I am pleased to announce my latest paper, published openly in the Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, which has long been one of my favourite distance and ed tech journals.
The paper starts with an abbreviated argument about the technological nature of education drawn from my forthcoming book, How Education Works, zooming in on the distributed teaching aspect of that, leading to a conclusion that the notion of “distance” as a measure of the relationship between a learner and their teacher/institution is not very useful when there might be countless teachers at countless distances involved.
I go on to explore a number of alternative ways we might conceptualize distance, some familiar, some less so, not so much because I think they are any better than (say) transactional distance, but to draw attention to the complexity, fuzziness, and fragility of the concept. However, I find some of them quite appealing: I am particularly pleased with the idea of inverting the various presences in the Community of Inquiry model (and extensions of it). Teaching, cognitive, and social (and emotional and agency) distances and presences essentially measure the same things in the same way, but the shift in perspective subtly changes the narratives we might build around them. I could probably write a paper on each kind of distance I provide, but each gets a paragraph or two because what it is all leading towards is an idea that I think has some more useful legs: technological distance.
I’m still developing this idea, and have just submitted another paper that tries to unpack it a bit more, so don’t expect something fully-formed just yet – I welcome discussion and debate on its value, meaning, and usefulness. Basically, technological distance is a measure of the gaps left between the technologies (including cognitive tools in learners’ own minds, what teachers orchestrate, textbooks, digital tools, etc, etc) that the learner has to fill in order to learn something. This is not just about the subject matter – it’s about the mill (how we learn) well as the grist (what we learn). There are lots of ways to reduce that distance, many of which are good for learning, but some of which undermine it by effectively providing what Dave Cormier delightfully describes as autotune for knowledge. The technologies provide the knowledge so learners don’t have to engage with or connect it themselves. This is not always a bad thing – architects may not need drafting skills, for instance, if they are going to only ever use CAD, memorization of facts easily discovered might not always be essential, and we will most likely see ubiquitous generative AI as part of our toolset now and in the future, for instance – but choosing what to learn is one reason teachers (who/whatever they are) can be useful. Effective teaching is about making the right things soft so the process itself teaches. However, as what needs to be soft is different for every person on the planet, we need to make learning (of ourselves or others) visible in order to know that. It’s not science – it’s technology. That means that invention, surprise, creativity, passion, and many other situated things matter.
My paper is nicely juxtaposed in the journal with one from Simon Paul Atkinson, which addresses definitions of “open”, “distance” and “flexible” that, funnily enough, was my first idea for a topic when I was invited to submit my paper. If you read both, I think you’ll see that Simon and I might see the issue quite differently, but his is a fine paper making some excellent points.
The “distance” in “distance learning”, however it is defined, normally refers to a gap between a learner and their teacher(s), typically in a formal context. In this paper I take a slightly different view. The paper begins with an argument that teaching is fundamentally a technological process. It is, though, a vastly complex, massively distributed technology in which the most important parts are enacted idiosyncratically by vast numbers of people, both present and distant in time and space, who not only use technologies but also participate creatively in their enactment. Through the techniques we use we are co-participants in not just technologies but the learning of ourselves and others, and hence in the collective intelligence of those around us and, ultimately, that of our species. We are all teachers. There is therefore not one distance between learner and teacher in any act of deliberate learning— but many. I go on to speculate on alternative ways of understanding distance in terms of the physical, temporal, structural, agency, social, emotional, cognitive, cultural, pedagogical, and technological gaps that may exist between learners and their many teachers. And I conclude with some broad suggestions about ways to reduce these many distances.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/17293757/my-latest-paper-technology-teaching-and-the-many-distances-of-distance-learning-journal-of-open-flexible-and-distance-learning
The undergraduate students union, Canadian Union of Public Employees, and Athabasca University professional and faculty association have now all come out with strongly worded public statements protesting the recent firing of Peter Scott and the process used to pick and hire the new president of AU. Here they are:
We may never know for certain whether this is not an outrageous lie. Perhaps the minister had amnesia, or was drugged; perhaps space aliens took the minister’s form to approach the board chair; maybe it was Russians using technology to imitate his voice on the phone; maybe he is a pawn in someone else’s game, some shady figure who is really calling all the shots; perhaps his mind has decayed to the point that he was entirely unconscious of his influence; maybe he just muttered “who will rid me of this troublesome president” under his breath without realizing he was within earshot of Byron Nelson. We may never know.
