July 16, 2018

Online learning and disruptive change at the UK Open University

The old Walton Hall on the OU campus in Milton keynes

Sturm und Strang

I’ve was in England last week,  attending the 7th eSTEeM conference at the Open University as the opening keynote speaker, only my second visit to the OU since I left nearly 30 years ago.

The Open University, described by several commentators as one of the most successful innovations in Britain since the Second World War, is currently going through an existential crisis, which culminated two weeks ago with the resignation of its Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, following a devastating vote of no confidence by faculty and staff.

The OU is facing enormous pressure, due mainly to the policies of the recent Conservative governments. Over the last six years, the government has treated the OU just the same as other, more traditional, universities in England and Wales. The government severely cut the OU’s operating budget requiring it to dramatically increase fees, and also made all part-time students (i.e. students not taking a full annual course load) ineligible for government-guaranteed, low interest loans. It also has required students at the OU, like all other students in England and Wales, to complete their bachelor studies within three years, compressing their time for study. It is expected to have a £20 million (CS$36 million) operating deficit this year and was proposing to save £100m from its £420m annual budget by cutting courses and staff.

Since the vast majority of its 200,000 students in 2012 were part-time, working adults without a first degree and who required the maximum flexibility in their studies, it’s hardly surprising that its student numbers have dropped by more than a third since 2012. At the same time it has invested heavily in FutureLearn, a MOOC-type platform which is still struggling to find a viable business model. The recent changes mean that the whole concept of open-ness and accessibility for OU students, and its unique position in the British higher education system, are under existential threat. 

To cap all this, the university itself recognises that it needs to fundamentally change its operational model. Like many other Open Universities, it has not changed fast enough to accommodate to the digital revolution in post-secondary teaching. It is burdened with a heavy legacy of a print-based design model and an expensive regional tutoring system, despite the recent elimination of all local face-to-face operations.

“We want to transform the University of the Air envisaged by Harold Wilson in the 1960s to a University of the Cloud, a world-leading institution which is digital by design and has a unique ability to teach and support our students in a way that is responsive both to their needs and those of the economy,” according to Horrocks. As a result the (now leaderless) executive team is working on a ‘transformational model’ for the university, which is still a work in progress.

This is the battlefield into which I parachuted this week.

The eSTEeM conference

The Open University has offered science and technology programs since its inauguration in 1971. It initially used a combination of print, home experiment kits mailed to students’ homes, and one week residential schools in the summer. The residential schools have long since gone (too expensive) although in general students loved them and at least in the early days the residential schools provided such a morale boost for students that many who would have dropped out then went on to continue successfully.

For the last seven years, the STEM Faculty/academic department at the OU has been holding an annual conference to demonstrate the scholarship of its faculty and staff. I was the opening speaker for this year’s conference, on the topic: ‘Digital learning in an era of change: challenges and opportunities for STEM teaching and the OU.’

However, as well as the very interesting STEM components of the conference, on which I will write two separate posts, there was an almost full day, well-organised workshop called ‘Digital by Design’, which focused on what the future as a whole should be at the OU. The workshop enabled a quick and close, if incomplete, ‘parachute’ view of some of the challenges the OU is facing and how academic and regional staff are responding. In this post I will focus on these general, internal challenges that the OU still has to resolve that emerged from this and other discussions in which I participated.

Online but not digital

It is clear that many of the teaching staff have not really ‘got it’ with regard to digital learning. In many cases, print still remains the core teaching technology, and where online is heavily used, it is often just a print model moved online, with a heavy emphasis on content transmission. Many in the OU are still arguing for a ‘blended’ learning model, which in this case refers to a mix of print and online, with print having at least an equal contribution.

In particular, the OU is really weak in its exploitation of the networking and student collaboration that the web offers and in its integration of social media within the design of courses. In this it is not unlike many conventional universities, but nevertheless this realisation came as a real shock to me. This was the original open, distance university, not a conventional one.

Why I am so shocked is that one of the many reasons I emigrated to Canada in 1989 was that I got frustrated at the inability of myself and others at the OU such as Robin Mason and Tony Kaye to get the OU to take online learning seriously. We had contributed to a course, DT200, in 1988 that had an online discussion forum component that had merely been bolted on to the standard 36 week print and broadcast design. The next logical step would have been to have pioneered a fully online course, but neither the university management nor the faculty were interested.

