February 25, 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 Albertapolitics.ca, January 19

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

Funding

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?

 

Who are the founding fathers of distance education?

Steve Wheeler's interview: click on the image to see the vieo

Steve Wheeler’s interview: click on the image to see the video

Steve Wheeler interviewed three old guys, Michael Moore, Sir John Daniel and myself, at the EDEN conference in Budapest this summer, and has posted the video under the title of ‘Learn from three founding fathers of distance education‘.

While it’s very gracious of Steve to lump me in with Sir John and Michael, who have certainly been major movers and shakers in distance education, I don’t think any of us would claim to be a founding father. Although we are all very old, distance education existed long before any of us got involved in it.

So let’s play a little game: who do you think are the fathers (or mothers) of distance education?

I’ll start off by supplying my list and I will be asking Sir John and Michael to add theirs.

1. Isaac Pitman

Pitman as a younger man

Pitman as a younger man

An authority no less than Wikipedia states:

The first distance education course in the modern sense was provided by Sir Isaac Pitman in the 1840s, who taught a system of shorthand by mailing texts transcribed into shorthand on postcards and receiving transcriptions from his students in return for correction. The element of student feedback was a crucial innovation of Pitman’s system. This scheme was made possible by the introduction of uniform postage rates across England in 1840.

In fact, Wikipedia has a pretty good description of the history of distance education, and my second choice is also highlighted in the same Wikipedia entry.

2. The University of London External Program

I am a proud alumnus of the University of London, having done my doctorate in educational administration at the University of London Institute of Education (recently merged with University College London).

Wikipedia states:

The University of London was the first university to offer distance learning degrees, establishing its External Programme in 1828….the External Programme was chartered by Queen Victoria in 1858, making the University of London the first university to offer distance learning degrees to students……This program is now known as the University of London International Programme and includes Postgraduate, Undergraduate and Diploma degrees created by colleges such as the London School of Economics, Royal Holloway and Goldsmiths.

Unfortunately I have no knowledge of the individuals who originally created the University of London External Programme back in 1828. It’s a worthy research project for anyone interested in the history of distance education.

I was once (mid-1960s) a correspondence tutor for students taking undergraduate psychology courses in the External Programme. In those days, the university would publish a curriculum (a list of topics) and provide a reading list. Students could sit an exam when they felt they were ready. Students paid tutors such as myself to help them with their studies. I would find old exam papers for the course, and set questions for individual students, and they would send me their answers and I would mark them. Many students were in British Commonwealth countries and it could take weeks after students sent in their essays before my feedback eventually got back to them. Not surprisingly, in those days completion rates in the programme were very low.

The programme today is completely different,using a combination of study materials and online learning resources designed to foster active learning. There are even university-approved local tutors in many countries around the world. The program has more than 50,000 students enrolled.

Note though that teaching and examining in the original External Programme were disaggregated (those teaching it were different from those examining it), contract tutors were separate from the main faculty were used, and students studied individually and took exams when ready. So many of the ‘new’ developments in distance education such as disaggregation, self-directed learning, and many of the elements of competency-based learning are in fact over 150 years old.

3. Chuck Wedemeyer

In the fall of 1969, I joined the first staff of the Open University, working in offices in an old Georgian building in Belgrave Square, central London. I knew nothing about distance education (I was hired as a researcher) and was advised to go to a talk being given by a slight, stooped American. His name was Chuck Wedemeyer and he was the first to develop a modern pedagogy that was unique to distance education. Here’s an extract from the Mildred and Charles A. Wedemeyer Award site. (I had the honour of sharing the award with Michael Moore in 1995.)

Charles Wedemeyer, W.H. Lighty Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is considered a father of modern distance education.

An enthusiastic instructor, in the early 1930’s Wedemeyer used the University of Wisconsin’s radio station to broadcast English lessons and expand access for those otherwise excluded from the education system. As a World War II naval instructor he created effective teaching methods for thousands of sailors deployed around the world.

As Director of the University of Wisconsin’s Correspondence Study Program (1954-1964) Wedemeyer and his graduate students initiated a number of research projects on learning theory and the sociology of independent learners. The work advanced a new discipline in the field of education by integrating adult, distance, open and independent learning with instructional systems design, and applications of instructional technology, organizational development, and evaluation.

