September 20, 2018

Why is innovation in teaching in HE so difficult? 4. Integrating online and distance learning into the mainstream

Blended learning: what makes it innovative? Image: Erasmus+

This is the fourth and final post in this series. The previous three were:

Is it really so difficult?

A strong case could be made that at least in North America, higher education systems have been very successful in innovation. For instance, over the last 15 years, online learning has become widespread in most universities and colleges.

In the USA, one in three students now takes at least one distance education/online course for credit (Seaman et al., 2018). Although campus-based enrolments have been static or declining in the USA over the last few years, fully online enrolments have grown by about 5% over the last four years. 

In Canada, online learning in credit based courses has increased from around 5% of all enrolments in 2000 to around 15% of all enrolments in 2017. For the last four years, online enrolments have been increasing at a annual rate of between 12-16% in Canada, and nearly all universities and colleges in Canada now offer at least some fully online courses (Bates et al., 2017). 

However, that is one area where Canada differs from the USA. In the USA, online education is concentrated in a much smaller proportion of institutions in the USA than in Canada. In the USA, 235 institutions command 47% (2,985,347) of the student distance enrolments, but represent only 5% of all higher education enrolments in the USA (Seaman et al. 2018). Basically, some institutions, such as the University of Southern New Hampshire and Arizona State University, have become expert in scaling up online learning to a position where it has become large-scale and self-sustainable.

Then there are MOOCs. Many universities around the world are now offering MOOCs, with over 20 million enrolments a year. There may be criticism about completion rates and lack of accepted qualifications, but nevertheless, even – or especially – the elite universities have jumped on the MOOC bandwagon.

Also, Contact North’s project, Pockets of Innovation, with nearly 200 case studies, has identified that there are many individual instructors in colleges and universities adopting innovative uses of technology in their teaching, mostly independent of any institutional strategy.

However, probably the greatest impact of online learning on teaching in higher education is just getting started and that is the integration of online learning with classroom teaching, in the form of blended or hybrid learning. Bates et al. (2017) found that almost three quarters of institutions in Canada reported that this type of teaching was occurring in their institution. However, two thirds of the institutions reported that fewer than 10% of courses are in this format. In other words, integrated online learning is wide but not yet deep.

And this is where perhaps the biggest challenge of successful innovation lies: ensuring the high quality integration of online and classroom teaching. But we shall see that there are also concerns about how well campus-based institutions with no prior history of credit-based distance education have moved to fully online courses and programs as well.

The challenge of moving from a single mode to a dual mode institution

The most recent issue of the journal Distance Education, edited by Mays, Combrink and Aluko (2018) is a special edition dedicated to the theme of dual-mode provision, and in particular how previously single mode (i.e. solely campus-based) institutions are responding to the particular demands of distance education provision, and whether the quality and effectiveness of such provision is at risk. The editors of this edition believe:

such a decision will necessarily call for the revisiting of an institution’s assumptions about how people learn, how staff should work and how resources should be allocated and what policy changes are needed if quality is to be maintained or enhanced and the offerings sustained.

The articles in this special edition raise a number of questions such as:

  • is the blurring of the boundaries between on-campus and distance learning a good thing?
  • does the concept of distance education remain relevant?
  • are established models of distance education sufficient to inform the design, development and delivery of new kinds of provision, or are new models emerging (or needed)?

In particular, the editors are concerned that:

  • there is a real danger that in the convergence of modes of provision the unique quality concerns of distance provision, regarding, for example, the issues of access, success and cost, and the implications for how people learn and work, may be lost.

Interestingly, the special edition then looks at a series of case studies of the move from single to dual mode not drawn from North America or Europe, but from sub-Saharan Africa, where the motivation to move into distance learning has been driven mainly by changes in demand patterns (too many potential students; not enough institutions).

Application of an innovation adoption framework

Of these case studies, by far the most interesting is the article by Kanwar et. al, of the Commonwealth of Learning, which applies Wisdom et al.’s (2014) innovation adoption framework to provide a qualitative meta-review of barriers to adoption of open and distance learning (ODL) in conventional higher education institutes in Cameroon, Kenya and Rwanda. 

