The end of one road

For better or worse, my Honours thesis has been handed in.

I collected my certificate of Graduation for Bachelor of Arts (Internet Communications) from the Curtin University graduations office this afternoon.

BA (Internet Communications)

Not bad going for someone who signed up for her first university unit “just to see what it’s like” just over 3 years ago.

Not bad going for someone who thought she’d try this uni thing to see if she had what it took to get a magical piece of paper.

Not bad going for someone who didn’t finish Year 12 either of the times she started it.

Thesis

24 undergraduate units.

2 Honours units and one dissertation.

58 spiral bound pages.

 

And, I hope, one walk across a stage in February, a smile, a handshake, and a magical piece of paper with the word “Honours” on it.

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3 Years Today.

Today is my three year anniversary with my blog.

Yes, that’s right. Exactly three years ago, I started this mish-mash of collected junk I like to lovingly refer to as a “blog”.

It’s not much, but it’s mine.

And, in celebration of three (sometimes) glorious years, I would like to write a post to highlight how far I have come and the current state of thing.

Enter, the sponsored post that has been driving me nuts for the past week or so:

Curtin University Facebook post

 

Yes, Curtin. I AM dreaming of a better career. I have been for a number of years now. In fact, I have been working toward said “better career” for more than three years now.

But, pray tell, dear learning institution, what good is all that learning if there are no jobs?

What if the money I earn isn’t enough to live on?

Or enough to pay back the exorbitant interest on my student loan?

Or what if I become homeless because I cannot find a home to rent or purchase, even if I could afford one?

You see, Curtin (and other unis spruiking their wares at the end of the financial year after an incredibly harsh and damaging budget has been announced), there is no amount of learning that is going to matter if what we are striving for does not exist.

As much as I admire and strive for lifelong learning, there are sometimes strong currents in the murky waters of life that seem intent on pulling us down.

A Simple Comment to a Video…

or Why You Don’t Ask An Internet Communications Student For A Comment On A Video Off YouTube, Because You Might Just Get What You Asked For (but that was too long for a title on my blog, so you get the simplified version).

So, it appears I cannot retire my “political hat” any time soon. If you haven’t seen it yet, here is a link from the Vice Chancellor of Curtin University, Professor Terry. All in all, it’s a good delivery of an update on the goings on around campus and what she is doing to keep up-to-date with the various campuses. I, however, have the following email which I am about to send to the Vice Chancellor, as per her invitation for comments.

And now for my extensively long comment. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Dear Professor Terry,

Thank you so much firstly for posting your video on YouTube, and for inviting comments. It is rare to hear someone in an actual position of authority openly ask for, and encourage feedback in such an engaging medium as the Web.

I was happy to hear you speak of the restructuring of the academic teaching system within Curtin University. As a current student, completing my Honours thesis this year with a view to going forward to higher degrees by research in order to join academia and the teaching profession, it is a relief to hear that you will not be cutting numbers of teaching staff. I do, however, offer my story as a view from the other side of the fence that you may not have considered in the implementation of these changes.

I began my undergraduate degree as an Open University’s Australia student, not because I wasn’t as committed to my studies as on campus students but because, as a mature aged, single parent student without high school completion dependant on public transport who was working full time in order to make ends meet, it afforded me the best possible opportunity to fit me life and study together in the same 24 hours everyone else had.

When I made the realisation that this degree I had undertaken was giving me a more rounded sense of accomplishment and personal pride than almost anything else I had undertaken, I decided that I would be furthering my studies. The staff of the department with which I was studying afforded me every opportunity to obtain the necessary information, facilitated my education with a shared passion for the learning material and concepts of study that I thought were a myth amongst academics.

This department was that of Internet Studies, out of the school of Media, Culture and Creative Arts at Curtin University – a group of academics whom I owe a great debt of gratitude and thank no end for the development of a lifelong love of learning.

