AMA with Nick Barter- Academic Director- Online at Griffith University

AMA with Nick Barter- Academic Director- Online at Griffith University

Nick Barter is the Academic Director – Online, for Griffith University. He joined the EduGrowth community for an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session

Thanks to Nick for sharing his time with us. Here is Nicks full bio:

In his current role he has responsibility for guiding the university’s developments and growth in the online/digital space. Given Griffith’s nature and heritage, our intent is to ensure our progressive education and ideas reach students and that means connecting digitally as well as face to face.

Prior to this position Nick was the MBA Director and Deputy Director Asia Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise (APCSE) at Griffith. His academic research is on sustainability and strategy and within this how to make organisations fit for the 21st century – embracing the Future Normal.

Prior to academia, Nick worked for Ernst and Young and Virgin Media in a variety of roles from strategy consultant through to Head of Business, Head of Strategy and Head of Marketing. In sum, in his career to date he has had the good fortune to operate at the highest levels and be involved in developing and leading strategies and change.


AMA Question:  How can we best prepare students for a knowledge economy using online learning? (Beyond technical skill development – creativity, collaboration, problem-solving..)

I am not sure how to answer that question its almost too big.  For me, I think more broadly than online learning, especially as online is just a conduit or a medium for human connection.  For me preparing people is about the notion of them being life long learners, about them having a continual relationship with an education provider, about them recognising the flexibility of knowledge, ….these things probably sound like cliches, but for me its tone.  Our creativity will be very important, especially because once the problem is solved AI can move in.  Also our empathy to each other will be very important….I think I am not fully answering your question, sorry.


AMA Question: In regards to online maths adaptive courses, are universities currently looking for third party solutions? Or do they prefer to create their own? What’s the best way for adaptive learning startups to partner with universities?

What are the problem areas in maths that your students face? What sort of courses would be most beneficial? A course that covers all the maths pre-requisites that students are expected to know (and don’t) or a course that has the same content as what the students are learning in their unit of study? (The first option being the more stable option from the founders perspective)

Yes, universities are looking for 3rd party providers in all sorts of areas.  Universities need to take cost out of their system, so anything that can do that is welcome.  Online adaptive maths is welcome, as is anything in the STEM area.  Creating our own solutions, not preferable because we tie up cost and resources.  As I think about maths and adaptive courses, I wonder why you don’t target open platforms (MOOC platforms)  and encourage Universities to utilise your courses that way, thus its easier for students to join, scalable across universities.  Regarding partnering with a university I would encourage you to contact the individuals who run the maths type courses.  Not sure what you fully mean by partnering though.

Regarding your second area of what are the problem areas.  I am not sure to be honest, that is not within my purview.

AMA Question: You mentioned at Griffith you have been trying to create adaptive maths learning lessons for your students, could you please advise what were/are the challenges you faced/face?

The challenges are about the amount of time to create the adaptive pathways.  A lot of academic time and development time gets lost in the design.   That’s the real difficulty I think.  Aside from that, I am yet to be convinced about adaptive pathways.

AMA Question: Hi Nick!

  1. Technology is allowing Universities to scale regionally and internationally, in a future where it’s easier to study from Stanford online than to travel to a local Uni, how will our Universities compete?

I don’t know how universities will compete, your vision of the future is one I share.  I take faith that the market is not perfect, the prices will be different, etc.  But I think for us at Griffith we have to keep asking ourselves what is our USP.  Like many places, including Stanford our USP is our brand, our story, our heritage our research.  We must find ways of continually articulating that message.    Also, I think it’s worth remembering that universities are powered by UG students.  Those UG students make decisions with their parents.  Thus, there is a social aspect to a university’s presence that can’t be ignored.  Also, don’t forget we are a regulated industry, the future vision relies on open trade in this area, that will not happen easily

  1. MOOCs (and online learning in general) get a lot of criticism for low completion rates, what do you see as the most promising ways to counter that?

Also, re the low completion rates of MOOCs, I don’t worry about that.  That criticism will pass, MOOCs are here to stay and they are good for everyone.  Completion doesn’t matter if you don’t need the credential…. learning still happened

  1. What broader problems do you see higher education having in the near, and far future that could be tackled with technology?

Key things technology needs to help with, how to lift the student staff ratio, so conveners can teach more students with a quality product.  Thus, technology needs to help with assessment and marking and coaching/guidance.  On the other side, it needs to help with administration and the university cost base.

AMA Question: Hi @nickbarter,

What do you think the factors are that influence the decision making on allocating resources to innovation in technology for edtech?

  1. What elements of a business strategy appeal to Higher Ed institutes?
  2. What elements of a business strategy deter Higher Ed institutes from purchasing?

As someone who influences the purchase and investment in edtech it seems procurement and IT policy slow down this process. I also co-founded an edtech company (< 1 year old) and we rely on grant funding to build and develop solutions rather than centralised funding. This is a much easier method to secure funding, build and deploy.

Is this really the only way to get new and innovative tech into Higher Ed. faster than the 6-12 month lead time through the centralised pathway?

To appeal to a higher ed, No 1- don’t assume you know the answer.  We are plagued with individuals who tell us they know higher ed principally because they went to university.  This is the problem with education, everyone has an opinion because they have had an education. Also on not assuming, universities are notoriously inefficient in many ways, ways that don’t make sense from the outside.  But internally they make perfect sense because of the mandate of the universities and the regulation we have to navigate.  Thus, less one, be humble and don’t assume we don’t know what we are doing.  I have seen too many potential providers talk to us without the humility to understand our challenges.  I think that may answer both parts of the question.