The framework has four key elements (which build on Everett Rogers’ earlier work on the diffusion of innovation):

  • external environment, e.g. national policies and funding, infrastructure/external physical environment
  • organisation of the adopting institution, e.g. institutional policies, organisational structure, leadership
  • nature of the innovation, e.g. complexity, cost, technology 
  • individuals, e.g. skills, perceptions, motivation, value systems of staff and clients affected by the innovation.

Kanwar et al. then used this framework to analyse the content of existing reviews of the adoption of ODL in the three countries. The findings are too detailed and complex to review here (the results varied between the three countries), but the study clearly identified some of the key barriers to adoption in each of the three countries. I was in fact thrilled to see an evidence-based theoretical model used to evaluate innovation.

More importantly, the study resulted in nine recommendations for successful implementation of ODL within campus-based institutions:


  • develop national level policies and funding to encourage the adoption of ODL
  • establish national-level quality assurance mechanisms, equally for on-campus and distance programs
  • strengthen national-level IT infrastructure


  • create institutional policies and clear implementation plans for promoting and supporting ODL
  • establish a centralised and autonomous ODL structure
  • develop a clear costing model for ODL and establish secure forms of funding/business models
  • build staff capacity and provide incentives to faculty to engage in ODL
  • promote research into the effectiveness and outcomes of ODL
  • ensure equivalency in the status and qualifications of ODL students


It would be a mistake to ignore this publication because the cases are drawn primarily from sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the issues addressed in these articles will resonate with many working in this field in North America and Europe.

I think the editors are right to be concerned about how well ‘conventional’ institutions are handling the adoption of distance and online learning. For many faculty, moving online is merely a question of transferring their classroom lectures to a web conference.

I was at a Canadian university recently where the design of a ‘blended’ executive MBA was being discussed. The ‘plan’ was to make one of the three weekly lectures in each course available instead by a 90 minute synchronous web conference. One professor insisted that all students had to watch the lecture at the same time so they could discuss it afterwards. No consideration was given to either the context of the students (working businessmen with a busy schedule and family) or to the pedagogy or research on video lectures. Even worse, the faculty were not listening to advice from the excellent specialists from the university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning.

At another Canadian university which has been running excellent distance education program for years through Extension Services, there is no plan or strategy for e-learning on campus, other than a proposal to distribute the specialist instructional design staff from Extension to the campus-based academic departments (which wouldn’t work as there are not enough specialists to go round each faculty). This also ignores the fact that these specialists are needed to run Extension’s own very successful non-credit programs, which bring money into the university.

So looking down the list of recommendations suggested by Kanwar et al., I can immediately think of at least a dozen Canadian universities for which most of these recommendations would be highly relevant.

I would differ on just a couple of points. There has been a long tradition of dual-mode institutions in North America, especially in universities with a state- or province-wide remit, at least in their early days. In Canada, Queen’s and Guelph Universities in Ontario, Memorial University in Newfoundland, the University of Saskatchewan, Laval University in Québec, and the University of British Columbia are all examples of mainly campus-based institutions with very successful distance programs. The distance education programs were the first to adopt online learning, and gradually, some of the best practices from distance education have been incorporated into blended and hybrid courses.

However, even in these universities, the move to more integrated online and face-to-face teaching faces challenges. UBC for instance did move its distance education staff from Continuing Studies to join a strengthened Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology that also included faculty development. Other institutions have still to make that move in a strategic and careful manner. And the big issue is how do you scale from supporting online courses for 15% of the students to supporting blended learning for all students?

The real issue lies with faculty and especially departments moving to blended or hybrid learning that do not understand the need for learning design or the needs of students who are not on campus all the time. The integration of online and campus-based learning will often highlight the inadequacy of prior campus-based teaching methods. There is much that campus-based faculty can learn from  distance education, in terms of more effective teaching.

At the same time, I don’t think distance educators have all the answers. The Pockets of Innovation have plenty of examples of campus-based faculty thinking up innovative ways to integrate online learning and new technologies into campus-based teaching. My experience in designing online courses was that the best ideas usually came from a highly expert faculty member with a truly deep understanding of the subject matter (see my previous post on VR in interactive molecular mechanics for a good example). I believe that we will need new models for designing blended and hybrid courses, even though distance education has some sound principles that can guide such design.

