March 29, 2017

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Athabasca University?

Light at end of tunnel

Climenhaga, D. (2017) Athabasca U’s future seems brighter as Saskatchewan prof named to conduct sustainability review, January 19

Climenhaga, D. (2016) Alberta Government names five new members to Athabasca University Board of Governors,, October 

The good news

I’ve written several times before about the troubles at Athabasca University, which bills itself as Canada’s open university (for a full list of my posts on AU and its troubles, see the end of this post). Most of my posts have been bleak about AU’s future because the news coming out of Alberta about the university was so bad.

So I am very happy to be able at last to see light at the end of the tunnel. This is due to several events in the last six months:

  • the appointment of a new President with extensive experience in the management of Albertan post-secondary educational institutions (Neil Fassina, formerly provost and vice-president academic at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology)
  • gradual renewal of the board with new appointments, and a targeted date (March 2018) for further new appointments to the board
  • the appointment of Dr. Ken Coates as ‘the independent third-party reviewer who will try to figure out how the perpetually broke AU can be made sustainable’.

In particular the changes to the Board and a new President were essential first steps to secure the future of the university. The NDP government, despite the financial crisis in Alberta due to low oil prices, seems to recognise that Athabasca University is funded per student at a much lower rate than the other universities, and will probably need more operational funding in the future. At the press conference to announce Professor Coates’ appointment, the Minister of Advanced Education stated that the government:

is committed to ensure adequate funds are in place to run the institution throughout Dr. Coates’s sustainability review. We’ve made sure the money is there to keep the lights on, people working and students learning.

This commitment is important as there are 30,000 students’ futures at stake.

So here is some gratuitous but well meaning advice for the Alberta government and Professor Coates from someone who cares a great deal about the future of the university, and knows a little bit about open and distance education.

Vision first

This is the most important, and actually the most difficult, challenge for Ken Coates and the government. What is the future role for AU in a world that has radically changed since its foundation almost 50 years ago? What added value can open and distance learning provide in the Alberta post-secondary education system? What needs can or does AU serve that are not being served by the other institutions? To answer those questions the university needs to look outward, not inward.

In earlier posts I have suggested what some of those roles could be:

  • widening access, particularly for lifelong learners, aboriginal students, and other potential learners denied access to the conventional post-secondary education
  • innovation in teaching: AU should be a world leader in the design of flexible, cost-effective online learning, a laboratory and test-bed for the rest of the Alberta post-secondary system
  • regional development and research: this is where it should focus its content and programs. Alberta is in the midst of dramatic changes to energy and resource development, climate change, and economic development. Find a niche here that has been left by the other universities and fill that.

However, it is really not for me to suggest a vision from AU. This needs to be created within and for Alberta. But the vision should drive everything else. To get buy-in and support for such a vision, an extensive process of consultation both internally and externally will be needed. This should have been done years ago so it needs to be done not only carefully but quickly.

In particular, all other decisions – about funding, labour contracts, course development – should be dependent on the vision, first and foremost. If there is general buy-in to the vision from all the stakeholder groups, these other thorny issues become much easier to deal with.

The teaching model

Athabasca University was a revolutionary 45 years ago when it introduced its teaching model of open access, continuous enrolment and independent, guided study based on quality printed materials. But that was the late 60s and early 70s. It’s 2017 now and the current teaching model is not only antiquated by modern standards, it is very costly and inflexible. Tightly linked to this is a generation of faculty and administrators who have known nothing else.

There has in fact been considerable internal expertise on the design of online and distance learning at AU, but this expertise has been constantly ignored in terms of actual decision-making about design models, or rather interesting designs have been pushed to the margins and haven’t affected the bulk of the teaching, particularly in the undergraduate programs.

This has to change. Slimmer, more flexible and above all less costly methods of course design and development are needed that take account of the rapid developments in new learning technologies since the 1970s.

I can’t see how this change in teaching models can happen without a major change in personnel, particularly in the academic and administrative areas, and without accompanying changes in labour agreements. AU’s location in the boondocks does not help in recruiting quality academic staff, although online learning means that faculty do not have to be physically located even in Alberta.  

Again, though, decide on appropriate teaching models, then develop labour agreements around this that are fair and reasonable. This will be helped if faculty and administrators buy into the new vision for teaching and learning. Those that don’t should leave. The students deserve better teaching than they are getting at the moment.

System synergy

AU’s role vis-a-vis the other post-secondary institutions in the province needs to be clarified, developed and agreed by not only the other institutions but also the government. In other words, a process such as Ontario’s strategic mandate agreements is needed.

Alberta though has a much smaller system than Ontario’s. It should be possible to get all the universities around a rather small coffee table. British Columbia back in the days of the Open Learning Agency had a Provost’s Council that worked out not only the relationship between OLA and the other universities, but agreed on joint program development, sharing of courses, and credit transfer for open and distance learning. Alberta needs something similar, some kind of forum that enables institutions to agree roles and functions in open and online learning. But again Athabasca needs to work out its vision and role first.


