing micro-election commitments that don’t make a difference. It is well beyond time to actually commit to really focussing on equity for all and doing whatever it takes. Pay teachers what they are worth and hold them to account once they have the optimal resourcing that is required, and change will occur.

Instead of political auctions every three years for things we don’t want, we need a bipartisan ten-year education plan that is not the source of political squabbling but becomes long-term agreement on what really needs to be done so that we can all stay the course and make it work.

I’ve always been a dreamer!

Jim Watterson is the Enterprise Professor and Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. He served for six years as the National President for the Australian Council for Education LeadersHe was the Deputy Secretary of the Victorian Education Department, and Director General of both the ACT and, most recently, Queensland Departments of Education and Training.

How to support our proud and essential profession

Each day this week, EduResearch Matters will publish the views of educational leaders on the state of education in Australia on the eve of the federal election. Today: Susan Ledger, Dean of Education, University of Newcastle

Education has been noticeably absent in this election agenda. What should policy makers in the next government do to support and respect students, teachers, leaders and educational researchers? Reform efforts must recognise the complexity, diversity and interrelatedness of all parts of the education system – students and families, early childhood, primary, secondary, vocational, higher education, and initial teacher education.

Teacher education would benefit from seven key actions. 

First, we must strengthen trust, understanding and support for the whole of profession – preservice, in-service and training. A combined approach within the profession will develop, induct and support great teachers who will inspire their students to learn (see Quality Teaching Model and  NSW Great Teaching Inspired Learning)

Second, we need to replace career bureaucrats with teachers and teacher educators in key policy-making positions in the same way other professions are represented.

Third, we must recognise and adapt for diversity. Much can be learnt from our Australian Teacher Workforce Data information. It highlights the need for more culturally and linguistically diverse teachers to align with the changing student population.

Fourth, teacher education would benefit from prioritising the three dimensions of the Australian Curriculum, the general capabilities and cross curriculum priorities rather than subject only. With the UN Sustainable Development Goals used as a backdrop.

Fifth, we need to prioritise ‘intelligent’ conceptualisations of what constitutes good evidence of teaching work (Mockler & Stacey, 2021). Collaborative research endeavours that draw from multiple perspectives, not singular silver bullet approaches would benefit all. Involving teachers as researchers in Research Invested Schools is helping to re-professionalise teaching and reinvigorate teachers as experts (Twining, 2022).

Sixth, we must focus on the learning journey of a student and strengthen links across the education lifecycle from early childhood to primary, secondary, vocational and higher education. We know, for example, that the return on investment in early childhood education exceeds all other phases, yet early childhood teachers and childhood workers earn significantly less than other educators.

Finally, the profession would benefit enormously by prioritising and actioning the recent Quality Initial Teacher Education Review recommendations, particularly:

·       Recommendation #1: Raise the status of Teaching

·       Recommendation #3: Reduce Teacher’s workloads

·       Recommendation #9: Support families and carers to engage with teachers

·       Recommendation #14: Establish a Centre for Excellence to teach, research and evaluate best teaching practice.

More than $550Million was spent on policy reform between 2009-2013 driven by the National Partnership Agreement on Improving Teacher Quality Program (NTPQ). Emphasising quality, standards, accountability and evidence-based practices,this reform transformed the education sector and led to the creation of:

·       The Teaching Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG);

·       Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), the National Teacher Professional Standards and National Principal Standard, national accreditation for initial teacher education, nationally consistent registration for all teachers, and certification of highly accomplished and lead teachers;

·       a national curriculum, introduced through the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA);

·       Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) and National Quality Standard.

·       And adjustments to the Australian Quality Framework for Higher Education (AQF).

Teachers, schools and ITE providers responded to the calls for change and accommodated and adjusted their practices. 

A decade later we are witnessing intended and unintended outcomes of this national policy reform. It has been successful in achieving its intended outcome – to develop a national standardised approach to our schooling system. Yet, we are also witnessing the unintended outcomes of the policy reform on our schooling sector.

Enactment of the NPTQ has resulted in uneven and potentially inequitable outcomes, resourcing, privileging and market-like rationalities. Media and politicians lament stagnating student results against benchmarks like NAPLAN and PISA. Teacher and teaching quality is under continual scrutiny. Teachers are leaving the profession in large numbers and it is increasingly more difficult to attract teachers into the workforce. Teacher shortages are already impacting students. Ideological debates between pedagogical choices in literacy, numeracy and teaching methods have arisen and promote competition over collaboration in teaching, learning and research forums. Burdened by unrealistic and often relentless administration many teachers, leaders and initial teacher education providers have been reduced to compliant technicians rather than inspiring practitioners. The workforce is undervalued and overburdened which has reduced the agency, confidence, and even the passion of the profession. 

A focus on quality and accountability is positive and encouraged, but not when it is narrowly focused and comes at the expense of the teachers, students and families within our education ecosystem. Our measures of quality and accountability that judge the health of our sector must include individual and collective wellbeing, evidence of passion for teaching and learning, and confidence in emerging pedagogically informed technologies.

