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Online students and “on-campus students learning online” - is there a difference?

On-campus students online

In a recent interview with the University of New England’s (UNE) ex Vice-Chancellor Jim Barber, he talked about the disruptive threat of MOOCs to the Australian higher education system. The threat was largely being ignored by what he perceived to be blinkered and risk-averse educational leaders and governance boards. It was not clear from the interview what he saw as the solution but part of the issue was around the dilemma posed between cheap online education epitomised by MOOCs, and the increasingly expensive and traditional on-campus version. Even without confounding the issue with the idea of MOOCs, Barber observed that:

“(In theory) you really could jettison UNE’s entire on-campus operation, get rid of enormous cost and run a fairly lucrative (on-line) operation. But the sort of damage that does to the (Armidale) region for the foreseeable future is unconscionable”

The interesting part of this is that even Barber makes a distinction between students who are online and those that are enrolled in on-campus courses. We all believe to a greater or lesser extent that students who come onto a campus are engaging in activities largely different from those who access the university only through their computers.

The problem is, the difference between online and on-campus is becoming increasingly blurred. On-campus students spend an increasing amount of time using their computers and accessing content through the Internet. The amount of time a student might directly interact with lecturers and other teaching staff is usually defined as contact time and this averages around 3 to 4 hours a week. This means that the majority of their time that they are spending studying even as on-campus students is actually online. At UWA, like other universities, our libraries are now being converted into studying spaces that are constantly full of students plugged into their computers. Even during the so-called contact hours, students are multitasking with their laptops open taking notes and checking other sources of information.

Proponents of on-campus university education will argue that students will also be engaging with each other on team work and projects and socialising. This is true, but they will like all young people, be simultaneously interacting with each other via social media and messaging. Again, what was once limited by being physically co-located has now shifted to making where you are, far less important. Add to this the fact that a large number of students don’t now bother to actually come onto campus because they are working or find the effort of travel too much, the difference between online and oncampus narrows.

There are obviously things like laboratory work that can only currently happen in a physical setting on-campus. But even these are now being challenged as large class sizes and consolidation of teaching make them impractical to run anymore.

We usually do not acknowledge the fact that our students who are enrolled for on-campus courses will actually spend only a fraction of their time in that physical space and even then, the significance of it being a university campus will be simply the place they happened to be when they were online. We usually care about how our physical spaces look and what amenities are available but never notice poor wireless networks frustrating students trying to work online or worry about the less than professional online content provided to them for use in their studies.

Jim Barber is right to worry about the threat that MOOCs pose. For our students, the online world is now second nature even if they themselves are not fully aware of it. Most would not readily admit to the relative amounts of time they spend learning online versus non-online. The move to an education system that was driven by the use of MOOCs would not be that great a leap for them.

On the other hand, when academics assess the threat they compare the quality of online with what they falsely perceive to be a largely mythical on-campus experience.

That is not to say that being on-campus to do online courses is a bad thing. UWA for example has a beautiful campus with increasingly attractive learning spaces for students to do exactly that.

When Drones attack. Triathlete discovers the hazards of drones in public spaces

Injured Athlete with Drone The West Australian

In what may become an increasingly common occurrence, a drone that was being used to film the Endure Batavia Triathlon in Geraldton, Western Australia, seemingly lost control and crashed into runner Raijer Ogden, injuring her sufficiently to require hospitalisation.

Warren Abrams, the owner of the drone, later claimed that the vehicle had been “hacked” by someone “channel hopping”. He even suggested that this was possible for someone to do using a mobile phone. It is far more likely however that if the cause of the crash was due to interference to the signal between the controller and the vehicle, that this was caused by the environment the drone was being flown in rather than someone deliberately trying to jam the signal.

The type of drone being used by Abrams is radio controlled using radio frequencies commonly in the 2.5 GHz range. There are quite a few devices that operate in that range including the WiFi from mobile phones. Usually however, these devices would have to be close to the receivers on the vehicle to have any sort of effect. There are reported instances of interference with drone control signals from things like mobile phone towers that could cause sufficient loss of contact between the controller and the vehicle to cause a crash.

To deliberately hijack the drone however would require someone with a similar controller overriding the controls that Abrams' team was using - which seems a more implausible scenario. Cheaper consumer drones operate by using WiFi from mobile phones and again it is possible to disrupt the communications between phone and vehicle but you need to [fly close] to the drone with the device that is disrupting the connection.

