This is an awesome article, and I don’t care whether the story of Loab is real, or invented as an artwork by the artist (Steph Swanson), or whatever. It is a super-creepy, spine-tingling, thought-provoking horror story that works on so many different levels.
The article itself is beautifully written, including an interview with a GPT-3 generated version of Loab “herself”, and some great reporting on some of the many ways that the adjacent possibles of generative AI are unfolding far too fast for us to contemplate the (possibly dystopian) consequences.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/16105843/loab-is-showing-us-the-unimaginable-future-of-artificial-intelligence-abc-news
I have frequently written about the need to decouple learning and credentials, so I love this approach to doing so from Brunel University. It fully decouples learning and credentials by offering ungraded study blocks (in North America the equivalent of courses, in the UK the equivalent of modules) with no summative assessments, followed by integrative assessment blocks, that provide opportunities for students to pull together what they have learned across their various courses/modules in a variety of (mostly) useful integrative learning activities for which marks are awarded. It’s neat, simple, practical, and effective.
The summative assessment load (for students and their professors) is reduced by more than 60%, the quality of those assessments increases (in every way), students feel better prepared for employment (and employers agree), it improves retention figures, teachers can focus on teaching, assessments are more authentic, more engaging, and it massively reduces cheating. The only significant downside that I can see in this is that it is not quite as flexible as a completely modular program – there are a few dependencies and limits on when and how students learn, albeit that these are no worse than in most in-person universities.
I learned about this from Peter Hartley, who mentioned it in a quite inspiring IFNTF talk on assessment yesterday. Amongst other things, Peter highlighted a wide range of issues with modularization (i.e. the standard approach used in many parts of the world of splitting up a program into a set of self-contained courses) and assessment, including, from his slides:
Not assessing programme outcomes.
Atomisation of assessment.
Students and staff failing to see the links/coherence of the programme.
Modules too short for complex learning.
Surface learning and ‘tick-box’ mentality.
Over-standardisation in regulations.
Too much summative assessment and feedback – not enough formative.
While I couldn’t agree more, for the most part, I have mixed feelings about some of Peter’s list of issues. I agree that the traditional 3 or 4 year program(me), in which the course of study is designed to work as a whole, not as a collection of self-contained pieces, is far better for integrating knowledge across a discipline, though I don’t see why it should always take exactly that amount of time to achieve mastery, and I am not even sure whether we should be thinking in terms of disciplines at all. There’s some value in the notion, for sure, and there are some kinds of subject and learning for which it makes sense, but I think a lot of it is down to centuries’ old tradition and post hoc justification rather than careful consideration of fitness for purpose. Also, it seems to me that summative assessment should always be formative, too, so the issue could be partly addressed by simply improving summative assessments, not by scrapping them altogether. However, I think Peter is fundamentally right that, due to modularization, most universities over-assess, that credentials become the reason for learning rather than the measurement of it (with all the very many evils that entails), that the big picture tends to be lost, that there is a ridiculously large administrative burden that results from it, and that learning – the point of the thing after all – consequently suffers. As we and much of the rest of the world start to move towards ever smaller chunks, with associated stackable microcredentials, badges, etc, this is going to be a bigger problem. Brunel’s solution is not the only way, but it is a radically disruptive intervention that that many universities could implement without breaking everything else in the process.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/16012554/brunel-universitys-integrated-programme-assessment-a-neat-way-to-decouple-learning-and-credentials
Title: It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results
Abstract: In an educational system, no teacher ever teaches alone. Students teach themselves and, more often than not, teach one another. Textbook authors and illustrators, designers of open educational resources, creators of curricula, and so on play obvious teaching roles. However, beyond those obvious teachers there are always many others, from legislators to software architects, from professional bodies to furniture manufacturers . All of these teachers matter, not just in what they do but in how they do it: the techniques matter at least as much as the tools and methods. The resulting complex collective teacher is deeply situated and, for any given learner, inherently unpredictable in its effects. In this talk I will provide a theoretical model to explain how these many teachers may work together or in opposition, how educational systems evolve, and the nature of learning technologies. Along the way I will use the model to explain why there is and can be no significant difference between outcomes for online and in-person teaching, why teaching to perceived learning styles research is doomed to fail, why small group tutoring will always (on average) be better than classroom teaching, and why quantitative research methods have little value in educational research.
This is a study from 2016 on the socio-economic contribution of religion to US society, published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. Its baseline estimate, based on revenue of faith-based institutions alone, is greater than the combined revenue of Apple and Microsoft. Its upper-end estimate (making some implausible assumptions about ways faith affects how people live their lives) accounts for around a third of the US economy. The mid-range estimate, that the authors reckon is likely to be the most accurate, suggests its value to US society is well over a trillion dollars, making it equivalent to the 15th largest economy in the world.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/15660010/the-socio-economic-contribution-of-religion-to-american-society-an-empirical-analysis
In fairness, though it is a damning critique of SaaS (software as a service) this is also what is wrong with intellectual property laws but, when the two are mashed together, it results in perfect insanity. Unless your software and all that it relies upon is open, or at least supports fully open standards, something like this is bound to happen. Though this is the most insane example I have yet to see, the results are often far worse – SaaS providers folding, being purchased by others, changing their prices, changing software so that it no longer meets your needs, removing things you rely on, changing privacy terms, moving services to hostile countries, and so on, are the norm, not the exception. Renting locked-in proprietary software on which you rely that lives in the cloud, for which there is no drop-in replacement, for which egress is difficult or impossible, is short-sighted at best.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/15648644/in-a-nutshell-this-is-everything-that-is-wrong-with-the-cloud
Reasons to be Cheerful is among my first ports of call for news most mornings because I hate to start the day on a negative or banal note. The news is mostly good, but it’s never trivial, cute, or frivolous. This article from a few weeks back, Remote Work Is a Chance to Do Something Meaningful, describes how some people are engaging in voluntourism while working their day jobs. Voluntourism is too often perpetrated by a bunch of privileged do-gooders with colonialist, missionary, or white saviourist motives, whose minds are not so much broadened but flattened down to two dimensions by travel (sometimes, there’s only so much mind to go around). However, as long as it is driven and controlled by those receiving help – as described here – rather than by their helpers then it is, on balance, a pretty good reason to be cheerful.