This inspiration is, I’m afraid, in spite of almost being erased from the history books due to a proposed cancellation of on campus enrolments last year. This move would have seen the end of this department – the first and only dedicated Internet Studies department in Australia. The students of this department lead and won the fight to retain the opportunity to attend on campus classes, despite opposition from the chancellory of the university, through online and offline means of protest.

But my story does not stop here.

As a current Honours student in the Arts, I have seen more uncertainty regarding the offerings to students already this year than I feel is acceptable. This is absolutely through no fault of the teaching and support staff who have done the very best with what they have had available.

I am attending classes on campus, having made arrangements with my family and employer, as an off campus option has not been made available to students this year. I have been lead to understand that this is due to a revision and restructuring of the unit material and teaching method. This, in spite of having been offered as an off campus study stream in previous years.

Class timetables were finally made available to students, in order to select the  days and times of their classes, only a few days before the beginning of the semester. We then received automated confirmation that our chosen times and days would be made available, only to be told the following week that they were not, and that the classes would be combined and only available on a single day of the week. Thankfully for me, I have a moderately flexible employer who understood that these changes to my schedule were not under my control.

We were then told, just a few weeks later, that the previously possible day and time for class to be held was still available and that the consensus of the class would be the deciding factor as to whether or not the day and time of our compulsory-attendance class would be changed in the middle of the first term. While it only took a matter of an hour or so for the decision to be made by the students that keeping the current day and time would be best, the moments of panic were felt by more than just myself, I can assure you.

I was probably not the only student who felt that continuing studying would be jeopardised if the class were to change circumstances again.

I was probably not the only student who felt that their employer might not be so understanding if study circumstances were to change again.

I was probably not the only student panicking that the Honours we had invested ourselves in might be taken away from us before we had the opportunity to really get started.

What I do know for certain is, I am the only student from my department currently studying Honours with Curtin University. Why? An unofficial poll of my fellow online students puts this down to the inability of enrolling off campus.

With so many Internet Studies students currently enrolled in off campus or online only study of the Internet Communications degree, it makes no sense to not have this further education offered online if, as you say, numbers of teaching staff have not been reduced.

It makes no sense to not offer Honours online or off campus, especially with the fine online access to Curtin Library resources we now have available.

It makes no sense to not offer Honours online or off campus with the degree of control and interaction possible through the Blackboard system, which served as my lecture, seminar and tutorial space for three years quite sufficiently.

It makes no sense to not offer Honours online or off campus, when the Internet Studies department of Curtin university have shown that this mode of study facilitation can create future scholars that will, one day, make Curtin University proud.

This, Professor Terry, is why I find it difficult to believe that the current restructuring at Curtin University has no negative impact on the numbers of teaching staff available to students of Curtin University. I have seen the ability of the teaching staff of Curtin University to traverse space and time to deliver a world-class degree second to none in the world. I have also seen the trials of trying to deal with university bureaucracy when staffing changes, restructuring, budget cuts, reforms and proposed denial of access take place.

Please, if you want to be sure that these staffing changes hold no negative impact for the students of Curtin University, both current and future, I suggest you ask the current students if they are seeing any ramifications from the initial changes today. You may be surprised to hear what they have to tell standing in direct opposition to what the numbers and figures suggest.

I may be just one student telling my story today, but this is not my story alone.

Many thanks for your time,

Melissa Nile.
– current Honours student of B.A. (Internet Communications)

 

TL;DR:

I didn’t write all that so you could cheat and look for the Brodie’s Notes (and if you don’t know what they are, you’re too young!) version of my email. Go read it! And get off my lawn!

Why Australia opposes Fair Use.

Having just finished this article I fear, once again, for the future. Why? Because it contains a very important message that will, ultimately, get drowned out by all the other important messages we are currently facing both here and globally… but that’s a post for another time.

