September 1, 2014

Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring?

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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.



  1. Why is athabasca thinking so small. Will it be out of place for them to do some international outreach. Companies like Laureate education, 2U and Pearson Embanet are seeing the wisdom in focusing more on working professionals in English speaking emerging markets. Canada has a good brand Athabasca can leverage for international expansion. This way they can beef up revenue rather than cut costs.

    • Excellent comment, Iyinoluwa – and see my next post!

      • Thanks for the post. Funnily enough this is the new business we are into; partnering with BSPs to recruit online students from Nigeria. I explain in that posts comments. If Athabasca is interested we would love to be able to market their online degree programs to the Nigerian/African market. Demand for online learning is growing quite quickly.

  2. Tony,
    You have provoked me to a response:

    TB>> “Some might call this the Telus or Bell system of phone service customer support, and we know how well that works.”

    RMc>>> Let’s get real. Few people remember how well the previous system worked at Bell. I do. And I know that it worked very poorly. Bell NEVER provided the personal support that you are talking about. You often waited ages for answers to simple questions. At least with their call centre approach you can now get standard answers. For more unusual questions, you are transferred to someone who knows about the issue. In the past, you would eventually get a person who also would then transfer you to someone who possibly had answers. So, their call centre model is better for simple queries and at least just as good for more complex ones.

    TB>>“Under the previous tutorial system, a student has direct contact with someone teaching the course, and the tutor can initiate contact.”

    RMc>>> This is not exactly right. The student could try to contact the tutor and leave a message for call back in most cases under the previous system. Sometimes, they might catch the tutor on the first call. So, to call it “direct contact” is not quite accurate. In the call centre, they will reach a professional immediately. This professional, unlike the tutor, will have training in the most common questions, queries, concerns that student have regarding administration, schedules, programme requirements, etc. If it is a subject area related question, they will be immediately directed to an appropriate tutor. Or, they can use email for more direct contact. Previously, and even now in most cases, when a student asks a non-subject area question, the tutor directs them to a professional.

    TB>> “This is clearly an attempt to save money” – Bob Barnetson.

    RMc>>> Of course it is. And why is it a problem when a cash-strapped university (or even one that is ok financially) attempts to save money? Why pay more for an outdated system when a more economical one is available? As an advisor on costing, I would have thought that this would be the one aspect of the model that you would support.

    TB>> “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.”

    RMc>>> The call centre model is especially designed to provide students with the response they need as soon as possible. The previous tutor model allowed for a reasonable call back time of 48hrs. This is no longer acceptable. Students demand the response they need when they need it.

    TB>> “many of its undergraduate programs are still mainly print or text-based, a costly and antiquated model, supported by tutoring”

    RMc>>>How does this jive with your previous comments supporting this tutor-based “antiquated model” over a more technologically advanced and adaptive one?

    TB>> “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.”

    RMc>>> I can only agree with your call for a review and support for updating our programs. However, the call centre is NOT “tinkering”. It is a substantive and reasonable adaptation to the online environment. It has been successfully tested in one centre for many years; it is now being tested in another centre. If anything, we have been too slow in adapting. — Your Titanic analogy is a bit of a stretch, but yes we have to change course.

    All the best.

    • David Annand says:

      We conducted a study based on 2008 and 2009 data about relative a) student satisfaction; b) course completion rates; and c) cost between the Student support Model and the traditional tutoring model at AU.

      The main findings were:
      1. 78% of respondents rated immediate access to learning support (academic, administrative, technical, program) as either important or very important (Question 7; Table 8).
      2. 75% of respondents rated immediate access to an Academic Expert/Tutor for support as either important or very important (Question 8; Table 9).
      3. E-mail (58%) and telephone (26%) were rated the most effective contact methods under the Student Support Centre Model (Question 9a; Table 10).
      4. E-mail (67%) and telephone (23%) were rated the most effective contact methods under the Tutor Model (Question 10a; Table 12).
      5. 46% of respondents indicated that they contacted Athabasca University the same amount under either model; 40% contacted AU more using the Student Support Centre (Tutor Model: 14%) (Question 11; Table 14).
      6. Only 51% of respondents received telephone contact within their first month of a course from a Tutor in the Tutor Model versus 77% in the Student Support Centre model (Question 12; Table 15 and Question 14; Table 18).
      7. 88% of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with administrative support provided by the Student Support Centre (Question 20; Table 27) and 87% with the Tutor Model (Question 22; Table 29).
      8. 84% of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with academic support provided by the Student Support Centre (Question 21; Table 28) and 79% with the Tutor Model (Question 23; Table 30).
      9. A slightly higher proportion of respondents would prefer the Student Support Centre Model (28%) to the Tutor Model (23%) if given the chance to choose. About 45% of respondents had no preference or indicated that preferences would depend on various factors (Question 29a; Table 38).
      10. When applicable, it is important for students to talk immediately with an academically qualified person (Appendix 2; p. 34).
      11. The Student Support Centre model makes students feel more connected with the University (Appendix 2: p. 34).