From my 30 years of teaching in rural, remote and metropolitan hard to staff schools, both in Australia and overseas, coupled with my more recent experience preparing teachers for schools’ changing population, environmental impacts and pandemics, I believe we must focus on the development of the whole child, teacher, leader and system, not simply component parts.

Professor Susan Ledger is Head of School and Dean of Education at University of Newcastle and in that role is responsible for transforming teacher education, advocating for the profession and developing partnerships between schools, universities and educational sectors

Ditch the widgets. Start investing in their amazing futures

The cost of teaching a student from a low SES background is significantly higher than for more advantaged students. The reasons for these costs include the ‘obvious’ assumptions, such as bursaries, but are likely driven more substantially by infrastructure investment by a number of universities specifically supporting campuses in areas and regions as part of their mission to provide a university pathway as an option to a diverse range of our population.

We believe this investment (a better way of thinking about it than ‘cost’) could be better recognised in funding agreements by switching the focus from ‘activity-based’ funding (i.e. “count your widgets, take your dollars”), to ‘mission-directed’ funding (i.e. recognition of the social impact and additional resources that these contributions require and perhaps redirecting funding from the low cost ‘low hanging fruit’ approaches of some).

Who are we and how did we discover this? A team of researchers spanning multiple universities (Victoria Uni, ANU, Curtin RMIT) and ACER published an article exploring the costs associated with supporting students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds in university. Our study has a ridiculously complex methodology – using econometric modelling to explore the economies of scale in relation to the costs of educating students in Australian universities, with ten years of financial, enrolment and employment data from 37 universities, and then exploring the outcomes with people who run universities across a range of states – but when you pare it all back, a relatively simple set of findings:

Here’s an overview.

Quantifying costs and differences in costs

First we compiled a large dataset spanning all Australian universities across 10 years. The dataset contained operating expenditure, student enrolments, level of enrolment, field of education and background characteristics of students, teaching costs, research grants, location of university and type of university. This was analysed using an econometric model to identify the average costs for each student, and to explore if there are economies of scale in enrolling some groups of students – in other words, does the average cost decline the more of a group of students you enrol? 

The stark finding (that we checked and re-checked) was that when all other elements are controlled for, the average annual cost for a student from a low SES background at undergraduate level was about 6 times higher than for a student from a medium or high SES background. The difference was slightly lower for postgraduate level students, but nonetheless, it was still a notable difference.

However, the other aspect of the analysis did show that there are economies of scale in enrolling students from low SES backgrounds at undergraduate level – that is, the higher the number of students of this background, the lower the average costs per student become. We also found the opposite (i.e. a diseconomy of scale) for medium and high SES student enrolments.

Explaining the differences

We took our data findings ‘on the road’, visiting four diverse universities in Australia to talk with academic, finance and student support leaders. We wanted to test whether the outcomes from the analysis made sense on the ground and found that while views differed, some key explanations were clear:

  • The kind of additional support needed by students from low SES backgrounds includes: outreach support to raise aspiration and relevant individual capital prior to enrolment; academic, personal and financial support while at university; and in some cases, support to care for students with highly complex needs.
  • The support factors that contribute to the additional costs include investment in the items listed above plus the costs of establishing, maintaining and appropriately staffing multiple and/or regional campuses, particularly but not only those located in highly disadvantaged communities. Further, it was found that universities that are strongly prioritising or enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions.
  • Additional support costs are not the same for all low SES students. Low SES students are not a homogeneous group. Depending on their particular background and circumstances, low SES students may experience different levels of disadvantage and/or multiple disadvantage.

In the universities consulted, there were different costs and different approaches to supporting low SES students. This was partly because of the differences in the universities’ missions, the number and geographic locations of campuses and the characteristics of the particular low SES students for whom support was being provided.

Future considerations on funding

We hope that what this research does is help to highlight the difference in investment required depending on the backgrounds of students enrolled in a university. The emphasis in shifting language from ‘cost’ to ‘investment’ is intended as a means of changing views and perceptions – much the way in which some universities in Australia embed in their mission an aim to open up opportunities by investing in areas or communities where previously a university pathway was not a consideration.

A radical, yet seemingly logical, proposition coming from this research is that if some student groups need a greater investment than others, then perhaps the funding pie should be cut in a way that recognises the variable investments required. From our work, we feel that consideration of ideas to recognise the various missions of universities and the different students they serve in following their mission could be captured in funding allocations. Ideas we have suggested for further consideration include a redistribution of funding based on need; shifting emphasis from activity-based to mission-directed costing; applying the principles of ‘cost compensation’; and conceptualising funding support for students from low SES backgrounds as a transformational investment that can improve outcomes for individuals, communities and society, rather than as a cost.

Dr Daniel Edwards is the Director of the Tertiary Education Research Program at the Australian Council for Educational Research, and an Honorary Senior Fellow with the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Daniel Edwards (ACER) wrote this post on behalf of the project team: Marcia Devlin (VU), Liang-Cheng Zhang (ACER), Glen Withers (ANU), Julie McMillan (ACER) and Lyn Vernon (Edith Cowan University)

Is this now the Federal government’s most bone-headed idea ever?