Remote work much more usefully allows people to do more for the communities in which they actually live, and thus to bring their skills, labour, and support to a much broader geographical area than those traditionally served by place-based organizations, with a bit more time to spend doing so, and a lot less environmental damage (this is also, as it happens, one of the benefits of distance learning). Distance working is good for communities everywhere, spreading environmental, social, psychological, and economic benefits equitably across regions. Individuals can move to (or stay in) areas they prefer to live while doing jobs they value, accommodating the the needs of their families, and geoarbitrating so that their money goes further. And this is rapidly becoming the norm. According to a recent Gallup poll in the US, a majority of people whose jobs can be done remotely (around 56%), would be extremely likely to change companies if they were not offered remote working options. Compared with 2019, when only 8% would prefer to exclusively work remotely, 34% would now prefer to do so, and another 60% want hybrid working. Around the world, countries and towns are increasingly competing to try to lure highly paid knowledge workers to their regions, attracting them with flexible visas, cheap accommodation, co-working spaces, tax breaks, communications infrastructure, and so on. In some cases, they are reversing migratory trends that have occurred over decades. Geoabitrage can bring its own problems but, when it is mindfully done, in harmony with what local residents want, it is good for all concerned.
“I think there’s a point to be made about living in the community you serve – though the question here is whether the university serves the 3,000 residents of Athabasca or the 40,000 students connected through telephone wires and internet services.”
Brilliant. Of course. But AU lives in and serves more communities than those of a town and its students. It lives in and serves a community of about 1200 members of staff, scattered around the country (though over 80% live in Alberta). It lives in and serves the broader world-wide research community. It lives in and serves indigenous, rural, and remote communities across Canada. It lives in and serves jails in Ontario, tents in Africa, and military bases in Afghanistan (I’ve had students in all of these). It lives in and serves countless networks, organizations, places, and people all over the world. And AU lives in and serves the places where its staff and their families live, too. We don’t just live in a communications network. All of us live in real places, with real needs, surrounded by real people. This is something to celebrate and to nurture.
But why can the university not also live in and serve a little town in the middle of nowhere?
The economic value of in-person universities
About a millennium ago, the first truly modern universities, in Paris, Bologna, and Oxford, were founded by city burghers with one central goal in mind (not unlike that of the Albertan government today) to bring in money and people who spend it into their cities. 1000 years ago, pretty much the only people who had the leisure and means to afford a higher education were rich, so it was very much in the interests of city leaders to get as many students to live in their cities as possible. To achieve that goal, the city leaders gathered together communities of scholars and resources to support those students, so as to provide the best quality and breadth of teaching available. This led to a virtuous circle whereby scholars attracted students who attracted more scholars, who attracted more scholars and more students, bringing funds for more resources, and so it went on. Everyone was happy. Well, maybe not everyone. Increasingly, students were turned away because many more people wanted to join than could be accommodated in the limited physical space available, a fact that universities turned to their advantage by filtering the intake so that only the best (or richest) got in, increasing their own value while reducing the effort needed to educate their students. And so universities spread.
Students are rarely very rich any more, albeit that lack of money remains a huge obstacle for far too many. In fact, most students are now actually funded by governments to attend universities out of the public pocket because, as universities grew and matured, the benefits to society came to be recognized as far greater than the benefits to the locations in which they were based, and often greater than the benefits to the students themselves. An educated society is a better society and, by and large, a richer one. Place-based universities do, however, still bring a lot of prosperity to the towns and cities that host them. Though rarely spending much (individually), all students need food, accommodation, and entertainment, not to mention a host of other services like bookshops, IT equipment, proof-reading services, and so on. Because such universities are necessarily selective, most students are smarter than average. This is particularly good for host locations, because graduates often stick around to join or to start up businesses in the area, and students often fill part-time jobs with smart, willing workers. Sometimes, those companies are offshoots or partners of the university. University campuses still attract skilled scholars, drawn by facilities and the chance to work with fellow scholars, as well as to teach students. The concentrations of academics and resources attract visiting scholars, too, which provides further incentives for faculty to hang around, and supports the travel and tourism industry. The vehicles that tend to fill university car parks help keep local gas stations, car sellers, and mechanics in business. The space they use up makes property developers and builders happy. Universities are often big local employers of administrators, support workers, care-taking staff, canteen workers, and so on, all needed to support often tens of thousands of staff and students. Universities typically extend their reach into the local community, with everything from evening classes to museums, which bring in revenue and extend the skills of local people. Everything is mutually reinforcing: everyone wins, virtuous circles abound. If you want to boost the fortunes of a region then a place-based university is not a bad investment. It spawns an ecosystem around it that is beneficial for almost everyone.
The economic value of distance universities
But what if a university has no students or faculty on its campus? What if the bulk of its facilities exist in the Cloud, and its resources are mostly virtual? At this point, the mutual reinforcement largely breaks down and the basic value proposition no longer applies. Without co-present academics and students, the main way that an online university can directly bring economic prosperity to a physical community is to hire admin, technical, support and professional staff to work there in person. There is virtually no virtuous circle in this at all. Such staff don’t attract more staff (apart from their families) or students to the area. Without faculty and students to drive outreach initiatives, businesses, and so on, the location doesn’t benefit from all the fringe benefits of having a university situated in it. All it gains is a slight short-term boost in population. Unless it is in a particularly attractive location it may fail to attract sufficient staff, or a greater than average proportion of those that it does attract may be of significantly lower quality than what is required.
