May 24, 2018

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 Lastly it still has the same structural problems with an outdated course design and development model and poor student support services, especially on the academic side.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.

No. 7 aha moment: strategy matters in online learning

© Bates and Sangra, 2011

This is the eighth in a series of posts about the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology, where I discuss why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. The others to date are:

My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology (overview)

1.  Media are different.

2. God helps those who help themselves (about educational technology in developing countries).

3. Asynchronous is (generally) better than synchronous teaching

4. Computers for communication, not as teaching machines

5. The web as a universal standard

6. The convergence of online learning (from the periphery to the core) 

What was the discovery? (1997)

Having worked as a manager by this time for 7 years, I was beginning to understand the bigger picture regarding the planning and management of learning technologies, and it wasn’t pretty. For educational technology to be used effectively, it has to be planned and managed well, and there were almost no specific guidelines at the time. Almost everything was left to the IT people. This had to change. Academics had to get involved as well.

How did this come about?

Part of my responsibility when I was at the Open Learning Agency between 1990-1995 was strategic planning. In fact I was sent on a very useful three day course on strategic planning offered by the American Management Association, but in reality at OLA my main responsibility was not so much to set strategy but to implement what the executive decided (and to be fair, I was part of the executive). This involved lots of Excel spreadsheets with deliverables and dates, but the strategies changed so often it started to become a meaningless exercise – the approach was far too much like the central planning of the Soviet Union, where plans were made but they failed to match reality. What OLA really did was driven mainly by external events, and how staff at the director level responded to them.

When I went to UBC, the approach to planning was very different, because of the culture of a university. In 2000, the then VP Academic, Dr. Barry McBride, sent out a note to all faculty which among other things stated:

We need to pay increased attention to IT and learning.  While I am convinced that IT will have a significant effect on teaching and learning, I am not convinced that we fully appreciate the opportunities and pitfalls…….In response to the IT challenge, we need to do several things but chief among them are the following: first, encourage a wide discussion about the possible role IT will play in learning at UBC and second, implement an appropriate process to support the vision that emerges from that discussion.  We must ensure that the process is responsive to the views expressed by colleagues.

He then created a committee (with the interesting name of ACCULT – Academic Committee for the Creative Use of Learning Technologies) with experts in using technology from various areas (the CIO, the Director of Distance Education, two or three faculty with experience of using LTs – including Murray Goldberg, who had developed WebCT, and representatives from the Library, student services, and a student representative.) The committee was chaired by Neil Guppy, the AVP Academic Planning, a position that had been created earlier with specific responsibility for learning technologies. among other things.

Thus it can be seen that at UBC:

  • leadership identified the issue, 
  • a senior administrator was appointed with a specific mandate to manage issues around learning technologies, 
  • a committee of experts/interested people was established to develop vision and strategy, 
  • a process to involve faculty across the university in setting a vision, or, as resulted, a set of visions, for the use of learning technologies was established
  • a committee developed a range of strategies and actions that would facilitate the implementation of these visions, and this was subsequently approved by Senate and the Board of Governors. 

This is a good example of what I mean when I talk about the governance of learning technology or online learning.

The approach was also very different from that at OLA, with UBC focusing particularly on faculty developing vision and goals for learning technologies, rather than the administration setting goals and the ‘workers’ trying to find ways to implement what in fact were are a continually changing set of goals and strategies (and a continually changing external environment that the administration was continually responding to.)

Why is this significant?

The default model in many institutions had previously been to leave individual faculty to decide how to use learning technologies, and for the IT department to respond as best they could to these demands. In best case scenarios this would lead to the CIO developing an IT strategy that covered both administrative and academic needs, but was almost always underfunded and priorities could not be set (except by the CIO). There was no pressure or encouragement for faculty to use learning technologies, and no attempt to use best practices or identify success or failure in individual faculty initiatives.

In fact, we have seen online learning in particular now starting to converge with campus-based activities, so it has become increasingly important for institutions to develop plans and strategies for online learning and learning technologies. Experience and research now suggest what this process should look like. Here are the lessons I’ve learned about this (this is a summary of the main points from Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning).

