July 2, 2015

What can past history tell us about the Athabasca University ‘crisis’?

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Any merger needs to resolve incompatible union collective agreements

Any merger needs to resolve incompatible union collective agreements

It’s not just the Greeks who are having problems financially, even though they are getting all the headlines. In earlier posts I commented on Athabasca University’s so-called impending ‘insolvency’, as the president put it. As with all crises, the actual ‘end’ is never certain until it happens, so perhaps there’s still time for the Alberta government and Athabasca University to learn from history.

Questions from Wayne Burnett

Wayne Burnett, one of readers of this post, has asked some pretty good questions about what we can learn from the past that might help Athabasca in its current struggles. I originally replied to his comment with another comment, but feel the discussion needs a post of its own.

Wayne asked:

I would be interested in your comments (or the observations of your readers) on:

  1. What makes AU unique, from a student perspective? That’s the best argument for increased government support. What is it that students get from AU that they cannot get from the online initiatives at bricks and mortar universities?
  2. What has been the experience as BCOU was merged into TRU? Did the student experience change? Were there cost savings?
  3.  I don’t see the Feds getting involved (as they would be asked to help out TRU, Télé-université, and maybe others) but is there a possibility of seeking an arrangement with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, given that there is already some co-operation in higher education in the Western provinces? Does the UKOU get funding from the Scotland and Northern Ireland governments?

Cheers, Wayne

My response

Great questions, Wayne. Fancy a job as President at AU?!

I’ll do my best to provide a personal answer to Wayne’s questions, but each one is probably better answered by others.

1. What makes AU unique, from a student perspective?

This is a question for the Board and senior administration at Athabasca and it’s negligent to the point of irresponsible that they have not come out with a vision statement that sets this out clearly for government and for their own staff.

It isn’t actually hard to do, either.

  1. The first answer is that AU provides open access, enabling those who do not have the necessary qualifications for conventional universities to attempt higher level studies.
  2. Alberta needs more trained and qualified workers and has been depending on immigrants from outside Alberta, who need opportunities for continuing and higher education but do not have the qualifications for entry to conventional universities and cannot study full-time.
  3. Alberta also has a large and fast growing aboriginal population that is under-educated and desperately needs alternative routes to post-secondary education.
  4. None of the conventional universities in Alberta offer full undergraduate degrees at a distance, and there are very few fully online post-graduate degrees from the other universities.

I could go on, but AU needs not only to state that these are its main target groups, because they are under-served by the conventional institutions, but also has a plan of action for meeting these needs, which would require some substantial changes to the current curriculum and program offerings, for instance.

2. What has been the experience as BCOU was merged into TRU?

Again, this is best answered by former BCOU students and possibly by the OL division at TRU, but here’s my two cents worth.

Initially, it was pretty disastrous for most BCOU students. The BC government had no plan for the 16,000 or so students enrolled in the BCOU through the Open Learning Agency when they closed the OLA in 2003. They tried to get BCIT to take it on (OLA’s campus/building was near to the BCIT campus), but because of the unique union agreements for part-time BCOU faculty/tutors, BCIT did not want to touch it, nor did SFU.

This resulted in a period of nearly seven years when these 16,000 students were in limbo, until eventually TRU was forced or decided to take on these students. Again, however, because of the union agreements for BCOU part-time staff, because TRU had recently been changed from a college to a university, and because the ‘open’ students received less grant from government than the on-campus students, many of the campus faculty and administration were hostile to, or reluctant to acknowledge the validity of, ‘open’ or distance learning.

As a result TRU has to this day maintained strict apartheid between the campus and the open parts of its operation. Although in recent years the atmosphere has improved considerably, and a new administration is now much more supportive of the OL division, 12 years on, enrolments in the TRU OL division are just getting back to where they were when BCOU was closed down.

Perhaps more importantly, like AU, the OL division has not had the funds or the institutional commitment to make the major changes in its teaching model needed as a result of developments in online learning. However, if there are any BCOU students reading this, please let us have your views on this.

