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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
This is very kind! I am sorry for all the very, very, very bad thoughts I have been thinking about you and your party. So, all we had to do was ask, eh?
We currently (in ball park terms) have about 300 staff in Athabasca out of a total of roughly 1200 staff overall. You want 65% of us to live there. So, what we need is:
ongoing funding to pay the salaries of 1500 new staff;
good, diverse, well-paid jobs for their families (yes, we have families);
support for building new homes to house the new staff;
computers, software, cloud services, high speed reliable internet to the town (not the rubbish we have now) for those new staff;
extra buildings to house them on the campus, including canteens, leisure facilities, etc;
regular, frequent transit links to the town of Athabasca.
We’ll let you off paying for 8 of those staff if you let our execs live wherever the hell they want. Maybe you could re-use the absurdly overblown presidential accommodation to house a family or six.
This is just a guess, but I think that, in total, such assistance might just about raise the government funding per student that you currently so generously provide us to around 70-80% of what you currently give to other Albertan universities.
It’s still a damn fool place to put a university so you’d better be prepared to offer some much better incentives for those you are forcing to live there. Higher pay, of course, maybe a free vehicle (electric, of course – you wouldn’t want to increase the outrageously high environmental impact of this proposal even more, would you?). If you expect us to do proper research, attracting international and national partners and research students, we will need at least a good rail link to the nearest international airport (you could have one built at Athabasca, perhaps? Imagine the additional benefits to Northern communities! Who wouldn’t want to fly to Athabasca rather than, say, Edmonton or Calgary?). You should probably improve and better maintain the road into town so that it stops killing and injuring our colleagues. We really don’t like that aspect of the job. It puts people off working there.
So, at the end of it, with all these additional expenses, you might have to put us nearly on par for per-student funding with the rest of Alberta’s comprehensive research universities. On the bright side, you’ll not have to pay for all the lawsuits and payouts for constructive dismissal, nor the humiliation of having destroyed one of the world’s finest universities, and I bet it would win you a ton of votes.
Thank you for the offer. Over to you.
P.S. And please, please, please would you just stop it with the micromanaging? It would save us all much unnecessary work and pain. More savings there.
P.P.S. And please stop talking about “not reinventing the school’s mandate but simply trying to reverse the trend away from it” by the way. You’re just lending fuel to the popular misconception that there are liars, damned liars, and politicians. I suppose you mean the mandate forced on us against our will 40 years ago that made the president and half the faculty resign? The one that was rescinded decades ago because it was completely unworkable for a university hoping to hire top quality researchers, teachers, tutors, professional staff, and administrators? That one?
P.P.P.S. ‘An ultimatum (/ˌʌltɪˈmeɪtəm/; Latin for ‘the last one’) is a demand whose fulfillment is requested in a specified period of time and which is backed up by a threat to be followed through in case of noncompliance’. Sound familiar?
For anyone else reading this…
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.
This video from Peter Scott, president of Athabasca University, is a clear, eloquent, and passionate plea to save our university and the education of its students from imminent destruction at the hands of a brutal, self-serving, short-sighted government. Please watch it. Please act on it, in any way you can, if only to share it on your preferred social media. If we don’t stop this, Athabasca University as we know it will be no more.
If you don’t have time to watch the 12 minute video, in brief, this is the gist of it…
The Albertan government has unilaterally, without consultation with any stakeholders, demanded that:
we move about 500 of our staff (nearly half of the workforce), including the entire executive team, to the town of Athabasca by 2024-2025, to work there in-person;
we focus our efforts solely on Albertan students*;
we drop the near-virtual working policy on which we have worked and invested for many years and on which our future depends.
They have demanded that we agree to this, and to have a plan in place, by the end of next month, otherwise they will withdraw our funding. This would bankrupt us.
Right now, we are a world leader in online and distance education. The majority of our students live outside Alberta, so we are the nearest thing to a national university that Canada has. As the only fully open and distance university in Canada, we provide opportunities for many across the country who would otherwise be unable to get a decent education – people in rural or remote areas, those serving abroad, indigenous people, prisoners, and many more who would find it difficult or impossible to enrol in a conventional university, are welcome here. Over a third of our graduates are the first in their families to have achieved a degree. We have a remarkably high percentage of the finest distance and online researchers in the world, that is only possible because they are allowed to live and work where they choose. And we are half-way through the process of reinventing ourselves, with a visionary plan, and a sustainable business model that will allow us to serve better, and to serve many more, which relies entirely on being near-virtual. Over half of our staff – including virtually all faculty and tutors – have lived and worked at a distance for about 20 years. Most of the rest now happily do so. Less than 10% currently work in-person. We walk the talk. We know the struggles that our students face working online, intimately, first-hand.