It is important to understand that the OU has a relatively small core of permanent faculty based at its headquarters in Milton Keynes who are primarily engaged in the design of courses, in particular the choice and structuring of content, and a legion of regional staff tutors who provide most of the student learning support. There is a long-established Institute of Educational Technology, where the staff have full academic status, and conduct research as well as advise the OU’s course teams on best practices in the design of distance education.

Here I am 30 years later, and there are still arguments going on about the wisdom of going fully online. This despite the fact that Gilly Salmon, who wrote a standard text on teaching online (2011), worked at the OU for several years, and despite the fact that the OU has an Institute of Educational Technology that has excellent design models developed for online learning that it struggles to get faculty to adopt. This is so reminiscent of Athabasca University and its failure to exploit the expertise of Terry Anderson and its other distance education specialists

The fixation on print as the ‘core’ medium/technology

I participated in several discussions where I challenged the focus on printed material as the core teaching technology. First though I would like to set out some of the arguments OU staff put forward in support of print.

Arguments for print

These were made mainly by OU staff to me.

  1. The OU made its reputation in its early days in the 1970s by the very high quality of its printed materials. As well as being beautifully produced and illustrated (full colour), they were and still are extremely well structured. This was recognised immediately by many faculty in more traditional universities, and the quality of its printed materials is still much appreciated by the students. If it was effective then, it must be effective now.
  2. Access: there are still students in Britain who do not have access to the Internet or cannot afford a computer.
  3. Most OU students are working and many spend all day at work looking at screens; the OU printed material provides an essential break from being on-screen all day.
  4. Students prefer to read printed material; it’s easier for study purposes and revision than searching online.
  5. If the textual material was delivered online rather than printed, the OU would be transferring the cost of print to the students, as they would want to print out the textual material.

Arguments against print

These were made mainly by me to OU staff.

  1. Online learning provides students with the opportunity of ‘any time, any place’ discussion and interaction with each other and teaching staff.
  2. Student activities and interaction with online text is more integrated and immediate than with printed text. In particular immediate feedback can be provided through online tests or automated feedback, etc.
  3. Students are not limited by the boundaries of the printed course material once they go online. Everything on the Internet is potential study material. In particular students can access open educational resources from many different sources.
  4. In order to develop the skills students need in the 21st century, we need to focus more on skills development than on the transmission of content. Online learning can focus better on the development of these soft skills, such as communication and knowledge management.
  5. Access has always been a limitation for any technology. For instance students with visual impairment or dyslexia have difficulties with print. When the OU first started, many students did not have access to the broadcasts. Most students in Britain now have access to the Internet, although in more remote areas there are still bandwidth limitations. The OU’s policy in general has been that when access exceeds 80% of the target audience, alternatives are found for the remaining students. It is wrong to deny the benefits to the vast majority of students because of the needs of a small minority which could be met in other ways.
  6. Students need to learn digitally if they are to earn digitally. Digital literacy is now a core skill required by everyone.
  7. The costs for a print-based system are very high, not just in the actual costs of full colour printing, but in the editing, and above all, the lengthy time it takes faculty and instructors to prepare, check and revise the printed materials (many OU courses take at least two years to design). Savings by going digital could be used to reduce substantially tuition fees.

The need to think digitally when designing online learning

The issue is not whether print has educational value; it does, and there may be specific situations where students may prefer to have hard copy. However, it should not be the default medium. It’s really important when designing online learning to be open to all the media the Internet enables: text, audio, video, computing, augmented reality, simulations, social media, and so on. This requires thinking digitally when designing courses, which is difficult if your first and preferred option is always print.

Of course, this is identical to the challenge that on-campus instructors face about digital learning, but instead of print, their default option is face-to-face teaching.

This is why moving to online learning requires a major cultural change and why it takes so long. However, in the OU’s current existential crisis, it does not have the time for gradual change (that should have started back in 1989). The need for change must be embraced now, ironically, not for financial reasons but for pedagogical reasons: only this way will it better prepare its students for the future. The financial pressures merely make this devastatingly urgent.

Necessary but not sufficient

Forcing change for financial reasons is unlikely to work. Making changes that are not accepted or resisted by staff is more likely to lead to failure or collapse in an organization. Even if by some miracle the (remaining) OU staff manage to pull it off, moving to the University of the Cloud (whatever that means – some kind of heaven for students?) will not meet the needs of the nation that the former OU met.