  • leadership is essential. The Board and the institutional executive team need to support a move to greater use of online learning, and they all need to be on the same page about this. However, the main role of leadership is to provide overall direction and broad goals for online learning (e.g., to enable more flexible access to programs) and especially to focus on the governance structure and governance processes for learning technologies, but allow the decisions on the right mix of delivery and learning technologies to be made by faculty (preferably at the program level).
  • vision and strategic thinking about online learning is more important than detailed plans or targets. In other words avoid setting a goal of 100 fully online courses by 2014, but think strategically about where and for whom online learning will provide the most benefits.
  • faculty need to be engaged primarily in developing a vision for teaching and learning with technology, and for implementing that vision, again preferably as a team at the program level.
  • decisions about delivery models should take place through the same process as deciding about content (i.e. at the program level)
  • the role and design of online learning will vary according to the needs of the students targeted and the requirements of the subject area, which is why the delivery model and the choice of specific technologies must be driven by faculty, supported by professionals such as instructional designers.
  • a high level committee with representatives from all areas affected by the use of learning technologies needs to be established to
    • deal with priority-setting for resources to support the use of learning technologies,
    • set policies or strategies for learning technologies, such as for intellectual property, protecting student privacy, or for open educational resources,
    • ensure that the necessary support for faculty and students is in place
    • to ensure that data and evidence is collected about successful and unsuccessful strategies, actions and innovations.
    • this committee needs to be ongoing, as learning technologies will continue to develop, and the external world will continue to change, requiring strategic responses from the institution as a whole.
  • faculty training and professional development is essential and also needs to be systematic and mandatory for online teaching
  • rewards need to be put in place for innovative teaching, and a strategy needs to be developed to ensure that successful innovations are spread across the institution where they are appropriate.

It can be seen that decision-making about learning technologies will take place at all levels in the institution. Good governance will ensure that the right kind of decisions are taken at the right level by the most appropriate people.


The planning and management of learning technologies are essential, but they can be done well or they can be done badly. In knowledge-based organizations such as universities and colleges, the full engagement of ‘front-line workers’ such as faculty and students in decision-making and especially setting a vision for teaching and learning, is paramount, but faculty and students need to be supported, so strategy, decision-making, priority-setting and training and development needs to be ongoing and continuous if learning technologies and online learning are to be used effectively.


A bonus! The ninth (and last) post in this series will be on the importance of web 2.0 technologies for online learning. Coming next week at all theatres.



An example of excellent visioning in higher education technology

Following up on my post on Developing vision for teaching with technology, I am pleased to provide an example of how one university has gone about the process of visioning and the results. (Thanks to Anne Moore,  Associate Vice President, Learning Technologies, Virginia Tech, for directing me to this).

Virginia Tech was one of the most effective ‘managers’ of learning technologies in our 11 case studies in our book: ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education.‘ It is not surprising then that they have just developed an exciting new vision, called Invent the Future: VT 2020. VT set up a Task Force whose work was guided by three questions:

  • What should students know and be able to do to actively engage life in the modern world over the course of their lives?
  • What should Virginia Tech’s aims be to enable students to meet their learning needs today?
  • What does Virginia Tech need to do to support students’ learning needs for the foreseeable future?

The Task Force’s web site has a number of sections on

The latter section provides a set of strategies or recommendations that include not only teaching and learning, but also organization and administrative systems. The web site is stuffed full with great ideas and thoughts on what should and could be done in the future.
However, for me what is more important is the process they have followed, which has engaged a wide range of faculty and administrative staff. Although the report has many recommendations, what matters is what’s happened within the brains of those that participated. This will affect all their thinking from now on about the possible ways in which technology might be used for teaching and learning.

Developing vision for teaching with technology

In this blog, I will suggest a methodology for encouraging more innovative uses of technology for teaching and learning.

The problem (as I see it)

In our study of 11 institutions in our book, ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education‘ we concluded:

‘Probably the most serious problem we have identified is the general lack of imagination about the possibilities of technology for meeting the needs of today’s students. We need to move away from the dominant paradigm of the fixed time-and-place classroom (Andrea del Sarto’s ‘silver-grey, placid and perfect art’ in the chapter’s opening quotation) as the default model for university and college teaching, and think of all the other ways we could organize and manage teaching. In particular, we need to think very concretely about what teaching and learning could and should look like in the future. Our reach should exceed our grasp, driven by our assessment of the needs of students in the twenty-first century, and not by the existing institutional requirements that they must fit into.’ (p.218)

We also found that while there were often cases of individual instructors being innovative in their use of technology, this rarely failed to spread beyond that individual’s teaching. In other words our institutions were not supporting ‘bottom-up’ innovation in teaching.