Apparently international PhD students in Australia now have to seek ministerial approval to change their thesis topic or face deportation.  

Yes. You read that right. 

According to guidelines published on the Australian Government immigration and citizenship website (Karen Andrews, pictured in the header, is the Minister for Home Affairs), International PhD students who want to change their “thesis or research topic” now have to wait for an Australian politician to sign off the change or risk have their visa cancelled. As Julie Hare reports in the Australian Financial Review, the government is worried that “… there might be an ‘unreasonable risk of unwanted transfer of critical technology, or theft of intellectual property”. And apparently the minister will make a decision after they have ‘obtained an assessment from the competent Australian authorities.’ 

The deep, and – I’m just going to say it – totally bone headed stupidity of this idea is maybe not apparent to anyone who has not done a PhD. The whole first year of the PhD is meant to involve refining a topic. Many PhD students change their topic dramatically in the first year. Or they change it later on, due to unforeseen circumstances. Imagine the next Alexander Fleming having to wait for the minister to approve their investigation of this century’s equivalent of mouldy petri dish? Given how long it takes ministers to make decisions, I don’t have much hope Australia will produce the next penicillin. 

It’s not just medical geniuses who take their time. My own PhD application to Melbourne university in 2005 suggested I was going to study ‘genetic algorithms which can find architectural form’. Don’t even ask – the idea was deeply fashionable at the time. In the six months between my application being accepted and starting my research, I changed my mind about twenty times. My first research plan, written about 3 months in, suggested I was going to study the ‘linguistics of architecture’. This idea – to be clear – was Not Good. But my supervisor had to listen to me gibber on about it for a couple of weeks. Bless his heart, he never let me commit to such a crappy idea and coaxed me into exploring hand gestures. 

It was at least nine months into my PhD before I worked out why a study of architects’ gesturing was worth doing. I won’t bore for Australia as to why it was useful. The point of this story is that making knowledge is a deeply uncertain business. You need time to read, think and talk to people. That’s exactly why we don’t ask people to apply for a PhD with a ready to go project plan that can just be rolled out – as this visa legislation seems to assume. I’m deeply grateful for the time I was given to explore the possibilities and change my mind. The idea of getting ministerial approval every time an international PhD student changes their mind about your PhD thesis topic is not only stupid, and completely unenforceable. Worse, it’s all part of an insidious government over-reach into the business of being an academic in this country. Over-reach with creepy racist overtones to boot.  

This government seems perpetually anxious about international students and about academics more generally. PhD students from some countries have restrictions over what they can study, for instance, students from Iran are forbidden to study nuclear technology. Students on a visa don’t have the right to ‘be disruptive’, which handily limits their ability to protest. In case you missed it (I mean, it’s been a busy couple of years), all of us academics are now framed as being potentially dangerous traitors. In 2021, the Australian government published the Guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector (the Guidelines) in which they state that universities will require: “declaration of interest disclosures from staff who are at risk of foreign interference, including identification of foreign affiliations, relationships and financial interests.” I’ve asked my university, what does a ‘foreign relationship’ mean? Does an ongoing research conversation over email and writing papers with colleagues in other country trigger the need for a declaration? No one can tell me for sure because the guidelines are so vague and all encompassing. 

Where exactly is the line between reasonable caution and paranoia these days? It’s so hard to tell.  

Besides being impossible to enforce, this latest government brain fart seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Are there actual situations which have led to a clear need for this visa change, or is this the result of fevered imagining by intelligence agency personnel who don’t get out enough? I mean,  if these intelligence officials had taken the time to call any working academic in Australia I wouldn’t have to waste my Sunday afternoon writing this article. But I suspect it’s not the intelligence officials behind this change. We have a conservative government eager to punch on academics any chance they get, as we saw during the pandemic. It’s hard to avoid this feeling that this particular government just hates academics, which is a sad turn for our country. 

I don’t want to say Australia is turning into a fascist state, but perhaps our politicians are just a little too fascist curious? Just like our foreign interference guidelines, this new international student visa requirement is both vague and all encompassing. It seems designed to produce a chilling effect. To be honest with you, as I write this article I am starting to wonder – should I speak out so forcefully? Will I become a target? Is a file on me open inside the Australian government somewhere labelled: ‘middle aged female academic: angry’?

On the other hand, maybe the government is on to something. The minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, could save a lot of us supervisors a lot of time by being the sounding board for these agonising PhD topic conversations. My imaginary conversation with Karen Andrews about my thesis topic changes goes something like this: 

“So Karen, hey girl!, I’ve been thinking about my PhD topic and maybe genetic algorithms… are they too 2005? you know? I’m wondering if this thesis will date me, but not in a good way. I’ve been thinking I need a topic that is, I dunno, more – timeless? So I’m thinking about linguistics… 

Karen? … Are you there Karen? I hope I’m not boring you…”

Professor Inger Mewburn is the director of the Researcher Development Office of the Dean of Higher Degree by Research at the Australian National University, Canberra. Her blog The Thesis Whisperer is a must read. You can find her at @thesiswhisperer.