From the perspective of the university itself, it makes no sense at all. An online university does have some physical needs (typically things like libraries, archives, labs, mail rooms, and so on) but they are relatively modest, so relatively few staff are needed to support them, and the space for it could be pretty much anywhere, as long as there are decent transport and communications links. Much of the time, such things may be outsourced or shared with other institutions. They don’t even all need to be in one place – in fact, distributed locations make a lot of sense, when students are distributed too, because it makes it easier and cheaper to distribute resources.
Employing any staff who do not need to work on-site costs a lot of money that would be better spent on improving the education of students. Buildings must be maintained, heated/cooled, secured, cleaned, and so on. The costs of supporting remote staff are not insignificant, but they are orders of magnitude lower than supporting a whole campus. Given the fact that all the academics and students are online anyway, it makes much more sense for any staff who don’t need to work on-site to work in their communities, rather than in in-person satellites that are largely disconnected from it. If that’s the case, then there’s no reason those staff should live in one town or city. In fact there are many advantages to the university in actively promoting distance working. Staff can more easily cater for students across the country if they live in the same time zone. Support hours can be extended, both because of time zones and because, with no need for everyone to be in one place at once, more flexible hours are possible. Staff can be hired based on best fit for the job, rather than best of the local bunch (an especially big issue if there is not a large pool of potential applicants, as might be the case in a rural area). Staff with minor non-debilitating ailments are often able to work productively from home when they couldn’t or shouldn’t on a campus. When their families have to move elsewhere, they can keep their jobs, which is good for the university because, quite apart from the direct costs, those staff are nearly all highly skilled, creative, non-fungible knowledge workers, who are weavers of the fabric of the institution, not just threads in some pre-ordained pattern.
So why would a distance university ever want its staff to be together in one place?
It might be (and has been) argued that there are many benefits to working in person, especially in terms of tacit knowledge, relatedness, community, and belongingness. For some kinds of work, without smart technologies and methods, there may be productivity gains. It is sometimes easier to coordinate some kinds of activity when people are physically co-present. The ease and speed of communication, the ability to fill in gaps in rigid processes, the effortless communication of tacit knowledge, and so on, all contribute to making ill-defined soft systems work, and are particularly useful when onboarding new staff. Being able to share a beer or a hug is incredibly valuable for bonding, for motivation, and for going beyond the functional day-to-day roles of working life, and recreation time spent together can very often lead to new ideas, solutions to problems, and greater efficiency in working. Some people are motivated to come to work precisely because they can connect with other people, in person. Some people like to smell other people while they work. We and our technologies have evolved over countless millennia to live and work efficiently together. Online systems that attempt to replicate this are doomed to fail, because they will never be more than crude models, at best, inadequate copies that miss all of the fine detail. More often than not we have to learn significant new skills simply to operate the tools (digital, physical, conceptual, organizational, etc), which can be tricky when, being at a distance, our only means of doing so is through the tools we are trying to learn to use. It is made much worse by the fact that digital tools constantly evolve, so our ability to use them is never in step with their capabilities or interfaces.
However – and it is a huge HOWEVER – if a distance university cannot work out how to deal with those issues for its own staff then it is not going to be much good at dealing with them for its students. In the days of the industrial model of correspondence education, where education was literally provided in a package (sent through the mail), it might have worked as well as can be expected, at least for the relatively few students with the predilection, determination and local support to study alone. But the world has moved on. We did such things because there was no alternative but, now, we can and should do more, and there are plenty of others willing to step in if we don’t. Walking the talk is essential if we are to understand our students’ needs.
Getting online working right – and that includes making effective use of the locations and communities in which people actually live – is therefore the most basic, sine qua non foundation for a modern online university. Unfortunately, groups of people working in-person strongly undermine that foundation, because the in-person team members invariably short-circuit online communication, engaging in conversations and practices that remain invisible to the rest, effectively taking them out of circulation. Proximity bias is brutal, even when remote-first policies are in place and the best online technologies are available to reduce its effects (no, not MS Teams or Zoom!). When a substantial portion of staff work in person, online workers invariably become second-class citizens, dialing in as outsiders. Tacit knowledge, in particular, suffers. The odd small in-person group or occasional larger in-person meet-up is seldom too problematic but, if a persistent in-person community is large or includes particularly significant team members playing a hub or authority role (like, say, executive staff) it will infallibly wreck the online community of which it is a part.
The greater value of distance universities
But, if they are not making much of a direct economic contribution to a region, why would a regional government fund a distance university? Distance and open universities are, like their in-person brethren, means of enriching societies, but their economic benefits are more broadly distributed, and apply a little less directly. Notwithstanding attempts by neoliberal governments to turn them into profit centres and economic drivers, the one central goal that binds every university is to increase knowledge through its creation, its application, and its dissemination. This, in turn, tends to bring economic prosperity in its wake, because societies with more knowledgeable people tend to be safer, more stable, more diverse, and more capable of adapting to change than those with fewer. Some research discoveries can lead to profit-making industries, and some kinds of knowledge can yield direct economic benefits for those who possess them, but the main benefits lie in the knowledge itself. As long as the knowledge has a chance to spread and grow then a society’s people – all it’s people – benefit from this. Unlike trickle-down economics, everyone really does get richer as a result of better education, because knowledge is a non-rivalrous good. My having knowledge increases, rather than eliminates, the chances of you having it. The more who have it, the more widely it spreads, the more everyone gains. It’s a ratchet that lifts everyone up. Distance and open universities are particularly great for this because they get to places that others cannot or will not reach, into parts of societies and locations that traditionally have less access to higher education. Furthermore, instead of siphoning students into already crowded locations far from home, forcing students to leave their own communities, a distance university goes to where its staff and students live, where they work, where there are families and friends around them, all of whom benefit. Everyone wins. It’s a different kind of virtuous circle, that is better for the environment, better for communities, and better for individuals. If the region in question happens to be be extremely large, with highly dispersed communities and a big indigenous population in the least well-connected parts of it, this is extremely good for that region. Yes, I am talking about Alberta.
