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.
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.
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.
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)
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 14, 2015: Advice to students about Athabasca University