Image of Karen Andrews in header by Mick Tsikas

Five Ways to Rethink Online and Blended Learning Post-COVID

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Australian universities rapidly shifted to online models of learning and teaching. Some argue that this shift was long overdue. But even before the pandemic, online learning was rapidly growing in popularity in Australian tertiary education institutions. Recent data collected by the Australian Department of Education and Training show that the number of students enrolling in online and blended offerings in the higher education sector is rising faster than the number of students studying on campus. But should online and blended learning stay post-COVID? The answer is clear: YES! 

Online and blended education allows universities to expand course offerings to an increasingly wider number of students. Online education offers increasing opportunities to students from historically marginalised groups who may have previously been excluded from higher education, including students from regional and rural parts of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, students with disability, and students who are the first in their family to study at university.

Online education is more accessible to students who work part- of full-time while studying, or for students who have substantial family or carer responsibilities. Research including the student voice has identified several reasons why they are choosing to study online. Students have said they prefer online and blended learning because it offers increased flexibility (such as the ability to choose when and where to study), the ability to fit study around lifestyle commitments (such as family and work), and reduces barriers associated with fixed timetables, transportation, and the physical on-campus environment. 

Australian students who were not able to access higher education before due to geographic location, disability, work, or family commitments report that online education now offers them their first opportunity to participate

For these reasons, online and blended learning should feature prominently in Australian higher education institutions, and university educators and researchers should be encouraged and supported to explore new ways to deliver high quality teaching in primarily asynchronous online environments. 

But online learning presents new challenges. Media reports during the COVID-19 pandemic have suggested that online learning might not be meeting the needs of all students:

  1. Uni students with disabilities say remote learning must improve
  2. ‘COVID is being used as an excuse’: Sydney’s uni students are losing patience with online learning
  3. Faculties need policies for quality assurance of online learning
  4. College students ask: What’s up with my ‘ghost professor?’

These reports are corroborated by research findings. Several studies have included the student voice to identify challenges associated with participation in online education. Here are five challenges that students might experience when participating in online or blended learning, and potential and practical solutions. The proposed solutions may help university educators to rethink the design and delivery of online learning post-COVID, to ensure that it meets the needs of diverse learners: 

ChallengeSolution
Students have reported that they have difficulty navigating the online learning environment, or they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing each week.Create a ‘Welcome to the Unit’ video, and make it the first activity that students see and complete when they log in to the learning management system (LMS; e.g., Moodle or Blackboard). In the video, you can welcome the students to the unit, and provide a video tour of the online site. On your video tour, show the students where they can find the assessment information, the unit calendar and due dates, weekly learning materials, and any other important content. 
Second, keep the navigation of your LMS simple and intuitive. Use clear section headers to organise weekly content or topics. 
Third, provide students with a printable checklist with a list of activities they should be working on each week, and key due dates.
Students have reported that they need help learning to use course technologies and cannot find information about where to access institutional support, such as tech support or enrolment supportIn a clearly marked section on your LMS, provide links to:Disability support servicesTechnology support servicesStudent advisor servicesAny academic supports available to studentsThe online library 
In your first synchronous class with the students, review the different supports and services that the university provides, and show students where to access the links. 
You might also consider including this information in a Frequently Asked Questions document for students, which you can post as an announcement during the first week of the semester. 
Students have reported that the course content lacks purpose or is not pitched at the right levelCreate clear and measurable course-level and topic-level learning objectives. Your course-level learning objectives should appear at the very top of the LMS, and should tell the students what they will be able to say and do at the end of the semester. The assessment tasks should be designed to allow students to demonstrate the course-learning objectives. 
The topic-level learning objectives should be more specific and aligned to the weekly content. For example, when providing weekly topic-level readings or activities for the students to complete, state the learning objective name or number that the activity is aligned to in brackets next to the activity. Really strengthen the alignment between activities and learning objectives!
Provide multiple ways for students to learn and engage with the content. For example, when teaching a specific concept (or topic), you might provide a textbook chapter, a brief video lecture, a link to a blog post or website, and an interactive activity. This provides students with different ways to engage with material, that vary in complexity and form. 
Students have reported that online education does not provide them with opportunities to build personal relationships with lecturersFirst, set up an online ‘Introduce Yourself’ forum and ask students to introduce themselves and answer a fun question (for example, if you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go and why?). Personally respond and welcome each student when they post an introduction.
Supplement the asynchronous (or self-paced) online study activities with some synchronous real-time activities, such as discussion groups, tutorials, or drop in sessions. 
Use discussion forums, wikis, google forms, or other tools to create collaboratively learning activities for students. To maximise student engagement, provide very clear instructions about the task and the expected contribution of each student. Make the activity relevant by linking it to one component of the assessment task. Be present in the forum or in the collaborative learning space by providing encouragement, praise, and scaffolding (all sorts of feedback!) in response to student contributions. 
Students have reported that course technologies and content are inaccessibleProvide an accessibility statement for any course technologies you use. An accessibility statement provides users with information about how the technology or software meets basic guidelines for accessibility. If the technology does not have an accessibility statement, look for different technology. 
Include alternative text for any images that you post on your LMS.
Ensure videos include a captioning option or a transcript. 
Do not use coloured text to convey meaning. 
Always upload word documents and PDFs that are accessible and searchable. Never upload scanned documents, which are not accessible or searchable. 

