From Tehran to Taipei: How can teams and technology work better together?

If forming teams to achieve shared goals is an imperative in human society, why do university student teams often struggle to build collaboration and intercultural skills as expected?

A conference of the International Association for the Development of the Information Society hosted by Western Sydney University in December 2017 brought together international researchers to share new insights and potential solutions on learning and integral technologies. The papers summarised address a similar theme: Are students in certain cultures or communities resistant to take on team and knowledge sharing skills, or is there something about the approach in universities that currently makes student team success less than optimal?

The papers point to a need to understand how student team formation in university courses can be improved for better learning outcomes. While offering insights on new approaches in team formation and the types of challenges which students respond to, the authors also prompt some further questions – such as:
Is knowledge sharing, team formation and collaboration a skillset that can be taught in universities?
Do millennial students already have these skills, but have they somehow unlearned them?
Do institutions actually constrain our natural capabilities for collaboration and knowledge sharing[1]?

Reza Samim’s presentation entitled “The Impossibility of Teamwork in Iranian University Classes” certainly doesn’t sugar-coat the perceived challenge in higher education in his country. Faced with a bleak overview by faculty members of their students’ team-working abilities, Samim considered the Iranian university culture could account for a verdict of weak student approaches to teamwork when compared to the more “organic, public benefit oriented European institution”. However his review of a national student survey found some familiar underpinning challenges for students working in teams which included; team size (more than three is troublesome), students’ ability to share authority is poor and there was often a failure to engage inactive and passive team members. His conclusions on developing social trust and managing students’ preference for individual learning are reflections shared by those of us facilitating student team programs in other places.

A study by Chung-Kai Huang and colleagues in Taipei of 262 business undergraduates who participated in team based learning (TBL) through a flipped classroom[2] approach, looked at personal attributes which are considered important for effective team operation. Although the students surveyed identified potential value from learning and sharing knowledge with others, the researchers noted that the workload of TBL was generally unpopular and grade incentives were needed to motivate students to engage with the program. They also suggested a cultural expectation from their students for a more directed approach from their teachers could limit the benefits of independent learning, which is considered a key objective of TBL and flipped classrooms.

Understanding this challenge at an institutional level is an area of work being tackled by Peter Bryant from the LSE[3] who has developed a framework to focus on students and their interactions with institutional and personal technology. Bryant is looking to understand ways to better support collaborative learning as part of a larger institutional strategy by separating out myth and anecdote around blending technology with learning, such as; “social media distracts students from learning”.

Bryant’s charge here is that – “These myths create walled gardens of practice, where the calls for change are challenged by anecdotal assertions, rusted-on custom and practices, institutional inertia and sometimes outright resistance.”

Research as part of the LSE2020 plan logged 182 informal 3 minute video conversations and a survey of a further 250 students and found that students tend to describe ‘learning platforms’, such as Moodle, which are provided by the institution as the technologies which aid their learning. Although Bryant’s paper presents early findings, the work points to a richer parallel narrative about how students approach knowledge sharing outside main channels by forming ‘collectives’ through social media without the need for a teacher or some other “institutional gatekeeper”. There is also the finding that while students want more interactive approaches from their lecturers they are inclined to see institutional learning platforms more passively as a means to access the essentials to meet the course requirements. Bryant suggests this form of institutional approach to learning technologies potentially limits student engagement in how more diverse technologies can be recognised by both students and teachers as learning tools.

Thierry Karsenti and Julien Bugmann’s study of the educational potential of Minecraft in primary school children in Montreal suggests that we may start our learning journeys with a low barrier to knowledge sharing, team working and the ability to explore learning through technology. The researchers developed a 10 level program of tasks and small projects within Minecraft’s virtual environment for 118 students in 2 schools and provided a small reward (a coloured wristband) for each level achieved. Within a couple of weeks the researchers had to add a further 10 levels, making projects far more complex and ending with students learning to programme the game directly.

Working in pairs and small groups, the students demonstrated a high level of knowledge sharing and were soon working more as a collective across the class to assist other teams on a number of complex projects, such as building a virtual house to specification and recreating a replica Titanic. Compared to their peers at the schools who were outside the study, the Minecraft students showed educational benefits in 25 areas, including increased collaboration in project groups and mutual assistance between students.