I love this university and what it stands for. I love its open mission, its kick-ass research that punches far above its weight, its wonderful staff, its radical, caring vision, and its amazing, awesome students. We are something unique and precious, at least in Canada and perhaps in the world. If we let this happen, all of that will go. If we accept the directive, then at least half the faculty and most of our exceptional executive team will resign, the quality of whatever staff remain will fall through the floor, the few students that are left will suffer, and the costs of moving will send us deep into the red. Our open mission itself – the thing that most defines us – is under threat. If we reject it, we will lose a quarter of our budget and go bust. Either way, if the Albertan government persists with this insane, brutish plan, we are doomed. If anything survived at the end of it – which would only be half possible if the hostile government provided very large amounts of funding that I am fairly sure it is unwilling to provide – it would be a shrunken, irrelevant, sub-standard shadow of what it is now. The first order of business should therefore be to do all that we can to stop the government from forcing this absurd, devastating harmful mandate upon us.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, please help Athabasca University fight this threat to its survival. If you live in Alberta, please vote this atrocious, oil-addled, self-serving government out of office. Wherever you live, please make your views known by contacting the Minister, Demetrios Nicolaides, at firstname.lastname@example.org, 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, make a fuss.
And, if you happen to be politician with sway in your province or in federal government, or maybe someone who runs another university that is seeking to expand significantly further into online learning, we have a beautiful, already near-virtual, thriving, forward-looking university with a highly talented workforce (no re-housing needed, limited need for physical space, business processes and digital infrastructure already established) that would love to find some better custodians for its crucial mission.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/14559190/we-need-help-athabasca-university-is-facing-an-existential-threat-from-the-government-of-alberta
*Addendum and point of clarification as this has been misunderstood by a couple of readers: this is required by the Albertan government as a change to our central mission. To the best of my knowledge it does not explicitly mandate that we cannot accept students from elsewhere into our programs, though it is a major change in emphasis that would have many adverse impacts, big and small, on what, how and to whom we teach.
In the convocation prayer offered by Elder Maria Campbell each year for Athabasca University graduands, she asks for blessing that their journeys be “rich, gentle, and challenging”. I can’t think of a more perfect wish than this. Each word transforms and deepens the other two. It’s truly beautiful. Every time I hear those words (or, technically, read them – they are actually spoken in Cree) they tumble together in my head for days. I am reminded of these lines (that are about music, but that seem perfectly apt here) from Robert Browning’s Abt Vogler:
And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man
That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star.
On this graduation day I wish all our departing students rich, gentle, and challenging lives, and (as Maria Campbell goes on to say, gently acknowledging troubles to come) that the roads they travel are not too bumpy.
A group of us at AU have begun discussions about how we might transform our assessment practices, in the light of the far-reaching AU Imagine plan and principles. This is a rare and exciting opportunity to bring about radical and positive change in how learning happens at the institution. Hard technologies influence soft more than vice versa, and assessments (particularly when tied to credentials) tend to be among the hardest of all technologies in any pedagogical intervention. They are therefore a powerful lever for change. Equally, and for the same reasons, they are too often the large, slow, structural elements that infest systems to stunt progress and innovation.
Almost all learning must involve assessment, whether it be of one’s own learning, or provided by other people or machines. Even babies constantly assess their own learning. Reflection is assessment. It is completely natural and it only gets weird when we treat it as a summative judgment, especially when we add grades or credentials to the process, thus normally changing the purpose of learning from achieving competence to achieving a reward. At best it distorts learning, making it seem like a chore rather than a delight, at worst it destroys it, even (and perhaps especially) when learners successfully comply with the demands of assessors and get a good grade. Unfortunately, that’s how most educational systems are structured, so the big challenge to all teachers must be to eliminate or at least to massively reduce this deeply pernicious effect. A large number of the pedagogies that we most value are designed to solve problems that are directly caused by credentials. These pedagogies include assessment practices themselves.
With that in mind, before the group’s first meeting I compiled a list of some of the main principles that I adhere to when designing assessments, most of which are designed to reduce or eliminate the structural failings of educational systems. The meeting caused me to reflect a bit more. This is the result:
Principles applying to all assessments
The primary purpose of assessment is to help the learner to improve their learning. All assessment should be formative.
Assessment without feedback (teacher, peer, machine, self) is judgement, not assessment, pointless.
Ideally, feedback should be direct and immediate or, at least, as prompt as possible.
Feedback should only ever relate to what has been done, never the doer.