Fair Use for EFF.orgAustralian copyright laws always have been considered antiquated. In fact, we are not terribly forward thinking as a nation, legislatively speaking. Copyright is, however, one of those topics that very few people understand and even fewer care about, unless they stand to profit from the proceeds of it.

Every study period throughout my undergraduate degree I was approached or pointed to a discussion regarding the unsanctioned use of unattributed copyrighted material for assignment purposes.

“But if my tutor says it’s okay to use this picture in my project, then isn’t it okay?”

“What do you mean using the writing of another person is illegal unless I have a specific agreement from the copyright holder to say I can?”

These questions, and so many others like them, resulted in me banging my head against a non-existent desk or wall, as the people I was attempting to educate gleefully told me that they didn’t care, the law was stupid, and they’d go and use copyrighted material anyway because no one was going to chase them for the royalties for their use of said material.

This.

This is why ideas like Fair Use won’t take hold here.

Fair Use is a legal idea allowing people to use copyrighted material so long as the copyright holder isn’t losing out on profits from said use. It’s that simple really. Of course, the real legal mumbo jumbo goes into exclusions and restrictions, but that’s pretty much what it amounts to.

Parliament’s a funny place. And by funny I mean disparaging to the human soul.

So, as long as the public don’t care that they’re breaking the law and could stand to lose a significant amount of money to an already filthy rich corporation (think of how many times you’ve share a meme based on someone else’s work, or a music video, or copied a line from some book onto a completely unrelated image), or face jail time and as long as politicians sit in the pockets of those corporations that believe they will miss out on all the profits if they allow people to do what they’re already “turning a blind eye” to, then legislation such as Fair Use will never take hold in Australia.

 

Still not sure what it’s all about? Check out the video below for more information.

Honours – The Calm Before the Storm.

Yesterday I managed to complete all my enrollment and admissions for Honours this year. It took me long enough to find out how. The instructions were like something out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Buried under seventy bajillion clicks to get to the right website, I then had to jump through hoops aplenty to make sure that my submission for enrollment went to the right place. It’s all done now, so all I have to do is wait another month, attend the compulsory Orientation meeting (an hour and a half of what I expect will be unbridled excitement and uncontainable joy whilst sitting in the uni stadium) then classes every Thursday afternoon.

 

Honours RollHopefully, this time next year I will be the holder of a fancy piece of paper that says I know stuff… Fingers crossed it even has the words “First Class” on it. Even if it doesn’t, I will be proud of myself. I never thought I’d get a degree, let alone graduate with Honours.

 

Here’s to the calm before the Honours storm.

Online Students: What Do We Want?

I’m finally going to write a little a bit about my studies. It seems that not only do a lot of people still feel that online learning and, by default, external learning, is a bit of a cop out, but they really don’t understand what it is that I am studying and how it can lead to anything in the future. Also, I would like to start documenting my intentions for this magical piece of paper I’ve been working towards, and noticing when or if those aspirations change.

First things first: What is it I am studying?

Head of Internet Studies Dept. Prof. Matthew Allen at the Curtin Uni Open Day. For license and info: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tamaleaver/6064211772/

I am currently undertaking a Bachelor of Arts in Internet Communication through Curtin University (and I’m not supplying these details for kudos or cash FYI). As it stands, Curtin University is the only Uni in Australia that has a dedicated Internet Studies department, which I find particularly strange considering the ubiquitous nature the Internet has these days. I started my line of study through Open University Australia, because it offered a delivery system that I could work around the rest of life. Also, I have to admit, the university system, to one who hasn’t wrangled it is daunting and more than a little intimidating. Given that OUA offered a HECS-style payment system, it also worked in with my available cash flow (ergo: nil), meaning I could study towards getting an awesome job (as yet to be decided upon) and then pay it all back, which I am cool with. Other students find that the more flexible study times, due to the delivery system, are the key to their choice. It allows them to work their study in and around parenting and work commitments.

