Friday, June 9, 2017

Athabasca University Review Report

The Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University (Canada), by Dr. Ken Coates, has been released. The seventy page report (1 May 2017) was prepared for AU, and Alberta's Minister for Advanced Education, on the financial viability of the university and options for its future. This is a positive report, suggesting the university has a future and how to ensure it.

As a recent graduate of the university (March 2017), I took a close interest in the review. As part of my degree I  had studied how to design and resource educational programs. I took part in a teleconference with  Dr. Coates and made some suggestions.

Many of the challenges which AU faces are common to regional universities in Australia. These include the extent to which a university can compete with institutions which specialize in vocational education, competition from city based institutions in providing distance education, competition from new forms of on-line education, and the cost of using on-campus full-time permanent staff. The Australian Government commissioned a review into regional, rural and remote education in March 2017 and a review of national vocational education in June 2017. A consolidation of Australian vocational educational institutions is already taking pace and it is likely that this will happen with universities in the next few years.

Dr. Coates recommends:
"AU should rebrand itself as the leading Canadian centre for online learning and twenty-first century educational technology. " (page 26)
I suggest AU could call itself "Canadian Open University". Dr. Coates  comments that AU lacks the ICT for this, which I suggest is overstating the case. AU already makes use of free open source software (such as Mahara, Moodle and OJS). This approach could be expanded in keeping with AU's open ethos by joining open source consortia and involving IT staff and students in development.

Other recommendations:
"1. Open Access: AU should continue, and even expand, its activities associated with population groups that are under-represented in the Albertan and Canadian post-secondary system." (Page 27)
This is something which effected me personally. I had attempted to enroll in a Masters of Education at an Australian university, but was rejected due to not having a bachelor's degree in education. AU accepted my Graduate Certificate in Higher Education and experience as sufficient for entry into their masters program.
"2.  Diversity of the Student Population: While AU has a unique commitment to open access in Alberta, it should continue to take a broad approach to recruitment." (Page 27)
"3. Professional Courses, Diplomas, Undergraduate Degrees and Master’s Programs: AU should continue and expand its efforts to educate lifelong learners and should expand its career-focused and advanced educational opportunities." (Page 27)
Dr. Coates  points out opportunities for programs in business, health, educational technology and service to Indigenous Peoples.
" 4. Deployment of Faculty: While faculty members are critical to the success of a university, the standard disciplinary and faculty-centric approach to professional commitment will constrain an innovative, creative online institution." (Page 28)
This seems more an observation, than a recommendation. As a university, AU can't just shift staff around to meet teaching demand, as these staff need to have a depth of knowledge. What is not discussed is the use of remote part time staff for teaching. Being an on-line university, there is no need for the bulk of the teaching staff to be at Athabasca, or in Canada. Also AU appears to have a very low proportion of casual and part time academic staff (about one third). As a vocationally orientated institution, AU could benefit by making more use of casual and part time academics from the professions. Apart from reducing cost, this would inject current relevant experience.
"5. Mid-Career Retraining: AU has an open-ended opportunity to focus on mid-career retraining and adaptations to the new economy." (Page 28)
Re-skilling professionals is something identified in the UBC Flexible Learning Strategy in 2014. AU is likely to have considerable competition in provided programs in this area. However, its open policy and distance education expertise would provided a competitive advantage.
"6. Pedagogical Innovation: AU has an opportunity to build on its reputation for pedagogical innovation by focusing on the emergence of greater understanding of learning styles and related transformations in pedagogy, educational technology and online learning." (Page 28)
Unfortunately AU does not appear to have benefited from its reputation for pedagogical innovation so far. When looking for a masters of education to undertake AU was one of the three institutions outside Australia I considered, due to its prominence in the education literature. However, outside those who read papers about distance education pedagogy, AU is virtually unknown. There is a risk for AU in pursuing, or being see to be pursuing, every educational fad. Apart from the high cost of initiatives there is the risk of lessing of reputation as a reliable provider. However, some initiatives could be tried.

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