      Contact me if you would like the whole report.

      • Andrea Crampton says:

        Hi David
        I would certainly like to see your report.

        Re: the concept in the article I would like to see the results of an evaluation of the students perception and satisfaction with this service. Distance students are distance for many reasons including preferring flexibility to learn where and when they want and to juggle other demands, thus inconsistent response and feedback practices can be a detractant to ongoing study. Therefore this may enhance student satisfaction and thus reputation of the university and thus increase demand and in turn professional job security.

      • Vivian Zenari says:

        The report Mr. Annand may be referring to was produced in-house by the same person, now promoted to upper administration, who is now spearheading the project. I don’t think the survey was peer-reviewed, if this is the report Annand is referring to. People may find actual student experiences more revelatory of the usefulness of the model.

      • Ann Reynolds says:

        Hi David,

        I would appreciate a copy of the report as well. I worry, as does “Lowly AU Employee” below, that the majority of students will get assembly-line education.

  3. Lowly Athabasca Employee says:

    With the introduction of this so-called call centre, how long before another administrator decides to save even more by contracting the service overseas to India? That way they could save even more than $1 million.

    Another way to save additional millions is to dispense with all professors, and just sell degrees by catalogue using the Sears system.

    Just as long as we don’t save money on the president’s wage $500,000 +, or other such executives.

  4. Wow, I can see that the AU administrators really have their go-to people responding to this post. In the call centre model, students will have their questions vetted by an administrative assistant who will decide whether the student needs to or can talk to a tutor. I think the 48 hour turn-around for talking to tutors is exaggerated. Students can call tutors during their posted tutoring hours and receive immediate access to a tutor. Students can also send e-mail 24/7 and receive rapid responses from a tutor that are not first vetted by an administrator. This is the biggest issue with the call centre — paying administrative staff to decide whether students can or should talk to a tutor/academic expert instead of letting the student have direct access. Also, under the call centre model, there is no continuity in terms of instructional support. The student might get one tutor/academic expert one day and a different one the next day and a different one grading an assignment — it is the assembly line model for post-secondary instruction. There is no relationship development, no individual tracking of student success, and no personalized goal setting/monitoring. In other words, it’s like calling your local phone company and talking to one person the first time and a different person the next time and so on. The above comment is correct — the next step might just as well be outsourcing to another country — that’s how personal and individual a call centre service will be. You can twist the stats any way you want; the bottom line is that this is a sad day for education of any kind.

  5. Doug Knight says:

    I find this discussion on call centres rather confusing as there appears to be two separate issues: one, the degree of interaction and engagement that students have with respect to their courses, and two, the appropriateness of the admin support they are given. I assume, as an instructor and administrator with over 20 years of experience teaching online and managing online programs, that the most critical issue is the quality of the learning experience that students have within their courses. A secondary issue is that of the support they receive with respect to the administrative issues they occasionally face regarding technical problems, registration issues, etc.

    The quality of the interaction and engagement students have with their instructors, the course material, and other students should be the focus of our concerns. AT Athabasca U there are courses in which students have a high degree of interaction and engagement, although this appears to be mainly in graduate programs. At the undergraduate level there are many courses that are ‘self study’, that is, the course learning design consists primarily of students ‘engaging’ with the assigned readings, completing the assignments, and writing an exam. Under this model students may interact with the instructor if they need help with the readings, with the assignments, or with the exam. The level of interaction is solely dependent on the needs of the student, and in many cases, the students work quite independently. The feedback they receive on their assignments is the only interaction they have with their instructor. Most of us as instructors would not consider this a quality educational experience. Nor, I believe, is there any research that suggests that this model of learning is one that should be espoused.
    There are alternatives of course to this model in which students are more highly engaged with their instructors and with their fellow students. Most of us who are teaching online are familiar with an instructional model in which students engage in online dialogue and debate through the use of discussion forums. Even self study courses can be set up with this kind of engagement; it just takes some ingenuity and an understanding of the nature of asynchronous communication.

