Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Actively Learning

This is Patrick Jame's office at Mawson Lake Campus. He has another one just like this, except smaller at the City East Campus. Very minimalist. He sits at the round table. Australian (and US and UK) universities are known for not having a big-bottom pyramid for staffing. Just a few super efficient admin staff can run the whole school.

Monday 11 Aug 2008, 9.52 pm

Spent the day at Mawson Lake Campus which is 15 or 20 minutes outside the city. It’s an old campus, more than 50 years, surrounded by new middle income “compact” housing which have were built with some sustainable development principles. All houses have rain-water harvesting and there are separate pipes for the clean and recycled water. The recycled water comes from sewerage treatment facilities which are pumped into underground aquifiers for storage and supplied to houses for watering the gardens through purple pipes. But they found out that the water stored in the aquifiers was too salty for the plants so that had to be fixed and the recyled water became more expensive then the clean water. So they are still learning. No solar panels for the homes yet.

I spent the whole day on the Mawson Lake Campus with Prof. Patrick James (Head of School of Natural and Built Environment) including attending a lecture for the course “Sustainable Development : Global Perspectives”, attending a tutorial conducted by Patrick and later in the evening attending a workshop on experiential learning conducted by Martin Jenkins from the Active Learning Centre at the University of Gloucestershire, UK. I first met Patrick last year when he came to USM with the Aussie students and also gave a demonstration of his teaching methods, e.g. teaching about the formation of mountains using bananas.

Active learning is catching on in the universities and UniSA is pushing for greater emphasis on teaching and learning. I found out that peer review for promotion of lecturers includes professors sitting in on the lectures to evaluate the lecturer applying for the promotion. Unlike in USM (and probably all the other universities in Malaysia), all you have to do is to list all the courses you “teach”. I am quite a small celebrity here because of my “Constructivist” book and my involvement with the International Field Study programme. But I am learning and picking up ideas which I can use back home.

Why so much emphasis on teaching and learning? One reason (not the only reason of course) is that it’s big money for the universities especially for its international students who they can charge full fees. Most Australian universities rely on attracting international students to supplement its budget. Just walk around Rundle Street and you will see swamps of a Asian students. The number of students from China alone has jumped from less than 200 to more than 2000. I read in the local papers that is creating another set of problems when the foreign students decide to stay and have difficulties getting jobs because of poor command of English and don’t have the skills to network and present themselves to prospective employers.

Had a guided tour around the campus and saw some interesting Ph.D. research including a biological filter to clean up rain water as it flows into the wetlands, a permeable pavement which stores rain water in underground tanks which are then pumped up using solar energy to water the garden. I found out that Adelaide has banned the watering of gardens except in summer and even then only on certain weekends. I think its because South Australia has had little rain in the last few years. Also visited some of their facilities including a very cool planeterium and their GRID-enabled lecture-cum-conference room. They have a post-graduate diploma which is conducted jointly by 5 Australian universities and they use the GRID teleconferencing facilities to conduct lectures. Each university offer two courses and students register with one of the universities (and get their diploma from that university). Lectures are conducted by specialists from each university. So it not only makes for more efficient use of limited expertise but reduces carbon emissions too. The software to run the teleconferencing over the Internet is open source but the five cameras, three ceiling projectors and other hardware cost about $50,000 (Aussie).

Actively learning. Met this three students who were bird-watching. Actually counting and identifying bird species at the Mawson Lake Campus. In the background (the brown grass) is the wetland.

In our walk through campus we encountered a lady showing these small animals to a group of high school students. They have a programme called First Degree (or something like that) where the university brings groups of students from high schools which have never seen a single of its students getting into university. Hopefully the programme will inspire the students to aim higher. The little snake in my hands is called a Children's Python. No, its not a phython for kids. It just happens the guy who discovered the snake named it after himself. Sorry, my eyes are almost shut because of the direct glare from the sun. Photographer : Patrick James


abe said...

is kinda sad to see USM's school of biological science focuses research in 'money-making' researches. sometimes did nt really paying attention on 'green tech' and restoration researches..(wondering wondering)

William said...

Not only university, the company here is also applying peers review. If you want a promotion and good salary, you better be cooperative and nice to the people you work with. This is unlike Malaysia where your boss decide your future.

Imagine a senior engineer salary increment is reviewed by a graduate engineer working under him. This is hard to imangine in Malaysia.