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Teaching and Learning Forum 2009 [ Refereed papers ]
"Teaching is something to rise above": Perceptions of science academics in a research intensive university towards teaching and teaching qualifications

Sarah Meghan Rich
School of Plant Biology
The University of Western Australia

The central focus of universities has historically been teaching, however, the commercial and business orientated framework in which modern universities operate has resulted in an increased emphasis on research outputs and securing research funding, and a corresponding decline in focus on the importance of teaching. Over the last few decades concerns have been raised regarding the standards of teaching within the Australian university sector and the idea introducing formal teaching qualifications has become an issue of some inquiry. As Australian universities move towards a unified system of qualification, academic staff are faced with the challenge of effectively teaching larger classes with a more diverse student population (scholarly background, ethnicity, gender and age) whilst attempting to successfully balance teaching with the competing agendas of research and service. This small scale study of science academics at The University of Western Australia (UWA) elucidates their perceptions of the value of tertiary teaching qualifications, whether they would consider undertaking a Graduate Certificate in University teaching and the role they feel teaching currently plays in their chance of promotion. The results of this study show a reticence by these academics to undertake a teaching qualification, this appears to result from a culture within the university (as with most research intensive universities) which does not perceive the value of teaching qualifications in effecting quality of teaching or chance of promotion. This study at the UWA adds to the growing body of evidence that academics may resist the introduction of formal teaching qualifications for university academics.


Introduction

It is ironic that academics - the professionals who nurture all other professionals in every field of endeavour - continue to eschew professional qualifications for themselves. (Review Committee on Higher Education Financing and Policy 1998, p.147)
Historically teaching has been the core function within universities. In 1852, Newman defined the role of the university to be the "diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than its advancement" and claimed that "if the object [of a university was] scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students" (Newman, 1907). In the century since this statement was made there has been increasing pressure within the tertiary education sector to perform within a more commercial and business orientated framework, which has resulted in an emphasis on research outputs, securing research funding and a corresponding decline in focus on the importance of teaching quality (Boyer, 1990; Hardy and Smith, 2006). This situation has been exacerbated by an increased emphasis on performance measurement; both quality and quantity of research output are easy to quantify, where as the quality of teaching is far harder to accurately judge and therefore, has usually contributed far less towards academic staff promotion (Beard, 1970). The existing recognition and reward systems for university teaching may showcase the accomplishments of some individuals; however, there is no current widely accepted method of quantitatively assessing professional competence in teaching (Fraser, Dearn & Ryan, 2002; McLean & Bullard, 2000). Within most universities different funding and career development arrangements for teaching and research staff has resulted in "a false dichotomy between the two, as if university teaching and research are two quite unrelated academic functions. Within this context, any attempt to raise the status of university teaching is seen as being at the expense of research" (Rowland et al. 1998, p.134). There has been recognition of this shift in focus and over the past 15 years much of literature has highlighted the need to refocus on the "centrality of learning" within universities (Nelson, 2002), however, the actual process of how to undertake this is one of ongoing debate.

Currently at most universities worldwide, academics can be appointed to positions where they have a major teaching role without any prior teaching experience or qualification needed (Fraser et. al. 2002; Trowler & Bamber, 2005), therefore, one solution to the quandary of how to accurately rate teaching quality for reward and promotion is the introduction of formal teaching qualifications. This would be a move towards teaching academics being professionalised, a process whereby the status, regard and level of reward of the academic would improve (Hargreaves, 2000). A course of action which, it could be argued, needs to occur as a response to the increased pressures facing academic staff (i.e. effectively teaching larger classes with a more diverse student population) in an progressively more complex society. The professionalisation of teaching in higher education is not a new idea (Dearn, Fraser & Ryan, 2002) and at present some form of training for university teachers is becoming common practice in many countries although it is only enforced at the discretion of individual universities (i.e. Finland, New Zealand and The Netherlands), although the form this takes can vary greatly, for example the Teaching Assistant model of training used in the United States (Lewis, 1997; Trowler & Bamber, 2005). In several countries (United Kingdom and Sweden) policy is currently being introduced to create standards of compulsory training for university teachers, policy which is already in place in countries such as Norway, Finland and Sri Lanka (Gibbs & Coffey, 2004; Trowler & Bamber, 2005).