However, the fact that he fired the incumbents then hired a board chair and board majority composed entirely of his friends and cronies, only one of whom knew the faintest thing about education, clashed publicly with Peter Scott, and threatened the university with bankruptcy if his demands were not met casts a small shadow of doubt over not just the truthfulness but even the truthiness of his statement. On the other hand, politicians never lie, so there’s that.
Mr. Nelson conceded not all governors had registered their vote before the outcome was determined. “The way that this was conducted, while legal, I would acknowledge was not best practices,” said Mr. Nelson, who is a lawyer. “It wasn’t best practices and it couldn’t be best practices.” The process was less than ideal because the situation was “unique” and required an “extreme amount of confidentiality,” Mr. Nelson said.
Why? Seriously, why? Nelson quite accurately claims:
“This was not a close vote,” he said. “It was the overwhelming decision of the board.”
It probably was an overwhelming decision, given the fact that Nicolaides’s appointed cronies overwhelm the board, and that they were effectively the only ones voting. The rest of the board – representatives of faculty, tutors and students – did not have a chance to vote, and at least a portion of the couple who did vote, at least weeks after the new president had been recruited and on the day of the firing, were forced to abstain because of the complete lack of consultation or explanation.
Back to Nicolaides:
Demetrios Nicolaides, Alberta’s Advanced Education Minister, said in a statement said it was his understanding that bylaws were followed, but any board members who feel the rules were breached should raise the issue with the chair.
“I’m confident if there are any issues that the board can adequately resolve them.”
One has to wonder where this non-interfering politician gets his confidence. Perhaps he has been consulting with a lawyer.
I, like many staff and students, have been deeply shaken and outraged by recent events at Athabasca University. This is a petition by me and Simon Buckingham Shum, of the University of Technology Sydney, Australia to protest the blatant interference by the Albertan government in the affairs of AU over the past year, that culminated in the firing of its president, Professor Peter Scott, without reason or notice. Even prior to this, the actions of the Albertan government had been described by Glen Jones (Professor of Higher Education, University of Toronto) as: “the most egregious political interference in a public university in Canada in more than 100 years” This was an assault on our university, an assault on the very notion of a public university, and it sets a disturbing precedent that cannot stand unopposed.
We invite you to view this brief summary, and consider signing this petition to signal your concern. Please feel more than free to pass this on to anyone and everyone – it is an international petition that has already been signed by many, both within and beyond the AU community.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/17102318/petition-%C2%B7-athabasca-university-oppose-direct-political-interference-in-universities-%C2%B7-changeorg
You may have heard that the president of Athabasca University, Peter Scott, was replaced yesterday with Alex Clark, erstwhile Dean of the Faculty of Health Disciplines at AU.
This was a complete surprise to everyone at AU (apart from Alex), very much including Peter. None of the members of the executive team, including the provost, knew of it in advance. I gather that the secret was kept even from academic members of the Board of Governors: it was, it seems, presented to them as a done deal, on the day it happened. From the reactions I saw when it was announced, student board members may not even have known about it until that point. It was therefore – presumably – voted on in secret by the unholy cabal of governors who were appointed by the minister of advanced education last year, after the rest were sacked or forced to resign, and who make up the majority of the board. Essentially, Minister Nicolaides just fired our president.
The same seems to be true for the hiring of our new president. Although Alex had been a strong candidate when Peter got the job, and he is well qualified for the role, there are some serious questions to be asked about the appointment process, in which it appears that none of those voting had any involvement in the original appointment, no one asked the opinions of academics on the original hiring committee, and no one even asked the opinions of the academics on the board itself. This, like Peter’s dismissal, can only be seen as a political hire. And it is not an interim appointment, unlike that of his successor as Dean of FHD.
Peter was fired over the phone (ironic that this was done virtually by those who oppose our virtual strategy) without notice or explanation. The timing of his firing, a few days after an agreement was signed that, despite the Albertan government’s best efforts, has largely been seen by the press as a win for Peter (it was a loss, but a manageable loss), seems hardly coincidental. When all else failed, they stabbed him in the back when he was as down as anyone could be. Peter had in fact been away thanks to the sudden death of his wife, that occurred very shortly after her diagnosis with cancer at the end of last year. She had been buried abroad, 8 working days before he was fired. It is hard to imagine how he is feeling right now, but tears well up just thinking about it. All of this was well known to the board and to the minister. The moment was chosen with intent and malice. This was monstrous in the extreme.