So in conclusion, innovation of itself is not sufficient: it has to be effective innovation that leads to better outcomes, in terms of access, flexibility, and/or learning effectiveness. Innovation is unlikely to be effective if it merely moves poor classroom teaching online, which is why innovation will remain difficult in higher education.

Over to you

Do you have examples of poor practice in moving to offer distance education courses for the first time, or attempts at integrating online and classroom teaching? 

Even better, do you have examples of where this has been done successfully? What are the lessons you have learned from this?


Bates, T. (ed.) (2017) Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: 2017 Vancouver BC: The National Survey of Online and Distance Education in Canadian Post-Secondary Education.

Kanwar, A. et al., (2018) Opportunities and challenges for campus-based universities in Africa to translate into dual-mode delivery, Distance Education, Vol. 39. No. 2, pp. 140-158

Mays, T. et al. (2018) Deconstructing dual-mode provision in a digital era, Distance Education, Vol. 39. No. 2

Seaman, J.E., Allen, I.E., and Seaman, J. (2018) Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United StatesWellesley MA: The Babson Survey Research Group

Wisdom, J. et al. (2014) Innovation adoption: a review of theories and constructs, Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Sciences Research, Vol. 41, pp. 480-502

Book review: Open and Distance Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas

Qayyum, A. and Zawacki-Richter, O. (eds.) Open and Distance Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas: National Perspectives in a Digital Age Singapore: Springer, US$24+

Why this book?

This book is the first of two volumes aimed at describing how open and distance education (ODE) is evolving to reflect the needs and circumstance of the national higher education systems in various countries. A second goal is to compare how DE is organized and structured in various countries.

What does the book cover?

This first volume covers Australia, Europe and the Americas; the second book (still to come) covers Asia, Africa and the Middle East (including Russia and Turkey).

Who wrote it?

This is a well-edited book, with individual chapters written by experts within each country, following a roughly consistent structure in terms of topics. There is a main chapter for each country, with a useful second opinion from another country expert in terms of a commentary on the main chapter, as follows:

  • Introduction (ODE in a Digital Age): Qayyum and Zawacki-Richter
  • Australia: Colin Latchem (commentary by Som Naidu)
  • Brazil: Fred Litto (commentary by Maria Renata da Cruz Duran and Adnan Qayyum)
  • Canada: Tony Bates (commentary by Terry Anderson)
  • Germany: Ulrich Bernath and Joachim Stöter (commentary by Burkhard Lehmann)
  • United Kingdom: Anne Gaskell (commentary by Alan Tait)
  • United States of America: Michael Beaudoin (commentary by Gary Miller)
  • Conclusions: Qayyum and Zawacki-Richter

What’s in it?

There is some variation between the chapters, reflecting some of the differences between different countries, but most chapters have the following structure:

  • Context: most chapters start with a section that provides the wider context in which ODE operates within a country, either in terms of history or a brief description of the current higher education system as a whole. This sometimes includes how DE is funded (or not funded) by governments.
  • Enrolments and growth: each chapter attempts (heroically in some cases) to estimate just how many distance education students there are within the country and the rate of growth. What is noticeable here is how much variation there is in the accuracy or reliability of these estimates between different countries, partly because of the blurring of definitions between online and blended learning, but partly because in some countries, no-one seems to be counting.
  • Quality assurance/quality control: this describes both the regulatory framework for HE within each country and how that is applied to ODE.
  • Descriptions of specific ODE institutions: these sections describe those specialized institutions that play a major role in ODE within their respective countries.
  • OER and MOOCs. Most chapters discuss the use of open educational resources and MOOCs in their country.
  • The relationship between public and private provision of ODE. This is very useful as the relationship varies considerably between different countries.
  • The future of ODE within each country: this section looks at both challenges and opportunities.