The other possibility is that the crash was simply due to operator error. It is not clear who was actually operating the drone at the time but on Abrams' Facebook page, it is his daughter, 19-year-old Coraleigh Abrams and a fellow employee, Jordan Smith, also 19, who normally operate the drones.

New Era Ag Tech - the Drone Operators with the drone that caused the accident

The drone itself is likely to be the DJIF550 hexacopter pictured below which is a popular hobbyist hexcopter. If used for commercial purposes however, the operators are required to certify with the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). It does not appear that Abrams or any of the organisations he runs are listed as certified operators, a view confirmed by the Australian Certified UAV Operators group. This has been denied by Abrams but he has still not been able to provide proof of his certification when questioned by journalists. CASA is now investigating the incident but have not said whether the drones were being operated illegally.

Hexcopter DJIF550

Drone crashes are not that uncommon. Last year a drone crashed into an audience at an event in the US injuring 4 people. In another incident, a drone crashed with the attached camera revealing that the owner had been filming people covertly.

Video caption here

Clearly the drone in this incident should not have been flying within 30m of people and should have been flown by certified operators. As drone technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, the risks of these types of accidents will become greater. In the case of this race, it was the organisers who were partially to blame for allowing a possibly unlicensed operator to film the event. However, given the newness of the technology, the thought that this type of activity is regulated would not necessarily have been known to them. Unfortunately, common sense didn’t kick in as a safeguard.

Firefox banned by OkCupid as Mozilla CEO discovers that first impressions matter


It seems like almost an almost trivial thing to unravel all that the Mozilla Corporation has done but the recent appointment of CEO Brendan Eich is threatening just that. The Mozilla Corporation is responsible for Firefox Mozilla browser, currently the third most popular browser after Internet Explorer and Google’s Chrome.

It turns out that Brendan Eich donated $1,000 to support Proposition 8, legislation in California that supported the ban of gay marriage. Mozilla employees reacted badly to the revelation but then others outside Mozilla, including the software company Rarebit, announced that they would have nothing to do with the platform as long a Eich was CEO.


Unlucky in love

Since then, the campaign calling for Eich’s resignation has grown, with dating site OkCupid announcing that they would prefer their users not to access the site using Firefox.

Eich himself has never apologised for the donation and for all intents and purposes still believes that gay marriage is wrong. A post by him apolgises for the hurt caused by his actions but only discusses his support of equality within Mozilla, not for their right to get married.

Eich was originally an engineer and Chief Technology Officer at Mozilla. He was the creator of the universal web language JavaScript but people have stopped short of boycotting the use of that on their sites. The sentiment on Twitter however is in favour of boycotting Firefox even though people doing so have been conflicted with their largely positive views of Mozilla and what it has achieved.

The CEO is everything

What this incident reflects more than anything is the cult of the CEO. In an organisation of 600 employees, perhaps all of whom do not support Eich’s position on gay marriage, it is the views of the leader that outweigh all else. The emotional significance that everyone places on the role of CEO is universal. The loss felt when Steve Jobs died was not just because a man who had done great things had died but the belief that Apple would flounder without his guidance. Microsoft took 5 months to replace former CEO Steve Ballmer and the market reacted positively by boosting their shares.

The research on whether CEOs play any significant part in a company’s performance is equivocal at best. The CEO then plays a largely different role in an organisation and in many ways publicly symbolises the values of that organisation.

The damage of bad first impressions

What most CEOs are really like is never usually considered by the public. Steve Jobs was allegedly an unpleasant human being in many ways but this was largely overlooked by adoring fans mainly because it was revealed after people had formed a largely positive view about him. Brendan Eich on the other hand was publicly unknown apart from this one bad first impression and this is the key to why Brendan Eich is unlikely to regain public support.

Social psychology has shown that first impressions are formed instantaneously with minimal cognitive effort. Negative first impressions are extremely powerful and very hard to overcome, even if followed by repeated positive actions. For Eich, there is little he will be able to do to redeem the first impression created by the uncovering of his anti-gay marriage donation. He can only hope that people will move on and forget him altogether. Not a great option for a CEO.

Will he last?

A petition calling for Brendan Eich’s direct statement of support for gay marriage or his resignation has now collected 69,000 signatures. Given that Eich has resisted directly retracting his anti-gay marriage stance, it seems unlikely that he will issue that apology unless more companies join OkCupid in their boycott of Firefox forcing the hand of the board and they make the decision for him.