In Australia, university teaching qualifications are not compulsory; however, a survey of 32 Australian universities conducted by Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) in 2002 showed that all but four offered an introductory teaching or foundations of teaching program, although this was only compulsory for new staff at ten universities. Of the 32 universities surveyed, 19 offered a Graduate Certificate in Teaching, with this being compulsory for promotion to certain positions at only one university. All surveyed universities offered an optional seminar/workshop program for teaching staff. These figures suggest that most Australian universities are committed to the improvement of teaching practice, however, the level of commitment and the type of programs on offer is highly variable and the courses on offer are very inconsistent in terms of time commitments and content across the sector (Dearn, Fraser & Ryan, 2002).

At the policy level the formalisation of university teaching qualifications is seen as a positive step towards the professionalisation of university teaching. Within the literature however, there are strong indications of resistance by experienced staff to engage in the many programs currently available in the practice and theory of being a tertiary educator (Dearn, Fraser & Ryan, 2002; Hardy and Smith, 2006; Webb, 2001). Teaching accreditation is reportedly seen by some academics as a threat to the "academic research career" and there is resistance to changes in the current balance of teaching, research and administrative tasks within an academics schedule (Webb, 2001). There is also some uncertainty about quality and benefit of the teaching qualifications and professional development on offer (Hardy & Smith, 2006).

The University of Western Australia (UWA) is currently reassessing its policies on teaching qualifications. Presently UWA does not require academic staff to have or undertake a formal teaching qualification. It is a requirement of new staff to complete the Foundations of University Teaching program involving a three day intensive workshop and a semester of follow-up seminars. At this time, about 4% of current UWA academics hold a teaching qualification of some sort and during 2007 approximately 12% of staff participated in at least one teaching and learning program, including the compulsory foundation program (Flowers, 2008). The University is in the process of developing a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education program which staff will be encouraged to undertake. This study elucidates the underlying opinions towards tertiary teaching qualifications that are held by academic staff within the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (FNAS) and the Faculty of Life and Physical Sciences (FLPS) at UWA and investigates the reasons underlying these attitudes.

Materials and methods

To gain an understanding of the attitude of science academics at UWA towards university teaching and the benefit of teaching qualifications, an anonymous online survey was distributed in August 2008 to all 220 teaching staff within the Faculties of Life and Physical Sciences (FLPS) and Natural and Agricultural Sciences (FNAS).

The survey contained five initial questions, pertaining to personal information about respondents current role, past teaching experience and teaching qualifications/professional development completed; The main body of the survey consisted of 15 statements (Table 1) regarding respondents feelings about their teaching practice and their attitudes towards the benefits of teaching qualifications, several of these statements assessed how they see their faculties attitude toward teaching and its use in promotion. A five level scale was employed (from 1 - Strongly disagree through to 5 - Strongly Agree) for most statements. Three statements were included to assess whether science academics would undertake a Graduate Certificate in University Teaching given various circumstances (fees paid, workload allowances). A nominal three item scale was employed (Yes, Possibly, No) for the se statements.

Table 1: Statements used in a survey on the attitude of science academics at The University
of Western Australia towards university teaching and the benefit of teaching qualifications.

Answered using a five level scale (Strongly disagree through to Strongly Agree)
I believe teaching is an important part of my role at UWA
UWA recognises and rewards high quality teaching
UWA values high quality research and publication
Research and teaching have strong linkages within my faculty at UWA
I incorporate current education theories in my teaching practice
I have the time to keep up to date with current literature on university teaching
Undertaking a university teaching qualification would improve my teaching methods
The compulsory participation in a basic Foundations course on university teaching is beneficial for NEW teaching staff
Compulsory participation in a basic Foundations course on university teaching would be beneficial for CURRENT teaching staff
Having a teaching qualification on my CV would increase my chances of promotion
Teaching qualifications should be taken into account in promotions and appointments for positions which have a teaching aspect
Excellence in teaching could be used as the sole basis for a promotion within the university
Answered using a nominal three item scale (Yes, Possibly, No)
I would consider undertaking a Graduate Certificate in University Teaching if the fees were paid
I would consider undertaking a Graduate Certificate in University Teaching if workload allowances were made for participation
If a Graduate Certificate in University Teaching was offered through UWA I would enrol