It is important to note that university educators have also expressed concern about online education. University staff have reported feeling like they lack institutional support to design high quality online learning experiences. Staff have reported that they do not have enough time or resources to design engaging online content, and others reported that the sector lacks quality standards for online education. Staff have raised concerns about the degree to which online education is designed with accessibility and inclusion in mind, with some feeling that the accessibility of online learning environments was an afterthought, rather than a priority. 

As we move into a post-COVID era and look to the future, university administrators must also ensure that educators have the time, resources, and support to design high quality online and blended learning experiences for students. Online education is not simply a cheaper and easier option for universities. Online education can make higher education more accessible, equitable, and inclusive, but it must be done well. 

To learn more about designing accessible and inclusive online learning experiences, please check out our new free e-learning course for tertiary educators and learning designers.

Dr Erin Leif is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA) and Senior Lecturer in School of Educational Psychology & Counselling, the Faculty of Education,
Monash University.
Her research interests include Educating for Diversity and Inclusion and Enhancing Health and Wellbeing

Why your doctorate can make you feel like you’re drowning

This is not a cry for help. These aren’t my thoughts on the difficulties of managing money, time, kids, spouses, visas, conferences, the thesis, the job, or the dog, real as all these pressures clearly can be. Rather I want to share some of the impacts of early PhD studies on me, invite reflection, and offer a note of caution.

I am enjoying my doctoral studies more than any before it. I regarded my admission to the degree as a licence to read widely and write wildly. I’ve engaged with discourse from classical philosophy through neuroscience to behavioural biology, all through the lens of jurisprudential enquiry. I’m enthralled by it all. The possibility of realising nascent knowledge drives me forward. I feel accomplished when an idea reveals itself as a clear, sometimes seemingly novel, pure thought. If it does so at the right time it can manifest as a sentence or two which sparkles with satisfying clarity. Such is the evolution of a thesis, I hope. And a mind. 

My supervisors are quietly encouraging. Nevertheless, in their presence, I can feel woefully inadequate. I have said things to them that are just plain dumb, and other things just plain dumbly. An example of the latter kind was my remark that I found the PhD experience somewhat ‘destabilising’. When probed as to what I meant by that, I could offer nothing adequate. 

Where do we find a safe harbour?

Stumbling over the words of my attempt at an explanation, I muttered that everything was becoming less certain; I was less clear about what I knew, what I didn’t, and even about who, what and why I was. The global health pandemic didn’t wholly explain the phenomenon. No, I continued with deflating confidence, there was something in what I was reading, and in the process of learning itself, that was impacting me in ways I had simply not anticipated. I found it confronting. And I still do.

My research leads me to believe that our earliest hominin ancestors lived free of overt construct. They behaved first according to instinct and departed from it only when cognitive ability enabled them to believe that they had the choice to do otherwise. They resolved the existential problems with which they were confronted and, it seems in the process, transcended the objective fact of their entity as beings, to actually being. Our ancestors quite literally did ‘awaken’. I am left wondering if they did so in ways that I never have, can, or will. Thoreau said he felt as though he never did meet a person who was “quite awake”. It seems that, like me, he doubted that he was. His solution was Walden Pond.

There is perhaps an assumption that we, as modern humans, living as we do in this busy and sophisticated world, start from a position of self-awareness; with an understanding of what and who we are and the rules of our own existence. My doctoral studies suggest to me this isn’t so. I don’t understand very much at all. It is this knowledge, as much as any, that I can experience as destablising. 

Bertrand Russell validates what I feel. He wrote that philosophy ‘raises doubts’. It diminishes our feelings of certainty as to what things are. Russell regarded the doubt as liberating, enlarging our thoughts and freeing them “…from the tyranny of custom”. I agree. But when we are buffeted by those newly freed thoughts, encountered as part of the rigours of PhD study and life besides it, where do we find a safe harbour? 

I wonder if, more than any other course of study, the PhD doesn’t inherently involve breakage at some level, like a vase might as it smashes on a hard floor. For a time, there is only mess; scattered broken pieces that are disconnected from one another, such that the entity as a whole no longer exists (assuming that it ever did). Instead there are shards of sharp material that, if mishandled, will cause injury. The PhD candidate must confront that mess, all that ‘liberating doubt’, and try to understand what it represents. If the pieces are put back together so that something is (re)formed, better or differently understood, that is perhaps the true mark of a Doctor of Philosophy. But inherent in the journey, I think, is the possibility, and indeed the risk, that the vase will smash and that the candidate won’t be able to put it back together. It remains a broken mess which might never make sense again. Doubt prevails. 

