The news

As my mother used to say when she had the goods on me, ‘A little birdie told me…’. Well, a (different) little birdie has told me that the Centre for Distance Education at Athabasca University is being closed on June 1 and the academic staff from the Centre are being moved into the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

What is the Centre for Distance Education and what does it do?

The Centre (CDE) has currently about 10 academic staff and several distinguished adjunct professors, such as Randy Garrison and George Siemens, and also some very distinguished emeriti professors such as: 

  • Dominique Abrioux – Former AU President
  • Terry Anderson – Former Editor of IRRODL and Professor, Centre for Distance Education (Retired 2016)
  • Jon Baggaley – Former Professor, Centre for Distance Education
  • Patrick Fahy – Former Professor, Centre for Distance Education (Retired 2017)
  • Tom Jones – Former Associate Professor, Centre for Distance Education (Retired 2017)
  • Robert Spencer – Former Chair/Director, Centre for Distance Education

CDE currently offers a Master of Education in Distance Education and a Doctor of Education in Distance Education as well as post-baccalaureate certificates and diplomas in educational technology and instructional design. It is therefore the major centre in Canada for the education and training of professionals in online learning, educational technology and distance education.

On a lesser scale, it has also been a major centre for research into distance education. The Canadian Initiative for Distance Education Research (CIDER) is a research initiative of the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL) and the Centre for Distance Education. 

IRRODL is a globally recognised leading journal published by Ayhabasca University but run mainly out of the Centre (its editors are currently Rory McGreal and Dianne Conrad, both CDE academics).

Thus the Centre for Distance Education has been a critical part of the infrastructure for distance education in Canada, providing courses and programs, research and leadership in this field.

Why is it being closed?

Good question. This was a decision apparently made in the Provost’s Office but, as far as I know, no official reason has been given for its closure and the transfer of staff to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. It appears that the programs will continue, but under the aegis of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

However, the CDE was a little bit of an organisational oddity, as it was not attached to any major faculty (there is no Faculty of Education at Athabasca) and thus the CDE made the AU’s organizational structure look a little bit untidy. There may have been financial reasons for its closure but it’s hard to see how moving existing staff and programs into another faculty is going to save money, unless the long-term goal is to close down the programs and research, which in my view would be catastrophic for the future of the university. 

Why does it matter?

Indeed at no time has AU been in greater need of the expertise in the CDE for building new, more flexible, digitally based teaching and learning models for AU (see my post on the independent third-party review of AU). In a sense, the reorganisation does move the Centre staff closer organisationally to at least some faculty members in one Faculty, but it really should have a university-wide mandate to support new learning designs across the university.

The issue of course is that it is primarily an academic unit, not a learning technology support unit, but it should not be impossible for it to be structured so that both functions are met (for instance see the Institute of Educational Technology at the British Open University). This might have meant the Centre – or a restructured unit – being either a part of the Provost’s Office or directly reporting to it, which is not going to happen once all the Centre’s faculty are housed in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

What disturbs me most is that there does not seem to have been extensive consultation or discussion of the role of the CDE and its future before this decision was made. From the outside it appears to be a typical bureaucratic fudge, more to do with internal politics than with vision or strategy.

Given the importance of the CDE not just to Athabasca University but also to distance education in Canada in general, it is to be hoped that the administration at AU will come forward with a clear rationale and vision for the future of AU and explain exactly how the transfer of the Centre’s staff to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences will help move this vision and strategy forward. The dedicated and expert academic staff in the Centre deserve no less, and the university itself will suffer if there is no such clear strategy for making the most of the expertise that previously resided in the CDE. 


For the views of the Centre’s Director, and a response from the Provost, see the following article:

Lieberman, M. (2018) Repositioning a prominent distance education centre Inside Higher Education, May 23