An overall response rate of 29% was attained with 23 responses from FNAS and 40 from FLPS, respondents covered all teaching positions in ratios simular to those found in the staff population. The survey ended with space to provide comments which was filled in by 37 respondents, with many respondents leaving lengthy feedback.

Results

The results of the survey did not show any significant difference (P > 0.05) between the two science faculties at UWA and the current position that an academic holds did not result in any significance difference (P > 0.05) to their response to any of the 15 statement questions, therefore, the results below are taken from the pooled data of all survey responses. Over 90% of the respondents did not hold a teaching qualification and 80% had not attended any teaching and learning professional development in the last 12 months (Table 2).

Table 2: Sample demographics of a survey on the attitude of science
academics at The University of Western Australia towards university
teaching and the benefit of teaching qualifications; conducted in August 2008.

Academic StaffSample (%)
PositionProfessor21.0
Assoc. Professor16.1
Senior Lecturer32.3
Lecturer22.6
Assoc. Lecturer8.1
Highest Teaching QualificationNone58.1
Foundations Course32.3
Graduate Diploma of Education4.8
Doctorate/PhD in Education4.8
Attended teaching and learning professional
development in past year
Yes19.4
No80.6

Science academics at UWA feel that teaching is an important part of their role which is recognised and rewarded by the university (Figure 1), 82% supported the statement that teaching is an important part of my role and not a single respondent disagreed or strongly disagreed. Almost half of the respondents (42%) also felt that UWA recognises and rewards high quality teaching, although 26% of respondents disagreed with this statement. In contrast to this result, over 90% of respondents felt that UWA values high quality research and publication. Comments indicate respondents who do not feel that teaching is well recognised, may feel this due to the lessening of the teaching load in more senior positions, resulting in the idea the "that teaching is something to rise above" or as another academic commented, while research success was used as the main performance indicator "anyone who does not achieve in research (by [the faculties] standards, which do not cover research into teaching) will be RELEGATED to a teaching-intensive position - doesn't really give the impression that teaching is a valued activity".

Even amongst those respondents who felt UWA recognises and rewards high quality teaching this recognition and reward did not appear to be linked to teaching qualifications as shown by the response to questions concerning academics beliefs about the link between teaching qualifications and promotion, results show 70% did not feel that having a teaching qualification would increase their chances of promotion, this result was paralleled across all respondents (Figure 1). Science academics generally disagreed (46%) that teaching qualifications should be taken into account in promotions and appointments for positions which have a teaching aspect. Most respondents also did not feel that undertaking a qualification in university teaching would improve their teaching methods, with only 28% feeling that it would. Given this result, it is interesting to note that 53% of current staff believe that the compulsory participation in a basic Foundations course on university teaching is beneficial for NEW teaching staff; when asked if compulsory participation would benefit current staff however, there is strong disagreement (47%), although several respondents included favourable comments about the availability of an optional foundations course (presently offered at UWA) to current staff.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Survey responses to statements relating to attitudes towards teaching and the impact a teaching qualification would have on teaching quality and chance of promotion. Percentages are taken from survey responses of 63 science academics at The University of Western Australia, August 2008.

The lack of benefit in having a teaching qualification that appears to be perceived by science academics at UWA, both in personal teaching quality and chance of promotion, is supported by the response to the three statements regarding undertaking a Graduate Certificate in University Teaching (Figure 2). If this course was offered at UWA only 4.8% of staff would enrol in the course and if an incentive such as having the fees paid was offered 16% of staff would enrol. However, if workload allowances were made over a quarter of staff would enrol, a figure which corresponds with the number of respondents who felt a teaching qualification would improve their teaching (Figure 1). This result indicates that even when a benefit is perceived in having a qualification, time is a major factor in an academics willingness to undertake a course.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Survey responses to statements relating to attitudes towards undertaking a Graduate Certificate in University Teaching. Percentages are taken from survey responses of 63 science academics at The University of Western Australia, August 2008.