3. Is there a possibility of seeking an arrangement with Saskatchewan and Manitoba?

Well, there is already a co-operative of Canadian universities called the Canadian Virtual University, which includes the University of Manitoba, and Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in British Columbia (as well, as, interestingly, Mount Royal University in Alberta). There is automatic transfer of credits between Alberta and BC post-secondary institutions already (I actually went to an announcement about this by the then BC Minister of Advanced Education when embarrassingly he referred to Athabasca University as BC’s new open university, much to the chagrin of the TRU delegation.) So there are already opportunities for economies of scale by sharing courses from other institutions. The issue is whether this has been fully exploited at Athabasca, by using courses from other institutions rather than providing a complete program from within AU. I’m not in a position to answer that question.

The issue though isn’t so much about Saskatchewan or Manitoba, since the overall numbers of potential AU students from either province is likely to be low, but Ontario. Currently Ontario students make up 40 per cent of AU’s enrolments. What’s not clear is how much this will change now that the Council of Ontario Universities has established its own ‘Ontario Online.’

Although this will result in more online courses available from Ontario universities, it does not necessarily guarantee fully online programs. Even more importantly, Ontario Online still requires students to meet the qualifications for entry to Ontario universities before students can take their online courses. However, don’t expect Ontario to give money to Alberta to support Ontario students who want access to Athabasca.

What the Federal government could do, though, is to offer student aid to lifelong learners without a degree wanting to take further online qualifications from recognised institutions anywhere in Canada , which would then enable these Ontario students to be supported at Athabasca, as could students from all over Canada. Since there’s an election coming and none of the parties has stated its higher education policy yet……

4. Does the UKOU get funding from the Scotland and Northern Ireland governments [as well as from the government of England and Wales]? 

Sorry, I don’t know the answer to this question. Can anyone from the UKOU help with this? (My cynical answer would be that it’s equal treatment from all three governments: no funding at all, these days.)

What lessons can be drawn?

Here’s what I take away from this situation, although I’m sure readers will draw other conclusions:

1. No unique/non-conventional institution can survive without:

  • being clear about what makes it unique, and continuously identifying its uniqueness in changing circumstances;
  • having a clear strategy and plans to meet that unique mandate;
  • being nimble enough to adapt rapidly to changing external factors, without losing its unique advantages.

2. Closing or even merging a unique institution will usually leave a large gap in educational provision, and students enrolled in such a unique institution will suffer as a result of such closures or mergers, no matter how much a government may wriggle to mitigate such effects. Any re-organisation or merger must resolve incompatible union agreements to stand a chance of future success.

3. Although I didn’t discuss this explicitly with regards to the closure of the OLA, good leadership of unique institutions is even more important than for conventional institutions; it is essential that the leadership of such institutions wins and maintains the trust and confidence of government, and that requires constant attention and communication of the unique role and value of the institution. Once that trust is lost, it is almost impossible to regain, especially if its uniqueness is fading or under challenge.

4. Open and distance learning transcend provincial, state or even national boundaries. It is counter-productive to try to limit open and distance education to just state or provincial boundaries. Government and institutions need to develop business strategies that support and enable cross-state and cross-provincial activities in open and distance learning, for instance, through:

  • two-tier fee systems,
  • collaborative programming such as the CVU,
  • self-financing through tuition fees.

4. Nevertheless, in a provincial post-secondary education system such as Canada’s, it is in reality impossible to get financial support from other provincial governments for residents taking courses from an institution in another province. However, Federal policies regarding student financial aid could help institutions with a student enrolment footprint larger than their province. The Federal government should have a strategy for supporting lifelong learning, for economic reasons alone, and Federal student financial aid should support such a cross-provincial strategy.

So, Wayne, yes, there are lessons to be learned from the past here, but it would be extraordinary in Canadian higher education if these lessons ever get applied to rational decision-making.

Over to you

I’d love to hear from BCOU students, AU students, or open learning faculty/tutors at TRU about this:

  • What would you recommend to the Alberta government and/or Athabasca University, from your experience?
  • Most of all, what advice would you give to current or potential AU students?

 

Independent reviews of Teaching in a Digital Age now published

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Image: computer lab at SUNT Purchase campus, © Wikipedia

Image: computer lab at SUNY Purchase campus, © Wikipedia

I have now received the three independent reviews I requested for my open, online textbook for faculty and instructors, called ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘.

These are now published, alongside and as part of the book, as Appendix 4.

