As the Chilean ash cloud wafts through Australian airspace for a second time, we’re all thrown back into the science of prediction. What will it do next? Nightly news footage of passengers sitting in grumpy heaps in airports has drawn an unusual degree of national attention to Darwin. It turns out that we have one of the world’s nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers right here in Australia, and they’ve been putting on their good shirts for the TV cameras night after night to tell us that they know where the plume is, and they’re keeping an eye on it.

Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres and their regions (image courtesy of Darwin VAAC)

Australia specialises in this kind of one-step-ahead-of-nature risk communication, because we do live in a difficult natural environment where prediction takes on biblical tones. Fire, drought, earthquake, flood, locusts, cane toads, mice (seriously) and now ash. We’re really clear on the importance of being able to see all these things coming.  In fact, we have a public culture of disaster planning, which is not to say that we’re nationally unique in planning for disaster, but we communicate it well.

But when it comes to planning the expansion of higher education, communication gets a bit murky. This has the effect of making the planning itself look shifty, as though it’s all been figured out late at night in a bar in Canberra, and now doesn’t inspire the same confidence the morning after. As reported today:

In Senate estimates this month, officials could not immediately tell shadow universities minister Brett Mason how many students would be on campus in 2025 if the target were reached. Asked about the total cost of meeting the 2025 target, Senator Evans suggested this was too far beyond forward estimates to be projected sensibly. Mr Hazlehurst said the department had not modelled the total cost of the 2025 target.” We have done what government normally does, which is to provide the estimates of the costs associated with the policy change over the forward estimates. And, as that has changed, we have updated those estimates,” Mr Hazlehurst said.

Here’s the thing.  Whatever the backstage facts or the economic models that are rolled out at planning retreats for the executives of the sector, this kind of public communication strongly implies that we’re not on top of things: we can’t say clearly where the extra students will come from, who they will be, what impact they will have, or even how many will be on campus.

Meanwhile, we’re in an awful year nationally because of a strategy that looks to most of us like some kind of furniture store hire purchase plan in reverse: overenrol now, get paid later.  This must also be hard to explain, as there are very few efforts being made to get across to the university workforce in plain language why it’s so.

But here’s today’s hint for the alert reader that, like a butterfly in Tokyo, ought to be causing us to think about hammering wood across the windows and stocking up the basement with tins of beans:

Ms Paul said it was difficult to predict how many new universities, or campuses, might be needed.

“It is pretty hard to do so, particularly when you think about changes in technology which, of course, mean there is really quite significant growth in online and distance education,” she said.

Not again.  We can’t keep talking about “significant growth in online and distance education” as an environmental clue that we don’t yet know how to read or factor in to our planning, when ordinary punters closely following this particular cloud of ash can see the risks involved.

These include what David Shenk calls data smog, which is already enveloping our students even before we introduce them to the world of university level digital repositories.  Then there are equity challenges in terms of online learning skills acquisition caused by patchy broadband access or social inequity on the one hand, and online social overload on the other.

But there’s also the genuine distress and anger being expressed by our colleagues whenever online is made compulsory, particularly in the case of for-profiteering initiatives.  More or Less Bunk is asking “Can They Make You Teach Online?”, and Grumpy Rumblings of the Untenured describes the same moment as “Selling My Soul for Online “Education” and Phat Cash“. Both of these good arguments against working online give us an important heads up from the United States, where online is becoming the new casualisation, in terms of squeezing flexibility out of overcommitted higher education budgets.

So we could also say that along with significant growth, we’re seeing early signs of a significant backlash against online and distance education, that is being communicated clearly and in plain language. We really can’t ignore these messages and instead keep carrying on about the mystical capacity of online learning to flexibilise our forward estimates. Instead we need effective, realistic, and comprehensive strategies to develop “human-centric” IT for universities, and a long-term plan to support our academic workforce to do good things with these resources.

Once we’ve figured this out, maybe we’ll be able to communicate a bit less wishfully exactly how many of our future students will be standing in the coffee queue ahead of us, and how many will be in the cloud.


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