Lifelong learning is not a luxury but a necessity in a digital age, where the knowledge base expands exponentially and citizens need to continuously learn new content and new skills. Traditional universities do not do lifelong learning well; they are not really designed for it. The OU was, but government policies of starving financial support for part-time learners and reducing the flexibility of study to fit some 1950s view of elite higher education is going to be disastrous for the future British economy. At no time has the OU been more important to Britain. Without a radical change of government policy though its future is indeed dismal, whatever else it does.

Up next

Your intrepid online learning war correspondent will do two more posts from my visit to the OU:

  • the OU’s use of learning analytics for analysing student course evaluations
  • the OU’s use of online labs

Also I will be reporting on a conference on active learning I attended this week at the Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario. Buy, busy, busy. (Don’t even ask about retirement).

Reference

Salmon, G. (2011). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

How to deal with online learning ‘deniers’ in your institution

Lieberman, M. (2018) Overcoming faculty resistance – or not? Inside Higher Education, March 14

I’ve been a bit slow on picking up on this (thanks to WCET for bringing it to my attention), but this is such a useful article that it’s well worth reading if you are encountering faculty or instructor resistance to online learning.

This article is in response to an earlier IHE article from a professor who declared that he has no interest in teaching online, despite many colleagues’ attempts to convince him otherwise.

What Lieberman has done is interview seven experts about the most productive way to respond to online learning ‘deniers’ (my term, not his). What Lieberman specifically asked of them was:

  • What percentage of faculty members do you believe hold views similar to this professor?
  • Should institutional leaders try to change the minds of faculty members who are firmly opposed to digital forms of learning, or is it OK to leave a certain proportion of the faculty teaching in a more traditional format if they choose?
  • What do you do on your campus (or what can be done on campuses more generally) to convince skeptical faculty members that teaching online is both possible and practical — and how successful has it been?

For once, I’m not going to attempt to summarise their comments, because they are so rich and varied, but if your job is to support faculty and instructors in teaching online, you will not fail to learn something useful from this article.

But there are a couple of things I would add that were not covered by the other experts:

  • focus on issues where instructors feel vulnerable or will readily admit to a teaching problem (e.g. too large a class for student interaction, too many students not completing a course, not enough equipment for all students to see or interact with, etc.) and explore if the use of technology could help improve this situation – not necessarily fully online but get a foot in the door to getting the instructor to teach at least something outside the classroom or lab that will help with a perceived limitation of their specific face-to-face class; but it must solve their problem, not yours;
  • link online learning to the development of digital skills and 21st century skills within a particular discipline area – for instance, ensuring students are aware of the main digital tools being used in their profession and why they are useful; using online learning for teaching ‘virtual’ collaboration skills in science or business; etc. Many instructors are becoming aware that they need to teach these skills, but don’t know how to do this. This is an opening for online learning;
  • show how online learning can reduce their current teaching workload, through, for example, automated marking, peer/student feedback and evaluation, reduced lecture time and office hours, identifying at risk students, etc.
  • take a strategic approach to online learning at a program level – for instance start slowly with a few online learning activities in the first year for most courses, moving to more hybrid combinations in the middle years, building up to perhaps a few fully online courses in the final year; ‘resistant’ instructors, by working alongside more committed instructors, become caught up in a general climate of online being used appropriately.

It is true you can take a horse to water, but not make it drink. So first, make it thirsty! 

That was 2017 in online learning

 

A workshop in St. George’s College, Windsor Castle, where Shakespeare’s first production of the Merry Wives of Windsor was performed before Queen Elisabeth 1

My experience of online learning in 2017

2017 was a very interesting year for me, if not for online learning as a whole. I have a very different interface with online learning these days from most people, more that of an observer than as a participant, which has both advantages and disadvantages, but it does give me a somewhat wider perspective, so first, here’s what I did, then second what I learned from my experience.