I am learning about interactions online, why people have flocked to it (and continue to), the issues surrounding online practices and privacy concerns, how writing for an online audience is a little different to writing for an offline one, and how society can find balance between the two “worlds”. It may not sound like much, or its relevance may not be immediately apparent to you, but it is these kinds of studies that will allow people such as myself to develop better practices for the future world in which we all become cybermen, symbiotically attached to our tech… wait a minute! 🙂

I still have just over a year to go of my BA at which point, depending on my grades, I will think about Honours. And, just because I’m crazy and have obviously taken leave of my senses, a PhD application may be thrown in for good measure. Because I can… Or might be able to… Hopefully…

What do I hope to achieve with all of this?

I want to keep researching what is making people tick. Ever since I was a young’un, I’ve been interested in why people like what they like, why they do what they do and what can be done to make people happier. Some days, this comes from a kind of altruistic intention to make the world a better place… If only for myself. I want people to stop their whining (myself included) by aiding them in finding what it is they want or need out of life. Also, realistically a virtual world is only going to become more integrated with “reality” (whatever that is these days) and, as such, if I want to have a place in that multi-world, I need to carve a place out now. I’m not super smart, or a massive tech head. I’m not an engineer and I don’t have a really good head for creative coding (plain and simple stuff I could probably deal with, if I could be bothered updating my language skills, which I can’t), so it’s not likely that I will be heading a development team bringing you the latest installment of what Google Glass aims to be in the future.

What I will be able to give you (at least once I’ve finished all this study) is an in-depth analysis of why your ideas (or their ideas, or that platform for interaction, or … whatever!)failed and what you can do next time to get people to flock to them. I will be able to tell the world why they need to assess what it is they aim to gain from electronically-delivered engagement systems (because the phrase “online worlds’ be become obsolete – stay tuned for my book on that in a few years’ time), in order to spend their precious time, effort and cash in the right places. I will be able to authoritatively show people why employing current slow thinking (as in it takes more than a few months to get an idea out there and have it accepted – look at pressure start-up groups and their success if you don’t believe me) for a world that is changing so fast is a dumb idea (this may also involve revolutionising the way we peer-review stuff, but we have to aim high, right?).

So, online learning vs on-campus learning. Is there even a contest?

Firstly, let me dispel the myth of online learning being easy. It is NOT. Plain and simple. You have to be self-motivated. You have to search out your own community groups if you want to really engage with the material and ideas presented. You have to maintain that level of stamina, all without the scheduled-out-for-you, spoon-feeding that on-campus learning can give you and you have to do so all by yourself. If you don’t have that drive, you’ve got no hope. If you can’t find it in yourself to keep going when you have to do a unit with a university that hasn’t fully understood what it means to provide an online unit, then the chances of you completing your studies are very slim. More on this later. If you can’t handle being interrupted by people who don’t see your head in a book or you typing on a computer as “real study” (I’m talking parents, children, partners, friends who drop in, everyone!), and you can’t tell them to please respect your study time, then you’re going to fail. No sugar coating it. You will.

Using online tools are only useful if they actually offer students something that they need or want from their study. Online tools are only as good as the education they offer. If tutors are not engaging with their students or if the unit materials are not accessible, then what good is the delivery system?

Just waiting for the Quickening. For license and info: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurelfan/46008993/

Too many times I have heard from students studying units with various universities. That the tutors don’t answer questions sent to them either by the internal mail system or through discussion boards which serve for many as online tutorials. That some units relying on web-based materials, meaning digital copies of papers or articles, have broken links or resources that just cannot be found at all! Simply copying a paper-bound university unit to a digital format does not making an online learning environment. An online student is, unfortunately, at a disadvantage when it comes to finding resources that are not published in a digital format. If your unit still relies on bound text books that an on-campus student would be able to check out of a library, you are doing your online students a dis-service. If you don’t have reliable checks and balances to make sure that your students are receiving the education they have paid for, then you are failing your students. I’m not talking about providing customer service for students. I think this opinion that universities are no longer the bastions of education and research they once were, is a little misguided and black-and-white. So what if students are expecting some kind of a ROI (Return on Investment) in regards to their education? This doesn’t mean that the primary role of a university can’t still be research and attainment of knowledge. It just means that those who help invest in that gathering expect a little something for their investment. The world isn’t as Highlander (“There can be only one!”) as some people would like to make out.