  1. Thanks for sharing this Tony.

    The little bird that told you this might know more than me but, as far as I’m aware, CDE is not going to die any time soon. It is just becoming, like all the rest of the schools and centres, including SCIS (the one I chair), a sub-unit of a faculty, rather than a totally independent entity on its own branch of the organizational tree. To the best of my knowledge, it will keep its name. The same people, programs, and roles will remain almost exactly as they were, albeit that the chair’s role will be somewhat diminished (notably, budgets are controlled by deans, not chairs), they will have to attend a few more organizational meetings, and I guess that, over time, they might start to exploit synergies with other centres in the same faculty. There are quite a few education courses, for example in the Psychology Centre. Speaking for myself, though, and knowing that something like this was bound to happen, I was hoping that it would become part of my own Faculty of Science & Technology because all but one of my own faculty in SCIS actively research and publish in the area of online and distance learning, several of them as leaders in their fields, and there seem to be lots more synergies and opportunities for us to collaborate than in FHSS, including my own hobby horse, an oft-planned, long sought-for, but not yet implemented program in learning technologies. This shouldn’t prevent that from happening, however. It just makes it slightly more complex to arrange than had we been part of the same faculty.

    Like my own school, I am confident that CDE will continue to play an important and undiminished role as a distinct organizational unit, both internally and externally. However, it’s worth noting that, till now, CDE as such has not played much of a role in affecting learning and teaching practice within the university. Its researchers have certainly had a big International impact but, arguably, maybe less within AU than they have had worldwide.

    It’s an ongoing challenge to find ways to gain the benefits of our own extraordinary researchers, whether in CDE, SCIS, or elsewhere within the university. Though CDE and SCIS have significant concentrations of researchers, well over a third of our faculty across the institution have been active in researching online learning and teaching within the last few years so it’s crazy we don’t see more positive effects on our teaching. We now have a great team at the top that is intent on fixing this anomaly, who are making big changes across the board. Amongst other things our VPIT and VPA are working very closely together to help build what they describe as an innovation pipeline, and the fangless committees that used to rubber stamp banal and often harmful ideas are being radically remodelled to help us to develop a rich, responsive, cutting edge learning environment. Not all the pieces are in place yet, but the signs are looking very promising.

    One missing piece, as I see it, is our too-neglected TEKRI (Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute). Though I have helped put forward a proposal about how it could help bring about the planned changes, I’m not quite sure what is going to become of it under our new leadership. I think that it could and should play an important role, because it brings (and should more bring) together not just the best of CDE but the best of SCIS as well as other researchers in the field across the university. I’m hoping we will be able to revive, rebrand, and relaunch it as part of this process but, if not, I’m hoping that something like it will figure prominently in whatever we wind up doing.


    • Hi, can you please enlighten and educate me and let me know what one does with an M.Ed Distance Learning. I’m an EFL instructor at a university and would like to know how such a degree would benefit me. Thank you very much and I look forward to hearing from you.


      PS. Please feel free to contact me via email.

  2. Scrub that – your little birds are better than mine, Tony. I’ve just learned that it really is going to be disbanded. I’ll find out more and report back.

  3. *sigh* Thanks for the report Tony (and for the comments Jon 🙂 ) It’s really disheartening to find something monumental like this through backchannels. On the one hand I’m happy that I am part of a community of DE folks and I *can* find stuff like this out through the grapevine. On the other hand, as a current CDE student (working on my dissertation proposal at the moment) it’s a bit disheartening that there is no “heads-up” from the institution. I get that the cogs of a major university move slow (and my own university certainly has its own issues, and we don’t always keep our students informed up-to-the minute with details), but I guess as a doctoral student I feel like the CDE should have told us something about this monumental shift. If for not other reason to put our minds at ease.

  4. CDE is an iconic academic unit at Athabasca University. Its programs, especially doctoral program (EdD) offer such a unique and remarkable degree in distance education that is becoming a very important and dynamic way in current and future education and is also very much needed now. CDE is one of important pillars to support AU standing on the international stage of distance education and research. I would like to see a Faculty of Distance Education at AU.

  5. Speaking as a former Associate Director and Director of the Centre for Integrated Studies and its MA Program in Integrated Studies during its disbanding and absorption into the then newly created Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, I can empathize with the members of CDE now absorbed into FHSS. The loss of a Director and budgetary autonomy is a serious inhibitor to the creativity and vitality of programs like those in CDE and the former Centre for Integrated Studies, programs that were generated by the initiative, energy and commitment of faculty members with minimal institutional support and even less governmental funding. Rationalized as the maturation of AU into a more recognizable participant in Canadian university governance, the result is a gain for committee automatism and arguably a loss for creative academic initiative and inventive programming. The distinct bias in FHSS has been toward undergraduate programming and I would be concerned that the highly successful graduate programs in Distance Education will not get the right kind of support and resources in the decidedly collectivist, committee-ridden context of FHSS. This may change and the much-desired presence of a doctoral program in FHSS may inspire the faculty to rise to the challenge of sustaining and building strong and innovative graduate programming.