The future of the town of Athabasca
The Albertan government’s misguided and ill-considered plan to solve the woes of the town of Athabasca by massively and forcibly increasing the number of university workers living there will, if it is implemented, both destroy the university and accelerate the decay of the town. The town’s current woes have nothing at all to do with the university or its near-virtual policies. In fact, it is one of the last major employers in the region to actively support the place. It has never made anyone leave and it has never disadvantaged any of them in its hiring (unless you count hiring from a larger pool where there may be more talented staff available). People have been leaving (often reluctantly) in droves because other local employers – mostly in oil, mining, and forestry – have packed up and gone. University staff’s families have no job prospects and there are inadequate services to support their needs, so they leave because they must. That’s not going to change simply by moving a few hundred more people to the town, and certainly not by forcing the less than 10 people in its executive team to work there. How many single, unattached people, or single-wage families can the university employ, and how many can the town support? What kind of job pool would the university have to call upon? Unless there are more – many more – diverse opportunities in the town to match the demands of AU families, this is ludicrous. There is not even sufficient space in schools for their children. These issues go in spades for the executive team, where getting the best possible people matters most of all. The decay of the town is one of the reasons AU embarked on its near-virtual policy: one of the most notable benefits was that it could continue to support and employ staff members who had to move.
The best hope for the town is, I think, to attract remote workers, but it is not yet ready for them. Right now, there are many parts of the region that don’t even have reliable, affordable, or sufficiently speedy Internet or cellphone coverage. Medical facilities are inadequate, schools are over-crowded and underfunded, public transit to anywhere bigger is non-existent, roads into town are dangerous, and even postal costs are high. Half the high street is shut. The town would need to make enormous improvements to its services, to its transit links, and to its communications infrastructure for it to become a viable option for geoartbitrating workers, voluntourists, or digital nomads. But, given the inevitable and increasing decline of all the industries that have supported it over the last century, attracting such people is its best (and perhaps its only) chance to thrive. Though currently decaying and a little rough around the edges, it’s an attractive little town where property prices are low, kids can safely play on the streets, the natural surroundings are pleasant, and there is a strong sense of community. Though it has the population of a European village, it serves as a hub for the surrounding region so it has more facilities, stores, motels, and leisure options than most towns of its size. It’s the sort of place that many people would like to live, if their economic, health, social, and (above all) working needs could be met. All it needs is better ways to accommodate remote workers. Perhaps, if it (or the Albertan government) fixed those things, it might even attract back a few more of Athabasca University’s own staff.
Students are now using AIs to write essays and assignments for credit, and they are (probably) getting away with it. This particular instance may be fake, but the tools are widely available and it would be bizarre were no one to be using them for this purpose. There are already far too many sites providing stuff like product reviews and news stories (re)written by AIs, and AIs are already being used for academic paper writing. In fact, systems for doing so, like CopyMatic or ArticleGenerator, are now a commodity item. So the next step will be that we will develop AIs to identify the work of other AIs (in fact, that is already a thing, e.g. here and here), and so it will go on, and on, and on.
This kind of thing will usually evade plagiarism checkers with ease, and may frequently fool human markers. For those of us working in educational institutions, I predict that traditionalists will demand that we double down on proctored exams, in a vain attempt to defend a system that is already broken beyond repair. There are better ways to deal with this: getting to know students, making each learning journey (and outputs) unique and personal, offering support for motivated students rather than trying to ‘motivate’ them, and so on. But that is not enough.
I am rather dreading the time when an artificial student takes one of my courses. The systems are probably too slow, quirky, and expensive right now for real-time deep fakes driven by plausible GANs to fool me, at least for synchronous learning, but I think it could already convincingly be done for asynchronous learning, with relatively little supervision. I think my solution might be to respond with an artificial teacher, into which there has been copious research for some decades, and of which there are many existing examples.
To a significant extent, we already have artificial students, and artificial teachers teaching them. How ridiculous is that? How broken is the system that not only allows it but actively promotes it?
These tools are out there, getting better by the day, and it makes sense for all of us to be using them. As they become more and more ubiquitous, just as we accommodated pocket calculators in the teaching of math, so we will need to accommodate these tools in all aspects of our education. If an AI can produce a plausible new painting in any artist’s style (or essay, or book, or piece of music, or video) then what do humans need to learn, apart from how to get the most out of the machines? If an AI can write a better essay than me, why should I bother? If a machine can teach as well as me, why teach?
This is a wake-up call. Soon, if not already, most of the training data for the AIs will be generated by AIs. Unchecked, the result is going to be a set of ever-worse copies of copies, that become what the next generation consumes and learns from, in a vicious spiral that leaves us at best stagnant, at worst something akin to the Eloi in H.G. Wells’s Time Machine. If we don’t want this to happen then it is time for educators to reclaim, to celebrate, and (perhaps a little) to reinvent our humanity. We need, more and more, to think of education as a process of learning to be, not of learning to do, except insofar as the doing contributes to our being. It’s about people, learning to be people, in the presence of and through interaction with other people. It’s about creativity, compassion, and meaning, not the achievement of outcomes a machine could replicate with ease. I think it should always have been this way.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/15164121/so-this-is-a-thing
The staff and students of AU are currently on tenterhooks, awaiting the results of the AU Board of Governors’ briefly postponed deliberations on how it responds to the Albertan government’s demands on AU’s future, so I have (personally) held back a bit on further commenting or adding fuel to the debate over the past couple of days. The contents of this post, though, have already reached the relevant parties, so I don’t think there is a need to delay posting it.