In 1965, Wedemeyer predicted today’s e-Learning:

“…the extension student of the future will probably not ‘attend’ classes; rather, the opportunities and processes of learning will come to him. He will learn at home, at the office, on the job, in the factory, store, or salesroom, or on the farm.”

“…the teacher will reach students not only in his own state or region but nationally as well, since the media and methods employed by him in teaching will remove barriers of space and time in learning…”

Charles A. Wedemeyer, 1965/1966,
Brandenburg Memorial Essays

4. Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee

Harold Wilson was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1976. Jennie Lee was Minister for the Arts in Wilson’s 1964-1970 Labour government. Between them they were responsible for creating the U.K. Open University.

It may seem odd to credit politicians for the development of distance education, but the Open University was first and foremost a political idea based on opening up higher education to all (it was after all a Socialist government that created it). It was initially hotly opposed by the Conservative Party (one of its senior shadow ministers called it ‘blithering nonsense’), although when Mrs. Thatcher came to power in 1970, she was less hostile and eventually supported it (it fitted nicely with her self-made philosophy – she had taken a University of London External Degree programme).

Harold Wilson had the vision (originally a ‘University of the Air’) and Jennie Lee had the political smarts to drive through all the legislation and planning and ensured that it would be created as a quality university that would strive for the highest standards of teaching and research.

Jennie Lee at the Open University

Jennie Lee at the Open University

5. Sir Walter Perry

Left to right: Mary Wilson, Sam Crooks, Walter Perry, Harold Wilson: they are looking at the OU's course texts

Left to right: Mary Wilson, Sam Crooks, Walter Perry, Harold Wilson: they are looking at the OU’s course texts

I could have included Sir Walter with Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee, but as the founding Vice-Chancellor of the U.K. Open University Walter Perry more than anyone really created the U.K. Open University as it came to be recognised. He never wavered from the vision, and was adamant about establishing the highest possible academic standards for OU courses and programs, but he was also the ultimate pragmatist, able to get things done and make it work.

He had to negotiate with sometimes hostile governments and uncomprehending civil servants (one top bureaucrat questioned the OU’s first budget, asking where the cost of lecture halls was). Perry also had to establish a practical and mutually beneficial relationship with the BBC, and persuade the traditional universities not only to support the OU but also to collaborate with it (the OU made heavy use of contracted faculty from the regular institutions to create its courses).

He also had to work with an unwieldy Senate that included every faculty member and all the regional staff tutors and counsellors. (A visiting American university President said to him after a particularly frustrating Senate meeting: ‘Walt, you have the perfect university: no students.’ Perry replied: ‘ Aye, and it would be a bloody site better if there were no faculty, either.’)

Perry’s ultimate achievement was to get distance education recognised as a high standard, cost-effective, and academically valid way of teaching and learning.

Over to you

That’s my list. There are many others I could have included from the Christian St. Paul for his Epistles to the Corinthians, or J.C. Stobart, who first introduced educational radio broadcasting (accompanied by broadcast notes published with The Radio Times) at the BBC in 1924, or those who set up the University of South Africa in 1945.

Who would be on your list of founding fathers?

(Remember, the statement used by Steve Wheeler was ‘fathers of distance education’, not online learning. Should those who developed the first online courses and programs be considered separately?)

So please send in your nominations, with your rationale.

Book review: A History of the Open University

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had one myself).

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had a few myself).

Weinbren, D. (2105) The Open University: A History Manchester: Manchester University Press/The Open University, 274 pp + notes, £18.99, C$31.61, US$22.30 (paperback edition)

Why you should read this book

From the book cover:

This analysis of the Open University’s precedents, personalities, politics and pedagogies contextualises learners’ experiences and illuminates the change in the values of our society, our ideas about learning and our use of a variety of media.

Despite the florid writing in the publisher’s blurb, this is an accurate summary of the importance of this book, which should be read by anyone interested in open learning, distance learning, equality of access to higher education, changing pedagogies, the role of media in teaching and learning, the politics of creating radically new institutions of higher education, how higher education has changed in terms of value and purpose over the last 45 years, and, most important of all, how open learning can truly transform the lives of individuals.

What the book covers

The book is in four parts, which I will briefly summarise.