In Chile the concept of enacting students to be producers as well as consumers of knowledge through online tools has been shown to be an important aspect of successfully building teams. Oriel Herrera and Patricia Mejias looked at students who worked in small teams to produce a range of learning products, from podcasts to collaborative maps and documents, for their fellow students to interact with. They found these peer-to-peer support activities over a range of subject areas (including engineering and biological sciences) showed potential to deliver highly positive outcomes for student learning through both knowledge production and as critical consumers of peer created materials.

Putting the ‘right’ teams together may also be one way of supporting better outcomes. With the growth of large student populations now learning online in MOOCs[4], enabling virtual teamwork has become the focus of work by Sankalp Prabhakar and Osmar Zaiane in Alberta, Canada. Working from a set of student attributes provided through MOOC registrations, Zaiane outlined the potential to harness particle swarm optimisation (PSO) to assign students to best fit teams. Whether applying this biological model gets us closer to meeting our compatible team mates is yet to be tested, but may potentially provide insights which could also support better team establishment for smaller, on campus courses.


Despite the geographic differences, the findings noted by a number of authors would not be unfamiliar to facilitators of student team programs in Australian universities. With our highly internationalised student cohorts, the Australian expectation of team learning as ‘sink or swim’ mode may not always translate easily into action or success for students. Here too there can be a tendency for some students to focus on grades or an eagerness to simply ‘get through’ team based programs. And yet there are student teams which gel early, work extremely well and achieve great outcomes, perhaps despite barriers being put in their way.

Whether the best long-term learning outcomes emerge from well-formed teams, intangible collectives or global swarms, there is no doubt more to learn from people experiencing university today and those who may participate in university programs ten years from now.


The papers referenced in this article were all presented at the International Association for Development of the Information Society (IADIS) joint conferences hosted by Western Sydney University 11-13 December 2017.

Bryant, P. (2017) It doesn’t matter what you put in their hands: Understanding how students use technology to support, enhance and expand their learning in a complex world.  Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Educational Technologies 2017 Conference (pp. 67-74). Lisbon: IADIS Press.

Huang C-K., Lin C-Y., Lin Z-C., Wang C. and Lin C-J. (2017) Optimizing knowledge sharing, team effectiveness and individual learning within the flipped team-based classroom. Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Educational Technologies 2017 Conference (pp. 191-192). Lisbon: IADIS Press.

Herrera, O. and Mejias, P. (2017) Peer instructions and use of technological tools: An innovative methodology for the development of meaningful learning.  Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Educational Technologies 2017 Conference (pp. 59-66). Lisbon: IADIS Press.

Karsenti, T. and Bugmann, J. (2017) Exploring the educational potential of Minecraft: The case of 118 elementary-school students.  Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Educational Technologies 2017 Conference (pp. 175-179). Lisbon: IADIS Press.

Prabhakar, S. and Zaiane, O.R. (2017) Learning group formation for massive open online courses (MOOCs).  Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Educational Technologies 2017 Conference (pp. 129-136). Lisbon: IADIS Press.

Samim, R. (2017) The impossibility of teamwork in Iranian university classes: A study of one of the obstacles to the realization of sustainability in a country in transition.  Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Sustainability, Technology and Education 2017 Conference (pp. 36-42). Lisbon: IADIS Press.

[1] Zach Wahl’s article on ‘Why People Fail to Knowledge Share’ in Image and Data Manager Dec-Jan 2018 gives an account of the challenges of knowledge management in a business environment. A mix of behavioural and organisational factors are recognised which can impact on effective knowledge sharing.

[2] The flipped classroom depends on students reading study materials to allow for activity based facilitation in face-to-face sessions rather than didactic teaching.

[3] London School of Economics and Political Science

[4] Massive Open Online Courses

Thinking like a millennial – the future of the Australian university

For more on La Trobe’s Bold Thinking series visit:
This image comes from La Trobe University’s Bold Thinking site.

With the recent announcement that the expansion of undergraduate education in Australia appears to be over[1], La Trobe University’s Vice-Chancellor John Dewar got the timing right to bring together his fellow leaders in higher education for a conversation on the Future of the University.

Kicking off the discussion as part of La Trobe’s Bold Thinking Series, Margaret Gardner AO, Vice-Chancellor of Monash University, made an early call for calm saying “there is no existential crisis in the university system”. However all the VCs spoke of their concerns for the sector in assessing how institutions will need to continue to adapt in a rapidly changing social and technical environment.