What I did in 2017

I had three main avenues into online learning in 2017:

  • my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. Although published in 2015, it is still going strong and has generated several activities. The English version has been downloaded over 60,000 times since it was published in April, 2015, and is now translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese and the first half into Turkish (the second half should be completed soon), with further translations into Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew and Japanese under way, all by volunteer translators. The book continues to result in keynotes and workshops. This year I gave ‘physical’ keynotes in Barcelona, Toronto, Halifax, Pennsylvania, Windsor Castle (UK), and a webinar to South Australia. I also did several Contact North webinars on topics from the book. These activities allowed me to interact directly with instructors and course designers engaged in online learning;
  • Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation gave me the privilege of personally interviewing instructors doing innovative teaching using learning technologies in universities and colleges in British Columbia, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. In all I interviewed 23 instructors in 16 different institutions. More importantly I could see exactly what they were doing in context. However, this was still a small proportion of the more than 180 cases reported to date by Contact North;
  • leading the research team for the national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions allowed me to get the ‘big picture’ of online developments in Canadian universities and colleges. Also having to raise the funding for this project ($165,000 in total) brought me into contact with  government agencies engaged with online learning (eCampuses mainly), but also national organisations such as CICAN and Universities Canada, and commercial sponsors such as Pearson and D2L, giving me yet another perspective on agencies engaged with online learning.

Using a mobile phone and QR tags for a video of the anatomy of a dog’s heart: Sue Dawson UPEI

So what did I learn from all this in 2017?

A big leap forward for online learning in Canada in 2017

Complacency is dangerous, but Canada did pretty well in online learning in 2017:

  • most universities and colleges in Canada do at least some fully online and distance courses, enabling wider access in almost every province and territory;
  • enrolments in fully online learning or distance courses are increasing at a rate of 10%-15% per annum (although with considerable provincial variation);
  • probably about 15% of all post-secondary teaching in Canada is now fully online;
  • more and more instructors are integrating online learning into their classroom or campus-based teaching;
  • most Canadian post-secondary institutions see online learning as critically important for their future; 
  • a good deal of innovation in teaching is going on at the individual instructor level;
  • a few provincial governments are solidly supporting online learning and their policies are directly resulting in more digital learning.

Innovation ain’t what you think it is

Innovation in teaching is much more than just using advanced technologies for the first time – and sometimes much less. I was struck in particular about several things from the Pockets of Innovation interviews:

  • most instructors are using new technology (or at least technology new to them) to help with a particular teaching problem or challenge, whether it’s because students don’t come to lectures because of bad weather, or because there are not enough models or samples for every student in the class to spend enough time with, or because students are dropping out of a program because the courses are not properly sequenced or coherent. Technology is best used when it helps solve an actual teaching problem;
  • often though the technology is not enough on its own; it has to be combined with an appropriate change in teaching method or policy that the technology supports or enhances;
  • successful innovation is happening mainly from the bottom up; this is because individual instructors are in the best position to judge the learning context, the learning needs, and which of the zillion new apps and technologies available is the one most likely to fit the situation;
  • the corollary is that institutional or government policies can encourage innovation but cannot predict what it will be: innovation strategy should focus on encouraging risk-taking and rewarding instructors who innovate successfully (i.e. by getting better learning outcomes) rather than privileging particular technologies or even teaching approaches (such as competency-based or experiential learning, for instance, no matter how worthy they are in their own right);
  • most successful teaching innovations are based on easily available and somewhat familiar technologies, such as mobile phones and web conferencing, rather than on ‘state-of-the art’ technologies such as virtual reality or AI;
  • government policy and funding (or lack of it) does make a difference; money talks as can be seen by the impact of government funding for online course development in Ontario and for open educational resources and open text books in British Columbia;
  • few institutions or even provincial governments have a meaningful strategy for supporting innovation in teaching, especially for diffusing innovation throughout an institution or system; as a result innovative teaching still remains in pockets rather than transforming institutions or systems.

There’s a long way to go with open educational resources

OER continue to be a hard sell for most Canadian instructors, despite strong commitment from at least two governments of large provinces. This was evident from both the Pockets of Innovation and the national survey.