Doubt doesn’t always feel liberating. It can be crippling, isolating, scarily confronting and personally challenging. Doubt is a frame of mind wherein feelings of being unsupported, anxious and depressed more easily surface, where we can feel deficient as researchers and our efforts pointless. We know that PhD candidates are susceptible to all these feelings, contributing to what Inger Mewburn has recently described as a “…frightening epidemic of mental health issues among PhD students.” No such epidemic has yet claimed me and one reason it hasn’t is because of my university. Increasingly I rely upon it as a space within which I can safely expose myself to ‘liberating doubt’. My supervisors are my ‘port of call’. For me at least these are important aspects of the value proposition of the university – it will provide me with the support I need to ‘break’, as it were, and then to try and reform. It will lessen the very real risks inherent in the process of my doing so. 

These are the risks about which I would caution new PhD candidates. They should be considered and reflected on more explicitly and universities could, I believe, lead and facilitate that discussion more than they do. A consequence of doing so might be candidates who are more resilient and better prepared to confront the all-pervasive and, yes, potentially destabilising doubts of the kind that go to the very core not only of who they are as researchers, but as persons. When properly supported within the educational setting of the university these same doubts are better able to become truly liberating and, in that form, are perhaps our best chance of moving toward that state of being “quite awake”. 

Richard Stewart is a practising lawyer in Melbourne and a confirmed PhD(Law) candidate at Southern Cross University. My research concerns the capacity for property law to be used as an agent for behavioural change. LinkedIn

We struggled to make university more equal. Has that battle for equality worked now?

Australian education policy has really focussed on getting  ‘equity groups into university and then onto completion with initiatives designed to improve access and participation.

That worked. 

Recent data indicate that there has been growth in the university enrolment of these equity groups in the past ten years. Published studies have also found evidence for comparable employment outcomes for university graduates from equity groups shortly after degree completion with favourable employment outcomes sustained at three years after graduation.

But what happens next and why does it matter?

Education drives social mobility and levels the playing field for those with  disadvantaged backgrounds.

Our study looked at postgraduate study outcomes in tandem with employment for graduates from equity groups in Australia. We found graduates from equity groups are afforded the same, if not better, opportunities to engage in further study after the completion of their bachelor qualification. 

But we also discovered  graduates from some equity groups, namely those from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, with a disability, or from non-English speaking backgrounds experience weaker employment outcomes including being in full-time employment and salaries. 

Why is postgraduate study an outcome of importance? 

The opportunity to engage in postgraduate study is an important outcome in its own right, especially from an equity perspective. University degree attainment is influential on social mobility and associated with higher earnings over a lifetime, with higher earnings found for those with postgraduate qualifications. Globally, bachelor degree attainment has been growing and arguably, postgraduate degree attainment is increasingly needed to gain a competitive edge in the workplace, and to provide greater opportunities for leadership roles. Moving beyond benefits at the individual level, there are also persuasive reasons for encouraging a diverse postgraduate student base. Encouraging diversity in postgraduate education will flow on to diversity in a nation’s leaders, educators of future generations and other important influencers of a country’s future. 

Furthermore, finances are one of the greatest barriers to participation in higher education. Direct costs such as tuition fees are substantial, but are dwarfed by the opportunity cost of study – the missed earnings from time spent away from the workforce and in study. These costs are exacerbated for postgraduate degree study. It has been argued that social inequalities extend beyond first degrees into unequal graduate outcomes, including postgraduate degree attainment and occupational class. 

Postgraduate study and work outcomes 

Our study used data on over 40,000 Australian graduates sourced from the national Graduate Outcomes Survey, linked to data from 19 universities in Australia to examine work and further study for bachelor degree graduates. We considered employment and further postgraduate study outcomes for six equity groups: low socioeconomic status; with a disability; Indigenous; non-English speaking background; from regional and remote locations; and women in non-Traditional areas of study. We found that graduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with a disability, and from non-English speaking backgrounds experienced lower rates of employment, particularly those from non-English speaking backgrounds whose prospects of being employed after degree completion lagged far behind those from English speaking backgrounds. Conversely, graduates from regional and remote areas had superior prospects of being employed. 

Further study opportunity, however, were positive for all equity groups, except those from regional and remote areas. We found, however, that equity group graduates tended to be engaged in study of another bachelor qualification, and did not have comparatively higher rates of study in a postgraduate qualification. The one notable exception here was for women in STEM fields, who had markedly higher rates of further postgraduate research study. 

We also examined the outcome of full-time employment for equity group graduates. Once again, the same groups of graduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with a disability, and from non-English speaking backgrounds were found to be less likely to secure full-time employment. Separate analyses of hourly wages showed that these exact same groups also experienced weaker earnings.

What does these all mean? 

The comparable or slightly favourable employment outcomes for three of the equity groups (regional or remote areas, Indigenous, women in STEM) are encouraging and suggest that higher education policy for these groups are achieving their intended purposes. However, given the weaker employment and earning outcomes for the other three groups (low socioeconomic status, with disability, non-English speaking background), there is still work to be done. Our study was not able to pinpoint the reasons for the weaker employment outcomes due to the nature of the data, but previous studies have noted the lack of social capital and/or labour market discrimination for these groups, and these might require policy intervention and development. 