The time stress that academics feel is reflected in the response to the statement I have the time to keep up to date with current literature on university teaching, which 74% of respondents disagreed with, making it unsurprising that 79% of science academics also do not think that they incorporate current education theories in [their] teaching practice. The heavy workloads and lack of time to attend teaching professional development or to contemplate undertaking a university teaching qualification was highlighted in over a quarter of the comments, as one senior lectures concludes "Due to increased teaching/admin loads most of us do not have time to scratch ourselves, let alone do any courses. Dream on!"

Discussion

Concerns have been raised regarding the standard of teaching within the university sector. These concerns have resulted in a new focus on accountability within the sector and an upsurge in the availability and variety of professional development accessible to teaching academics (Dearn, Fraser & Ryan, 2002; Hardy & Smith, 2006) and the introduction of compulsory teaching training and qualifications in several countries (Gibbs & Coffey, 2004; Trowler & Bamber, 2005). As Australian universities move towards a unified system of qualification, the results of this study show a reticence by science academics at UWA to undertake a teaching qualification, which appears to result from a culture which does not perceive the value of teaching qualifications in effecting quality of teaching or chance of promotion. The results of the UWA study are not unexpected, given other studies also found a significant reluctance by current staff to consider the benefits of tertiary teaching qualification, and a resistance towards participating in teaching professional development (Dearn, Fraser & Ryan, 2002; Hardy and Smith, 2006; Webb, 2001). This trend however, is in conflict with a rising need for teaching academics to be trained to manage increasing class sizes and increasing diversity within the student population in terms of scholarly background, ethnicity, gender and age (Bourgeois 2003).

UWA is part of a shrinking number of Australian universities who do not currently offer a teaching qualification in higher education to its staff and is currently in the process of introducing a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education program (Flowers, 2002). As indicated by the staff attitudes revealed within this paper, the successful uptake of this course will hinge on careful planning, in order to address the concerns of current staff and introduction of policy which results in staff participation rather than avoidance.

Most respondents in this study did not feel that undertaking a qualification in university teaching would improve their teaching methods (Figure 1), one Professor at UWA commented "University staff indeed teach, but students learn, and the role of staff is to facilitate that learning, NOT to teach", other comments highlighted a belief that "teaching ability in an intrinsic attribute" and that having the "bells and whistles of a teaching qualification" is not indicative of skill at teaching. Staff indicated that 74% did not have time to keep current on pedagogical theory, so therefore, it seems unreasonable to expect them to be up to date with current research in this field; one respondent even asked "is there evidence of a link between teaching qualifications of staff and improved learning by students?" In order to promote the benefit of professional development in teaching to academic staff (particularly science staff) there is a need to show the benefits this will have on student learning. There has not been a direct correlation shown between teaching training and student outcomes (Trowler & Bamber, 2005), however, there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the links between quality teaching and effective learning (Dunin & Precians, 1992; Gibbs & Coffey, 2004; Kember & Kwan, 2000; Trigwell, Prosser & Waterhouse, 1999) and furthermore that quality teaching is linked to being well informed on the literature of teaching and learning, being reflective about ones practice and committed to improved student learning (Boyer, 1990; Coffey & Gibbs, 2000; McLoughlin & Samuels, 2002; Postareff et. al., 2007), all skills provided through professional development.

Staff need to feel that undertaking teaching professional development, or a certified teaching qualification, will bring them some form of benefit, beyond the satisfaction of their students. For a staff member to spend time and energy on improving their teaching it will be at the expense of other tasks (research and service) and therefore, they are not going to do this without an assurance that it is worthwhile. Within many universities, especially in research focused disciplines, there is a culture which does not reflect the value of teaching when it comes to applications for promotion or recognition within the faculty. In this study 70% did not feel that having a teaching qualification would increase their chances of promotion (Figure 1), with one respondent commenting that "UWA "talks" about equity in promotion of teaching intensive staff, but does nothing to allow them to achieve this".