Outgoing Vice-Chancellor of The University of Melbourne, Glyn Davis states that as universities in Australia are now highly dependent on both domestic and international students for their income, this may become more of a challenge in the future.  A growing conservative trend by governments to rein in the sector, such as in the UK, was seen as another factor for concern among university leaders. As Dewar points out, attempts to dampen the sector appear paradoxical, as universities in Australia now support tertiary education for around 40% of all school leavers and contribute to substantial export income through their efforts in internationalisation. The VCs suggest some of the apparent hostility toward universities may be due to institutions becoming too big and more managerial in style, or even because of their growing international reach.

However, all the panellists note there is plenty of work for the sector to do. Keeping curriculum relevant was seen as a major challenge, given the first millennial generation will arrive at universities in 2018. While Dewar notes a key role of the university remains “to form rounded individuals”, he suggests teaching must continue to offer enough flexibility and knowledge development for graduates “to form the new professions and problem solvers of the future” – whatever their roles may be. Davis suggests that to achieve this, rather than simply increasing the offering of comprehensive institutions, the sector may need to diversify into smaller specialist institutions which are better equipped to develop relevant industry relationships and new job pathways.

While there are many organic changes happening in universities through new approaches to course development, Dewar highlights how universities are working more at the edges of their core offering to engage with industry.  With examples such as Swinburne University’s partnership with Seek in online education, Deakin University’s partnership with Cisco for degree credentials via Deakin Digital and Flinders University’s partnership with the innovation community in Tonsley Park in South Australia, Dewar shows how universities are now acting more strategically to respond to change through partnerships.

In a discussion on the relationship between the university and TAFE sectors, Dewar proposes that La Trobe’s regional co-development of programs with the TAFE sector is a model to bridge a number of regulatory barriers in the post-school system in Australia. Gardner too considers that conversations on the relationship need to be more around arriving at robust post-school models and options for all rather than focusing on addressing political divisions of funding and tertiary education regulation.

Moderator Virginia Trioli, herself a La Trobe alumna, asked the VCs, (who all spent time early in their careers at Griffith University)  – to put themselves in the shoes of a millennial student and consider what they might study if they were to arrive at university for the first time in 2018. Although sadly none suggested opting for a switch to science or information technology, Gardner would like to stretch more into Arts, while Dewar would stay close to social science as he is “not too good at maths” and Davis would opt to start with the course in politics he had to write because it wasn’t there when he started university.

In closing, and with a note on looking back and forward, Gardner emphasises that for more than a thousand years the university has been an “author of social disruption” and needs to continue to focus on its social role as a source of ideas, questions and solutions rather than giving in to the “noise” of the moment.

[1] Campus Morning Mail 16 November 2017 Student starts slow: full 2016 university data.

Post by Megan Power
Monash-Warwick PhD Candidate
Centre of Social and Organisational Informatics
Faculty of Information Technology


Delving into the Innovation Ecosystem

Last week took me a fair bit deeper into the innovation ecosystem concept from both the macro and micro perspective.

On Wednesday I participated in the LH Martin Institute Innovation Ecosystems seminar, which is one of a series which brings together educators and industry representatives to ask, ‘what can we do to effectively lead on and build innovation?’

With a much-needed focus on the role of higher education in regional innovation in Victoria, Assoc Professor Ruth Schubert shared the positive experience and learnings gained with her fellow delegates following a recent whirlwind visit to some of Europe’s innovation hotspots.

Ruth’s takeaway message was that innovation often happens when communities are in crisis and, in many cases, continuity and stability for redeveloping communities emerge from the leadership of local higher education institutions.


Image result for brainport
TU Eindhoven now markets itself as the centre of the world’s smartest region

In Eindhoven and Enschade in the Netherlands, the regional Technical Universtities; TU Eindhoven and the University of Twente  have reinvented themselves to lead an economic recovery after the slump of key industries. These included the major Philips Industries downturn and the demise of the regional textiles industry in Enschade.


Ruth highlighted how, in just a few years, the Brainport innovation centre initiative of TU Eindhoven, which now hosts the Philips Research Centre and other key innovation labs, is recognised as the third economic engine of the Dutch economy after Schipol Airport and the Rotterdam Port.