Soooooo… what do students employing online methods of study want?

Candy? Medals? A shiny pony? Not really. Although, having said that, I’d never look a gift horse in the mouth (sorry, I had to).

We expect a system that values us as students. As GENUINE students. We want tutors and lecturers who actually care that we can get and understand the material they are using to facilitate our knowledge. We aren’t expecting our degrees or diplomas to be handed to us on a silver platter. We expect to have to work for them, but no more than on-campus students. By undertaking externals studies we accept that we need to think and act differently to on-campus students, but we still want to be awarded the same level of engagement that on-campus students expect. Though, in saying that, I have heard a LOT of complaints from on-campus students saying there’s a decline in the amount of teachers giving a crap about classes… That may be a rant for another time.

We expect that when we are told that there is no text book required for the unit (as in my experience often happens) that we will be able to access all of the required readings for that unit online.  It’s no fun to play if we can’t get our hands on books or chapters because they don’t exist online. And, as a tutor, please don’t try to tell us it isn’t your responsibility to make sure your students have the resources. If a complaint is made that students cannot access the resources from anywhere online (the university’s library, Google, Amazon and the network of resource pirates out there), then it’s not that they don’t have the resources, your resource list needs revision. You need to make sure your students can actually find the resources so they can understand your lectures and complete assignments.

Which brings me to another point. When studying contemporary issues, such as politics or even Internet Studies, we expect that the topics being covered are from the past four or five years, and even then, it’s a stretch. Ultimately, we’d like within the past two to three. History is history and contemporary is now. Now, I understand the peer-review process is what universities and researchers live and die by, but it is long in the tooth and takes oh so long. I don’t have the answer. I wish I did, really, but the current peer-review process takes far too long to get actual contemporary resources into the hands of students. Think about it this way. It takes up anywhere in the realm of five years to research a PhD. Then it gets submitted for review… Now, I’m no mathematician, but that sure does add up to a lot of time in my mind. Not to mention that a lot may have changed in the world in that time. Now, if you’re doing a science (excluding computer sciences) or mathematics line of study, it’s fairly certain that you’ll be fine. Not much changes quickly there. 1+1 will always equal 2 … unless it doesn’t, in which case it’s already been proven and you can read up on it. If you’re in the Arts, some fields stay moderately constant while others change incredibly fast. My particular field of study looks to be changing and growing at a pace that the peer-review system can’t stay in step with. This causes problems for those of us looking to only use peer-reviewed articles and publications for our work. I am sure you can understand the frustration built up by trying to find something relevant written in the past two or three years when everything written in that time frame is still under review, or not widely accepted yet.

We ask that universities don’t try to charge us for services we cannot use. Yes, we are glad that should be able to we can use the physical library, or the student services centre or any of the wonderful services your on-campus students have access to. Personally, I am in something of a rare position amongst my external study peers, in that I am able to get to my university’s campus. Most of the other students I know who have been studying through external studies live too far away from their university to make use of the facilities. Some don’t even live in the same state! I think there needs to be more work done into as to what services a university might actually provide their external students that will benefit them, rather than assuming they require the same services as on-campus students.