    The admin issues are really quite a simple matter. Most of the ‘frequently asked questions’ can be handled through each online course web presence. A message section of each course can be devoted to such matters, and the course instructor can deal with routine questions through their own postings in message forums. Even some of the technical issues that arise can be handled through these messages. There is no need of a call centre under this model. There may be a need however of direct access for students to an IT support system, and to the registrars office, for matters germane to these respective admin issues. At AU, these services already exist although it often becomes quite cumbersome for students to access these services in a timely matter. A call centre would not make this situation better.
    I have taught, and administered, online courses and programs at the U of A, Royal Roads, and Dalhousie University, as well as AU. Until I worked with AU I had never heard of a call centre in use as part of an online course delivery system, nor believed that one was necessary. In my, perhaps limited, experience students were very well served by direct contact with their instructors and with support staff they could call or email directly. I am still confused as to why a call centre is needed, and confused as to the rationale of the pedagogical models used in many courses at AU. Perhaps Rory and David can speak to the learning models that AU supports, and provide some justification for these models? And explain why AU uses a call centre model when most other online universities do not? Is this model truly inventive or just aberrant and misguided? It does not make any sense to me. I would think that the imposition of a call centre model actually increases the cost of delivery overall given that there are alternative models in use now that do not need such an extravagant expense.

    AU has a wonderful track record in DE and employs some of the world’s best researchers in DE. How could this institution be lead so far astray with this apparent lack of emphasis on quality learning experiences?

  6. Thanks for this Tony – it has helped to spark a lot of discussion at AU.

    I’ve posted a lengthy response at that is in part an attempt to clarify what the folks in the Faculty of Science and Technology are actually doing: it’s not exactly a call centre and we are not getting rid of the traditional tutoring model. In fact, if it is done right, it should strengthen the tutor model, though I have some concerns that it is being used as a trojan horse to sneak in a different and very bad idea that could be very destructive. In the post I also explore some of the challenges we face despite our great strengths in many areas, thanks to our print-based legacy and Otto-Peters-style industrial model. I think this helps to address some of Doug’s concerns too.


    • Many thanks for this, Jon – your post is brilliant and captures all my concerns – and hopes – for AU. I strongly recommend anyone working in an open university, especially at a senior administrative level, to read Jon’s post.

  7. Marika du Preez says:

    I am an undergraduate student at Athabasca in English. To me this is a great priviledge to study at Athabasca. The material so far is of high quality. I always get support from teaching staff. It was rather surprising to read the article. This is not my experience at all.

  8. Joram Ngwenya says:

    Bottom line is that both models are barriers between student and professor (course developer). Dave’s report is essentially evaluating which is a less or more effective barrier. From a professor perspective both course development and delivery can be very frustrating. First, course development is really course production in a team environment with one academic and non-academic production staff. Courses therefore take long to produce, because there are some unavoidable bottlenecks in the production process. For IT courses you easily have well designed and perfectly edited courses that are already stale when they come out of the production process. As a professor you are then faced with the second problem; delivery. You have to deliver this stale course indirectly, student have no direct access to you. They have to either contact a call center agent or their assigned tutor depending on the model. Meanwhile the professor has to embark on another revision cycle of the stale course just produced which will be stale by the time it is ready for delivery. Since the call centre model has been tried and tested for a long time in one center maybe it’s time a teaching model (where professors are professors in the traditional sense not just members of a course production team) was tested in one unit.

  9. It appears that a substantial part of the problem is tutors. They are clearly not a meaningful part of a student’s learning experience, yet AU still has to waste money on them. In the comments above, tutors are contrasted with professionals, it is suggested that tutors are incapable of or won’t bother to answer students’ questions about things not directly related to course work, and that tutors are a barrier between students and the professor who designed the course. Why wouldn’t you put people like that behind a call centre filter and allow a professional to decide whether a student really needs to bother with one or not? (In fact, are they really necessary at all?)

    I am one of these shifty folk, but I authored the courses I tutor, so at least I am not a barrier between the student and the person who actually knows the subject matter. In other contexts in which I teach, I am considered a perfectly capable instructor, so these attitudes are rather galling. I’m doing a bit of a cost-benefit analysis, and although I don’t have much information about how this new system will play out for me, it is looking as though I can make far better use of my time than tutoring. Rory McGreal’s comments above make it quite clear that I won’t be missed… and I’m clear that I won’t miss encountering those attitudes.

    As an aside, I would suggest that receiving a tracking number is not the same thing as having one’s questions answered, and point out that the 48 hour response window exists because tutors are not paid enough to have tutoring as their only job. Without the flexibility to work in tutoring around other employment, very few could afford to do the job of a tutor.

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