No criticism should ever be made without also at least outlining steps that might be taken to improve on it.
Grades (with some very rare minor exceptions where the grade is intrinsic to the activity, such as some gaming scenarios or, arguably, objective single-answer quizzes with T/F answers) are not feedback.
Assessment should never ever be used to reward or punish particular prior learning behaviours (e.g. use of exams to encourage revision, grades as goals, marks for participation, etc) .
Students should be able to choose how, when and on what they are assessed.
Where possible, students should participate in the assessment of themselves and others.
Assessment should help the teacher to understand the needs, interests, skills, and gaps in knowledge of their students, and should be used to help to improve teaching.
Assessment is a way to show learners that we care about their learning.
Specific principles for summative assessments
A secondary (and always secondary) purpose of assessment is to provide evidence for credentials. This is normally described as summative assessment, implying that it assesses a state of accomplishment when learning has ended. That is a completely ridiculous idea. Learning doesn’t end. Human learning is not in any meaningful way like programming a computer or storing stuff in a database. Knowledge and skills are active, ever-transforming, forever actively renewed, reframed, modified, and extended. They are things we do, not things we have.
With that in mind, here are my principles for assessment for credentials (none of which supersede or override any of the above core principles for assessment, which always apply):
There should be no assessment task that is not in itself a positive learning activity. Anything else is at best inefficient, at worst punitive/extrinsically rewarding.
Assessment for credentials must be fairly applied to all students.
Credentials should never be based on comparisons between students (norm-referenced assessment is always, unequivocally, and unredeemably wrong).
The criteria for achieving a credential should be clear to the learner and other interested parties (such as employers or other institutions), ideally before it happens, though this should not forestall the achievement and consideration of other valuable outcomes.
There is no such thing as failure, only unfinished learning. Credentials should only celebrate success, not punish current inability to succeed.
Students should be able to choose when they are ready to be assessed, and should be able to keep trying until they succeed.
Credentials should be based on evidence of competence and nothing else.
It should be impossible to compromise an assessment by revealing either the assessment or solutions to it.
There should be at least two ways to demonstrate competence, ideally more. Students should only have to prove it once (though may do so in many ways and many times, if they wish).
More than one person should be involved in judging competence (at least as an option, and/or on a regularly taken sample).
Students should have at least some say in how, when, and where they are assessed.
Where possible (accepting potential issues with professional accreditation, credit transfer, etc) they should have some say over the competencies that are assessed, in weighting and/or outcome.
Grades and marks should be avoided except where mandated elsewhere. Even then, all passes should be treated as an ‘A’ because students should be able to keep trying until they excel.
Great success may sometimes be worthy of an award – e.g. a distinction – but such an award should never be treated as a reward.
Assessment for credentials should demonstrate the ability to apply learning in an authentic context. There may be many such contexts.
Ideally, assessment for credentials should be decoupled from the main teaching process, because of risks of bias, the potential issues of teaching to the test (regardless of individual needs, interests and capabilities) and the dangers to motivation of the assessment crowding out the learning. However, these risks are much lower if all the above principles are taken on board.
I have most likely missed a few important issues, and there is a bit of redundancy in all this, but this is a work in progress. I think it covers the main points.
Further random reflections
There are some overriding principles and implied specifics in all of this. For instance, respect for diversity, accessibility, respect for individuals, and recognition of student control all fall out of or underpin these principles. It implies that we should recognize success, even when it is not the success we expected, so outcome harvesting makes far more sense than measurement of planned outcomes. It implies that failure should only ever be seen as unfinished learning, not as a summative judgment of terminal competence, so appreciative inquiry is far better than negative critique. It implies flexibility in all aspects of the activity. It implies, above and beyond any other purpose, that the focus should always be on learning. If assessment for credentials adversely affects learning then it should be changed at once.
In terms of implementation, while objective quizzes and their cousins can play a useful formative role in helping students to self-assess and to build confidence, machines (whether implemented by computers or rule-following humans) should normally be kept out of credentialling. There’s a place for AI but only when it augments and informs human intelligence, never when it behaves autonomously. Written exams and their ilk should be avoided, unless they conform to or do not conflict with all the above principles: I have found very few examples like this in the real world, though some practical demonstrations of competence in an authentic setting (e.g. lab work and reporting) and some reflective exercises on prior work can be effective.