It should have been so very different.
When Peter came to AU, not much more than a year ago, I cried tears of happiness. This was the leader we needed at the time we needed him: a brilliant, dynamic, imaginative, compassionate, principled man who had played a key role as a leader in transforming not just his prior institutions but the field of online and distance learning itself. Now, I cry tears of anger, outrage, and sadness. Peter could have transformed the university into something magnificent, and I believe he would have done so were it not for the utterly outrageous behaviour of the Albertan government. They fomented the union unrest into which Peter was thrust from the moment he arrived and then, over the last year, have outrageously and heavy-handedly directly meddled in the university’s affairs, against which Peter rightly and courageously fought. Peter’s assumption was, perhaps, that Alberta was like most of the rest of the world in recognizing academic freedoms, autonomy, and rights as sacrosanct. I don’t think he fully realized, at that point, that Alberta is not like that. It has a philistine government run by corrupt little despots, sponsored by corporations whose main activity is violence against the planet (this applies to most of the board of governors, as it happens). Going up against the Albertan government and, especially, appearing in the eyes of the world to win the fight, is like going up against a particularly nasty, stupid, and vindictive gang of playground bullies. Peter never had a chance to focus on the things he needed to focus on, because he was being pummelled on all sides by thugs the entire time he was with us.
Whatever happens next, AU will not be the university it could have been. The government has forced us to make 15% cuts this year, and we were already too close to the bone, cutting into it in places. We have already lost a good portion of the best executive team ever to lead us and we are very likely to lose more. The government-appointed governors, none of whom have the slightest understanding of our institution, have shown themselves to be nothing but lackeys for a morally bankrupt and abhorrent minister, willing to stop at nothing to achieve ends that have nothing to do with the well-being of the university. The union’s actions, that were deeply divisive and at least partly engineered by the government, continue to divide us. The half-hearted, hasty, and poorly implemented near-virtual plan (that was in progress before Peter’s arrival and that played a major role in the union strife) continues to cause major problems, most notably failing to address communication needs, so dividing us further. Perhaps most challengingly, we are half way through the biggest transformation that has ever occurred in the university’s history, from which we are unable to back away without enormous cost, but with a diminishing number of leaders and champions who can make it happen. Now we have a president who was (at least in part) chosen because of his willingness to live in Athabasca, which is a truly terrible idea about which I have written extensively in the past. I wish him well, but he will face a steep uphill struggle building trust among many of the staff who feel betrayed by the government’s despicable actions and the shady circumstances leading to his being hired, about which speculation is now rife, within and beyond the university. We are all in a state of shock and dismay right now. None of us feel any sense of security. Many of us are talking about leaving or preparing to leave.
For one fleeting moment, as the war with the government seemed to have been more or less resolved towards the end of last year, I felt great hope for the future of the university I have loved this past 15 years. My hopes are greatly diminished today. Nothing can repair all the harm that has been done. Our greatest hope now is that there will be a new government that is willing to help to reverse at least some of the damage. The Albertan elections are not far off. If you live in Alberta, don’t forget what this government has done. You could be next.
And, Peter, if you are reading this: you will be very much missed. I know that I speak on behalf of almost all of us here at AU when I say that our hearts go out to you.
It was a great conference, held entirely online but at least as engaging and with as many opportunities for networking, personal interaction, and community building (including musical and dance sessions) as many that I’ve attended held in person. Kudos to the organizers.
This year’s conference will be held both in Toronto and online, from May 27-June 2. The in-person/blended part of the conference is from May 29-31, the rest is online. The deadline for proposals is January 31st, which is dauntingly close. However, only 250-500 words are needed for a research-oriented or practice-oriented proposal. If you wish to publish as well, you can submit a proceeding file (1000-2000 words – or media) now or at any later date. Here’s the link for submissions.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/16754483/proceedings-of-the-opentechnology-in-education-society-and-scholarship-association-conference-2022-and-call-for-proposals-for-this-years-conference-due-january-31
This might be the most important book in the field of open, distance, and digital education to be published this decade. Congratulations to Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Insung Jung, the editors, as well as to all the section editors, for assembling a truly remarkable compendium of pretty much everything anyone would need to know on the subject. It includes chapters written by a very high proportion of the most well-known and influential researchers and practitioners on the planet as well as a few lesser known folk along for the ride like me (I have a couple of chapters, both cowritten with Terry Anderson, who is one of those top researchers). Athabasca University makes a pretty good showing in the list of authors and in works referenced. In keeping with the subject matter, it is published by Springer as an open access volume, but even the hardcover version is remarkably good value (US$60) for something of this size.
