TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Digital education revelations

Forget the NBN, the IT systems and policies in many of our TAFEs are mismatched with what is already possible through new technology, and students are missing out.

Technology Spectator

As the federal government presses justifications for its $37 billion national broadband network, basic education infrastructure moulders with students turning to Facebook to fill in the gaps.

Such an example of the NBN as an answer in search of a question was offered at Cisco's annual 'Live' gathering in Melbourne last week. Cisco provides data centres to NBN Co, the company building the network.

By next semester, first-stage beneficiaries of the NBN in and around the southern coastal NSW resort town of Kiama will have advanced online education services provided by region TAFEs, first assistant secretary for the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Keith Besgrove told delegates. He said that once funding issues were sorted – TAFEs can't share students under current arrangements – students would benefit from online delivery of subjects.

"We’re working with universities and local TAFEs on a project called EduONE where we're trying to create a virtual classroom for remote access to TAFE courses," Besgrove said.

"If you’re trying to set up virtual classrooms for TAFEs in some states the funding model won’t encompass sharing students – it will be technically possible for someone in Kiama or one of the other early rollout sites to access EduONE but only Armidale can benefit from the funding (as the model stands).

"(Bureaucratic) systems take some time to catch up to the technological possibilities."

But while the government builds such systems, other students are missing out.

A NSW TAFE is plagued with IT problems that started when it upgraded its student and staff 'Moodle' learning-management intranet. Such IT problems risk Australia's $16.3 billion a year export income in the competitive global race for lucrative international students.

The Moodle muddle

The open-source Moodle (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) competes with commercial systems such as Blackboard and is used throughout the world, including by Britain's Open University, to provide course work. But TAFE teachers were perplexed last year when the decision was made to install a later version.

Generally, academic and clerical staff complain of fatigue as IT systems are needlessly, they say, swapped out each year creating teething problems and not just with Moodle but also processes especially related to enrolment.

Moodle is the locus through which online student and teacher interactions is supposed to take place. All coursework, notes, assignments and communications including email should pass through it and it can, in theory, conduct polls and exams.

Frustrated students have resorted to setting up secret Facebook pages to collaborate out of class and, from those who can access Moodle, repost assignments outside the TAFE system for the benefit of classmates.

The institution says it upgraded to a virtualised server for better "performance, access and to allow for additional resources to be provided as required".

"Access to the server and resources has only been impacted by authentication issues," the institution says. "Problems did exist at the beginning of the year as a result of enrolment processing, which delayed the issue of some usernames and passwords to students."

And while some students report no problems, for those still without access it has created problems accessing essential materials.

A three-pronged problem

Moodle's problems are threefold – lack of user-acceptance testing, lack of network and virtualisation provision causing downtime or unacceptably slow response times, and inability to issue passwords and credentials for authentication to services.

The last point dates back to the start of semester when the TAFE's IT department was unable to issue passwords or accounts to all students. Students so frustrated with being unable to gain appropriately authenticated accounts now share passwords to short-circuit the system's flaws, against institution policy. Others gave up and don't access the intranet, preferring Facebook and social media to communicate with each other and their teachers. And even those with appropriate access often can't get on to Moodle because it is down.

A restrictive security posture means teachers delivering online coursework in class – for instance, YouTube videos – may have to reauthenticate their logins every few minutes, interrupting the flow of teaching and wasting class time. The institution says it has to be "particularly vigilant" owing to the crowded nature of its site and conflicts with nearby businesses.

Some students are unable to access Moodle over campus wi-fi even though they can access it at home, and those with wireless credentials can't access the outside internet. Students have resorted to bringing their own 3G dongles, iPad 3Gs, tethering their smartphones or using USB "sneakernet" in class. The institution says it has 300 wireless access points on campus connected to a 10GB redundant backbone for internet access, however in two months of testing several times a week we were unable to make a net connection from an iPhone, laptop or iPad.

Other issues at the TAFE:

- Although TAFE says it is upgrading its laptops, teachers still struggle with ancient Apple Powerbooks;

- Credit card payments for course fees unavailable on enrolment day and had to be entered later by hand;

- Network systems not communicating with each other slowing enrolment.

A straw poll of a class of affected students found that while some were not impacted, others saw the campus' IT systems as inefficient and largely irrelevant to their studies or future success.

A cultural mismatch

TAFE also faces a cultural mismatch. Prominent signs in some classrooms still prohibit the use of mobile phones and teachers instruct students not to touch their phones in class. These restrictions – which may have made sense 10 years ago when mobile phones were distractions used for SMS chatting and voice calling – make no sense in an era when many generation Y rely on their devices for learning. Especially since Facebook has become so prominent in course delivery, although unintentionally.

Victoria University executive director of technology knowledge strategy, Phil County, said he was "surprised" at the restrictions on mobile phones in class but that the other problems could be eased through cloud services run from an outside IT department.

"A lot of those (problems) come out of organisations that are running enterprise infrastructure but don’t have the skills or resources to do it," County said.

"Get the service right at the front, especially now when people will bring their own devices into the organisation."

Although he couldn't comment on the specifics, DBCDE's Besgrove said legacy systems tended to coexist with newer technologies in changeover periods and this could create problems.

"There are a lot of people in the TAFE system looking to embrace new technology," Besgrove said. "We will see a range of applications accepted at different speeds in different institutions but you will see significant improvements across the board as a result of high-speed connectivity but it won’t happen all at once."

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