Part I: Creating a university of the air

This part covers the origins of the university within the socio-political context of Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is a fascinating story in itself, of how a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Jennie Lee, his Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Education and Science, drove through their vision of a technocratic university for the masses, how the original vision was modified from a University of the Air to a multi-media university, and how the university survived a change of government which brought Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to power in the year that the OU opened. This is mandatory reading for policy wonks interested in how to bring about radical change in higher education.

Chapter 1 provides a broad overview of the challenges, developments and successes of the university over its 45 years existence. For those without the time to read the whole book, this chapter provides a useful encapsulation of the main points covered later.

Chapter 2 provides a more detailed account of the creation of the university, covering the political, socio-economic, pedagogical, and media components. It should be noted that many commentators believe that the Open University was ‘the most original innovation in 20th century British higher education’ and a ‘national treasure.’ This chapter helps to explain why.

In this part of the book, Weinbren captures well the social and political conditions, and above all the idealism and philosophies, that underpinned the creation and establishment of the Open University.

Part II: The first two decades

It is one thing to create a new institution; it is quite another to make it work. Indeed, the author notes that other attempts at innovation in higher education, such as the UK Open Polytechnic and the OU e-University, failed dismally after being created.

This part looks in detail at the governance and administrative structures, the role of academics, tutors and counsellors, the pedagogical models, the use of media, and the regional structure.

Weinbren points out that the intention from the start was to develop a degree-granting university with the highest possible academic standards:

Jennie Lee was adamant that the OU should be comparable to other universities in terms of its academic standards, rather than merely representing an educational second chance for the marginalised.

One reason for the OU’s relatively quick acceptance by the rest of the UK higher education sector was the high quality of the course materials which were used extensively by professors (and students) in the other universities. Another reason was the widespread engagement of academics from other universities as tutors or external examiners, who were often initially surprised by the quality of work produced by OU students.

Weinbren addresses particularly well the challenges the OU faced in terms of scale and the need for learner support for students working alone all over the country. (The OU started on day one in 1971 with 25,000 students and has grown since to 150,000 undergraduates and 30,000 postgraduates in 2014, with almost as many taking non-credit courses or modules.)

Weinbren, like the OU itself, struggles with integrating the competing pedagogical philosophies of behaviourist approaches to the design and development of high quality, mass-produced, course materials, and  learner-centred approaches based on face-to-face tutorials and summer schools. Overall, though, he emphasises that the fundamental pedagogical approach of the OU is focused on students developing personal meaning through interaction not only with course materials but also with faculty/tutors and other students, both face-to-face and later online. He describes with clarity how the often changing and complex learner support systems worked.

This chapter also explains why the Conservatives under Mrs. Thatcher continued to support the OU, despite concerns from some Ministers and the national press about ‘Marxist bias’ in its publicly available materials (especially the broadcasts). Thatcher had little time for traditional universities and saw in the OU a chance for reforming and galvanising the higher education system, especially with regard to improved cost-effectiveness.

This chapter also discusses the rapid development and changes in the use of media at the OU, with broadcasting over time playing a less direct role in teaching, greater use of recorded media such as cassettes, and the development of home experiment kits for science and technology courses.

Part III: The OU since the 1990s

This part is much influenced by the many changes since 1990 in the overall higher education system in Britain, and the consequent attempts by the OU at adaptation and accommodation to such changes. The key change has been the shift from direct government funding for teaching and learning to funding largely through student fees supported by loans (the OU now relies almost entirely on student fees), and the attempt by governments (both Labour and Conservative) to introduce more competition between universities and a more ‘market-oriented’ approach. This has resulted in the OU being treated as just any other university by government, rather than the special and separate treatment it received in earlier years.

Also over the past 45 years, the whole HE sector in the UK has expanded rapidly, making access at least theoretically more open to a much higher proportion of the population. Another important development has been the increased use of online learning by conventional universities. Together these have eroded some of the unique differences and advantages of the OU over the rest of the system.

The OU has responded to these changes in a number of ways, including:

  • expanding its international reach, especially but not exclusively in the rest of Europe;
  • the development of continuing education courses and modules;
  • more diversification regionally to respond to national political devolution;
  • contracts with non-commercial agencies, such as the National Health Service, as well as commercial organisations
  • leading the charge to quality assurance processes;
  • moving increasingly to online learning, and in the process, reducing dramatically the high-cost summer schools and face-to-face tutorial support; and integrating the role of counsellors with that of tutors;
  • increased use of learner-centred and project-based learning;
  • creation of open educational resources, such as FutureLearn and BBC/OU programs aimed at the general public.

