Nolais, J. (2014) Concerns dialed up over ‘call-centre model’ at Alberta’s Athabasca University Metro: Calgary, January 27
More signs of trouble at ‘Canada’s Open University’, as Athabasca University likes to describe itself (see also: What’s going on at Athabasca University? and Athabasca University’s President to stand down – but not soon).
The Faculty of Science is moving to a call-centre model of learner support for some of its undergraduate courses. Under this model, students call with a question, and are given a tracking number, and then someone will call them later, depending on who is available. Some might call this the Telus or Bell system of phone service customer support, and we know how well that works.
Under the previous tutorial system, a student has direct contact with someone teaching the course, and the tutor can initiate contact, for instance, if the student is not participating actively or appears to be struggling. Under a tutorial system students will have the same ‘tutor’ or instructor for the whole course, who also usually is involved in student assessment. (In an online course, it may well be the instructor who designed the course).
There is an excellent, more detailed description and discussion of the pros and cons of the call centre vs tutorial model on Bob Barnetson’s blog. Bob is a faculty member in the School of Business, and has been an instructor under both systems.
This is clearly an attempt to save money (according to Barnetson, the call centre model is almost half the cost of the tutorial model). The university has a large operating deficit, and this move will save at least $1 million a year.
What is even more worrying is not so much the decision but how it was made. It never went to Athabasca’s equivalent of a Senate (the General Faculties Council) because it was considered an administrative rather than an academic decision. Yet the tutorial model is all about helping students with their learning, which could not more clearly be an academic decision regarding the quality of the courses. Furthermore, the research on this issue is clear: the earlier students receive a response to a question, the better their performance, and the less likely they are to drop out.
This is another sign that Athabasca University is losing the plot. The university is facing a major financial crunch having eaten up a large reserve and going into substantial debt in recent years, and at the same time many of its undergraduate programs are still mainly print or text-based, a costly and antiquated model, supported by tutoring which is an essential component of this type of distance course.
Rather than undertaking a general review of its undergraduate teaching with an attempt to develop more interactive, online programs, more emphasis on social learning, and more flexible course designs, it is tinkering with what it sees as the most expensive part of its program delivery.
No wonder the Alberta government is losing confidence in the institution. From the outside, it is like watching an old massive ocean liner heading straight for the iceberg. If Athabasca University sinks, as it increasingly looks likely, this will be a major tragedy for Canadian online and distance learning. There are nearly 30,000 students, with over 40% coming from other parts of Canada. It should be the flagship for Canadian online learning, not an old, rusting hulk that has seen better days.