This is a topic on its own, but having talked to instructors and seen how they think about teaching, here are my two cents’ worth of thoughts on why OER continue to develop much more slowly than they should:

  • when OER are being promoted, it often comes across as a cult or an ideology rather than a solution to an instructor’s teaching problem. Show instructors how OER can save them time or money. Show them how OER can best be integrated into teaching specific subjects or topics and show the teaching benefits over using commercial products (unfortunately most instructors care less about saving money for students than making their own lives easier – strange that, isn’t it?);
  • the main advantage of expensive commercial textbooks is all the supplementary materials they come with that make life easier for an instructor and students, such as worked examples or solutions, test questions and answers, and automated marking; just publishing an open textbook without linking it to supporting OER doesn’t cut it, but at the moment OER and open textbooks are often developed independently – they need to be better integrated;
  • stop thinking of OER as something different from everything else on the Internet; all open content has value, whether it is specifically designed for educational purposes or not; this means coming up with course design models that exploit open content for the purpose of developing 21st century skills such as knowledge management, analysis of source reliability, etc.
  • at the same time, if an object is meant to be educational, design it better – too many OER are poorly designed in media terms and are not clearly linked to specific learning outcomes; this means scaling up OER production so that it is more easily shareable. Instead of funding individual instructors to create subject-specific OER,  bring all the statistics instructors together, for instance, with instructional designers and media producers, first to check what’s already available and what its limitations are, then to produce better, high quality OER for statistics that everyone can use.
  • try to get experienced faculty who are nearing the end of their careers to write an open textbook as a legacy project, pulling together all their knowledge and experience over their whole career; this is likely to result in innovative, ‘breakthrough’ open textbooks rather than just providing an open version of existing textbooks, and may lead more importantly to revised and more appropriate curricula.

Instructor training in teaching remains a huge problem

One of the findings from my Pocket of Innovation interviews was that less than half the instructors based their innovation on a theory of learning or a change of teaching method to produce different outcomes, such as skills development. Without a grounding in pedagogy and a knowledge of the research into how people learn, it is impossible for most instructors to see the real potential of digital technology for improving their teaching. We still rely too much on instructional designers backstopping faculty who don’t know how to teach effectively.

Is the instructional design support model scalable for blended learning?

Even when fully online learning is only 15% of all teaching, it has been difficult to provide adequate instructional design support. When 80-90% of instructors have the potential to integrate technology into their classroom teaching the current model of faculty support will not be feasible.

One solution to this is to provide instructors with ‘on-demand’ online resources when they need them. For instance:

However useful though such on-demand tools may be, they do not replace the need for some basic grounding in pedagogical principles, which is now absolutely essential if technology is to be used well in teaching.

What next?

Well, looking into 2018 is another blog post, but of one thing I am certain: I won’t be working as hard next year as I did in 2017.

I really enjoyed everything I did, but I cannot go on doing the long-distance travel, which exhausts me.

So I wish you all a great holiday season, so that you can come back refreshed for another interesting year in what surely is one of the most exciting and satisfying areas to be working in these days.

What I wanted to say to the Minister about online learning

A faculty development workshop: a broken system?

The opportunity

I don’t mix with politicians or high level decision-makers, so when I was offered a seat next to Deb Matthews, Ontario’s Minister of Advanced Education, at the ICDE conference in Toronto two week’s ago, I thought about what I wanted to say to her. What could I say that might make a difference?

The pitch

After considerable thought, and realising I would probably have about two minutes max – a true elevator pitch, more than a tweet but less than a blog post – I came up with the following before the morning of the meeting:

Minister, do you want to ensure that Ontario’s universities prepare students appropriately for developing the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age? If so, as a condition of provincial funding, you need to require every university in the province to put in place a systematic and mandatory program for training all instructors in how to teach and how best to integrate technology into their teaching. Without such comprehensive and mandatory programs, nothing will fundamentally change.

Here’s my card: ask one of your staff to call me on why this is necessary, why it is difficult, and how it might be done.

How did I do?

Not well, I’m afraid. By the time Ms. Matthews sat down next to me, the first announcements about the conference were being made. We did shake hands, then she went up and made a very good welcoming speech for the delegates, laying out what Ontario has done and is doing to support access and online learning. The current Ontario government has been a big supporter of online learning, creating eCampus Ontario and putting several million dollars into online course development and OER. It was a scoop for the conference organisers to get her to come, and she was genuinely interested in the conference and its theme (‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’)

She ended her speech, and then she left, surrounded by her minions. I literally had no chance to say anything to her other than ‘hi.’

So I missed my chance. It was no-one’s fault. That is just the nature of Ministerial appearances at big conferences – in and out. Maybe next time I should have made a preliminary pitch or got someone to have set something up, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure I would even get the chance to meet with her, and I have no standing in Ontario other than being a retired academic administrator.

