September 22, 2018

Some very good news for Athabasca University (and its students)

Athabasca University convocation

Graney, J. (2018) Athabasca University gets $4.9 million grant to upgrade outdated IT Edmonton Journal, June 8

One year on from the delivery of the Coates Report, an external review of the university, the Alberta provincial government has announced a one-off additional grant of almost $5 million to the university to help it overcome some of the problems it has been facing. The money is earmarked as follows:

  • $1.5 million to implement the university’s new strategic plan, which is in response to the recommendations in the Coates Report
  • $1.5 million to develop and implement a plan to improve student delivery services
  • $1.5 million to implement the university’s plan to upgrade its IT system, moving to a cloud-based system
  •  $400,000 to develop a long-range plan to renew the university’s teaching and learning framework.

The grant will enable Athabasca University to modernize significantly its digital learning environment and upgrade the existing IT infrastructure.

Marlin Schmidt, the Minister for Advanced Education in Alberta, is quoted as saying:

I am pleased with the progress made by the university to ensure that the recommendations in the Coates Report are implemented. I know these additional investments will support the university’s long-term success.

Comment

This is very good news for both the university and especially its students. It indicates that the Alberta government has confidence in the future of the university, and the funding provides necessary resources for modernizing and improving the quality of its teaching and other student services.

Once again though I am disappointed by the headline in the Edmonton Journal. ‘Athabasca University gets $4.9 million to become a world leader in digital learning’ would  have been a more accurate headline.

True, the university needs to upgrade its IT infrastructure, which was the subject of a scathing audit by the provincial auditor-general, but the majority of the funding has quite rightly gone to ensuring that the overall strategic plan is implemented, and to improving the quality of student services and the quality of teaching.

Congratulations to everyone at AU on getting this far so quickly since the Coates Report. Now you just have to do it.

 

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 Albertapolitics.ca, January 19

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

The good news

I’ve written several times before about the troubles at Athabasca University, which bills itself as Canada’s open university (for a full list of my posts on AU and its troubles, see the end of this post). Most of my posts have been bleak about AU’s future because the news coming out of Alberta about the university was so bad.

So I am very happy to be able at last to see light at the end of the tunnel. This is due to several events in the last six months:

  • the appointment of a new President with extensive experience in the management of Albertan post-secondary educational institutions (Neil Fassina, formerly provost and vice-president academic at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology)
  • gradual renewal of the board with new appointments, and a targeted date (March 2018) for further new appointments to the board
  • the appointment of Dr. Ken Coates as ‘the independent third-party reviewer who will try to figure out how the perpetually broke AU can be made sustainable’.

In particular the changes to the Board and a new President were essential first steps to secure the future of the university. The NDP government, despite the financial crisis in Alberta due to low oil prices, seems to recognise that Athabasca University is funded per student at a much lower rate than the other universities, and will probably need more operational funding in the future. At the press conference to announce Professor Coates’ appointment, the Minister of Advanced Education stated that the government:

is committed to ensure adequate funds are in place to run the institution throughout Dr. Coates’s sustainability review. We’ve made sure the money is there to keep the lights on, people working and students learning.

This commitment is important as there are 30,000 students’ futures at stake.

So here is some gratuitous but well meaning advice for the Alberta government and Professor Coates from someone who cares a great deal about the future of the university, and knows a little bit about open and distance education.

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.

Funding

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?

 

Athabasca University’s troubles grow

Athabasca University: a campus without students - or even resident faculty

Athabasca University: a campus without students – or even resident faculty

Bako, O. (2015) AU taskforce releases sustainability report, The Athabasca Advocate, June 9

I hate to rely on third-party reports, but a thorough web search did not find the actual sustainability report online, so all I can do is provide a summary of the newspaper article. (How comes an open university doesn’t make this most important report ever on its future available online? This is just another indicator of the depth of the problems at AU. It doesn’t understand the present, never mind the future). If anyone can supply me with a copy of the actual report, I would appreciate it. So until I get a copy, please see this as an interim post.

What’s the problem?

However you look at it, though, Canada’s largest open university is in an existential crisis:

Athabasca University (AU) will be unable to pay its debt in two years if immediate action is not taken, according to a sustainability report released June 1….the taskforce concluded AU would face insolvency on its debt in two years….’Our problem is a common one — our expenses are going up faster than our revenues,’ said AU interim president Peter MacKinnon.

So Athabasca University is now in the same position as the Greek government, except it doesn’t have the EU, the IMF, or the Germans to look to for help – just the Alberta government, which itself has been fiscally devastated by the collapse of oil prices.

What’s it doing about it?

From the newspaper report, though, the task force is looking forward, rather than backwards. It has looked at four options, which are not mutually exclusive:

  • increase cost-effectiveness and streamline business, administrative and education practices;
  • refocus AU’s mission to serve only, or primarily, students who physically reside in Alberta;
  • become a federation with another Alberta post-secondary institution and/or
  • join an affiliation with universities both in and out of the province (e.g. the Canadian Virtual University).

(I probably have mixed up the options, but you can see what kind of options are being considered).

Why is it in such a mess?

I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer this question, nor the newspaper, but the interim President seems to offer up some culprits:

  • increased reliance on tuition and decreased government funding to cover operating expenses,
  • caps on tuition that limit AU revenue,
  • the location of AU (its main campus is in the boondocks 200 kilometres north of Edmonton and most of the faculty live elsewhere),
  • demands from employee collective agreements,
  • the province does not see IT infrastructure as a capital expense.