The culture within the science faculties at UWA (regardless of written policy) puts research outputs to the forefront as clearly demonstrated by the staff attitudes and comments revealed in this survey. One Associate professor commented:

Academics have always had a split existence. We're hired as one thing (teachers and administrators), but assessed as something else - researchers - which we carry out in the interstices. Things have changed a little. Before, teaching was not regarded at all for advancement; now it is regarded, but only if you are a superb teacher.
The undervaluing of tertiary teaching in promotion is reflected by senior staff often having minimal teaching commitments; they are excused from their teaching "load" in order to be able to concentrate on research (Ramsden & Martin, 1996; Webb 2001), as one Senior Lecturer in this study commented:
My perception is that UWA and other Go8 universities value quality research much more than quality teaching. This is demonstrated by the proportion of professors who have heavy teaching loads compared to the proportion of staff at more junior levels who have outrageous loads - this skewing of teaching load leads to a view among staff that teaching is something to rise above. The central administration does not appear to do much to dissuade this idea; I am not aware of any teaching only professor
While policy at UWA is moving towards the recognition of teaching in all facets of promotion this does not seem to be fully realised by staff within the science disciplines, as one lecturer points out "the recent list of journals from which publications will be acknowledged by [the faculty] includes almost nothing relating to tertiary teaching". This attitude within the faculties must be rectified if staff are to be expected to prioritise teaching professional development in their scheduling.

The resounding message from this survey was that time restraints, more than any other factor, influence staff decisions about undertaking teaching professional development. In a work atmosphere where many staff have "outrageous [teaching and research] loads", the addition of further study on top of this is an impracticable suggestion for most staff, even if they see the rewards as being high. In the 2006 UWA Working Life Survey, academic staff indicated that they spend 55.8 hours a week working, with hours like this it is not surprising that 25% of the survey comments related to the time commitments a teaching qualification would involve and the difficulty this creates. As put by one Associate Professor "Given that I am struggling to get my research out the door, what do you think is the chance of me doing a teaching course?" This result is reflected at other universities, a similar study carried out at Charles Sturt University found that most academics believe that teaching is an important part of their role, however, they also felt they are not able to give it the time it deserves, due to research and administration pressures (Hardy & Smith, 2006). Time allowances need to be made if current staff are expected to engage in teaching professional development and if given would potentially lift participation rates; this study shows that is workload allowances were made a quarter of science academics would consider enrolling in a Graduate Certificate in tertiary teaching, compared to less than 5% without allowances (Figure 2). Time, more than any other factor, needs to be taken into consideration when planning courses and professional development for academics.

In short, Australian universities are at turning point in regards to the professionalisation of the teaching academic. There is no argument that there is a need to ensure university teachers are knowledgeable and skilled in modern pedagogical method and well equipped to handle the competing agendas and changing student population of the modern university, however, this study at the University of Western Australia adds to the growing body of evidence that in order to successfully implement policy regarding both professional development and tertiary teaching qualifications there is a strong need to recognise the limitations of the existing system and the time stresses which staff currently work under.

Acknowledgments

I would like to gratefully acknowledge the support of CATL and the UWA teaching internship program, particularly the input Dr Lee Partridge gave in the design of project and survey and her assistance with earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks to Dr Patrick Finnegan and Dr Sue Miller for assistance in survey design and Kathryn O'Brien for reading a final draft of this paper.

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Author: Sarah Meghan Rich, School of Plant Biology, Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, The University of Western Australia. Email: sarah.rich@grs.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Rich, S. M. (2009). "Teaching is something to rise above": Perceptions of science academics in a research intensive university towards teaching and teaching qualifications. In Teaching and learning for global graduates. Proceedings of the 18th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 29-30 January 2009. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2009/refereed/rich.html

Copyright 2009 Sarah Meghan Rich. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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