One solution

Well, there isn’t one solution. Different subject areas and different students will have different needs. The goal then should be to establish an ongoing mechanism for encouraging, developing and supporting new ideas about how to teach with technology. The aim is to develop many different ways of teaching with technology, implement them, then evaluate them, in such a way that successful innovations then spread throughout the academic areas where they are most appropriate.

Scenarios as a means to develop visions for the future

We argue in our book that the key locus for developing vision is at the program level: a bachelor’s or master’s program,  a certificate program, etc. The design or plan for a program should be driven by a clear vision about how that program can best be delivered and to which target groups. In particular, the vision should clearly specify not only what students will learn, but how they will learn, and how they will be assessed. The design or plan should also indicate how individual student differences can be handled, and how students will interact not only with the instructor but also with other students and the external world, for the purposes of learning within the program.

Scenarios are a way of identifying and clarifying such goals. The purpose of scenarios is to develop a way of identifying future possible academic goals and outcomes that are facilitated by or made possible through the use of technology. We give some examples of possible scenarios in the book, but the value of scenarios is immensely increased when they draw on the imagination of all faculty, instructors and relevant support staff within a program. The process of sitting down and discussing possibilities is as important as the outcome in terms of actual scenarios. It is essentially an educational and knowledge-sharing process.

I set out below one methodology I have used to develop scenarios as part of program planning. There are other ways to get faculty to think creatively about teaching and learning, but I have used this method in several institutions and found it to work well under the right conditions. The best time to do this is at the start of the planning of a new program, or after a program review. The organization of the process should ideally be the responsibility of the VP Academic/Provost’s Office, working closely with the Deans.

The process for developing a vision for mentoring, teaching and learning

  1. Establish small working groups of between 9-12 people, e.g. six to eight instructors, two learning technology/IT staff, and a student representative, within each academic program
  2. Working groups are organized around common areas of interest (e.g. first year students, topic areas, or ‘streams’ within a program) reflecting overall opportunities and challenges.
  3. The dean or head of department should prepare a general comprehensive environmental scan/situation analysis beforehand (probably developed for the strategic and/or academic plan) which is made available to each group. In addition though, each group should spend 60-90 minutes brainstorming strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to their particular area.
  4. 3-4 short presentations (10-15 minutes) of innovative teaching with technology to program faculty and support staff by carefully selected presenters from outside the area (from other similar departments either within or from outside the institution). These presentations should provide examples of successful initiatives that are relevant to the group (i.e. related to the academic areas likely to be covered by the program). Ideally a series of these presentations would be presented to the groups over a period of time before scenario building.
  5. An intensive, one day workshop to build the scenario (including free lunch).
  6. Each group has a chair and reporter.
  7. Each group brainstorms to reach consensus without compromise.
  8. Each group completes a scenario by the end of  the workshop.
  9. Within one week, chair and reporter from each group meet to develop integrated scenarios for the whole program. This group has the task of providing a coherent, intellectually consistent set of scenarios for the program as a whole.
  10. Scenarios go to the whole program team for endorsement and possible amendment by vote
  11. Once endorsed, the scenarios drive the design, development and implementation of the program.

Criteria for successful scenario building

The following are guidelines to building successful scenarios and visions for the future

  1. A comprehensive environmental scan/situation analysis is done beforehand, with common agreement from all participants on opportunities and challenges.
  2. Scenarios should be developed that give stakeholders what they really want or would like – no compromises
  3. Must be creative and ambitious – a significant step forward from the current situation
  4. The scenarios must be written in concrete terms, describing where and how learners are studying and what tools they are using
  5. All key stakeholders are involved
  6. Start from where you are and build on strengths
  7. Scenarios if implemented would remove or deal with generally accepted weaknesses or shortcomings in the institution
  8. First steps towards implementing the vision can begin immediately
  9. 75%-100% achievable within a five year time frame
  10. There is a planning process that focuses on implementation of the vision
  11. Cost is NOT a consideration until the implementation stage (but see (9)).

Integrating scenarios into planning and operational processes

As well as helping develop specific programs, such scenario building is also immensely useful for budget and technology planning. Such scenarios when completed indicate clear directions and goals for the use of technology across the institution.