However, none (except possibly the over-generous and/or inflexible collective agreements) of these really gets to the root of the problem. There are three fundamental reasons for AU’s problems, all strongly interconnected:

  • gross financial and political mismanagement by the previous university administration (Board and President);
  • a failure by the previous Alberta government to understand or support a unique institution;
  • a failure to adapt fast enough from a heavily front-end loaded, print-based teaching model to lighter, more flexible online teaching methods.

What will happen to AU?

God knows, and certainly not someone sitting here in Vancouver. However, I have the heavy foreboding of a tragedy rapidly unfolding. Here’s why:

  • doing the same as it has been, but more ‘efficiently’, i.e. more cheaply, won’t cut it. The only way to really reduce costs within the current teaching model is to cut student support and central faculty, which will mean lower completion rates and/or poorer quality courses; it needs to implement a completely different model of teaching and learning, which would reduce operating costs, but would also require major capital investment, and ripping up current collective agreements, neither of which appear to be options;
  • its current model has high fixed costs and low marginal costs; limiting enrolment to Albertans will leave the high fixed costs, but will reduce the additional income from external students, a recipe for disaster. Indeed, AU should go in the opposite direction and go global – but it will need a more up-to-date teaching model to do this;
  • I find it hard to believe that the Albert government doesn’t understand that investment in IT infrastructure is essential for a modern university, and is far cheaper than building new campuses. More likely it is hesitant to throw good money after bad, because AU has previously poorly managed the management of IT.

One tempting solution would be to close Athabasca, and give the two main universities a mandate to absorb and redevelop the programs Athabasca has been offering, using some of the money that is currently being invested in Athabasca. However, there are two problems with this temptation:

  • first, Alberta’s problem, compared to other provinces, is that it has in the past left online and distance learning to Athabasca University. As a result, its other institutions, such as the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, are way behind many other universities in Canada in moving to online and blended learning. They therefore lack current capacity. On the other hand, it could be argued that by hiring the best from Athabasca, this would be a good way to bring Alberta’s conventional universities up to speed in online learning. My guess though is that neither the University of Alberta nor Calgary would see this as a priority or even necessary. Alberta is not the only province with a degree of hubris.
  • Second, Athabasca is not really an online university, it is an open university, and in that sense it is unique. The British Columbia government’s experience in closing the Open Learning Agency and with it the Open University of BC in 2003 suggests that it will be very difficult to integrate the open components within a conventional university, as the experience at Thompson Rivers University, which now offers open courses through its Open Learning division, indicates.

What would I propose?

Thank goodness, it’s not my responsibility, and I don’t have all the facts and information needed to make an informed decision. But here are some suggestions:

  • this is really the Alberta government’s decision. It surely now has enough evidence to know that the current situation cannot continue and that there is no easy solution short of closing down Athabasca, which then opens up a whole new can of worms
  • what Alberta lacks (and it is not alone in this) is a provincial wide strategy for online and open learning. There is clearly demand, in terms of student numbers, and opportunities, in terms of online, blended learning, OERs and open access. What is the best way to provide this, in terms of the roles of the conventional institutions, and where does Athabasca then fit, if at all? Until it has worked out such a strategy, it should hold off on any interim decisions about Athabasca, other than to keep it on life support.

However, don’t bank on logic or strategic thinking to drive decision-making about Athabasca University. There are jobs in rural areas at stake, as well as the future of many dedicated and skilled faculty and staff at Athabasca University. But this is where Alberta’s real resources lie, in the skills and knowledge buried within Athabasca University, not in a particular institutional arrangement. So the government needs to act with caution but the goal should be making Alberta a leader in online and open education, by drawing on and possibly relocating the expertise within Athabasca, but not necessarily supporting the institution itself whose time may well have passed.

 

CNIE conference, Canmore, Alberta, 2012

Who: CNIE- RCIÉ (Canadian Network for Innovation in Education)

Where: Radisson Hotel and Conference Centre, Canmore, Alberta

When: May 14-16, 2012

What: ‘Green Aware as the theme of this year’s CNIE-RCIÉ conference challenges us to think about education in green ways: as something we must protect to ensure quality, inclusiveness, and access for both learners and teachers.  This year’s conference is about  sharing practices, research findings, and applications that contribute to one or more of the following three sub-themes:

  • Educational Innovation
  • Sustainable Education
  • Flexible Teaching and Learning.’
For whom: ‘Whether you are a teacher, a researcher, a media specialist, an instructional designer, or an administrator, a May visit to Canmore, located in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, is the place to be.’

How: New this year, CNIE- RCIÉ is happy to announce that the conference will include a number of virtual presentations available from your home or place of work.

More information: To learn more about the conference and how to submit a proposal, visit http://cnie.nipissingu.ca/indexen.html The deadline for submissions is 31 January 2012.

Online application for post-secondary in Alberta launched

Canadian Press (2009) Online application for post-secondary in Alberta launched Macleans.ca April 2

One for the administrators: ‘All public post-secondary institutions in Alberta will be using a one-stop online application system by this fall. ApplyAlberta has been developed by Alberta’s public post-secondary institutions in partnership with the Alberta government.’

The next step is to have a single student identifier, to facilitate credit transfer and tracking of student progress, irrespective of the institution, since increasingly, students are picking and choosing their courses between different institutions, through credit transfer arrangements (see eCampus Alberta for a list of online courses now available from all institutions in Alberta. BCCampus offers a similar service in the province of British Columbia).

In other words, one post-secondary system, many choices.