The book is divided into six broad sections (plus an introduction), each of which is a decent book in itself, covering the following topics:
History, Theory and Research,
Global Perspectives and Internationalization,
Organization, Leadership and Change,
Infrastructure, Quality Assurance and Support Systems,
Learners, Teachers, Media and Technology, and
Design, Delivery, and Assessment
There’s no way I’m likely to read all of its 1400+ pages in the near future, but there is so much in it from so many remarkable people that it is going to be a point of reference for me for years to come. I’m really going to enjoy dipping into this.
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.
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.
My heart briefly leapt to my throat when I saw Thursday’s Globe & Mail headline that the Albertan government had (allegedly) dropped its insane plan to force Athabasca University to move 65% of its workforce to the town of Athabasca. It seemed that way, given that the minister for post secondary education was referring to his demands and accompanying threat as only a ‘suggestion’ (broadly along the lines of Putin’s ‘suggestion’ that Ukraine should be part of Russia, perhaps). However, other reports, have said that he has denied any change in his requirements, albeit that he now claims it is open to negotiation. A ham-fisted negotiation tactic or just plain confused? I hope so, but I doubt it. I think that this is just a ploy to push the real agenda through with little resistance, and largely unnoticed. In the Globe & Mail article, the minister goes on to say “I would indeed like to see, at a bare minimum, senior executives and administrative staff be based in the town, as they have been for the past several decades.” A majority of what might be described as administrative staff do probably live in Athabasca anyway, and there is no reason for any of them to leave, so that’s just gaining a few easy election points from town voters. If the government actually wanted to help the town it would invest in the infrastructure and support needed to allow it to thrive, which it has signally failed to do for several decades, at least. No, his main target is clearly the senior executives: basically, he and the UCP want to put a team of executive lackeys in charge so that they can push their agenda through unopposed by anyone they care about. They have already sacked the incumbent and installed a chair of the board of governors who will do their bidding, and they have increased representation on the board from the town of Athabasca so this is the obvious next step. The execs won’t have to be fired. If they are required to move to Athabasca, most of what is probably the best executive team ever assembled in this or any other Albertan university will resign. Whoever replaces them will do the UCP’s dirty work, largely free from media oversight. Job done, bad press averted.
The UCP will, I am very sad to say, appear to have support from our own professional and faculty union (AUFA), even though most of us will, whether weakly or strongly, oppose it. This is because AUFA has a small but disproportionately powerful caucus in Athabasca, members of which have been deeply involved with an activist group called KAAU (Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University), who actually paid an insider lobbyist to start this fracas in the first place. Seriously. A casual observer might perceive at least a portion of the union’s leadership as putting the interests of the town ahead of the interests of the university. At best, their loyalties appear to be divided. The evidence for this is all too apparent in press statements and blog posts on the subject. Though most of us (including me) support the continuing presence of AU in Athabasca, these posts do not represent the views of most of those in the union, only those in charge of it. Only around 20% or thereabouts of AUFA members actually live in Athabasca, a percentage that has steadily fallen over the course of the last two decades, and almost all of those are professional members, not academics. Most members who had the chance to leave over the past 20 years did so. This is a point worth dwelling on.
We shape our buildings…
Athabasca is a tiny, inclement (-40 in Winter, bugs in summer) Northern town over 180km away from the nearest International airport. There is one (private) bus from Edmonton leaving late at night that arrives in town at 2:46am after a 3+ hour journey on a small, treacherous road. When it got too big for its Edmonton home, the university was (disastrously) moved there by a conservative government in 1984, ostensively to fill a gap left by the closure of the town’s main employer, but more likely due to the property interests held there by those behind the plan. About half the faculty resigned rather than work there. Ironically, the first president of AU deliberately named the university after a geographical feature of Alberta (the Athabasca River) precisely to avoid associating it with any city or region, so that local politics wouldn’t interfere with its mission. We might have been named after a mountain were it not that the University of Alberta happened to be demolishing Athabasca Hall (a students’ residence) at the time, so the name was free for us to use. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the town. It is possible that the president who named it was even unaware of the town’s existence or, at least, considered it to be too insignificant to be an issue.