The finding that equity group graduates are more likely to be engaged in further study after their degree completion is interesting, but there remains some issues of concern. Firstly, a higher proportion of equity group graduates are engaging in further study at the bachelor degree level. This potentially limits any advantage that can be gained from further study and time further spent out of the workforce. Secondly, and related to the first point, it is possible that graduates from equity groups feel that they require further study to gain an edge in the labour market. It also raises questions on whether these graduates felt that their first degree did not adequately prepare them for work, and possibly concerns that they felt further investment in study is required to overcome labour market discrimination or other barriers. These important considerations will hopefully be the subject of future studies and action. 

Ian Li is an economist based at the School of Population and Global Health, The University of Western Australia. He is interested in applied fields of health and labour economics, particularly on research on the determinants of well-being, economic evaluation of healthcare, graduate outcomes and higher education policy equity. Ian is a member of the UWA Academic Board, the Equity and Participation Working Group, and director of the Public Health undergraduate major. He is an editorial board member of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management and a co-editor of the Australian Journal of Labour Economics.

At least six ways COVID has crushed higher education (now university managers make it worse)

Even less work-life balance, anxiety around online skills, fears the pandemic will be used to crush academic autonomy and cut costs. And by the way, COVID hit academic women hard.

Our research found the onset of the pandemic produced unprecedented organisational challenges for the higher education sector globally. That has been widely documented. As part of research funded by the Worldwide Universities Network, we undertook a global attitudinal survey in June and July 2020 to identify the impact of universities’ response to the pandemic on academics’ wellbeing.

Our publication, forthcoming in the Higher Education Research and Development journal, reports findings from the survey specific to the Australian higher education context and presents stark results. One year on, many academic staff in Australia are again working remotely, having previously returned to campus, and are likely to be feeling significant strain.

From the 370 survey responses, key findings include: work-related stress due to COVID-19 (78% agreement); reduced work-life balance (77% agreement); and digital fatigue (78% agreement). In terms of university leadership and managerialism, 69% of respondents felt that COVID-19 had intensified top-down governance and 60% felt that it had weakened trust in university leaders. This was also implied in strong agreement (92%) with the statement ‘The COVID-19 crisis will be used by universities as a means to legitimise ‘cost-cutting’ initiatives (closing programmes/departments/making job cuts)’.  Responses to open-ended survey questions reflect frustration over the implications of government policies that have created a quasi-market model of higher education in Australia and the associated over-reliance on international students as an income source, severely impacted by the pandemic.  These political and sectoral conditions, combined with the pandemic, created the perfect storm, the effects of which have impacted on the wellbeing of staff, as supported by the survey data.

Although overall there were some similarities with findings from other countries, respondents generally commented primarily on their universities, university leadership and the higher education sector, and government treatment of the sector was a secondary theme.  In the UK for example, the government’s furlough scheme has been available to the university workforce although to what extent it supported the sector remains to be seen.  Our global findings have also noted the gendered impact of COVID on female academics.

Ultimately it is the sense of community that will suffer most.

Academic staff reported undermining of academic autonomy with regard to rigid requirements around online teaching but the potential for greater autonomy if some of the more flexible working arrangements were to be retained. Some respondents had concerns about their own competence in using online digital tools, and concerns that changes to teaching, such as online teaching, would negatively impact on student learning outcomes. Conversely, some noted that digital skills and confidence had rapidly been acquired during the pandemic. Online working was also perceived by some respondents to weaken relationships: ‘Ultimately it is the sense of community… that will suffer the most.’ Facing the possibility of more online teaching and remote working in future, a challenge for the sector is to foster and maintain meaningful relatedness with colleagues and others via digital technologies. Although most survey respondents did not report an improved sense of belonging within their institution, this gap was filled by a general sense of support from colleagues and line managers.

The need for effective leadership within the higher education sector has never been more apparent than during COVID-19, but as made clear by our respondents, government appears to have abandoned the sector and university leadership are seen to use the pandemic as an opportunity to reduce costs. Sadly, many of the predictions in the survey responses were quickly borne out, including redundancies, restructures, pay cuts, course cancellations and moves to fully online courses.

The move away from the physical campus was occurring incrementally across Australian campuses prior to COVID-19. For example, unlike the UK, mandatory lecture recording was already commonplace in Australia and many students do not attend lectures in-person as a result.  It seems likely that the pandemic will have accelerated this process, which will have implications for staff and student wellbeing that university leadership should anticipate.

So what further lessons can we learn from the pandemic and its impact on the higher education sector in Australia? First, it is clear that COVID-19 exacerbated existing issues with the neoliberal, marketised model and cannot be entirely blamed for the current crisis in the sector. Second, although government support of the sector — for example, the exclusion of JobKeeper supports — has been critically lacking during COVID-19, this is not out of step with recent policy trends in Australia. Third, the pandemic brought into sharp focus the sector’s strong reliance on the international education market, and the resulting impact on the Australian economy. The interconnected issues of marketisation, inadequate government support, reliance on (and treatment of) international students require robust discussion at a national level and a revised policy approach for the future. Fourth, the evidence from this study shows that university leaders must address the wellbeing needs of academic staff; not only through Employee Assistance Programs and other supports, but through reasonable and sustainable expectations.