Although this has been the main focus in recent years to me it is the least of the problems. Even in a cash-strapped province such as Alberta’s, AUs funding is almost in the margin of error in the total provincial budget. But rightly the government doesn’t want to throw good money after bad.

The biggest need is a new approach to IT at the university. AU has had major problems with IT security, and IT management. Whatever vision for the university is decided, it needs to move away from a massive, centralised, local IT operation to more flexible, decentralised, cloud-based solutions. Again though the IT model needs to be driven by the vision for the university, not the other way round.

Will they get it right?

There is still a long way to go before Athabasca gets to the end of the tunnel, and there are several major factors that could still derail it. Indeed, let’s hope that the light isn’t another train that runs right over the university.

My biggest concern is that although the recent steps by the government are all in the right direction (new board, new president and an external review), where is the open and distance education expertise so urgently needed to guide Athabasca into the future? The government, the board, the CEO and even the external consultant have no experience in this field. In what other business other than open and distance education would this be acceptable?

It could be argued that the expertise lies within the institution. If so, over the last ten years there has been a lamentable inability to make good use of this expertise in the planning and management of the university. (See my previous posts below for evidence of this). Indeed, the top people in online and distance education field who were at AU have either retired, moved on or given up trying. Ken Coates needs to tap into this expertise and particularly their knowledge of the barriers that have stifled innovation in teaching and learning at AU.

Also when appointing a new board, the government should make sure that at least one board member is knowledgeable and experienced in open and distance education. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

So I wish Ken Coates the very best in his very challenging mission. But don’t call on me – I’m retired.

Further reading

I am surprised how much space I have devoted in this blog to the troubles at AU. Put them all together, though, and you get a pretty good picture of the challenges it has been facing:

Feb 25, 2013: What’s going on at Athabasca University? (about the firing of four senior staff)

Feb 27, 2013: Athabasca University’s President to stand down – but not soon

Jan 28, 2014: Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring?

Jun 9, 2015: Athabasca University’s Troubles Grow (about a different sustainability report written by the previous interim President)

Jun 12, 2015: Advice to the Alberta Government on Athabasca University’s sustainability report 

Jun 14, 2015: Advice to students about Athabasca University

Jun 30, 2015: What can past history tell us about the ‘crisis’ at Athabasca University?



  1. I wonder to what extent there are similar issues in the U.S. at universities that are almost open universities (accept anyone, keep costs to a minimum), such as Western Governors, UMUC, and the like. I sense (but can’t confirm) similar issues such as overly centralized, expensive, and outdated IT practices, and perhaps a lack of personnel involved in the decision-making process who are experts in learning and effective online teaching practices. In a sense, MOOC providers made the same mistake. Most never hired anyone trained in learning design or the learning sciences or educational psychology to leadership positions, at least in the first few years.

    I wonder though if there is hope in parallel path we can explore while waiting and hoping for existing universities to get up to speed on more effective practices. There is Charles Vest’s idea of the meta-university, for example, and initiatives like OERu university. I’m interested in an open online center for student development and faculty development, for example, to help students and faculty at universities that don’t have the resources or trained personnel to significantly improve student success and faculty teaching effectiveness.

    • Doug,

      You really hit the nail right on the head. The explosion of distance education in the US is not to be ignored. Western Governors shouldn’t really be the model though. That institution is also lacking in credibility in my opinion. The schools you mentioned are in direct competition with state public institutions. Nearly every single state institution offers online education now! At these schools, you get the same degree as your counterparts attending on campus.

      The differences between what distance education is in the US compared to Athabasca are astonishing. I completed a BS and MS degrees online at public institutions (such as Michigan State University). I decided to enroll in Athabasca because I was interested in a particular certificate program. I am not sure I made the right choice.

  2. Tim Nerenz, Ph.D says:

    I have served, and been served by, Athabasca University for 20 years; I have been a prospective student, student, alumni, donor, program advisory member, Governing Council (Board of Governors) member, Campaign cabinet member, course writer, adjunct professor, and acting program director. I was inducted into the Order of Athabasca University in 2011 and currently teach in its Faculty of Business. The key to understanding both the problems and solutions for AU lies in recognizing that it is not a single monolith and can’t be managed as one. It is made of some programs that are very successful and sustainable – many generate budget surpluses – while it continues to pursue many others that are not, never have been, and never will be sustainable. It has pockets of great innovation and pockets of stubborn resistance to change. AU has grown to be the largest MBA in Canada and is (arguably) the most respected online EMBA in the world; we teach our students in both the private and public sector how to lead major change and how to turnaround failing firms. Our alumni deal with problems daily that are similar and more difficult than AU has failed to confront for many years now. I hope that our new President and third-party reviewer will do what no past administration has done during 8 years of crisis – ask our alumni for ideas and take their suggestions to heart. Our AU alumni are both our customers and our product – every business turnaround starts with that.

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