Re your point of speed, perhaps it is the only way.  But remember that universities are big employers with billion dollar turnovers they have to keep a lot of people digitally safe.  Also, our size means it’s hard for us to be nimble.  Our painful bureaucracy is there for a reason.  But it can be navigated.  Hope that helps a little.

I want to engage with centralised teams but I simply do not know how. I’ve always thought an intrepreneur team (startup within a Uni, without the bureaucracy) would be the safest way to do this

I think I have to ask why do you want the centralised team engaged, what is the brick wall you are hitting?   From my perspective as I have gone on in Universities, doing the hard yards on the committees does pay off. But also, we have the challenge of doing what works across the most use cases because we have such a large and diverse base to serve

AMA Questions:

(1) What do universities really need (What problems do they have) that startups are well-positioned to solve? 

(2) What can startups do increase their ability to collaborate with universities?

I think I answered this, we need help with the staff student ratio and thus marking and help with our cost base.  Key – help us teach more students effectively at scale (ie efficiently).

To increase their ability to collaborate – Be a helpful friend in tone I think

AMA Question: Hi everyone and @nickbarter. I’m interested in understanding how universities make educational technology decisions, or how they should. After 15 years in universities, I think the challenge is how we can get universities to adopt the mindset required to select, adapt and implement ed-tech solutions – and not any one particular solution. Getting there is the trick.

Agreed, there is a continual challenge in all large organisations regarding centralisation and decentralisation.   The answer is multiple solutions, with appropriate championing.

AMA Question: Why do students taking a unit fully online usually pay the same as a student taking the same unit face-to-face on campus (who usually have access to the online resources as well)?

They pay the same because they get the same level of teaching and the same level of support.  Further the investment in tech and resources to teach online is actually more than an on-campus course if you unpick the details.  It’s important not to get lost in thinking the physical campus is a key component of cost.  It isn’t, it’s a sunk cost.  The key costs in delivering a course are the convener, the software provided, the videos recorded, the administration around the student, the marking, etc.  All of those things stay the same in online delivery versus on campus delivery.  Also, we have found that actually students get a rich learning experience online, because we use Yammer and webinars to connect with students.  Thus, the time to teach and exposure to the convener is the same.  Also, the access to support and the library is the same.  Hope that helps, the marginal and minor difference is the campus cost.  But its insignificant at the level of teaching many courses, unless a physical space is needed for labs, etc.

So, there are no efficiencies / cost improvements from online education?

There are, but I don’t think we have fully realised them yet.  I think they come from an ability to increase scale, an ability to turn around a course faster without providing the associated workload to the next convener, but we haven’t got there yet as a university, because our teaching is still halfway between the old and the new.   So, they will come with time, but at the moment we haven’t quite left the old world or fully joined the new world and its practices, thus we haven’t realised those efficiencies even though we know they are there.  But I think it’s important to say, that as we teach online, we also bring in new techniques, new regulation, new challenges, so I don’t see online ramping down the cost of education yet.  But I do see a stratification of education costing different amounts for different levels of support.  I think I am making this a complex answer….

Online education is just as valuable as face-to-face, and as long as value is measured by $$$, there’s an incentive to price them the same (ensure investment, student and employer expectations, teacher expectations..).

Students who don’t use the Library or sport facilities (or very expensive research labs) often still end up paying for them – so the intangible benefits either justifies the aggregate costing model, or it means we disaggregate – pay only for services you use?

Nice thinking….. this is important as its key to recognise that universities don’t just teach they are also social devices that we use to help bring young people into adulthood, create community centres and alike.  Given this, I think the key innovations in online are to be had in the PG space, and thus from an ed tech perspective, in HE I would focus on the PG market and get that right.  UG students are at university for a variety of reasons, and only one of those reasons is the education… and that that education is not necessarily critical to their career.  PG education is different.  There is a tighter focus on the education and the desired career outcome

AMA Question: Hi Nick, one of the issues that Maria Spies identified last week was the need to help low trajectory students in the tertiary sector improve their academic and language literacies. Traditionally this is done by learning advisors in face-to-face settings. How do you think this can be scaled up, while not compromising quality, by universities for online and offshore students?

I think you do this through forums such as slack or Yammer to create the conversation space, I think we use webinar technology and I think we use open courses on MOOC platforms.

AMA Question: Hi @nickbarter, thanks for your time today.  How do you see assessment changing in higher ed the next 3-5-10 years?  Will tests still be sat (on paper, or digitally)?  And if you have any views on high school assessment/ testing also.  Thanks

We are already assessing digitally – every essay and exam can and is being submitted digitally.  We are doing online exams and you will see more of this.  I think the big change in assessment is going to be the use of peer 2 peer assessment.  However, that has a student acceptance challenge.  Also, historically all students do is rate themselves as excellent.   Also, the key in assessment will be good use of group work and shorter assessments.  There is too much reliance on essays and reports and not enough on presentations, videos and alike.  We are using all these areas, but I think there will be more.

AMA Question: Hi @nickbarter, any views on the role of VR/ AR in higher ed moving forward?  The talk in tech is these technologies are on the brink of general use.  Is Griffith preparing for it (or preparing to use it) in any way?

We are experimenting with VR.  We did an experiment last year in this area.  What we noted was the students are not up to speed with this yet.    But also, it can help with learning outcomes.   Thus, it will come, but we will be reliant on the mobile devices or gaming platforms making everyone comfortable with the tech before it gets widely adopted I think…. notwithstanding we will need good bandwidth.


Thanks everyone, its coming to the end of my time.  I wish you luck with your ventures and ideas.  You will I am sure do a great job.  I believe this century we will do something amazing re. education and lift our species and its attainment levels.  This will be good for all of us.  The key challenge is to make education more accessible, which means taking costs out and enhancing reach.  I am not sure we will lose the experts anytime soon.  So tech that enhances their reach is key.