While these initiatives need legislative and policy frameworks, as well as investment and local leadership, the case studies also demonstrated the neutral brokerage role of Higher Education Institutions in bringing partners together to make change happen.

CEO of GOTAFE, Shepparton, Paul Culpin described how he was determined to ‘just get on with it’ after returning from the visit to Europe. By reconfiguring their current workshops, investing in new manufacturing technologies and integrating practical teaching and community access, GOTAFE is now setting up a FABLAB as part of the international network which originated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001. Paul said, ‘We can’t wait for the right funding and the right environment, we have to do this now.’

HE Sector leaders at the seminar spoke openly about how tangible issues related to the regional economies are, particularly in the Latrobe Valley with the inevitable shift away from fossil fuels, but also with changes seen through the downsizing of other major regional employers such as SPC in Shepparton and Ford in Geelong. But Paul also outlined how the HE Sector is not only well placed to build co-operation, co-location and collaboration across sectors but is trusted to nurture innovation and ultimately fuel a healthy economic future for regional communities.

The seminar participants also questioned whether the ‘Innovation Ecosystem’ was a real opportunity or a transient fad, along the lines of Autio and Thomas (2014), who also tested whether the term was simply co-opted as management-speak without being actionable. There was no doubt that the delegation had seen the ecosystem in action in Europe but also recognised that innovation could only be attained in a systematic sense through a focussed and situated imperative rather than via randomly dispersing funding or applying fuzzy policy concepts.

Closer to home this potential is made evident by the Tonsley experiment taking shape in Adelaide with Flinders University and TAFE SA as key partners. This major urban renewal is set to demonstrate how whole communities can transition from the industrial and business models of the 19th and 20th Centuries, into a cleaner, digitally fuelled economy. The reinvigoration of the once major car manufacturing site at Tonsley promises great opportunities for existing companies and insitutions but also offers the start-up community space in a vast ‘pod park’ alongside the big players. Tonsley’s Precinct Director, Philipp Dautel, described how the site’s development will also fold in residential spaces for a highly located workforce and offer integrated public transport links to the city and the main University campus and Medical Centre at Flinders.

I came away from the seminar realising that my own idea of what a new innovation landscape might look like is also vague, since (at best) I’ve walked past a FABLAB and nodded knowingly while 3D printers made interesting objects or wandered randomly through a shared workspace without any idea of where this could lead. While I’ve been lucky to work on some large cross-sector partnerships, working with researchers through different stages of the innovation pathway provides a challenging balance.

Prof Jon McCormack talks on the creative interface

Luckily Prof Jon McCormack and his team at Sensilab were running a play day on Friday and kindly let a few random PhD candidates loose in their space so I could at least get some actual experience of how rapid prototyping can work. The slightly more serious object was to think about the computer and the creative / innovative interface. Jon kicked off the day with the example of the pencil as the exemplary interface, in his terms as being both ‘immediately accessible and infinitely masterable‘. So far so good.

Jon then challenged us to think about sound and drawing as creative elements for interface creation and asked us to explore how other forms of intuitive interfaces could be developed, in particular, to move the computer beyond being a tool which often ‘got in the way of innovation.’

Despite Jon’s reassurance that I couldn’t break any of the fun LittleBits plug and play electronic ‘lego-like’ kit, it took me a few hours to really start testing out all the bits in earnest. Toby also helped set up a camera on a Raspberry Pi which was quite exciting – one idea we had was to look at how feeding an image back to the robot could alter the drawing tool response. While a team of 5 year olds would surely do in an hour what took me a day, this didn’t overtake the sense of satisfaction of making a prototype drawing machine by day’s end. Although I didn’t quite manage to connect the loop between the prototype robot and what the mini computer could do, my first iteration of a cirulating drawing table triggered by sound was quite a fun moment.


As my understanding over the week also clarified that the ‘Innovation Ecosystem’ can be more than a fluffy concept, I also took on board the message that to be successful and meaningful the ‘ecosystem’ has to be grasped as a broad coordinated endeavour which enables an open system of ideas to flourish. This means – Open Source, Open Space, Open IP and Open to Operate.