The process used to obtain the reviews can be seen here: The independent review process.

A review from a faculty perspective by Professor James Mitchell, of Drexel University, can be seen here.

A review from an open and distance education perspective, by Sir John Daniel, can be seen here.

A review from a digital learning perspective, by Leanora Zefi and the team at Digital Education Strategies, Ryerson University, can be seen here.

If you are doing or have done a review of Teaching in a Digital Age for an academic journal or other publication, I’d appreciate it if you could let me know, so I can link it to the book.

Guidelines for reviewing an open textbook

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Image: © educatorstechnology.com, 2014

Image: © educatorstechnology.com, 2014

I’m not sure that there is much of an immediate ‘market’ for these posts on issues around developing an open textbook (or maybe everyone is sensibly enjoying the summer), but for those who may in the future be contemplating self-publishing a textbook, I though it may be helpful to draw on my experience in authoring both commercial and open textbooks to lay out some guidelines for reviewers of open textbooks.

The issue

I discussed in my previous post the need for independent reviews of a self-published open or academic textbook, and the criteria I used in selecting reviewers.

Commercial publishers, when commissioning reviewers, usually send a letter or a standard document that sets out guidelines for reviewing a book in its first, full draft before printing and distribution, to ensure both consistency between reviewers, and to identify to reviewers what the publisher is looking for. Although sometimes the publishing editor will require responses to elements that are specific to a particular book, there are also a number of guidelines that are pretty generic.

The situation is somewhat different for a self-published textbook, where it is the responsibility of the author to decide whether to get independent reviews and if so, to provide appropriate guidelines to the reviewers. At the same time, many guidelines will be similar for both types of book, but there are also some aspects of open publishing that require specific guidelines. I have outlined in blue below those that are specific to open textbooks or to my book in particular.

Of course, many reviewers will have their own criteria in assessing a textbook, and they are to be encouraged to use such criteria and make them explicit in the review. At the same time, it is my experience that most reviewers welcome guidelines as to what to comment on, and this is particularly true for an open textbook.

I contacted BCcampus, which obtains independent reviews of all its open textbooks before making them available, and they provided me with a set of questions for reviewers, and I have added some of my own.

Target audience

It is important first of all for the author to be clear as to the primary audience that is being targeted by the book. In my case, it was faculty and instructors in post-secondary education wishing to ensure that their teaching is relevant to the needs of contemporary learners and students. In another case, it may be first year undergraduate students. So one general question for reviewers is:

To what extent is the book successful in meeting the needs of its primary market?

Other questions for reviewers

  1. Does the book meet the requirements of a scholarly work? Is it research and evidence-based, and does it provide a critical analysis of the key issues in the field?
  2. Does it provide evidence-based, practical guidelines for faculty and instructors that will help them improve their teaching?
  3. Does it cover adequately the main contemporary issues in teaching in a digital age?
  4. Is the book well written? Does it read well? Is it well organized and structured? Are there errors of grammar or serious typographical errors? Are the graphics and cases appropriately chosen?
  5. What major changes, if any, are needed before you can recommend this book? What minor changes would you like to see?
  6. If this book was to be offered to a commercial publisher, would you recommend it for publication?

Question 6 may seem a little odd, but my aim here is to ensure that the book meets the same standards as commercial publishing, where there is the added risk of financial loss for a commercial publisher if there is no market for the book, or if the book is not good enough to attract new readers over a period of time. While these risks do not apply to free, open textbooks, the fact that it is judged suitable for commercial publication will carry weight with those looking to ensure that the book meets quality standards.

There may be other questions or guidelines that will be specific to your book that you may want feedback on.

Practical considerations

I specified a length for the reviews of between 800-1,500 words, and that the review would be covered under a Creative Commons CC-ND license. This means the reviews cannot be changed without permission of the writer of the review. However, reviewers would be free to publish the same review in an academic journal, if they wished, and the review could be re-used by, for instance, the author for marketing purposes (but unedited).

I sent out invitations to reviewers within two months of the full publication of the book. Ideally, on hindsight, the invitation should go out almost immediately after full publication, but not before, as it is important for reviewers to see the whole book in context. I gave a suggested deadline of two months to do the review.