Over coming days, depending on how the situation develops, I may be posting a compilation of some of the comments provided by AU staff in our recent letter to the Albertan minister for advanced education and to our own board of governors. This one comment, however, written in the form of a letter, deserves its own post. It is extremely personal, it is passionately and compellingly written, and it written by someone who loves the town of Athabasca and who cares about its people and its future. Many thanks go to its author, both for writing the letter and for giving me permission to post it in public. It is a brave decision to allow this: they have asked me to withhold their name but they are fully aware that their identity may be obvious to those who know them.
I think it is a brilliant letter that flows from the heart directly to the page. I hope you do to. I am proud and humbled to have this person as my colleague.
As much as possible I have tried to present this almost exactly as written, but I apologize for any mistakes I may have made when converting it from the original PDF.
Subject: Athabasca University
I live and work in Athabasca because I choose to live and work here. I moved to Athabasca in May 2005 from Newfoundland with a 2-year plan to find employment, pay off my student debt and move back to the province where I was born and raised, a province that I dearly love.
My first year in Athabasca I worked at Scotiabank as a Customer Service Representative. In May 2006 I was hired as the Benefits Administrator for Paramount Energy Trust now known as Perpetual Energy Inc. an oil and gas company where I spent 12 years of my professional life. I loved my job however the economic downturn in the oil and gas industry forced Perpetual Energy to downsize resulting in the closure of their Athabasca field office and a decision to liquidate most of their assets in Northern Alberta. In October 2016, Sequoia Resources Corporation acquired Perpetual’s remaining assets in the North as well as some in the Central region of Alberta and as a result my position with Perpetual was terminated and I was hired by Sequoia Resources Corporation which lasted 18 months before the company became insolvent and eventually claimed bankruptcy.
During my 17 years in Athabasca, I have seen significant changes in the local economy. When I moved to Athabasca it was a thriving and prosperous town, with a flourishing economy due to the presence of oil and gas companies. However, in 2007/2008 there was a downturn in the economy and many of the oil and gas companies were forced to restructure, downsize, and implement cost reducing measures to ensure their continued presence in Athabasca. Tough decisions were made, all debt reduction measures were exhausted and many of these companies (directly or indirectly involved with the Oil and Gas Industry) were forced to close their doors and/or file for bankruptcy which negatively impacted the local economy. Following is a list of companies/business and organizations (and their current operating status) that operated in and contribute/d to Athabasca’s prosperity and viability during my 17 years here:
Miller Western – Closed
Aspen View Public Schools
APL – Bankrupt
Husky – Closed
Paramount Energy Trust (now known as Perpetual Energy Inc.) – downsized dramatically; field office closed/majority of Northern Properties sold
Syntech (merged with Tarpon)
Tarpon (acquired by PTW Energy Services)
Pyramid (now known as PTW Energy Services)
IEC – Bankrupt July 2019
Sequoia – Insolvent/Bankrupt Spring 2018
Pioneer Sales & Rentals – recently closed
The downsizing, restructuring and closures of many of these businesses not only affected the employees but as well the local economy.
I understand and respect some of the issues and concerns that the Municipal Governments and the Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University campaign has brought forward. However, one of the arguments that KAAU has regarding the near virtual initiative that I struggle and disagree with is the out migration of AU employees because of the opportunity available to them to work from other locations in the province and beyond. There are people migrating out of Athabasca but not all of them are AU employees, a lot of them are people and families who have depended and thrived on the oil and gas companies, and they are following the salaries that have afforded their families a lifestyle that a lot of the remaining businesses in Athabasca can’t provide or compete with. I know this personally through my involvement with the Oil and Gas industry and my continued relationships with those that worked with me in that industry. Of the sixteen businesses listed above 11 of those were directly or indirectly involved with the oil and gas industry, four of them closed, three of them went bankrupt and three businesses merged into one. I feel like the KAAU group, the town and the county through their campaigning and lobbying are placing the responsibility of Athabasca’s success and survival on one industry/business/corporation and that organization right now is Athabasca University and that is not realistic.
A town/county needs a contingency plan for the long-term. Placing all your eggs in one basket (or relying on one or two industries) will not provide the economic security and stability required for long-term success. Local municipalities need to focus on running their towns/counties like a business and finding ways to diversify and attract new businesses if they want to be viable. A couple of years ago AU put forth a proposal to work with TED, the Athabasca Rotary Club, the Town, County and Chamber of Commerce through an AU Research project on Rural Development and Sustainability to identify and assist Athabasca with achieving this, however these organizations and committees were not receptive and did not embrace the opportunity. If these groups had engaged with AU and combined their talent and resources, the Town would already have a long-term plan promoting the abundant opportunities and amenities of rural living available in Athabasca. Financially, I try to support the local economy as much as possible, but the reality is even people that live in Athabasca do not support the local economy. Many Athabasca residents will travel to the city to get groceries and necessities because prices are lower, and the selection is wider especially for people that have different dietary and lifestyle needs.
I am discouraged and disappointed by all the misinformation and disinformation circulating on social and in print media regarding AU’s intentions/plans relating to the near virtual initiative. The personal attacks and negative comments directed toward coworkers and individuals that I respect is hurtful, everyone is entitled to their opinions, but it is very unprofessional and disrespectful to intentionally tarnish another person’s reputation, integrity, and credibility because you disagree with them. There are diplomatic ways for everyone to have their voices heard and I wish everyone would convey their messages and ask their questions in more professional and respectful manner.
The individuals involved in the Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University Group, as well as the members of the Town of Athabasca & Athabasca County are campaigning and lobbying the government based on their views, but these views are not held by all Athabasca residents or AU employees. I understand and respect their stance on the issue and the goal that they are trying accomplish but as an AU employee, a long-time resident of Athabasca and someone who supports the near virtual initiative, no one from the KAAU advocacy group, the municipal council/s or the UCP Government (including my own member) has ever contacted me or any member of the Team that I work with at AU to ask for our opinions and views on how working virtually has impacted and improved our work-life balance.
