Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Future of Online Universities

Athabasca University (AU), my alma mater, is in dispute with government. This is not a new dispute, and not one confined to Canada. It is about the nature, and future, of universities. AU wants to be virtual, with staff working online from wherever they are, but the Government of Alberta wants staff to live in the town of Athabasca, where the campus is. AU is an online university, so it makes sense to give the staff, as well as the students, the flexibility to work from wherever they want. On the other hand, the Government is funding the university for the benifit of its citizens, particularly those outside cities, in regional areas. Both sides have reasonable points, and this is a dispute not unique to AU, nor new.

Australia has a similar university to AU, which has also had difficulties with government. The University of New England (UNE), is located in the inland Australian city of Armidale. UNE was a pioneer of distance education, providing some of the model for the UK Open University. UNE made the transition to online learning, and has attempted several innovations to suit this environment. However, UNE keeps running up against federal government regulations designed for conventional campus based institutions, and the norms this sets.

Speculation over the future of AU is not new, and there was press speculation of a merger with a conventional Alberta university back in 2013, when I was a student. There was also speculation about moving to a larger city. I asked my tutor at the time, as any student worries that there will not be a university for them to graduate from. The tutor wisely said that this is a perennial issue and not to worry. But the current dispute, seems more heated, and political.

As Robert Pirsig wrote:
 "...the real university exists not as the physical campus, but as a body of reason within the minds of students and teachers ..."

From Chapter 13, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, 2006
My studies at AU were to explore this idea. By 2016 there were millions of graduates from online universities. However, this was still seen as not the mainstream. This was despite decades of research showing online universities produced good graduates, and the techniques for teaching them being refined. In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic, all universities suddenly became online universities. Unfortunately, there was not time to train all university academics in how to teach online. Also some academics were unwilling to accept that teaching online was a well developed field they could learn from. 

The Government of Alberta appears to be acting like academics of the pre-Internet age. The backed a university in a small regional town, to help that town, so they want the university to make its staff live in the town. However, university education doesn't work like that any more. The Government can choose to impose that restriction, and cripple the university, or choose to compromise.

There are dangers both for government and university in this dispute. Students will be reluctant to enroll in an institution which might be sent broke by the government which accredits it. Staff may also simply not apply for jobs at AU, if they may be later required to move to Athabasca. The Government of Alberta needs to be seen to be applying a clear policy on regional development, or face allegations of political pork barreling. Perhaps it is time for the parties to reach a compromise: AU will retain a campus and some academic staff, but will be free to have most academic and teaching staff based elsewhere.

With campus closures due to COVID-19 all universities were suddenly forced to face the implications of the Internet. For years it has been possible to run a university, with most students, and staff, not on a campus. What has held up wider use of this model has been the perception that online education, and work, is inferior. Universities have been able to take the lazy option, promoting their education and research via images of the campus, be it ivy covered stone, or mirrored glass. Now that it has been proven the campus is not important, except for marketing, universities are scrambling to formulate new ways of working. Those institutions were built on a model of distance education, such as Athabasca, have an advantage, as they are set up, with trained staff, to prosper in this new world. I suggest the Government of Alberta allow the university to flourish. It is ironic that I selected AU to study the topic of the virtual university, to help Canberra's institutions


  1. Demetrios Nicolaides, the Minister for Advanced Education in the Alberta provincial government is reported to have offered to pay the cost of moving 500 Athabasca University staff to the town of Athabasca. I suggest a rough estimate would be $20,000 for the actual move of each person, plus $15,000 PA area allowance. So that could come to $10M for the initial move, plus $1M per year for new staff to move each year, and $7.5M allowance.

  2. The Alberta Government has apparently softened its stance on employees of Athabasca University living in the town. However, I suggest it would be prudent for the University to publicize plans it has for local development, and if hasn't any to produce some. This could perhaps be part of a study of the issue of education in regional areas more generally, as this issue effects Canada, and countries with similar population distributions, such as Australia (which is why I enrolled at Athabasca). The Alberta Government might like to fund research in this area, with the research unit based in Athabasca.