In addition, Qayyum and Zawicki-Richter provide an excellent concluding chapter, that compares the different countries in terms of:

  • size and growth of ODE: ODE enrolments constitute between at least 10-20% of all HE enrolments in Australia, Brazil, Canada and the USA. In the UK and Germany, though, the proportions are likely to be less than 10%;
  • providers of DE: one reason reliable data collection has been difficult is because of the growth in different types of institutions providing DE: specialized ODE providers have in general increased their numbers; more campus-based institutions have become providers of ODE; and private institutions offering ODE have grown. However, this varies considerably from country to country. In the UK, for instance, ODE enrolments have been dropping at the UKOU, but possibly increasing from campus-based providers. In the USA, enrolments from the for-profit ODE providers have been dropping but increasing in the private and public on-campus institutions. What is clear is the impact on ODE enrolments of government policies regarding funding and tuition fees;
  • online vs other forms of DE: again, this differs between countries (and probably even more so in the countries to be covered in the next book). In Australia, Canada, the USA and the UK, ODE is nearly synonymous with online learning; Brazil has ‘leapfrogged’ to mobile learning;
  • the role of government: too complex to summarise here: read the chapter!
  • the function of ODE: ODE appears to play three major functions in HE systems: increasing access; providing greater flexibility to those with access; and ‘abetting in the larger digital transformation of HE’;
  • trends and future challenges: ODE on a macro level is being affected by two factors: the global growth in demand for HE; and the digital revolution. Surprisingly, though, it is less affected by globalization: ‘ODE seems to function mainly, though not wholly, within the nation state’ – except for MOOCs. This chapter has a very good discussion of these issues, particularly the differences between education as a public or private good, and ODE’s role in each.

My comments

The book sets out clearly the extent and importance of ODE in higher education. A careful reading will also indicate the importance of government and institutional policies in supporting or restricting ODE.

This and the second book in this series therefore should be required reading in any post-graduate education program. It should also be required reading by policy analysts in Ministries of Advanced (or Higher) Education. I would also recommend it to Boards of Governors and Provosts/VP Academic in any post-secondary institution. 

I look forward with impatience to reading the second volume, which for me will be even more valuable as I know so little about ODE in many of the countries covered in the second book.

If I have any negative comments, it is about what is not in the book. I think it is a pity that there is no chapter on France, Mexico or Argentina, all of which are very large countries with substantial and uniquely different distance education provision. And of course it is solely about formal post-secondary education. Other books are needed to cover international distance education in the k-12 and corporate sectors.

Also, this book will easily become outdated, given the rapid developments in ODE around the world. It took over two years from the time I was approached to write the chapter and the book’s publication. In this period, the first national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education was published, the results of which had to be hastily accommodated in the last proofs of the book.

Furthermore, the book is an open publication, and is free to download, licensed as open access under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. However, it is not expensive to buy a hard copy, and I hope if you have an an interest in open and distance education you will make this a standard book on your shelves – after you have read it!

(Note: in an earlier version of this post I incorrectly stated that it could not be downloaded for free. My apologies).

Woolf University: the Airbnb of higher education or a sheep in wolf’s clothing?

Broggi, J.D. et al. (2018) Building the first blockchain university, Oxford UK, April 3

You are going to hear a lot about Woolf University over the next year or so and possibly much longer. This is in some ways a highly innovative proposal for a new type of university, but in other ways, it is a terribly conservative proposal, an extension of the Platonic dialogue to modern times. It could only have come from Oxford University academics, with its mix of blue sky dreaming, the latest technological buzz, and regression to cloistered academe.

The proposal

As always, I am going to recommend that you read the original paper from cover to cover. It has a number of complex, radical proposals that each need careful consideration (the whitepaper would make an excellent topic for an Oxbridge tutorial).

I am not sure I completely understand the financial aspect of the blockchain tokens (but that probably puts me with 99.99999 per cent of the rest of the world). But the basic ideas behind the university are as follows:

  • Woolf University will issue blockchain-guaranteed ‘contracts’ between an individual professor and an individual student;
  • Woolf University will initially include only professors who have a post-graduate research degree from one of the 200 ‘top-ranked’ universities;
  • the core blockchain contract consists of an agreement to deliver a one hour, one-on-one tutorial, for which the student will directly pay the instructor (in real money, but tied to a blockchain token system which I don’t fully understand);
  • the tutorial can be delivered face-to-face, or over the Internet (presumably synchronously – Skype is suggested), but the maximum number of students per tutorial is set at two;
  • the contract (and payment) is initiated once the student ‘accepts’ the contract with a push of a button on their cell phone. If the tutor fails to deliver the tutorial, the student is automatically refunded (and offered another instructor). Instructors who miss a tutorial will be fined by the university in the form of a deduction from the next tutorial payment;
  • on successful completion of the tutorial (which will include a written essay or other assessable pieces of work from the student) the blockchain registers the grade against the student record;
  • once the student has accumulated enough ‘credits’ within an approved program they will be issued with a Woolf University degree;
  • a full student workload consists of two classes a week over 8 weeks in each of three semesters or a total of 144 meetings over three years for a degree;
  • annual tuition is expected to be in the order of $20,000 a year, excluding scholarships;
  • instructor payments will depend on the number and cost of tutorials, but at four a week would range from $38,000 to $43,000 per annum with fees in the range of $350-$400 per tutorial;
  • colleges of a minimum of 30 individual instructors can join Woolf University and issue their own qualifications, but each college’s qualification requirements must also meet Woolf University’s criteria. Colleges can set their own tutorial fee above a minimum of $150 an hour. Colleges’ instructors must meet the qualification requirements of Woolf University;
  • the first college, called Ambrose, will consist of 50 academics from Oxford University, and Woolf has invited academics from Cambridge University to set up another college;
  • Woolf University will be a not-for-profit institution. There will be a deduction of 0.035% of each financial transaction to build the Woolf Reserve to update and maintain the blockchain system. There will also be a student financial aid program for scholarships for qualified students;
  • Woolf University would be managed by a Faculty Council with voting rights on decision-making from every employed instructor;
  • Ambrose College will deduct 4% from each tuition fee for administrative overheads.

There are other proposals such as a language school, peer review, etc.

What’s to like?

This is clearly an effort to cut out the institutional middleman of university and institutional administration. Although the tutorial fees are close to the average of universities in the UK and the more elite state universities in the USA, students are getting a one-on-one learning experience from an instructor who is highly qualified (at least in terms of content).

I was fortunate to have a tutorial system when I was an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield at the UK, and it worked very well, although we had between two and four students at each tutorial, and only in the last two years of my bachelor’s degree. Such tutorials are excellent for developing critical thinking skills, because each statement you make as a student is likely to be challenged by the professor or one of the other students.

Woolf University has highly idealistic goals for democratic governance – by the faculty – and its main attraction is offering alternative and regular employment for the very large number of poorly paid but highly qualified adjunct professors who can’t get tenure at regular universities. However there is no suggestion of student representation in the governance process, and the use of faculty is demand driven – if no student wants your course, no money – which seems an even more precarious position than working as an adjunct.

Most of all, though, it is a serious attempt to provide an independent system of academic validation of qualifications through the use of blockchain which could lead to better standardization of degree qualifications.

What’s not to like?

Well, the first thing that jumps to my mind is conflict of interest. If faculty are already employed by a traditional university, Woolf will be a direct, and if successful, a very dangerous competitor. Will universities allow their best faculty to moonlight for a direct competitor? If instructors cannot get employment in a traditional university, will they be as well qualified as the instructors in the regular system? The corollary though is that Woolf may force universities to pay their adjunct faculty better, but that will increase costs for the existing universities.

Second, the tuition fees may be reasonable by the absurdly inflated cost of HE tuition fees in the UK, but these are double or triple the fees in Canada, and much higher than the fees in the rest of Europe.

Third, the tutorial is just one mode of teaching. The report recommends (but does not insist) that instructors should also provide recorded lectures, but there are now so many other ways for students to learn that it seems absurd to tie Woolf to just the one system Oxbridge dons are familiar with.  The proposal does not address the issue of STEM teaching or experiential learning. All the examples given are from Greek philosophy. Not all my tutorials were great – it really depended on the excellence of the professor as a teacher as well as a scholar and that varied significantly. (It is also clear from reading the report that the authors have no knowledge about best practices in online teaching, either). The whole proposal reeks of the worst kind of elitism in university teaching.

Will it succeed?

Quite possibly, if it can sell the substitute Oxbridge experience to students and if it can explain more clearly its business model and in particular how the blockchain currency will work with regard to the payment of instructors. What can make or break it is the extent to which traditional universities will go to protect their core faculty from being hijacked by Woolf. 

I’m somewhat baffled by the claims that this new business model will be much much more cost-effective than the current system. Academic salaries make up almost 70% of the cost of a traditional university so the savings on administration alone are a comparatively small proportion of the costs of higher education, and the proposed tuition fees are still very high. It seems to be more a solution for the problem of unemployed Ph.D.s than the problem of expanding more cost-effectively quality higher education to large numbers of students.