The Article published in the Town and Country regarding the Town Hall meeting held at the Athabasca Multiplex on March 24, 2022, whereby the Provincial Government more notably The Premier, Mr. Jason Kenney and The Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides as well as the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Economic Development Nate Horner announced that the Alberta Government was giving Athabasca University a deadline of June 30, 2022, to:
“develop and implement a comprehensive talent development, attraction and retention strategy, by June 30 of this year, to maintain and grow a broad range of employees in Athabasca, and to develop and implement a reopening strategy for the Athabasca campus to resume most employees working onsite, and to allow public access to services like registries, student support and specialized services,” Kenney said.
The most concerning statement for me was “to develop and implement a reopening strategy for the Athabasca campus to resume most employees working onsite”. I am a resident of Athabasca and I choose to live here; I have proven (since March 2020) that my job can be successfully executed virtually from my home office. My work-life balance has improved significantly because I can work from home. If the Provincial Government forces AU and its employees to return to place-based work at the Athabasca campus it will have a negative impact on my work, home life not to mention my mental health and well-being. My Grandmother always told me that it takes a village to raise a child. I never fully understood this until my daughter was born, I don’t have a village (my immediate family lives on the East Coast of Canada) and my husband works outs, so when my daughter is home from school sick working virtually allows me the opportunity to provide her with the care that she needs without lost time from work and it does not infringe on my vacation time, meaning that I do not have to use “our” (as in my family’s) vacation time to care for my sick child. If I were place based at the AU Campus, I would have to use my vacation to care for her which would significantly decrease the amount of vacation available to me if not completely exhaust my allowable annual vacation. Last year alone my daughter was absent from school a total of 26 days due to illness, annually I am entitled to 23 days of vacation. With the 2022-2023 school year fast approaching this is concerning, I am the sole care provider for my daughter and as mentioned above I do not have a village that I can rely on for support when my daughter is sick at home. Therefore, if the 2022-2023 school year produces the same number of absences due to illness as the 2021-2022 school year, I will end up owing AU 3 days for overused vacation. Annual vacation is imperative for Mental Health and Well Being, what do you recommend I do if I have no vacation time for rest and rejuvenation during the year. In addition, lost time from work not only affects me but my entire team which causes an additional array of problems and issues.
I also have some underlying health issues with adverse symptoms that sometimes prevent me from going to the office however working virtually allows me to work in the comfort of my own home managing the symptoms that otherwise I would have to take a sick day for.
COVID has introduced a new reality to many including my immediate family. I have asthma, my husband has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Cancer) and is immunocompromised so cohorts and ensuring that all our contacts are vaccinated is a new part of our reality. As a result, minimizing contact is of the utmost importance as we strive to mitigate the risk of infection and the resulting consequences that it could have on my family.
My workspace at AU isn’t ideal, privacy is limited with five co-workers working in a common space, it is a high traffic area with lots of distractions. Every member of our team has different working habits and routines some people enjoy listening to music while they work, others enjoy using diffusers and essential oils, however when you’re working in an common area you have to be cognizant and respectful of your coworkers some might not like background noise, other people may have allergies and asthma etc. so using diffusers and essential oils is not recommended, which is totally understandable and acceptable. Then there is the issue of trying to regulate the temperature/air conditioning to accommodate everyone which is extremely difficult. Working virtually provides individuals the opportunity to control these variables as each employee has the freedom when working virtually to customize their workspace by implementing mental health and well-being practices that contributes to a peaceful and calm working environment which enhances creativity and productivity.
We are supposed to live in a democratic society where everyone’s voice is heard. However, if AU’s current situation and the COVID Pandemic has taught me anything its that the loudest voices which accounts for approximately 20-25% of the population seems to be the only ones listened to. Their comments and influence carry more weight than the remaining 75-80% of the population which is discouraging and is not in line with the democratic process. Maybe the UCP Government more specifically Demetrios Nicolaides, Minister of Advanced Education and Glenn Van Dijken, Athabasca’s MLA along with the Municipal Council’s and lobby groups should focus on and make more of an effort to contact the front line employees at AU, who are also constituents who will be impacted the most by this decision and take into consideration the positive and negative aspects of the Near Virtual Working Environment and how it has enhanced Work-Life Balance for many employees.
I’m tired of my voice not being heard which is why I decided to compose this letter. I’m tired of being told, I’m tired of the lobbyist/activists, Municipal and Provincial Governments not respecting the voices on the “other side”. I believe some of the asks that the Athabasca Municipal Governments has imposed on AU is unreasonable “500 jobs”? How do the local Municipal Governments and the lobbyists propose on addressing the impending issues associated with a population increase upwards of 1000 people? To my knowledge the town has not provided a contingency plan to the current residents on how they intend to accommodate the influx of an additional 1000 people. Has any consideration been given to the human impact and quality of life? Where will these people be housed? How do the town/county plan to address infrastructure? Is there a plan to recruit and retain new Doctors, there is a shortage here now and as recent as July the Hospital in Boyle had to close their emergency room for a month due to Doctor shortages? What about our schools? Our new high school which was opened in September 2018 has already resorted to using trailers attached to the school.
Mandating employees to return to placed based work is not the solution, I’m confident it will only create more problems. Some of AU’s current employees have already been approached by recruiting companies because of the attention that this issue is getting in the media. It is estimated that upwards of 30% of AU’s current workforce will resign if this mandate is enforced which will significantly diminish our talent pool. I’m not sure if the KAAU members or Local Municipal Governments have contacted Professional recruiters to determine how difficult it is to recruit talent, but that conversation might be worth having.
Today I sent this letter from staff at Athabasca University to the Albertan Advanced Education Minister and Board of Governors of the University, cc’d to various government & opposition politicians in Alberta, and a few selected journalists:
I strongly support the university’s continuing presence in the town of Athabasca, but not the forced relocation of any staff to the area. As an online community, I believe it to be in the interests of all staff and students of the university, including residents of the town of Athabasca, that all university staff who can and who wish to work from home, whatever their role, should be allowed to make that home wherever they choose.