Although Weinbren does a good job of covering the increasingly diverse and wide-ranging activities of the OU in the years from 1990 to the present, the OU’s unique role and place in the UK HE system becomes inevitably more fuzzy and its future direction less clear. However, the same criticism could apply to the whole of the UK HE sector, which seems to be increasingly forced back to a highly selective and tiered system, by government policies based on a more commercialised and employer-focused view of higher education. The OU’s place in such a system is by no means clear.

Part IV: Half a century of learning

This is a truly wonderful chapter about the student experience at the OU and lets students speak in their own words. This chapter helps explain why the OU is such an iconic component of British culture, and why it is so loved by students and staff alike (it consistently comes out top in student satisfaction in annual surveys of British universities). More importantly, this chapter clearly demonstrates how the OU has changed millions of students lives for the better.

Weinbren looks at several aspects of the student experience. While the OU has a very broad mix of incomes and occupations, it has opened up higher education particularly to working class families, students with disabilities, prisoners, those without high school qualifications, and above all to women. In this sense it is a truly open university, offering not just opportunities but also qualifications and realistic chances of success for everyone.

Weinbren illustrates how important the OU has been to women, particularly in the early year of the OUs, in terms of personal development and increased self-esteem. The importance of summer schools for engaging students and making them feel part of a university community is particularly well described. I also read with great interest how the OU enabled both Republican and Loyalist prisoners in Northern Ireland ‘to develop political confidence and an understanding of methods other than violence’, some going on to become politicians following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Above all, this chapter provides an excellent antidote to the current market-oriented and functional philosophy of higher education now so prevalent in Britain and elsewhere. If you can read only one chapter, this is the one.

Personal reflections on the book

The OU was a very important part of my life for 20 years. I was one of the first staff appointed in 1969, and I ended up doing at one time or another research and evaluation into the educational effectiveness of different media (including the BBC television and radio programs), designing and writing course units, marking student assignments, directing summer schools, and attending endless meetings about policies, directions and the use of media. I left the OU in 1989, partly because I was frustrated that it wasn’t changing fast enough, particularly with regard to the use of online learning. It’s hard for me then to be objective in reviewing Weinbren’s book and even more so in assessing the contribution of the OU to higher education.

Nevertheless, the book captures wonderfully my lived experience of the OU, especially the student response. Weibren has blended together an impeccable range of resources, anecdotes, events and above all personal contributions from academics, staff and students at the OU into a well-written, captivating chronicle that reflects the spirit as well as the history of the OU.

There are criticisms, of course. At times, it becomes a hagiography of an institution (if that’s possible). Weinbren does describe the many criticisms of the OU, but always provides a contradictory positive contribution to offset each criticism. In particular, he could have been harsher about the OU’s increased bureaucracy and sclerosis as it has become older. True, there have been many innovations, for instance, in the use of technology, but changing its cumbersome and now outdated course development system has proved to be extremely difficult. Although it was one of the first institutions to adopt online learning, it has been a real struggle to make it a central rather than a peripheral part of the teaching system.

More importantly, Weinbren does not look into the future, yet there are surely lessons for the future from his book. The OU is facing an almost existential crisis, with many competitors, a very difficult financial situation, and massive changes and innovation going on elsewhere in the UK higher education system. What is the role of the OU in the 21st century? In what ways can it continue to provide a unique and valuable contribution? What teaching model will best meet the needs of its students in the 21st century? This is probably another book altogether, but Weinbren is particularly well placed to ask and address these issues. As I say to Ph.D. students, the conclusion is your chance to let rip and say what you really think now you have established your credentials. It’s a pity that Weinbren did not take this opportunity, but he has probably other means to let his views be known.

These though are minor caveats. Weinbren has undertaken an extremely challenging task and met the challenge superbly. I hope you will enjoy the book as much as I have. More importantly, there are very important lessons to be drawn from this book about the nature of university education, equity, and government policy toward higher education.

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

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?