Whatever charms the town may have (and it has a few), Athabasca has been a hobble for AU from the very start. I wrote about this at some length 5 years ago, just as we were on the cusp of making the massive changes we have been implementing ever since, but I would like to focus on two particularly relevant aspects in this post: the effects on the hiring pool, and the short-circuiting of communication with the rest of the university.
Firstly, it is really difficult to attract good employees to the town. Some residents of Athabasca will say that they feel insulted by this, believing that it implies that they are not the best and brightest. This is either disingenuous or a confirmation that they are, in fact, not the best and brightest, because all it means is that we have fewer good people to choose from. There are, of course, some incredibly smart, talented, creative people who live in Athabasca. But, equally, some are not: we have too often had to pick the best of a not-too-great bunch. The more people we expect to live in Athabasca, the bigger the problem of those who are not the best and brightest becomes. The undesirability of the place is confirmed by the KAAU itself, whose biggest complaint – the one that (at least on the face of it) drove their lobbying and union discontent in the first place – is that people have been leaving the town in droves since they were no longer required to stay, which pretty much says all that needs to be said. It is also notable that faculty and tutors are not and have never successfully been required to work in the town in all the university’s history, because it would be impossible to recruit sufficient numbers of sufficient quality, a fact that all parties involved in this (including the minister) acknowledge. We should get the best possible staff for almost every role – we all play some role in our distributed teaching model – but it is true in spades, plus some, for our executive team who, more than anyone else, have to be the most excellent that we can get. Right now, we have the best executive team that has ever been assembled at AU, bar none, and that is only possible because – for the first time ever – none of them have had to live in Athabasca.
…and our buildings shape us
Athabasca has, overwhelmingly, been home for staff that support but that do not directly implement its mission. Historically, these staff (predominantly administrators) have had extremely privileged access to the the leaders of the university compared with the rest of us. Even if they didn’t bump into them socially or in the canteens and halls, they would talk to people that did. And they would be the ones attending meetings in person while the rest of us phoned in or, in latter years, struggled with webmeeting systems that never really worked properly for in-person attendees, despite absurdly expensive equipment designed to support it. Fixing this was never a particularly high priority because those with the power to do so were the ones attending in-person, and it was just fine for them. Inevitably, Athabasca residents had a much better idea of what was going on and who was doing what than anyone else. More problematically, they had far greater influence over it: they didn’t ask for this, but they certainly got it. It is no wonder that they are now peeved, because most of their power, influence, and control over everything has been massively diminished since most of the execs left town. Their perception – voiced on many occasions by the Athabasca-dominated union – that too much has recently been happening without consultation and that there is not enough communication from our leaders is, objectively speaking, completely false: in fact, it is far better than it has ever been, for those of us (the majority of staff) living remotely. They just no longer have a direct line themselves. I think this is the root of most of the union troubles of the last few years, whether consciously or not, and of the current troubles with the Albertan government.
In-person communities short-circuit online communities. I’ve seen it in teaching contexts a thousand times over: it just takes one group to branch off in person to severely damage or destroy a previously successful online community. Without fail, online communication becomes instrumental and intermittent. Tacit knowledge, in particular, disappears (apart from for the in-person group). Researchers like me (and many others at AU, including our president, in some of his former roles) have spent a great deal of time trying to make native online tools, systems, and working/teaching approaches that reduce these effects, but with only limited success. Combining fully online and in-person communities invariably wrecks the online community. Only when it is fully online, or when the online community is just an extension of the in-person community, can it thrive. Without the best of research-driven online tools and processes (most of which are not implemented at AU), hybrids are a disaster, and they are not much improved with even the best we have to offer.
In the past, the problem was partially offset by the fact that we had a few smaller learning centres elsewhere, in St Albert, Edmonton and Calgary (and, formerly, Fort McMurray), that were visited by the execs with varying frequency. However, this created what were, in many ways, bigger problems. It was incredibly inefficient, environmentally damaging, and expensive, wasting a lot of time and energy for all concerned. More significantly, although it helped to keep the exec team to be a little more in touch with others around the university and it helped to fill gaps in online communication for those living near them, it actually exacerbated the problem for our online community, because it created yet more in-person enclaves and cliques that developed independently of one another, sharing very little with the rest. Our business school, for instance, lived an almost entirely separate life from the rest of the university, in its own campus in St Albert (a satellite city attached to Edmonton), running its own largely independent communications and IT infrastructure but frequently meeting in person. As a result, we never developed the kind of unified online culture needed to sustain us.