  6. Thanks for sharing this Tony. Distance education is finally accepted in higher education and now AU wants to dismantle their distance education center? Sadly, this sounds very familiar – established centers at universities in the states are also being reorganized with little explanation or input from key stakeholders. It really worries me when higher education administrators can’t explain a vision or rationale for their decisions.

  7. I worked at the Center for Continuing Education which was the DE Unit for the University of Bath in the 1990s. We were running several externally funded Masters programmes, had HEFCE funding for a flexible learning project, carried out research in e-learning and distance education, brought in DFID funding for international development projects (including supporting highly successful DE colleges in Africa, NAMCOL and BOCODOL) and ran the University public access programme. We became a victim of our own success and were disbanded by the University management.

    Hindsight is a precise science, but looking back I believe it was the right decision although it was very hard to take at the time. All students should belong to Faculty, not Centers. DE should be mainstreamed not offered by an alternative structure.

    I hope this is an opportunity for the colleagues at Athabasca and wish them foresight and strength in this period of change. Let’s hope something stronger grows out of it.

    • I agree that this is sad news. Terry Anderson served on my dissertation committee and said he used the experience to learn more about how to structure the doctoral program in distance education at Athabasca. Perhaps the entire department with its research center and journal might be transported to another institution that will better value its worth in the growing and important field of distance education. The important work of these individuals, especially the groundbreaking Community of Inquiry model, should be preserved and permitted to flourish.

  8. Many thanks for all the comments above.

    I agree with Alison that in conventional institutions ‘DE should be mainstreamed not offered by an alternative structure.’ (Here I’m thinking of regular credit based courses and programs.) AU does need to restructure itself, particularly with regard to updating the main teaching model used by most faculties, and the expertise in the CDE does need to be made more readily available and used by the mainstream faculties.

    However, I have a number of concerns. I am not an insider and party to all that has gone on, but even so I have some concerns that seem familiar to me from some other institutions’ failed or botched reorganisations and it’s to do with management style and (lack of) strategy when restructuring successful centres.

    1. Where does this fit into the future vision for AU and how does this move the institution forward towards this vision? Why has this decision been taken in apparent isolation from other needed restructuring at AU? What is the official rationale for this closure?

    2. Why did this not go to Senate and the Board and why was there not wider discussion within (and outside) the university before the decision was finalised? In particular, what consideration was given to the international reputation of this Centre and hence to the university as a whole, given how hard it is to win a reputation for excellence, and how easy it is to lose it? What are the consequences in particular for the degree programs and IRRODL?

    3. The closure is just 8 working days away. Why has there been no public announcement and no communications strategy, particularly for students? I assume that the Masters and Ph.D. programs will continue, but where is the university’s official support for the continuation of these programs? Or does the university intend to close down these programs once the current cohort has graduated? Silence is not a good communications strategy, ever, but particularly in these circumstances.

    The lack of answers to these fundamental questions all smacks of a hasty and ill-considered decision. There may indeed be good reasons for closing or reorganising the CDE, but its students and staff deserve a full, public explanation.

  9. I am a current doctoral student and member of AU’s CDE community. I have yet to receive any official information about these changes from my institution. As such, I respectfully have to question the wisdom, usefulness and responsibility of having this particular discussion, in this manner, at this time. To me, a measured sense of pedagogical and leadership ethics would suggest that we wait until all members of AU’s CDE community have equal access to accurate information, before discussing this publicly. I am sure we can all agree that a change like this, whatever it will look like, in a distributed system as complex as the CDE, will be challenging at best. In this era of prolific disinformation, it seems that waiting for official information would be a more efficacious and respectful way of advancing and supporting healthy systems change.

    Micheala Slipp, M.A., C.C.C.-S, ATR, SEP

    • I agree with you Micheala. This discussion of the changes to CDE at Athabasca University is the concern of AU faculty and administration until all plans are in place. There have been ongoing meetings for weeks and once everything is in place announcements will be made.
      Sometimes ‘little birdies’ should be ignored.
      Susan Bainbridge


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here