Australian Technology Park was a fine choice of venue for this year's AVETRA conference. The converted Everleigh rail yards afforded excellent facilities, and provided ample photo opportunities and fascinating wandering if you needed moments of private reflection. (I was surprised though at the lack of rail lingo from conference chairs, organisers and keynotes. 'Down the track' , 'stranded at the station', 'switching tracks', 'runaway train', 'head of steam' etc could all have been put to good use. But I digress....).

There was momentary disappointment on the first morning when it was announced that Federal Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, would not be presenting the opening keynote, but Senator Tierney was a fine replacement. He made us all feel good about ourselves by confirming the importance of the VET sector - 1 in 8 Australians are engaged in VET study, and structured straining has increased by 50% since 1996. After new General Manager of ANTA research projects, Liz Furler, had dragged herself from her sickbed to discuss the nature of the new national strategy (2004 - 2010.) a panel session followed.

Tim Smith (ACPET) announced that 40 - 45 % of VET training in QLD is in the private VET sector. If you apply these figures around the country you quickly see how successful the government push to privatise VET has been. Kevin Harris (Director, Northern Sydney TAFE) said that a Google search on VET pedagogy yields almost nothing, and that organisations like AVETRA exist to right this imbalance. (Actually, I tried this and quite a bit turned up. RMIT and EdNA feature prominently, and also the VET Research Group featuring AVETRA presenter, Erica Smith.)

Death by Lack of Powerpoint

At this point there was an address from an invited keynote who read a prepared speech with no visual support materials (eg Powerpoint). People like to joke about 'death by Powerpoint', and it can indeed be used very badly, but this incident reminded me how much I have to come to rely on slides for visual stimulus. Few of us are so engaging that we command complete attention from our audience, and Powerpoint slides at least gives an audience another point of focus if you are not the world's greatest speaker, and provides listeners with another means of processing input. This unnamed speaker was dull, and the lack of visuals simply reinforced this. While enduring this presentation, I realised how dependent I have become on visual cues (and I am a text learner!). This type of presentation is a relic of the past, and keynote speakers should do better. Or have I simply lost the skill of concentrating on the spoken word for more than 5 minutes?

A creature of habit, most of the break out sessions I attended had some bearing on online/flexible learning. Cliff Trood reported on a project that involved bringing some north coast (NSW) lecturers down to town to talk with employers. Reactions of the lecturers after this experience were instructive. It had been a perspective altering experience for them:

  • "employers want enthusiasm, creative thinkers, and problem solvers, and a demonstrated ability to cope with change."
  • "From now on I will encourage students to interpret information rather than have me explain it all to them."

Day 2

Day 2 began with an engaging keynote from Colin Walters on how Australian VET compares with other countries, principally Germany and the UK. Some stats (from his, and Lesley Loble's, DET, NSW) presentation:

  • there has been a 78% increase in VET since 1991 (unlike the UK where growth is static)
  • Australian VET consistently produces an 80% satisfaction rate from students
  • level of engagement in education in Australian is above OECD average in all age groups
  • 75% of TAFE graduates find employment, compared with 65% of uni graduates

Colin also suggested that the 'youth problem' does not need more money to solve it, but rather innovative thinking, and finished by exhorting VET researchers to simplify their final reports so ministers and busy people can quickly access the main recommendations. (Is this what they call dumbing it down?!)

Lesley also quoted Pewsey et al: "Full time work is more and more becoming the preserve of the wealthy and educated."

As Communities of Practice (CoP) seem to be flavour of the month I decided to attend the session by Maria Leontios et al, and old research stagers John Mitchell and Susan Young.This was an intriguing session. Clearly the two presenting teams had differing views of what a CoP actually is. This is an evolving beast, but focusing on a CoP as "a lens through which to focus on learning" helped clarify the notion for me. Evidence of their popularity (and the fact that Reframing the Future had a separate category for them in the application process this year and last) is the fact that 71 projects focusing on CoPs have so far received Reframing the Future funding.

Late on day 2 Ian Robertson (Box Hill TAFE, Flexible Learning Leader 2002) dared to make us all think hard about the theories of social linguist, Basil Bernstein. Ian is attempting to use Bernstein's theory to explain the discrepancies that can occur between what a teacher intends to do in the classroom, and what they actually do do, especially as applied to blended learning environments incorporating the use of Internet technology. It was difficult to comes to terms with Bernstein's theory in a short presentation, but Ian's approach appears quite a useful one.(contact Ian at

Mark Landy (TAFE Frontiers Victoria, Flexible Learning Leader 2003) told how TAFE Frontiers hired a consultant to advise them on how best to market their services to VET staff in Victoria, and measure the effectiveness of their training and its impact on change management. I have a similar role to Mark's in South Australia and we may well consider this option - it clearly had produced benfits for Mark and the TAFE Frontiers team.

The last two presentations presented reports on research into the state of play in flexible learning. Karen Ho's (Westone) work focused on learner preferences for various delivery modes. It showed that while most learners prefer face to face classroom teaching, 35% would like more flexible learning options. (How many students does 35% represent in your state? Many thousands....) Interestingly too, Karen found that the more students were exposed to flexible delivery the higher they rated the quality of their learning. Some key findings from Joan Cashion (Swinburne) and Phoebe Palmieri's work were that online learning does not save money, (I don't think this will surprise many but it's good to see it borne out by research) and most online students like to meet their teacher and fellow students where possible.

An excellent conference overall. I thought the standard of presentations was up on last year, and it is always good to hear the results of research from the horses' mouths. I was pleased too that there wasn't any snide technology bashing as there was at last years's event. Perhaps we have all at last accepted the use of technology as part of normal eduactional life. And I repeat, the venue was an absolute winner.

Michael Coghlan
April, 2003

Technology Park pix
(coming soon)
page created 19/4/03