For the highly competitive Higher Education sector in Victoria, fully engaging in this opportunity, rather than testing innovation and enterprise in the sidelines, might take time. Evidence from elsewhere suggests that for innovation to become evident as an ‘ecosystem’ adequate critical mass is needed and the HE Sector is ideally placed to provide that platform.  While I’m confident that the region that leads this initiative will be far better off, the worst outcome would be for the HE Sector to cling to an old-world competitiveness, only to look around in a few years time and find that the rest of the world has moved on without us.


The LH Martin Institute’s next Innovation Seminar will include presenters from Newcastle, Australia telling the story of regional transition from Steel City to Smart City

Sensilab’s hosts events on a rolling basis – visit the website for updates. There will be another drawing machines workshop later in the year.




Visualising the beauty of data

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen some inspiring works which highlight the way ahead for data visualisation. While well tabulated, graphed and mapped data in 2D can provide a high level of information for interpretation and decision making – shouldn’t good data also make you feel something?

Co-founders of Sydney based company Code on Canvas,  Lukasz Karluk and René Christen, started by developing interactive projection art for urban environments but have turned to develop a range of other data visualisation applications. They show how data in the hands of artists can become a playful and aesthetic medium in its own right. By taking real-time seismic data they produced ‘Energy Pools’, a generative animated data painting for a major energy organisation. Although this data is an important element of the organisation’s core business, the work by Code on Canvas was commissioned and displayed by the company as a digital art work.


Exxon Energy Pools
Still image from ‘ENERGY POOLS’ Code on Canvas


For over three years Tom Chandler and fellow researchers from the Sensilab team, based at Monash University, have painstakingly reconstructed the Angkor Wat complex to visualise how the sophisticated temple landscape may have appeared in the 13th Century AD. The 3D rendering of the complex is based on architectural information of remnant buildings, archaeological artifacts, and other historical data. The next phase for the team was to populate the environment with ‘actors’ based on current interpretations of how the community and visiting pilgrims may have interacted in and around the temple site. The generated mapping of the population has in itself presented alternative understandings of the site. For the casual viewer the aesthetic beauty of the model alone is a mesmerising insight into this remarkable World Heritage location.


Closer to home an exhibition currently showing at the State Library, “Locus Amoenus” (Place of Delight) by John Power, presents another generative environment. For this work rather than faithfully represent the environment, John has developed a more imagined environment to create a sense of place. John (my clever younger brother) is an artist and animator but has applied his skills to create a digital world based on a series of contrasting Victorian landscapes. The generated visualisation takes us through forests, rivers, coastline and mountains.

When I arrive the AI shuttle programmed into the animation, has just picked up the camera and dropped it off to take us on a gentle walk through the sclerophyll forest environment. For me it’s a recognisable and soothing representation of the familiar foothills of the Dandenongs.

Detail – Indigenous vegetation “Locus Amoenus” by John Power

The landscape is lush with vegetation of faithfully rendered indigenous species from around Victoria and the viewer is offered time to observe and feel the environment.

The immersive work also takes Melbourne’s much loved real-time weather data from the BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) to animate the landscape. Wind speed, temperature, cloud cover, humidity as well as the diurnal changes of light are brought to life in the space, through the movement of water and foliage, recreating the outside world.

While most of us could simply step outside to have this experience, John’s work has also been displayed at Victoria’s Peter McCallum Cancer Centre, allowing people to have some respite from their treatment and care during times when getting outside is difficult.

While I was at the exhibition, the therapeutic value of the ambient work was self-evident – even a small gang of four lively brothers took the chance to chill out in beanbags and take in the atmosphere which had an almost immediate pacifying effect. While most visual animations we experience aim to stimulate and activate us – particularly animations aimed at children through advertising, gaming and film, John’s work aims to engage the senses in a more meditative and personal way.

By the time I leave the Library the sun is setting and the animation is also settling in for the night. If we had been able to stay we would have seen the planets, moon and stars rise in the landscape too.


Screen image of Locus Amoenus – generative ambient environment at the State Library


Locus Amoenus is a free exhibition on at the State Library until 17 June.

Links for more information

Code on Canvas


John Power’s Locus Amoenus


posted by Megan Power 11 June 2017

Monkey Gully Research is pleased to promote community based digital art initiatives





Solution finders are somewhere in the talent pool of most organisations. Supporting and understanding the work specialists take on, capturing their expertise and managing their input are key demands for innovative practices in the workplace. They are willing to passionately search for the source of a stream and pursue its course at the same time.