 

Advice to the Alberta government on Athabasca University’s sustainability report

AU sustainability report 2

McKinnon, P. at al. (2015) The Future is Now: Report of the Presidential Task Force on Sustainability Athabasca AB: Athabasca University

The university kindly provided me with a pdf copy of the report, and an online version of the full report is available by clicking on the title above (thanks, Colin Madland). (For shorthand, AU in this post refers to Athabasca University, NOT the University of Alberta).

So I have now read the report in full. I have had some lengthy comments from several AU faculty about the report and my previous blog post, and have had a chance also to read some of the press comment. I have also had a very challenging e-mail from a student, wanting to know whether they should still be considering Athabasca University as part of their learning plans. I will deal with this question in a separate post. Here I want to focus on the report itself.

Who is the report for and what is it trying to achieve?

I think I would need to be a fly on the wall during the AU’s Board meetings to really answer those questions with authority, but it is a critical question, since there are so many stakeholders involved (Government, Board, faculty, staff, students, local politicians and the local communities that support and are supported by the university). However, the report itself offers this:

the task force was directed to report on options to the Government of Alberta and the university community…

However, considering that the university’s Board and administration has been struggling with the issue of funding and sustainability for some time, and has responsibility and at least some control over internal matters, the real target of this report is most likely the provincial government, and the main goal is to get more operating funding from the government. If it is not the main goal, that is what it should be.

However, another interpretation could be that the university administration has been unsuccessful in its attempts to change the culture of the university, negotiate sensible collective agreements, or get more money from government, so it is trying to scare the bejeezus out of its faculty and staff into believing that unless they change, the end is nigh.

Of course, both of these motivations for the report could be possible.

What does the report actually say?

The basic message is that the university will go bust in two years time, and to avoid that possibility it suggests four possible strategies:

  • drop out-of-province students and focus only on Albertans
  • become more efficient and effective
  • federation with another Alberta institution
  • join with other open institutions across Canada and beyond, within a national strategy of open and distance learning.

See my earlier post for more on this.

What do I agree with in the report?

Although the case that the university is financially unsustainable is not actually made in the report, I think most people other than really entrenched faculty recognise that the university cannot continue as it has been doing over the past few years. It almost certainly needs more money from the provincial government, just to serve the citizens of Alberta, never mind the majority of its students that come from across Canada. It also needs to make some fundamental changes internally to ensure that it is fit for teaching in a digital age, which will need substantial capital investment and cultural change from within.

The report also makes another important point:

What is lacking in both a provincial and national context is a substantive and strategic framework that advances Alberta’s and Canada’s place in online learning and Athabasca University’s place within it.

Also, reading some of the media coverage of the report, it is clear that many associated with the university are in a deep state of denial about the seriousness of the situation at AU. I think the Board and the university leadership are right to indicate that the university is facing an existential crisis, although mainly for reasons that are not addressed in the report (see below).

What is wrong with the report

I hardly know where to begin, but let’s start with the obvious:

1. A lack of vision for the future

There may be a lack of a provincial or national strategy for online or open learning, but successful institutions create their own future, and on the way, change the environment around them. What is really lacking from this report is a clear vision of what AU wants to be in the future, and how that vision would fit with the rest of the Albertan (and national and international) online and open education world.

There is nothing in this report on sustainability beyond the usual platitudes about widening access that suggests why the university is worth sustaining. In particular what is the added value that AU can or should be offering to the Alberta post-secondary system? There are good answers to these questions but they do not seem to be coming from the university management. Yet this is critical for the long-term sustainability of the university.

The reason for this appears to me to be that no-one in the senior administration really understands what business it is in. This is not, nor should it be, a conventional university. It should be addressing issues of access (particularly for aboriginals, lifelong learners and immigrants in Alberta), being an innovator in teaching and learning, and setting standards for quality delivery of online, open and distance education. It should be negotiating its role viz-viz what the conventional institutions are planning for online and open education, and what it will do and what they will do. Where is the vision, and the strategy for implementing the vision?

2. A viable financial plan

I find it almost incredible that if the main goal is to get more money from government, the report does not offer a detailed analysis of what the problem is, financially, and how it could be solved, in terms of operating and capital dollars. The only specific ask is for $38 million for investment in IT infrastructure. No doubt there are other documents that have gone to government with this information, but surely a summary of the actual financial data that shows why there is a financial crisis looming is needed, if only to convince or persuade the university community.