Even more importantly, few of those with the power to change it ever learned what remote working was like for our students, so we didn’t create that online culture or community for them, either. Because of the inequalities that ensued, those of us who did know what it was like were not able to adequately influence the rest (especially the executive team) to get something done about it, because we were crowded out by the clamour of local communities. It’s not that the problem was unrecognized: it’s just that immediate operational concerns of in-person employees always came first. This was – and remains – a huge mistake. Too few of our students feel they belong, too few barely if ever interact with another student, too few see anything of the university beyond the materials provided for the courses they take. We have some excellent teaching processes, but processes (even the best) are only a part of what makes for a rewarding education. Yes, we do have plentiful support of all kinds, teaching approaches that should (for some but not all faculties) provide opportunities to develop relationships with human tutors, and the occasional opportunity to engage more broadly (mainly through the Landing), but many students completely bypass all of that. The need for it is beyond obvious, as evidenced by large number of Discords, Facebook Groups, Subreddits, and so on that they set up themselves to support one another. However, these are just more isolated enclaves, more subcultures, more virtual islands, without a single unifying culture to knit them together.
Online communication at AU has, as a direct result of its physical campuses, always tended to be extremely instrumental and terse, if it happened at all. When I arrived 15 years ago, most of my colleagues hardly ever communicated online with colleagues outside of a formal, intentional context. Those of us who did were yet another little clique. Emails (which were and remain the most commonly used tech) were only sent if there were a purpose, and most of the tacit knowledge, that more than anything else makes a traditional institution work despite its typically dire organization, was absent. In its place the university developed a very rigid, unforgiving, impersonal set of procedures for pretty much everything, including our teaching. If there was no procedure then it didn’t happen. There were gigantic gaps. The teaching staff – especially tutors but also most of the faculty – were largely unable to share in a culture and the admin-focused tacit knowledge that resided largely in one remote location. This was the largest part of what drove Terry Anderson and I to create the Landing: it was precisely to support the tacit, the informal, the in-between, the ad-hoc, the cultural, the connective aspects of a university that were missing. We touted it as a space between the formal spaces, actively trying to cultivate and nurture a diverse set of reasons to be there, to make others visible. Treating it as a space was, though, a mistake. Though it did (and does) help a little, the Landing was just another place to visit: it therefore has not (or has not yet) fulfilled our vision for it to seep into the cracks and to make humans visible in all of our systems. And we were not able to support the vital soft, human processes that had to accompany the software because we were just academics and researchers, not bosses: technologies are the tools, structures, and systems and what we do with them, but what we do with them is what matters most. We need much more, and much better, and we need to embed it everywhere, in order to get rid of the short circuits of in-person cliques and online islands. A further death-knell to our online community was instigated by the (Athabasca-dominated) union that one day chose – without consultation – to kill off the only significant way for AUFA members to communicate more informally, its mailing list, only reluctantly bringing it back (after about 2 years of complaints), in a diluted, moderated, half-assed format that did not challenge their power. From an informal means of binding us, it became another instrumental tool.
Despite the problems, it would be a senseless waste to pull out of Athabasca. We need a place for the library, for archives, for outreach into communities in the region, for labs, for astronomy, and to support research based in the region, of which there is already a growing amount. Virtually no one at the university thinks for a moment that we should leave the town. We are just doubling down on things to which it is best suited, rather than making it a centre of all our operations. If people want to live there, they can. We can make a difference to an under-served region in our research, our outreach, and our facilities, and we are constantly doing more to make that happen, as a critical part of our reinvention of the university. It has symbolic value, too, as the only physical space that represents the university, albeit that few people ever see it.
Athabasca should never become the seat of power, whether due to numbers of collocated workers or because it is where the exec team are forced to live. I am not singling the town out for special treatment in this: nowhere should play this role. We are and must be an online community, first and foremost. This is especially the case for our exec team. In fact, the more distributed they are the better. They will not walk the talk and fix what is broken unless they live with the consequences, and they are the last people who should be clustered together, especially with a particular employee demographic. This brings benefits to the university and to the communities to which we belong, including to Athabasca.