For this to happen though there needs to be in place an integrated planning process that links strategic, academic, technology and budget planning together. Budget considerations may cause program plans to be modified or delay the implementation of some elements of the scenarios. However, institutional planners can make decisions for priority funding based on the most innovative or dynamic scenarios and program plans, the ones that seem to best meet the institution’s and departmental goals and priorities. Scenarios provide concrete examples of what a program will do, and allows decision-makers to go beyond abstract terms to concrete realities.


This is not an easy exercise. Faculty are not used to thinking beyond the constraints of the current context in which they work (essential for creative scenario development). In universities, it requires patience and numerous examples to move faculty from abstract concepts to hard concrete examples. Many faculty have been badly burned in the past when trying to innovate on an individual basis, so there is often a deep cynicism about such ‘blue sky’ thinking and particularly the institution’s capacity to support innovative ideas about teaching and learning. Institutional leadership and support for the process is absolutely critical, as is the input of learning technology and IT support staff.

However, I believe it is essential to step back from the here and now, to move beyond adding the odd new tool to an LMS, to think about the needs of a very heterogeneous student body, the possibilities that technology allow, and the present and future needs of our students. My experience is that the best research professors are often, once the initial skepticism has been removed, and they are properly introduced to the possibilities of technology, the most imaginative about how their subject could be taught with technology, but they need a motivation and a catalyst for such thinking. Scenarios can provide such a catalyst, so long as they are an integrated part of institutional program planning and implementation, and the process is fully supported by institutional leaders.


For a video that resulted from scenario building, see:

Learning Technologies @ UBC, 2005 (8 mins)
A vision for teaching and learning with technology in higher education
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Note that this video was made in 2000, and was used to support a report that resulted in a number of strategic directions for the use of learning technologies at UBC.

How useful is strategic planning for e-learning?

I’ve just completed the first draft of a chapter for a book on integrating technology in post-secondary educational institutions that I am writing with Albert Sangra, of the Open University of Catalonia. The book is based on 11 case studies, five in North America and six in Europe.

One of the things we looked at is the use of strategic planning and its value for e-learning. Here are my preliminary conclusions (Albert may have other views on this):

First it was clear that technology integration is more likely to occur in those institutions that have a flexible institutional plan in which the strategic importance of technology is recognized. This is particularly important for ensuring that the financial implications of technology integration are understood and acted on, as well as for communicating the importance of technology integration to all key staff.

Second, and in our view, most importantly, successful planning requires the development of compelling visions and goals for the use of technology within institutions. Too often in the case studies, vision was limited to supporting current administrative processes and classroom teaching methods, rather than using technology to lever radical change directed at new and better learning outcomes, greater flexibility for students, and increased cost efficiencies that are measurable through a formal process of evaluation.

Third, integration and innovation are more likely to occur when there is a process to draw faculty and instructors into the visioning and strategic thinking around the role of technology for teaching and learning. The same applies to staff within administrative areas for administrative applications of technology.

Fourth, for successful technology integration, an institutional strategy must be fully supported by all members of the executive team, and that support needs to be continued over a considerable period, including changes in executive teams.  Some of the most successful institutions in integrating technology had consistent strategies and key people in senior administration in place for many years. Other less successful institutions in the case studies often suffered from a lack of shared vision at the executive level, or continual changes in directions or key personnel.

Fifth, technology planning should be an ongoing process. New developments in technology with profound implications for teaching, research and administration, and pressures on institutions from changing economic and social contexts that could be addressed to some extent through the intelligent application of technology, are likely to continue well into the future.  Thus the need for ongoing technology planning is not going to go away, and should remain a feature of future institutional planning.

Lastly, once strategic direction is set for technology integration, a process needs to be put in place to create and maintain an environment that supports and encourages the integration of technology. An individual or group needs to be mandated to manage this process.

However, more important than strategic planning was strategic thinking about the way technology could transform the organization. This means focusing on:

  • the learning outcomes that are required in a knowledge-based society and how technology can help develop such outcomes,
  • developing competencies in the use of information and communications technologies within specific areas of study,
  • more flexible delivery of programs to accommodate a more heterogeneous student body,
  • the redesign of courses and programs to integrate technology better,
  • better services to students, and
  • greater efficiencies in both teaching and administration (namely, better outcomes at less cost).

Unfortunately, we found little evidence of this level of thinking in most of the case studies, the emphasis instead being on improving ‘business as usual.’

How does this fit with your experience? Does your institution have an institutional plan that includes the use of technology as a strategic direction? Has this helped the institution? Is strategic planning just a pointless waste of time? Your views, please!