A silly cap, a smile and a piece of paper. License and info: http://www.flickr.com/photos/willfolsom/5702452656/

We really really really (as in “cannot stress this enough”) need a checks and balances system outside of individual institutions, making sure that the level of education, educators and materials is sufficient to facilitate learning. We aren’t asking for our learning to be spoon-fed to us. We want to have to seek our own understanding, but we need to know that the help will be there if we simply don’t understand a concept or ideology. Universities and providers like OUA do their best with regular surveys asking how we felt the particular unit was delivered. Sadly, these do not seem to make a lick of difference when the same units receive the same complaints, or the same tutors receive the same complaints made against them, study period after study period. It’s not that we want studying to be easy, but we need to know there is some degree of accountability for our educators. I suspect this is a universal issue, rather than an online-specific one.

If you are in education, please understand that the world you may have learned in is changing. This means that older methods of thinking also need to change, in order to keep the pace. If you are a student or are considering undertaking online study, be patient with your institution. They may not understand the “game now. They may never understand it properly but unless you give them the chance and  provide them with appropriate feedback, they will never understand how to provide properly for the brave new world.

Promo Flier.

Promo Flier.

Just a little bit of background to this image.

I am currently studying through Open Universities Australia at Curtin University in the Internet Studies Department (curiously enough, Western Australia is the only state to have a dedicated Internet Studies department!). I am working towards a Bachelor of Arts in Internet Communications, which is to say I will have a degree which a lot of techies will laugh at because it’s not a science degree and a lot of artsies will laugh at because it’s not a “real” arts degree. But you know what? This has been one of the biggest rollercoasters of my life. I am now in my second year of three full-time. I have never been so challenged or felt so accomplished when I see a good grade on my assignments. There have been failings, sure, but on the whole they have been minor (except for that one eeeeeeevil time with the Unit-that-shall-not-be-named but that will be fixed next study period).

Yes, my work load averages out to be rather minor. It’s by no stretch of the imagination a law degree. However, in order to be at the top of my game, I need to know what is going on in the world of social media and the like. As it’s an ever evolving field of study, there’s a fair amount of online reading that needs to be done. Up until now, all the “creative” work for any of my units has been done through a program called Comic Life (they can be seen here and here), so it was time for something different.

I have been involved in a couple of conferences this year already. The first was Swancon 2012, where I got “included” (read: held at gun-point by someone I once though of as a dear friend) on a panel about Firefly ten years later, with absolutely no preparation time whatsoever! I swam rather than sinking. The second was the Media140 event, which I was self-appointed Tweet-Queen. Again, swam rather than sinking. The third has been the Net204/504 CommUnity online conference about communities and networks online (strangely enough) which, granted, has been for university. However, when my tutor posted in the study group that we had been approached by the co-working, collaborative group setting up in Perth, SpaceCubed,  to hold a physical addition to our online conference, I thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up. There was a bit of a delay, as we needed minimum numbers and there was a general buzz as logistics were set up. I may have gotten a teeny tiny bit worked up about it, given that this is exactly the sort of collaboration I hope to make professional relationships with in the coming years. I guess I caught the eye of the tutor, because she has asked me to organise the event. Well, I may have been the only person putting their hand up.

So, I have had to face a fear: Photoshop. By face, I mean find ways around dealing with. You see, Photoshop and I do not have the chummiest of relationships. We love to hate one another. So, instead I use Seashore. By use, I mean go through each menu option until I find something that works, employing the old “Command+Z” if it doesn’t (yes, I’m on a Mac. So what?). Now, I am not the most artistic of people. Not by a long shot, so when I stepped away from my trials of the flier and was okay with what I had at that point, I was actually pretty happy, especially given that I had managed it with minimum hair pulling, teeth gnashing and general furniture destruction of frustration. Needless to say, the final edition which you see above is the culmination of years of trial and error (mostly error) and a day and a half of near-enough-to-say-it-happened keyboard/head/banging action.

Yes, there are some out there who could have achieved this in a matter of minutes. You know what? Power to them. I couldn’t have. Yes, I used some fairly rudimentary editing “skills” (what? a mallet is a skill, right?) to make it work. But I came out of it unscathed. My computer is all in one piece, and not a single piece of furniture was harmed in the making of this flier.