Why what I wanted to say is important

Regular readers of this blog will know why I wanted to say what I set out above. Faculty in universities are trained in research, not in teaching. If lucky they may get a short introductory course when appointed, mainly focused on lecturing effectively and classroom management. Thereafter any form of faculty ‘development’ for teaching is purely voluntary.

This may or may not have been fine when all teaching was face-to-face and focused on knowledge acquisition. It is not fine when we need to develop high level intellectual skills. Teaching students high level intellectual skills needs a different approach from teaching abstract concepts and principles. 

Furthermore, the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired is changing. Students need to acquire the skills of lifelong and independent learning, because what they learn today is likely to be obsolete or redundant in ten years’ time. Students need to know where they can find content, how to verify its validity and reliability, how to analyse it and how to apply it. These are skills that need practice, and they also require nowadays the use of digital technology.

Very few instructors are formally trained in how to do this. It is not rocket science, but it is not always obvious, either. Indeed, teaching in a digital age requires a different mindset. Some instructors will come by this naturally, but most won’t. Therefore formal training for all instructors becomes essential.

Why it’s difficult

Ideally the best way to teach instructional skills is pre-service, with regular opportunities for refreshing and updating while in service. However, this would mean building into post-graduate programs time for learning about teaching and learning, at least for those who want to go on to teach in a university. Neither students, nor especially supervising faculty, would welcome this. However it is much cheaper and more effective to do this training before faculty become tenured – or more importantly before they become set in their ways.

Second, preparation for teaching in universities has to be mandatory and not voluntary. Teaching is a professional activity with its own knowledge base and skills. It is not something to dabble in when you feel like it. Who would want to fly in a plane where the pilot’s training in how to fly the plane was voluntary (even if their knowledge of aerodynamics was superb)? Evidence (see Christensen-Hughes and Mighty, 2010) suggests that fewer than ten per cent of faculty participate in voluntary faculty development programs each year and these are often those who need it the least. It is a broken system.

Furthermore it is a systemic problem. One institution cannot go it alone for the fear it will lose its most promising academic talent and  its best graduate students to those institutions where they do not have to spend time in learning how to teach well.

The big problem then is that universities will not solve this problem themselves, because research is the primary factor that influences tenure and promotion, and anything that takes away from research time – such as time spent learning how to teach well – is unacceptable.

How to solve the problem

In most professions, you are not allowed to practice unless you have met standards approved by a professional body that is recognised by the appropriate government. For instance, you cannot operate as a professional engineer in Ontario unless you are accredited by the Professional Engineers of Ontario, which is the professional accreditation body recognised by the government.

Instructors who wish to teach in universities should meet similar requirements. There is no equivalent professional body for university teaching though. A Ph.D. is a research, not a teaching, qualification.

One thing a government could require is that the universities within its jurisdiction that receive government funding must establish a professional body that requires certification of instructors and requires all new instructors to be accredited. (Some college systems have a somewhat similar requirement, such as the Provincial Instructor Diploma in British Columbia, although it is not mandatory). 

The advantage here is that it would be up to the universities to establish such a program, but the government would not fund institutions unless such programs are in place and required. This would require negotiation between universities and government about content, standards and process for establishing the training requirement, but this is not an impossible task.

Of course, the universities will hate this and faculty would see it as government interference or an attack on academic freedom. What is increasingly unacceptable though is throwing untrained instructors into the classroom without any preparation for teaching, especially given the challenges of teaching in a digital age. If we don’t prepare our instructors better, students won’t get the knowledge and skills that they will need to survive in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous digital age.

Minister, please act. If you do, Ontario will lead the world. And I will try to do better next time I meet you.

Reference

Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (eds.) (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal QC and Kingston ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 350 pp

A brighter future for Athabasca University?

Mid-career retraining is seen as one possible focus for Athabasca University’s future

Coates, K. (2017) Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University Saskatoon, SK

This report, 45 pages in length plus extensive appendices, was jointly commissioned by the Government of Alberta and the Governors of Athabasca University.

Why the report?