By far the greatest threat from the Albertan government’s intrusions and our own union’s efforts to restore their personal power is to the identity and culture – the very soul – of the institution itself. Slowly (too slowly) and a bit intermittently we have, in recent years, been staggering towards creating a unified, online-native culture that embraces the whole institution. It has not been easy, especially thanks to the Athabascan resistance. But, regardless of their interference, we have made other mistakes. Our near-virtual implementation was the result of a large group representing the whole university, but one that lacked well-defined leadership or a clear mandate, that rushed development due to the pandemic, and that ignored most of what it found in its investigations of needs in its report to the university, leading to a hasty and incomplete implementation that has caused some unrest, most notably among those at Athabasca who are used to the comforts and conveniences of in-person working. For the majority of us who were already working online before the pandemic, things have got better, for the most part, but the benefits are very uneven. Too often we have poorly replicated in-person processes and methods to accommodate the newcomers, leading to (for instance) endless ineffectual meetings and yet more procedures. The near-virtual strategy remains a work in progress, and things will improve, but it got off to a stumbling, over-hasty start.
With limited funds, and contributing to the multiple failings of the near-virtual plan, we have signally failed to put enough effort into developing the technical infrastructure needed to support our nascent online community (one of the main needs identified by the near-virtual committee but not appearing in any meaningful way in the plan). I think we really should have focused on creating workable technologies to support our own community before working on teaching and administrative systems (or at least at the same time) but, after a decade of neglect while we were on the verge of bankruptcy, I guess we did need to fix those pretty urgently because they are what our students depend on. It’s just a bit tricky to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if you are still using off-the-shelf tools designed to support in-person organizations (and commercial ones at that) rather than those designed for a virtual institution, especially when the more important human and organizational aspects are still rooted firmly in place-based thinking. I wrote about one aspect of that the other day. This won’t be a problem for long, I hope. The fruits of the reinvention of our student-facing systems – that is taking up the bulk of our development resources right now – should start to appear around the end of this year, if the Albertan government or our own union doesn’t destroy it first. I hope that we can then get round to fixing our own house because, if we don’t, we will be easy prey for the next politician seeking easy votes and/or a sly buck from their investments.
Shaping our lives
The title of this post is a quote from Churchill. In fact, he liked it so much that he used variants on the phrase (sometimes preferring ‘dwellings’ to ‘buildings’) a number of times over a course of decades. I could equally have used Culkin’s (usually misattributed to Mcluhan) ‘we shape our tools and then our tools shape us’ because, as the first president of the university recognized many decades ago, we exist as a university within our communications network, not in a physical nor even a virtual space.
The recursive dynamic implied by Churchill’s and Culkin’s aphorisms applies to any complex adaptive system. In most systems – natural ecosystems, money markets, ant-trails, cities, and so on – this leads to metastability and adaptation, as agents adapt to their environments and, in the process, change those environments, in an endless emergent cycle of evolution. However, the large and slow moving elements of any complex system influence the small and fast moving far more than vice versa and humans are the only creatures that we know of who can deliberately mess with this dynamic by making radical and rapid changes to the large and slow moving parts of the spaces in which they dwell. In the past it has happened to Athabasca University due to the machinations of a small number of self-serving politicians and geographically located cliques, not due to educators. If we can prevent government interference and diminish the significance of those cliques then we can change that, and we have been doing so, rebuilding our systems to serve the needs of staff and students, not of a few land developers or groups of local residents. This is not the time to stop. We are on the verge of creating a viable community and infrastructure for learning that could scale more or less indefinitely, where everyone – especially the students – can feel a part of something wonderful. Not cogs in machines, not products, but parts of an organic, evolving whole to which we all belong, and to which we all contribute. This matters: to our staff, to our students, to the people of Alberta, to the people of Canada, to the world. We should not be condemned to merely serve a small part of the economic needs of a small community, nor even of a province or country. If we follow that path then we will whimperingly shrink into a minor anachronistic irrelevance that appears as no more than a footnote in the annals of history, out-competed by countless others. Athabasca University matters most because it (not quite alone, but as part of a small, select pack of open and distance institutions) is beating a path that others can follow; an open, expansive, human-centred path towards a better future for us all. Let’s not let this die.