I did not offer a fee for the review, but a small fee may be appreciated, as it is a substantial piece of work if the review is done properly.

I am waiting until all three reviews are submitted before posting them, so the reviewers will act independently and not be influenced by someone else’s review.

Over to you

Do you feel that this process (including selection of reviewers, as covered in the previous post) ensures the same degree of independence and quality of peer assessment as you would find for a commercially published book? If not, what suggestions do you have to improve the process?

Even if this process was followed, do you think that there will still be concerns about adopting an open textbook or referencing it in student work?

Obtaining independent reviews for an open textbook: what criteria to use?

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Image: © Wikipedia Commons

Image: © Wikipedia Commons

What is the issue?

One of the questions I had to ask myself as a self-publishing author of Teaching in a Digital Age was whether I needed my book to be independently reviewed before publication. If so, would the same criteria need to be used as if I was publishing commercially?

What is the usual process in academic publishing?

Usually, before publishing an academic book or a textbook, commercial publishers will seek independent reviews at two stages of the process: when an author submits a proposal for a book, and then when the first complete draft is sent to the publisher. Of course, as well as external reviewers, the publishing company will have an in-house specialist editor who will be the main person in the decision-making process, and but even then an editor will usually take the final proposal to an internal committee or even a board meeting for final approval. Each of these stages can take up to three months, sometimes longer for the second stage, much longer if the author is required to make substantial changes before publication. Lastly, after the book is published, it may be reviewed, again independently, in academic journals specializing in the field.

Although this lengthy approval and review process can be very frustrating for an author, the process does ensure that the author gets a lot of feedback, and above all it is part of the quality control process, which is one reason why books count so much in the academic tenure and promotion process. However, the main purpose of external reviews in the publishing process is to ensure that there is a market for the book that is large enough to at least cover costs and hopefully generate a profit for the publisher, to provide quotes or endorsements that will help sell the book, and also to some extent to protect the publisher’s ‘brand’ or reliability.

There are also disadvantages of course with this process. It limits the acceptance of any publication that is outside the accepted norms within a discipline, thus perhaps inhibiting or delaying progress in a field, and, as happened to me once (with my first book), if a ‘rival’ academic with very different views is asked to be a reviewer, a perfectly good book can be unfairly trashed (although to be fair to the publisher, they still went ahead and published, on the basis of the other two reviews they received.)

In general, I have to say that with my 12 commercially published book, as an author I found the external review process, and above all, in two or three cases the feedback from the publisher’s editor, to be extremely valuable and helpful, and this review process resulted in far better books.

Open publishing

Self-published books need not follow any of this process, although open textbooks, such as those from OpenStax or the BCcampus open textbook project, are nearly always independently reviewed by faculty in the jurisdiction where these books may be adopted.

However, my book is somewhat different. It was written from scratch for a different market, faculty and instructors, rather than students, and it is not part of the BC government’s open textbook project that BCcampus manages. Although BCcampus offered me essential technical services, they were not responsible for editing or reviewing the book. (I was fortunate to be well enough known to BCcampus for them to put a lot of trust in me.)

What did I do?

Because the book was to be an open textbook, and I have a blog which is read within the community of practice in which I work, I was able to test early drafts of chapters and get some feedback on an ad hoc and voluntary basis. I also hired an instructional designer/editor to proof read and assess each draft chapter. I also sent drafts to other specialists in the field where I described in detail their work, asking for feedback and comments. I then published each chapter when I thought it was ready, and the Centre for Digital Education at Ryerson University also offered to provide systematic feedback as I published.

As a result I got a lot of useful feedback and comments that influenced the final version of the book, but nevertheless I was a bit shaken when I received an e-mail from a student who wanted to quote me in her graduate thesis, but was advised not to by her supervisor because the examiners might not accept references to a book that had not been independently reviewed.

As a result, after the book was published, and with no guarantee that it would be picked up and reviewed in an academic journal, I decided to obtain three independent reviews, and, as with the BCcampus textbooks, I would publish these reviews as received alongside the book.

Note though that I have obtained the external reviews after, not before, publication, because I felt it was more important to publish and be damned and thus get out the book as soon as possible, and because if there are major changes needed, that can still be done.