The 149 signatories to the letter included academic staff (46%), managers (12%), administration staff (12%), professional staff (33%), RAs (1%) and tutors/academic experts (7%). 48% live in the region of Edmonton, 19% in the region of Calgary, 15% in rural Alberta outside Athabasca region, 8% in the region of Athabasca, 5% in Ontario, 3% in BC, 1% in Nova Scotia, and 1% in Saskatchewan. A further 3 staff signed the letter anonymously, and a number of others expressed general agreement with the main points made but, for various reasons, chose not to sign. One more signed today, after I had sent the letter.
How this came about
For context, the Government of Alberta has made a number of demands, under threat of withdrawal of funding, that would require 500 additional staff to move to Athabasca (notably including all the executive staff), that would force us to end our near-virtual strategy, and that would require us to change our focus from teaching anyone and everyone to teaching Albertans, with an initial deadline of 2024/25. This is our president’s explanation and response. Perhaps as a result of public outrage, the minister responsible has since claimed the deadlines are negotiable, and suggested that a little flexibility might be allowed (given that the demands are literally impossible to meet), but he has not stepped back on the basic requirements, and has repeatedly emphasized that he will force all of the executive team to work on the Athabasca campus, despite also claiming he will not force anyone to work there, among other contradictions.
I sent an email to an assortment of staff that I know a week ago today, asking them to sign the statement above and pass it along to other staff members. I did not want to use any official channels to send it for fear that it would be seen as being driven by those with partisan positions to defend (none-the-less, I did receive one anonymous comment from someone who did not sign it because they had received it via their boss and assumed it was driven from the top – it was not!). Because of the viral approach to dissemination, I am fairly certain that it failed to reach all AU staff, and the signatories are almost certainly skewed to people I know, and those who know people I know. I suspect that some groups (especially tutors and administrators) are under-represented. I therefore have no way of telling what percentage of recipients actually signed the letter, but those who signed make up around an eighth of the workforce in total. The Board of Governors is required to give a response to the Government of Alberta’s demands tomorrow, August 31st, so I had to pull all of this together hastily, otherwise I am confident that the letter would have gained more signatures.
A brief summary of the comments
As well as signing the letter, I also asked the staff to (optionally) provide comments. I am not going to include the 20 or so pages of these from scores of staff members that I received in full here, though they are full of fantastic ideas, expressions of concern, (sometimes heart-rending) stories, as well as expressions of caring for one another, for their communities, for the university, and for the students they work for. Once they are fully anonymized, I may share them later. However, I will attempt a summary now.
Many – including those living in the Athabasca region – speak of how much they value being able to work from home, and that they would reluctantly seek new employment if that option were not available. For example, one employee writes: I am a resident of Athabasca and I choose to live here; I have proven (since March 2020) that my job can be successfully executed virtually from my home office. My work-life balance has improved significantly because I can work from home.
Even faculty – who would not be required to move – speak of resigning were this to occur.
Some mention the importance of understanding the needs of our students, or express concern about the effects that the disruption caused by this initiative would cause.
Many mention difficulties they would face working at Athabasca. Often, this is due to the needs of their families, especially with regard to job opportunities and health. This is a particularly poignant comment that expresses several of the concerns shared by many: I initially applied for a position with AU because it was in a small community that I wanted to raise my family in. However, my spouse was not able to find work after he was laid off with the decline in oil and gas and my son needed specialized services that the town did not have. Therefore, I applied for an Edmonton position so my spouse could find work to help support the family and my son could access the services he required.
Another, living in Athabasca, writes: If I were place based at the AU Campus, I would have to use my vacation to care for [my sick child] which would significantly decrease the amount of vacation available to me if not completely exhaust my allowable annual vacation.
Another writes: I am struggling with this forced relocation as I will not be forced to relocate away from my children. My husband would be out of a job. We would make a loss on our home if we were forced to sell to relocate. I have been going through cancer treatment and my oncologist and medical Team are located in Edmonton and I would jeopardize my health moving away from my health care team.
Some express the concern that AU would suffer from a hugely diminished job pool. For example: Allowing work from home and not forcing employees to relocate to another province means retaining staff, retaining expertise, widening the applicant pool so as to entice top talent across Canada, and positions AU as a leading employer. AU students can take courses anywhere in the world — AU staff should be able to work from anywhere in Canada.
Others observe the need for big improvements to infrastructure, services, and transport links for the town to accommodate greater numbers, though a couple suggest they might accept incentives to move there. Quite a few think that it would do active harm to the town were substantial numbers to relocate. As one staff member puts it: Placing all your eggs in one basket (or relying on one or two industries) will not provide the economic security and stability required for long-term success.
Several explicitly draw attention to the point made in the letter that the executive team should not have to live there.
Some ask that the government should stop interfering with the operations of the university. Many would like to be more involved in conversations being held privately between the Board of Governors and the Government of Alberta, asking for their voices to be heard by all parties in the dispute.
Some challenge the notion that AU should be required to bear the burden of supporting the town. For example, one writes: AU is one of Alberta’s four CARUs and as such, its mandate should be about education and research, not about economic development of a region. No other company or university has such mandate or responsibility.
Some provide suggestions for ways we can expand on what we are already doing to provide services to the region, and to take more advantage of our unique location for research: there are many good suggestions and reports of existing initiatives among the comments, such as this: FST is home to Science Outreach Athabasca which is an organization supported by faculty and members of the town of Athabasca that has been engaging the community of Athabasca for 20 years and hosted over 120 public talks, science camps, nature hikes, butterfly counts, and other activities. We also host lab sessions for junior high and high school students in Athabasca schools which our faculty volunteer to do. Our research activity in FST has been growing in environmental science and computational biology with three research chairs and recruitments of new faculty to increase our capacity in remediation, long-term monitoring, aquatic systems, rural sustainability, and regenerative design, to name a few.