Because Athabasca University, established in 1971 as a fully distance, open university, has been in serious trouble over the last 10 years. In 2015, its Acting President issued a report saying that ‘Athabasca University (AU) will be unable to pay its debt in two years if immediate action is not taken.’ It needed an additional $25 million just to solve its IT problems. Two years earlier, the AU’s senior administrators were savagely grilled by provincial legislators about the financial management of the university, to such an extent that it seemed that the Government of Alberta might well pull the plug on the university.

However, comes a recent provincial election, comes a radical change of government, leading to a new Board and a new President with a five year term. Although these are essential changes for establishing a secure future of the university, in themselves they are not sufficient. The financial situation of the university is temporarily more secure, but the underlying problem of expenses not being matched by revenue remains. It desperately needs more money from a government that is short of revenues since the oil industry tanked. Also its enrolments have started to drop, due to competition from campus-based universities now offering fully online programs. Lastly it still has the same structural problems with an outdated course design and development model and poor student support services, especially on the academic side.

So although the newish government was willing to suspend judgement, it really needed an independent review before shovelling any new money AU’s way – hence this report.

What does the report say?

I will try to summarise briefly the main findings and recommendations, but as always, it is worth reading the full report, which is relatively concise and easy to read:

  • there is substantial student demand in Alberta, across Canada and internationally for AU’s programs, courses and services;
  • the current business model is not financially sustainable and will not support the institution in the coming decades – but ‘it has the potential if significant changes are made to its structure, approach and program mix, to be a viable, sustainable and highly relevant part of the Alberta post-secondary system’;
  • more money is needed to support its operations, especially if it is to remain headquartered in the (small and somewhat remote) Town of Athabasca; the present government funding arrangement is inadequate for the university’s mix of programs and students, especially regarding the support needed for disadvantaged students and those requiring more flexibility in delivery;
  • the emergence of dozens of credible online university alternatives has undermined AU’s competitive advantage – it no longer has a clear and obvious role within the Provincial post-secondary system;
  • AU should re-brand itself as the leading Canadian centre for online learning and 21st century educational technology, but although it has the educational technology professionals needed to provide leadership, it lacks the ICT model and facilities to rise to this opportunity;
  • Open access: AU should expand its activities associated with population groups that are under-represented in the Alberta and Canadian post-secondary system: women in STEM subject, new Canadians, Indigenous Peoples and students with disabilities;
  • diversification of the student body is necessary to achieve economies of scale; in other words it should expand its reach across Canada and internationally and not limit itself just to Alberta;
  • AU should expand its efforts to educate lifelong learners and should expand its career-focused and advanced educational opportunities – particularly mid-career training and training for new work;
  • although there is overwhelming faculty and staff support for AU’s mandate and general approach, there are considerable institutional and financial barriers to effecting a substantial reorientation in AU operations; however, such a re-orientation is critical for its survival.

My comments

Overall, this is an excellent report. Wisely, it does not dwell on the historical reasons why Athabasca University got itself into its current mess but instead focuses on what its future role should be, what it can uniquely contribute to the province, and what is needed to right the ship, including more money.

However, the main challenges, in my view, remain more internal than external. The Board of Governors, senior administration, faculty, staff and students still need to develop together a clear and shared vision for the future of the institution that presents a strong enough value proposition to the government to justify the increased operational and investment funding that is needed. Although the external reviewer does a good job suggesting what some of the elements of such a vision might be, it has to come from the university community itself. This is long overdue and cannot be delayed much longer otherwise the government’s patience will understandably run out. Money itself is not the issue – it is the value proposition that will persuade the government to prioritise funding for AU that still needs to be made by the university itself. In other words it’s a trust issue – if we give you more money, what will you deliver?

The second major challenge, while strongly linked to vision and funding, is the institutional culture. Major changes in course design, educational technology, student support and administration, marketing and PR are urgently needed to bring AU into advanced 21st century practice in online and distance learning. I fear that while there are visionary faculty and staff at AU who understand this, there is still too much resistance from traditionalists and those who see change as undermining academic excellence or threatening their comfort zone. Without these necessary structural and cultural changes though AU will not be able to implement its vision, no matter how persuasive it is. So there is also a competency issue – if we give you more money, can you deliver on your promises?

I think these are still open questions but at least the external review offers a vote of confidence in the university. Now it is up to the university community to turn this opportunity into something more concrete. But it needs to move fast. The window of opportunity is closing fast.