Forthcoming article: 

Fiona McGaughey, Richard Watermeyer, Kalpana Shankar, Venkata Ratnadeep Suri, Cathryn Knight, Tom Crick, Joanne Hardman, Dean Phelan, Roger Chung This can’t be the new norm’: academics’ perspectives on the COVID-19 crisis for the Australian University Sector

*Corresponding author: fiona.mcgaughey@uwa.edu.au 

From left to right: Fiona McGaughey is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Western Australia Law School and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA).  Fiona has broad research interests including international human rights law, modern slavery, pedagogy and student wellbeing.  Richard Watermeyer is Professor of Higher Education and Co-Director of The Centre for Higher Education Transformations (CHET) in the School of Education at the University of Bristol. A sociologist of higher education his recent books include Competitive Accountability in Academic Life: The Struggle for Social impact and Public Legitimacy (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar) and the Impact Agenda: controversies, challenges and consequences. (Bristol: Policy press). Kalpana Shankar is a Professor of Information and Communication Studies at University College Dublin and co-director of the UCD Centre for Digital Policy.

Online learning will never be a substitute for face-to-face

In 2020 higher education student satisfaction with their ‘entire educational experience’ hit its lowest point since Australia’s national survey of current students began in 2011.

But the detailed survey results, which cover many aspects of student life, paint a mixed picture. Despite an unexpected shift to online learning due to COVID-19 restrictions, satisfaction with many aspects of teaching changed little between 2019 and 2020. The lost opportunity for personal contact with other students drove the biggest falls in satisfaction.

The Student Experience Survey (SES) is sent each year to commencing and later year students, who based on subjects taken to date are estimated to be in their final year. All higher education providers, public or private, university or non-university, are now within scope, with 184,000 undergraduates completing a survey in 2020. The SES includes postgraduates, but this post focuses on undergraduates. 

Students who enrolled for on-campus education led the decline in satisfaction. 

Most SES questions refer to specific aspects of student experience, but there is a general ‘overall how would you rate the quality of your entire educational experience this year?’ question. This fell from 78 per cent of respondents rating their educational experience as good or excellent in 2019 to 69 per cent in 2020. It had never previously been below 2019 levels. The SES report produced by the Social Research Centre notes that, as we would expect, students who enrolled for on-campus education led the decline in satisfaction. 

Despite lower overall satisfaction, no specific question probing responses to the work of academic staff declined by more than 5 percentage points – that was the drop in those agreeing that their course was delivered in a way that was ‘well-structured and focused’, to 62 per cent (suggesting that this was already an issue for a third of students). 

Ratings of teacher concern for student learning and feedback on work showed no year-to-year change at all, and other questions on intellectual stimulation, clear explanations of coursework and assessment, and teacher helpfulness and approachability registered only small dips in satisfaction. The quality of online learning materials was rated as good or excellent by 81 per cent of students, four percentage points lower than in 2019 – but a good result as it includes judgment on materials were not going to be online until COVID struck. 

In the eyes of their students teaching staff managed the move from campus-based teaching better than expected given earlier reports of dissatisfaction.  But online study diminished other aspects of the higher education experience. This was especially so for commencing students. The proportion of them reporting working often or very often with other students as part of their study dropped 16 percentage points, to 48 per cent. Frequent interaction with other students outside study was down 15 percentage points to 27 per cent. A sense of belonging to the university declined 12 percentage points to 42 per cent. Self-perceived development of skills to work effectively with others fell 11 percentage points to 52 per cent. 

The published SES reports don’t provide demographic detail for individual question results, but undergraduates aged under 25 years reported larger overall declines in satisfaction than older students. Young people had the most to lose from online education. For many of them university offers a significant social experience as well as a formal education. No matter how good the online educational technology, there is no perfect digital substitute for face-to-face contact. Later year students were less satisfied in the same areas as commencing students, but with lower year-on-year declines. Possibly maintaining friends and connections established before 2020 online was easier than forming new relationships. 

A return to on-campus teaching is the obvious way to lift face-to-face contact between students. That is partially happening, but going back to where we were in early March 2020 will not be easy. Universities won’t remove online versions of courses while the threat of lockdown remains, or while there are still students, especially international students, who cannot get to an Australian campus. And as with workers who are reluctant to return to the office despite most restrictions on doing so being lifted, students may have formed new habits while being forced to study at home. They might miss their friends, but they don’t miss the commute. 

 A university survey conducted earlier this year suggests that COVID accelerated moves to permanently reduce, or even eliminate, teaching via lectures. While there are long-standing pedagogical critiques of lectures, this could take away another reason for students to visit their campus regularly.  

So many big things are happening in higher education at the moment – COVID-driven changes to domestic student behaviour, the loss of international students on campus or entirely, the reduced per student funding of Job-ready Graduates – that it is hard to predict what campus life will look like in two or three years time. 

But the latest Student Experience Survey results show that while hasty transitions to online tuition had surprisingly small negative effects on student ratings of teaching, for some students the lack of face-to-face interaction makes their overall student experience much less satisfying. 

Andrew Norton is Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at the Centre for Social Research and Methods at the Australian National University.  He blogs at andrewnorton.net .au Follow him on Twitter @andrewjnorton