Criteria for choosing reviewers

I had three main criteria in mind: independence, qualification, and availability/willingness.

Independence was the most difficult. I had to invite someone who could be as objective as possible. This meant looking for reviewers who were professionals in the digital learning, instructional design, online learning or open education area, but who had not been closely associated with me during my 40 years working in the field. These reviewers should be people within the field who would be seen as being objective and sufficiently ‘distant’ from me and my career.

In terms of qualification, I needed reviewers who were also experts in the field of digital teaching and learning. This was the easiest of the three criteria to meet, but this had to be combined with independence, and this is where it started to get tricky.

Also, because the book is also targeted at faculty and instructors, I wanted a reviewer who is a mainline faculty member interested in teaching and learning but who did not know my previous work, and who would judge it strictly from a faculty or instructor perspective.

The third criterion, availability and willingness, was also important. The amount of work involved in reviewing a 500 page textbook is quite significant. Usually publishers pay a small fee for external reviewers, which no way compensates for the work involved, but at least it helps sweeten the pot. However, if I paid the reviewers as an author, that may be seen as unduly influencing the independence of the reviewer. In any case, I’m not getting revenues from the book, so any payment would have to come out of my own resources. As it turned out, none of the reviewers I approached requested or even mentioned a fee. Nevertheless I realised I was asking a lot of the reviewers with very little to offer them in return (other than a free read).

My choice of reviewers

The mainstream faculty member turned out to be the easiest of my choices. I published each chapter when it was ready, and after publishing the first chapter I received a string of comments from Dr. James Mitchell, Professor and Director of the Architectural & Environmental Engineering Program at Drexel University, Pennsylvania. I had never been in touch with him before and had never visited Drexel, but it was clear he was interested in changing the teaching in his department, and had some good points and questions to raise, so he was my first choice for reviewer.

Secondly, staff at the Centre for Digital Learning at Ryerson University, Toronto, had been tracking the development of the book and also providing feedback. This is a fairly new Centre and I did not know any of the staff there and had not done any consultancy work at Ryerson, so they seemed an obvious second choice to write a review of the whole book once it was finished.

Lastly, I wrote to a distinguished scholar of open learning at a British university, asking this person to be a reviewer, but they did not reply, so I was wondering who else to approach when I received an e-mail from Sir John Daniel, former Vice-Chancellor of the U.K. Open University, former President of the Commonwealth of Learning, and former President and Provost of several Canadian universities. He is also a scholar of open education with several (properly!) published books to his credit. He informed me that he was writing a review of the book for an academic journal and was looking forward to reading the book, and I therefore asked him if I may use his book review also as an external review of the book, which he agreed to. John Daniel is of course someone I have known and respected for many years, but we have never worked directly together.

So I now have my three reviewers, and I am extremely grateful for their willingness to do this.

Criteria for the review

BCcampus sends out a set of criteria to reviewers when they are reviewing books for the BCcampus open textbook project. In order to ensure consistency between the three reviews, I took the BCcampus guidelines and amended it to the slightly different context of my own book, and sent the guidelines to each reviewer. I will publish this as a separate blog post, as this post is already too long. 

Next steps

I now have two of the three reviews and the third is expected shortly. These will be published ‘as is’ with some context as an appendix to the book. If I also come across other reviews of the book from academic journals, I will add these (good or bad) to the book appendices.

Questions for my blog readers

The need for independent reviews for an open textbook has raised a lot of questions for me. If it had not been for the e-mail from the graduate student, frankly I don’t think I would have bothered. Since an open textbook is free and easily accessible, I was more than happy to let readers make their own judgements about the value of the book. It’s not as if you are asking someone to pay a large amount of money for something which they are then disappointed to read after they have paid their money. I also felt awkward about asking someone to read a 500 page book then write a critical review without being able to offer anything in return.

On the other hand, I want the book to be recognized and used by graduate students, and their committees and examiners. I want faculty in particular who read it to be assured that it has been properly peer reviewed. There is no reason why an open textbook cannot be as good if not better than any other book published more traditionally. But, as with distance education, online learning and open education, you have to be twice as good as the alternatives to be recognized. So if it takes external reviews to be accepted, so be it.