Even given the dire state of government finances in Alberta at the moment, its operational funding problem is probably easily fixable in terms of the total size of the Alberta budget, if the government can be persuaded that the university offers a valuable service. You have to wonder why AU needs so much capital investment in IT in an age of cloud computing. Too often large IT funding requests are a way to buy oneself out of bad IT management and strategies, but it may be a realistic request for all I know, and resolvable through a thorough external review.

What the report does not discuss, though, for obvious reasons, is that the university has been really badly managed over the last seven years or so (for just one example, see What’s going on at Athabasca University?), so the issue is more one of a lack of trust and confidence in the university, leading to government officials being extremely wary of throwing good money after bad. The report of course does nothing to address this key issue, instead blaming the location of the institution, bad collective agreements, and the lack of love from the provincial government. Without a serious financial plan for the future, linked to a strong vision, and better management and governance, that love is likely to continue to be lacking.

3. The proposed solutions do not solve AU’s problems

The four options are no more than window-dressing or lipstick on a pig. None of them will work without more money, at least initially. Let’s look at each one:

  • serve only Albertans: I don’t see how losing 70 per cent of your clients can help financially, unless the School of Business at AU has a revolutionary new theory of return on investment. Online and open universities have high fixed costs and low marginal costs (or should have), so they should be able to offer courses to clients outside the province at relatively low cost. The government may rightly cap tuition fees for Albertan students, but why not charge cost plus for out-of-province students? Again, where’s the business plan for AU’s future?
  • become more efficient and effective: well, why hasn’t it done that already? This sounds like every business mantra, but really reducing costs without changing your core business activities is a recipe for disaster. AU needs to move to a more effective, lighter online teaching model, but that will need more investment initially (and lower operating costs per student later), and yes, probably a change in collective agreements and will result in some redundant staff. The university should have done this years ago and now has a lot of catching up to do. Without a plan for what this new model will look like and the actual costs, though, why would government give it this extra investment, and why would the unions agree to any changes?
  • federation with another Alberta institution: how will this lead to cost savings – where’s the plan? Who would want an outdated model of distance course delivery? The only arrangement that would really save money would be to close AU, but make sure the valuable staff who have experience and knowledge of modern online teaching and open education are absorbed by the other Albertan institutions. More likely, though. all that knowledge and experience would go outside the province, so everyone would lose.
  • a multi-institutional, national federation: well, we already have one, it’s called the Canadian Virtual University, and for all its good intentions, it is relatively ineffective, because Canadian provinces don’t work collaboratively in higher education (e.g. credit transfer), and there is no national HE policy for constitutional reasons.

So what is the solution to AU’s woes?

Not my job, really, to answer this question, but here’s my two cents worth (and no, I’m retired, so don’t ask me to to do the work needed):

1. Canada needs a high-level, effective, world-leading open university/college. Despite huge increases in the capacity of conventional universities, and the adoption of online learning in conventional universities, there are still major gaps in accessibility, and lack of opportunities for online learning, especially in Alberta.

2. AU needs to develop a strong vision and strategy that identifies those gaps in access, and how it will meet them, and clarify its role viz-a-viz other Albertan universities and colleges in providing online programs.

3. AU needs a new teaching and learning plan that takes account of recent developments in teaching methods and online technologies.

4. AU needs to develop a realistic long-term business plan that will support this vision and its teaching and learning plan that it can sell to the government.

5. It is clear from the last seven years and now this report that the current Board and senior administration at AU are not up to the tasks outlined above, so the provincial government should appoint a new Board, and a new President for a minimum five year term, who has knowledge and understanding of open, online and distance learning (you don’t appoint a sea captain to fly a commercial airliner). This is urgent and needs to be done in the next few months or so. The new President should be free to put in place a senior management team of his or her choice.

6. Until a new Board and President is in place, the provincial government should maintain its current level of funding for AU, and guarantee Albertans who commence an AU degree or qualification that they will be supported in their online studies, whatever happens (i.e. if it eventually decides to close AU, the credits and programs will be transferred to a provincially recognised Albertan institution). It should then review AU’s funding within 12 months of the appointment of the President and Board, when it has received AU’s vision and business plan for the future.

I will write a separate post on advice to students considering applying to AU.