Athabasca University’s HQ: open but for how long?

Yesterday I reviewed developments in AI and synchronous learning during 2018, and rated them as follows:

  • the hype factor (as the ‘media’ see it)
  • what I think is the significance for online learning
  • level of engagement about the topic on the part of readers of my blog.

1 = low and 5 = high

Today I am going to look at two related but still distinct areas: open universities and open education. Quite a lot happened in these areas in 2018.

Open universities

2018 was not a good year for open and/or distance teaching universities, at least in several of the more economically advanced countries. The expansion of conventional universities into online learning, and government funding policies, have resulted in student enrolment in open or distance teaching universities falling dramatically or at least stagnating while online enrolments in the rest of the system grow rapidly.

This is clearly the case in Canada. At one time, 40% of Alberta’s Athabasca University’s students came from Ontario. The growth of online learning in Ontario universities and colleges in recent years has impacted heavily on Athabasca’s enrolments, as has the more gradual but still significant growth of online learning in Alberta’s more conventional universities. Although Athabasca University now has over 40,000 individual students, they take very few courses per annum, making their full-time equivalent around 8,500.

Université Laval in Québec (ironically, the oldest university in Canada, having been founded in 1663) now has about the same number of FTEs taking fully online courses as Athabasca, mainly because Laval students have a higher annual online course load. This and the strong move of other Québec universities into online learning is resulting in Téluq, Québec’s distance teaching university, losing enrolments. However both Téluq and Athabasca are still serving different markets, focused more on older, more part-time students, while the online enrolments in conventional universities are often the result of younger, full-time students wanting more flexibility.

In both the UK and the USA, the fully distance institutions have been hit by changes in the way their respective governments have changed the rules on student aid. The Obama administration cracked down heavily on for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix and recent research from the USA shows that enrolments in that sector have dropped heavily as a result (although this trend may be reversed in the future by changes from the Trump administration). In the UK, the abolition of student aid combined with operating funding cuts for any part-time student has decimated the UK Open University.

In two open universities – the UK Open University and Téluq in Québec – their President was forced out by faculty and staff angered by the administration’s attempt to ‘reform’, ‘renovate’ or ‘resuscitate’ the institution. This points to another, probably more fundamental, issue with many of the open and distance teaching universities opened in the 1970s and 80s. They are still fundamentally print-based universities, even though the printed elements may be delivered now online. This is a more costly design model than the relatively more flexible online course development and delivery model being now used in conventional institutions, especially as institutions move to more synchronous online learning. In particular, distance teaching universities rely heavily on part-time tutors, who resist any basic changes to the teaching model on which their livelihood is based, making change very difficult in such institutions. This became very clear to me when I visited the UK OU this year, but it has also shown up in Téluq and Athabasca.

Certainly my posts on what’s happening at Athabasca University attracted quite a lot of reader interest, especially from their students (I think Athabasca needs to improve its communication with students about its future, as they are very much affected by what’s going on), with one post being 8th in terms of the number of hits and another 26th. Several other posts on Athabasca and developments at the UK OU drew over 1,000 hits.

Is there still a role for open and distance teaching universities? Probably, but it ain’t going to be easy. They will need to focus particularly on access – serving those poorly served by the current system. In a highly developed post-secondary system such as Canada’s, where there are relatively few barriers to accessing either a good quality university or two-year college, it will mean targeting those niches that are still poorly served or potential learners who face difficulties accessing higher education, such as aboriginal students, immigrants or those requiring re-training or re-education out of manufacturing jobs into the new economy.

This will require a much more focused approach – no standard undergraduate degrees for instance but more use of badges and other more flexible forms of qualification. It will require nimble course design and delivery, a constant search for new markets and programs, and a focus more on lifelong learning for mature adults. This won’t appeal either to traditional academics or to many part-time tutors who want regular employment and a steady and unchanging set of courses.

There are signs that the administration in some institutions such as Athabasca understand this. Athabasca laid out a strategy this year to upgrade its IT system which will also have implications for teaching and learning, but frankly it is this area where the major challenges lie. New, more nimble design models for teaching and learning that fit different niche areas are needed. I just don’t see the understanding or vision for this by most academics or tutors in these institutions, but if they don’t change, these institutions will die, and will die quite quickly, as they have been under pressure to change for several years.

Hype: 4; significance (for the whole HE system): 2; reader engagement: 4

Open education

The major development in open education in 2018 has been the growth of open textbooks, at least in parts of Canada. Nearly all universities and colleges now in British Columbia have adopted at least one open textbook, saving students hundreds of dollars each where open textbooks have been adopted, or $10 million in total. Alberta also has a very high take-up, with 80% of the institutions using open textbooks. However, as with other open educational resources, the development is still patchy. Only a third of institutions in Québec or Saskatchewan adopted any open textbook in 2018. Government policy again is responsible for this by funding and encouraging the adoption in both BC and Alberta. Ontario has just started to work on this issue.

But getting other forms of open educational resources adopted on any scale is still a hard slog. Less than half the institutions in Canada use any form of OER other than open textbooks, and in most institutions their use is moderate to low.

It is true that faculty are ignorant or suspicious of the quality of OER, but there are other reasons as well. There is too much focus on open ‘things’, such as simulations or texts, and not enough on the conditions needed to sustain open access to not only materials but educational services. Open resources need to be embedded within a broader, more open learning environment that makes their use compelling. Until then, OER other than textbooks will remain marginal, at least in those countries with a comprehensive higher education system.

This was reflected by reader engagement with my blog with only one post on open education getting over 1,000 hits.

Hype: 4; significance: 3; reader engagement: 2

Up next

Still with me? OK, I’m looking at these areas next:

  • virtual and augmented reality
  • serious games
  • weak leadership
  • blended and hybrid learning
  • pedagogies for digital learning

Then we’ll be into 2019 and Brexit, Russian collusion, more riots in Europe, and the Wall (the one that Canada’s going to build) – what fun. Maybe then the Leafs will win the Stanley Cup? Even that may be possible (if no US teams play).


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