But I would really like to get your views on this. In particular:

1. Do you think it is important for open textbooks to be externally reviewed, before or after publication?

2. Is the process I have followed appropriate, or is it flawed? What would you have done or preferred?

3. Would you be happy to use an open textbook in your course if it had not been externally reviewed?

Next

I will share the guidelines I sent to the reviewers, and I will also ask for your feedback on these, so that the guidelines for review can be used by other authors of open textbooks.

I will also post on this blog each of the three external reviews when they are all in.

Advice to students about Athabasca University

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Graduation ceremony at Athabasca University: will 2018 be the last?

Graduation ceremony at Athabasca University: will 2018 be the last?

Anxious students

Not surprisingly, the turmoil at Athabasca University is causing concern for at least some students, and I recognise that I am responsible for some of this anxiety. For instance, I received the following e-mail from one student (reproduced with permission):

Hi Tony, I am thankful for your article on Athabasca’s financial crisis.  This leaves students such as myself in a quandary.  I am interested in transferring to AU from [another Alberta institution] because of my need for more flexibility.  However the report that was just released, made my decision to switch very concerning.  According to the article, and the op-ed you published, it seems like if things aren’t changed at AU then I could be looking for another university in 2016 (in the middle of my degree)…  Obviously this concerns me greatly… what are your thoughts to students?  Do we avoid AU until they get their act together? or do we press on and hope they know what they are doing and won’t screw us over in the end ? Thanks for any thoughts you have.

These are very good questions, and I think AU’s university administration should, if it has not done so already, be giving clear statements or answers to students and potential students about what they should expect over the next five years, given its recent report on sustainability.

My advice to students

However, I could find nothing about the sustainability report and what it could mean for students on the myAU portal (‘a web portal system that provides Athabasca University (AU) students with individualized web services and information’) or in AU News, so here’s my advice to students.

1. Listen carefully to what AU and the provincial government say about the future of the university, and give more weight to that than to my advice. I’m over 1,000 kilometres away and am not well connected these days to AU. Having said that, be circumspect. You may well have to read between the lines, so I’ll give some advice about what I’m looking for.

2. Don’t panic! AU is unlikely to shut down within the next three or even five years. It may go into a deficit in 2017-2018, but that would not be unusual for a university in Canada, nor devastating. What matters is that AU and/or the provincial government have a plan in place to bring it back to a balanced operating budget by 2020. For most current students and even some potential students transferring in, this should be long enough for most of you to complete your qualifications.

For students looking over the next two years or so to start a full degree from Athabasca, this may be more problematic, but by the time you come to make that decision, the situation should be clearer.

It is a harder decision for those thinking about starting in 2015-2016, especially if you are not resident in Alberta.  I would expect any Alberta government and the university to put in place transfer arrangements for Albertan students who start a program at AU but cannot complete it because of decisions by the government or university. For those outside the province, this will likely be much more difficult, unless you are in British Columbia, which has in place a pretty good credit transfer system with Alberta that would include AU credits.

In general, then, I would advise that at least for the next six months, assume that it will be business as usual at Athabasca. But in this period, watch for the following:

3. Good signs. The provincial government replaces the Board and a new President is appointed on a normal 3-5 year contract, with a mandate to produce a new vision for the university and a sustainable financial/business plan that will support that vision.

4. Bad signs: 

  • the above doesn’t happen by the end of this year;
  • the government extends the existing President’s contract by one year or appoints another one year President;
  • the AU faculty and/or staff go on strike;
  • lots of faculty and staff start leaving.

What should you do as a student (or potential student)

Write to Marcia Nelson, Deputy Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education, and state:

  • why Athabasca University is important to you, and in particular what it offers that is not available elsewhere;
  • that you are concerned about the future of the university, why you are concerned, and how this may affect your study plans;
  • what you would like to see, for instance, a new President, Board and senior administration, a vision for the future, a commitment from the Alberta government to support the university, etc.

Writing to the Deputy Minister could make a lot of difference, as the government has some difficult decisions to make over the next few months.

Lastly, Athabasca University is in my view a really important, unique institution that does or should add value to not only Alberta’s but also Canada’s post-secondary education system, but AU is in need of urgent renewal and change. Students (and alumni) can and should have  a major role in ensuring that this happens.