What’s the link between metaphysics, history, a MOOC in Hindi, blockchain, a Tumblr blog, and innovation education?

The answer can only be Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, DVC Academic at the Australian National University in Canberra.

In one incarnation Hughes-Warrington is a philosopher-metaphysician with a specialty in the theory of history. Her latest book is called History as Wonder, which ranges through ancient and modern histories and philosophies, referencing Aristotle, Polybius, Hobbes and Joan Wallach Scott along the way.

Another is Hughes-Warrington as a senior university manager with a range of educational, research and innovation responsibilities.

But in the person of Hughes-Warrington, the two are easily reconciled.

“Once you have studied philosophy you just have a kind of boundless curiosity about what makes thing tick,” she tells me.

“I am a metaphysician which means I am interested in how things hang together.

“And that means I’m always going to be infinitely curious not only about my own discipline, but also curious about how universities work, about how technology works, about all the assumptions people make about how it’s going to work, and how it all hangs together.”

 The modern public intellectual

If anyone can be counted among the ranks of Australia’s public intellectuals then it is Hughes-Warrington, thanks to her well-read missunitwocents Tumblr blog Making Sense of University Business.

“I once did an ARC project on 19th early 20th century Australian philosophers and I was really struck by their strength as public intellectuals. The majority of their writings were actually in the media, not journal articles,” she says.

Her medium of choice is an internet blog through which, she says, she is “commenting on and trying to encourage people to really think about fundamental issues”.

“I do like the idea that if the public is funding you then, in a way, you have an obligation to get back in contact, although that wasn’t the only reason I set up the blog.

“I felt very strongly that as a woman who has been working hard to learn about the parts of university business that are typically seen as very male – finances, facilities, all of those things – I thought it was really important to speak out to encourage other women particularly to see themselves in that space.

“The more you understand those things the more agency you have.

“What surprised me is that there are just as many male readers and a lot of them have written to me and said how encouraging and positive they find the blog because it helps them to make sense of some of the crazy that they have to deal with. That has been the bit that I did not anticipate.”

Her posts typically end with “shout-outs” to people who have helped or inspired her in various ways.

“It’s about making people feel less invisible,” she explains.

“There are administrative staff who do incredible work and they do that in relative invisibility. A lot of the point of the shout out is to highlight their contribution, but also to shout out particularly women.

“I want people to see that there are great people doing really good work.”

 Highlighting the needs of staff

Much of Hughes-Warrington’s workaday life is concerned with technology’s impact on higher education.

Among the many challenges, she says, is bringing the needs of staff as firmly into focus as those of students.

“The particular blind spot we all have, and that we have to focus on, is what it must feel like to be a staff member and feeling that the institution really is not hearing what you are needing.

“So I think that our biggest challenge is – if we are all about engaging students could we be as symmetrical in our care for our staff and make sure they come along on the journey as well?”

 MOOCs, digital data and blockchain

Part of Hughes-Warrington’s role has been to work on the development of a number of popular MOOCs for ANUx with edX, founded in 2012 by Harvard University and MIT.

“It’s been a fabulous experience,” she says. “You have to remember that edX is a start up, so not only is it a platform but also it’s a new not-for-profit business … it’s like the world’s most fun kind of start-up business joy ride really.”

MOOC subjects have included astrophysics, actuarial studies, examining Ignorance, and the world’s first Hindi-English MOOC, Engaging India – simultaneously taught in Hindi and English – as a result of which edX made Hindi its third official language, allowing Indian partners such as IIT Bombay to offer global on-line courses in Hindi.

“I’m really proud of that MOOC,” says Hughes-Warrington. “We got Anant Agarwal [edX CEO and founder, who was born and raised in India] to help us crowd source some of the translation into Hindi in a part community project with India.

“We wanted to get the platform to render in Hindi and we thought this would be a big technical challenge, but we underestimated the team and they all put their hands up and wanted to help us. We got our Hindi platform very fast. It just shows you the power and the beauty of the India diaspora around the world.”

Another project she has been involved with is My eQuals, incorporating 45 universities in Australia and New Zealand. It is a digital online service that allows employers, organisations and other educational institutions to verify the authenticity of academic qualifications.

“It’s about providing a digital copy of testamurs and transcripts to employers and to students.

“Typically when you graduate you get issued some pieces of paper and if you lose them you have to go get another paper copy. If you want to send in for a job, you might need to get that copied and you have to get a JP to attest that it’s a real document.

“We really wanted to take a digital turn and provide a secure, certified copy of academic materials that could be accessible to employers and to other institutions and students, and ANU has been doing this since 2010.

“We get around 22,000 requests per year for digital materials. We’ve got a good data set now to show that this is a good platform and our job now is to work with the other Australian and NZ universities to really provide that alternative option.”

Hughes-Warrington says she sees the blockchain has having a significant beneficial impact on higher education.

“Anywhere where you need to have a kind of reassuring communication, where you might verify that somebody has got a credential or that they did do the study they say that they’ve done – anywhere you need a secure assured conversation around capability, blockchain is brilliant.”

Innovation and higher education

Hughes-Warrington says universities have had a too narrow view of innovation. As one example, she believes universities have not fully summoned all of the capabilities needed to help micro and small businesses to perform at their best.

“When we think of innovation, typically – and not wrongly – we firmly put it on the research side. We tend to think of spin-outs around particular products, rather than on the performance of micro and small businesses.

“What most often helps them to survive post creation is the skill-set that those people have in understanding the finances, the regulatory landscape, changes in technology and the good thinking that needs to be done around logistics – those things may not be as firmly in view in universities’ notion of innovation.

“That’s not to say that we don’t mentor people, but I would like us to round out our view of innovation and actually get research and education both to work a bit better together. We also have to focus on the sustainability of those businesses, and help them to update and upskill.”

Similarly she is not sure universities are in the right space in the innovation talent pipeline.

“Innovation is predominantly thought of as research, which is a creation activity, but it is often focused on the content of the creation.

“But it’s also important to understand that the skills of the people involved in the business of innovation are incredibly important.

“So when an employer comes to talk to a university, quite often the first thing they want to talk about is their talent pipeline – where am I going to find really good graduates with the right skills, who is going to help my business to keep evolving and changing and to help in researching a new product?

“My view is that it is often an educational discussion that people want to have, and that we should be initiating that educational conversation a bit more strongly.”

 Training and credentials

Universities need to be flexible around training and credentialing, she says.

“I just want us to think that it’s not only products that can be flexible and change, but that also applies to university training and credentials.

“We need to be thinking about how we evolve. A bachelor degree is an old idea but also very adaptable. But some companies are beginning to spin out proprietorial micro credentials.

“I would hate universities to be left behind in that landscape and allow for-profits to drive the conversation about what a micro credential is.

“We should be saying – we’ve been in this business a long time, we should be thinking about how to adapt learning and to be more responsive to the needs of business.”