Nevertheless, it is a very interesting development. I am guessing that this will ultimately fail, because establishing its credentials as equivalent to the elite universities will be a hard sell, and costs to students will be too high, but much will be learned about the strengths and weaknesses of blockchain in higher education, resulting in a better/more sustainable higher education model developing in another way. It is definitely a development to be carefully tracked.


Is distance education stealing on-campus students?

On campus – or online?

Poulin, R. (2018) Distance Ed Growth – Access is a Big Motivator, but it’s Complicated, WCET Frontiers, February 1

This post is essential reading for university and college administrators. It combines the latest U.S. Department of Education data on distance and overall enrolments with a specific survey asking institutions why online and distance education is growing so rapidly when overall enrolments in the USA are static. It therefore raises some fundamental policy issues for institutions.

For Canadian readers, while there are significant differences between the two systems, I think the findings here will be equally true for Canada, since I will show in this post that we have a similar situation with even greater expansion of online learning while overall enrolments have been largely static over the last couple of years.

Enrolments trends


Phil Hill of eLiterate did an analysis of the data recently released by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics. Russ Poulin of WCET summarised this in his blog post in the table below:

Table 1: Growth in DE and overall enrolments in US Higher Education: 2012-2016

Source: Poulin, 2018, from Hill, P. and NCES

It can be seen that the number and percentage of ALL students enrolled in higher education is slightly down, but the number of students taking all courses at a distance has grown by 30.1%.


We can see a similar trend in Canada. The graph below is from Alex Usher’s One Thought blog, which in turn is derived from Statistics Canada.

Figure 1: Total enrolments by Institution Type, Canada, 2006-07 to 2015-16

Source: Usher, A. (2018) Student Numbers, One Thought to Start Your Day, January 9

It can be seen that overall enrolments in universities have been almost flat over the last four years and have declined slightly in colleges over the last two years.

On the other hand, our national survey of online and distance education in Canadian post-secondary education found that over the period 2011-2015, online college enrolments outside Québec increased by 15% per annum (60% 0verall), and for all universities (including Québec) increased by 14% per annum (56% overall). The situation in the Quebec colleges (CEGEPs) was more complicated with an overall decline of 5% in online enrolments over the same period.

Are online enrolments eating the campus lunch?

Russ Poulin at WCET was gnawing away at two questions that these data raised in his mind:

  • what is driving the expansion of online/distance education when overall enrolments are flat? Access, more money, other reasons?
  • are online enrolments being achieved at the expense of campus-based classes?

So, as any good researcher would, he sent out a questionnaire to WCET member institutions and received 192 responses, including a very interesting set of open ended comments. His blog post summarises the responses and I recommend you read it in full, but the following chart gets to the essence:

Figure 2: Reasons for the growth in Distance Education

Source: Poulin, R. (2018)

What does it mean?

Here are my key takeaways:

  • it’s complex: there are several reasons for the growth of online learning: increasing access and/or greater student convenience are not mutually exclusive to increasing revenues, for instance;
  • only 19% believed the move to online learning is primarily about increasing revenues;
  • just under half said it does not affect campus-based enrolments; these are students who would not have come to campus
  • nearly two thirds reported that distance education (probably meaning online learning, the distinction was not made in the survey) is leading to more blended/hybrid options, i.e. it is beginning to impact on classroom teaching, a similar finding to ours in the national survey.

The primary reason for ‘flat’ or declining overall enrolments is demographic. There are fewer 18 year olds than 10 years ago in both countries (and if the Dreamers in the USA are kicked out, that number will go down even more). However, both international and online students, many of them older and in the work force, have helped to compensate for this demographic loss, although recently international on-campus student enrolments have decreased in the USA and accelerated in Canada, making the growth of online learning even more important for the USA institutions.

Faculty and instructors should welcome this surge in online learning, because without it, many would have lost their jobs.

Lastly, online learning is now impacting classroom teaching. This means that institutions need policies, strategies and probably some funding reallocation to support the move to blended/hybrid learning, and faculty development and training in digital learning will become even more essential. Institutions that do not move in this direction run the risk of losing enrolments and with it funding.

Isn’t it nice to see policy issues being driven by data rather than opinions? Well done, Russ and WCET.

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, January 19

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


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?