A few express concern with intimidation they have faced when attempting to voice opinions not held by those with louder voices and political positions to defend. Though mostly not included in the comments, personal messages to me expressed relief and gratitude at being allowed to express opinions they were afraid to share with colleagues and town residents, because of fears of reprisal or ostracization. One, that is included, put it well: I’m tired of my voice not being heard which is why I decided to compose this letter. I’m tired of being told, I’m tired of the lobbyist/activists, Municipal and Provincial Governments not respecting the voices on the “other side”
This is the comment I received after sending the letter today, that is quite representative of several others:
Athabasca University is an online university and has been operating efficiently with the work from home environment and I believe will continue to do so with the a near virtual environment. I support the near virtual initiative.
The full range of comments is far richer, far more nuanced, and far more varied than what I have been able to summarize here and I apologize to the many dozens of people who provided them for not doing them as much justice as they deserve.
I hope that the recipients read and act on the letter. At the very least, they will have a far better idea of the needs, concerns, and feelings of a significant portion of AU staff than they had before, and I hope that will colour their judgment.
Thank you, everyone who signed, and thank you to all who will read it. I will be circulating the full letter and addendum to as many of those who signed it as possible over the next day or two.
I’ve said this before but it needs more emphasis. In the past week or so it has become increasingly clear that the real agenda of the Albertan government is not (directly) to forcibly move 500 unwilling AU staff to the town of Athabasca. That’s just smoke and mirrors intended to distract us from the real agenda, which is to oust the current (brilliant, visionary, capable) executive team – most of whom will resign rather than relocate to Athabasca – and then to replace them with lackeys who will (quietly, out of the public eye) do the government’s dirty work for them. This has been made very explicit by the minister for post secondary education over several months, saying, for instance:
“When it comes to the non-instructional staff, particularly the senior administrative and executive management positions, those should indeed be based in the town” (Town & Country Today, May 2022)
The government has already installed a chair of the board of governors (ironically, a Calgary-based lawyer) who is explicitly on their side, as well as board members from the town of Athabasca. All they need to do now is to replace our leaders with people they can control, and the job is done.
This is the real threat. This is the real plan. This is what will destroy us.
Firstly, the chances of getting a great executive team will be very slim if they have to live in Athabasca. On average, our past hires in the town have been mediocre at best though, admittedly, this is skewed by some who have been outstandingly awful. On average, acknowledging the odd high spot here and there, the remainder have been pretty average. The executive team is, more than everyone else, the group of employees that has the biggest effect on the university, its vision, its teaching, and its success. More than anyone else, they must be the best. Everyone accepts this when it comes to faculty and tutors, so why not for the exec team that matters more?
Secondly, whether they are lackeys or simply those who are less capable of resistance than our current team, they will push through the agenda that has been causing so much bad press of late. It will take a bit longer to move 500 people than the two years required in the minister’s recent letter to the board, and maybe it will ‘only’ wind up being a few hundred people, but it will happen, without the adverse press headlines and multiple channels of resistance.
Thirdly – and ultimately perhaps the most damagingly – the executives who live in the town will inevitably pay more attention to those physically surrounding them. These will never include faculty and tutors (everyone agrees on that, even the minister) so we will slide back into the admin-driven mire that messed up many things over the last few decades, and from which we have only been emerging for the last 5 years.
As a result, we will fade into obscurity, if we survive at all.
Our nascent but emerging online, inclusive community that has struggled to grow over the past 5 years, despite resistance from those who love their comfortably complacent old ways, will once again shrivel to an irrelevance, crowded out by the in-person short-circuits. Faculty and tutors will again be isolated from administrators and professional staff, whose stronger influence will determine most of our policies. Faculty – the ones doing the teaching and research – will again be the ones ‘calling in’ to in-person meetings, inevitably less significant and with a smaller voice than those attending meetings in person. Online communication will revert to being instrumental, focused, and bland. Tacit knowledge will fail to spread, except among those working in person.
The systems, approaches and vision that have driven us for the last 5 years, most notably the near-virtual policy, that could and should lead us to expand in all good ways (pedagogically, geographically, demographically, digitally, in community, in quality, in belongingness, in numbers, and more) will be wiped off the map.
Ironically, the brighter future of the town of Athabasca itself – that, right now, involves us in repurposing and redeveloping our physical headquarters to be so much more than an admin centre, that is focused on developing the region, doing research, engaging with local partners, and upping the skills, knowledge, and significance of the community – will fade, as our campus once again slips back into being little more than a bunch of offices for administrators. Without diversity or investment in its infrastructure or transit options to it, there will not be jobs for the families of those required to work there. It will continue its long slide into decay. The university itself will diminish in numbers and relevance, so those who have moved there will lose jobs, with nowhere else to go.
All of this will occur thanks, ultimately, to the scheming and machinations of one minority faction of workers in Athabasca that instigated the political lobbying in the first place, that cares more about the short-term future of a small town of less than 3000 people than for our 40,000 students and the future of education in this country. Those who have led the attack have never even acknowledged this conflict of interest.
It is a far harder sell to start a movement to resist the relocation of less than 10 executive staff – whose popularity is far from universal, thanks to the huge disruptive changes they have spearheaded, the least popular of which have been (you guessed it) driven by the Albertan government – than to resist the uprooting of everyone else apart from faculty and tutors, but this is the real battleground. This is the fight that we must not lose.
Keep Athabasca University’s leaders out of the town of Athabasca!
Wherever you live, please make your views known by contacting the Minister, Demetrios Nicolaides, at email@example.com, or comment on social media, by tagging @demetriosnAB on Twitter, #abpse, #abpoli. Blog about it, write to the press about it, lobby outside the gates of the Albertan legislature, tell your friends, whatever: make a fuss.