A portfolio of evidence, including a reflective commentary, is usually going to be the backbone of any fair, humane, effective assessment: something that lets students highlight successes (whether planned or not), that helps them to consolidate what they have learned, and that is flexible enough to demonstrate competence shown in any number of ways. Outputs or observations of authentic activities are going to be important contributors to that. My personal preference in summative assessments is to only use the intended (including student-generated) and/or harvested outcomes for judging success, not for mandated assignments. This gives flexibility, it works for every subject, and it provides unquivocal and precise evidence of success. It’s also often good to talk with students, perhaps formally (e.g. a presentation or oral exam), in order to tease out what they really know and to give instant feedback. It is worth noting that, unlike written exams and their ilk, such methods are actually fun for all concerned, albeit that the pleasure comes from solving problems and overcoming challenges, so it is seldom easy.
Interestingly, there are occasions in traditional academia where these principles are, for the most part, already widely applied. A typical doctoral thesis/dissertation, for example, is often quite close to it (especially in more modern professional forms that put more emphasis on recording the process), as are some student projects. We know that such things are a really good idea, and lead to far richer, more persistent, more fulfilling learning for everyone. We do not do them ubiquitously for reasons of cost and time. It does take a long time to assess something like this well, and it can take more time during the rest of the teaching process thanks to the personalization (real personalization, not the teacher-imposed form popularized by learning analytics aficionados) and extra care that it implies. It is an efficient use of our time, though, because of its active contribution to learning, unlike a great many traditional assessment methods like teacher-set assignments (minimal contribution) and exams (negative contribution). A lot of the reason for our reticence, though, is the typical university’s schedule and class timetabling, which makes everything pile on at once in an intolerable avalanche of submissions. If we really take autonomy and flexibility on board, it doesn’t have to be that way. If students submit work when it is ready to be submitted, if they are not all working in lock-step, and if it is a work of love rather than compliance, then assessment is often a positively pleasurable task and is naturally staggered. Yes, it probably costs a bit more time in the end (though there are plenty of ways to mitigate that, from peer groups to pedagogical design) but every part of it is dedicated to learning, and the results are much better for everyone.
Some useful further reading
This is a fairly random selection of sources that relate to the principles above in one way or another. I have definitely missed a lot. Sorry for any missing URLs or paywalled articles: you may be able to find downloadable online versions somewhere.
Boud, D., & Falchikov, N. (2006). Aligning assessment with long-term learning. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31(4), 399-413. Retrieved from https://www.jhsph.edu/departments/population-family-and-reproductive-health/_docs/teaching-resources/cla-01-aligning-assessment-with-long-term-learning.pdf
Boud, D. (2007). Reframing assessment as if learning were important. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305060897_Reframing_assessment_as_if_learning_were_important
Cooperrider, D. L., & Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. Research in organizational change and development, 1, 129-169.
Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26(3/4), 325-346.
Hussey, T., & Smith, P. (2002). The trouble with learning outcomes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 3(3), 220-233.
Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes (Kindle ed.). Mariner Books. (this one is worth forking out money for).
Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 28-33.
Kohn, A. (2015). Four Reasons to Worry About “Personalized Learning”. Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/personalized/ (check out Alfie Kohn’s whole site for plentiful other papers and articles – consistently excellent).
Reeve, J. (2002). Self-determination theory applied to educational settings. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Determination research (pp. 183-203). Rochester, NY: The University of Rochester Press.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications. (may be worth paying for if such things interest you).
Wilson-Grau, R., & Britt, H. (2012). Outcome harvesting. Cairo: Ford Foundation. http://www.managingforimpact.org/sites/default/files/resource/outome_harvesting_brief_final_2012-05-2-1.pdf.
The always wonderful Alfie Kohn describes an airline survey that sought to find out how it compared with others, which he chose not to answer because the airline was thus signalling no interest in providing the best quality experience possible, just aiming to do enough to beat the competition. The thrust of his article is that much the same is true of standardized tests in schools. As Kohn rightly observes, the central purpose of testing as it tends to be used in schools and beyond is not to evaluate successful learning but to compare students (or teachers, or institutions, or regions) with one another in order to identify winners and losers.
‘When you think about it, all standardized tests — not just those that are norm-referenced — are based on this compulsion to compare. If we were interested in educational excellence, we could use authentic forms of assessment that are based on students’ performance at a variety of classroom projects over time. The only reason to standardize the process, to give all kids the same questions under the same conditions on a contrived, one-shot, high-stakes test, is if what we wanted to know wasn’t “How well are they learning?” but “Who’s beating whom?”‘
It’s a good point, but I think it is not just an issue with standardized tests. The problem occurs with all the summative assessments (the judgments) we use. Our educational assessment systems are designed to create losers as much as they a made to find winners. Whether they follow the heinous practice of norm-referencing or not, they are sorting machines, built to discover competent people, and to discard the incompetent. In fact, as Kohn notes, when there are too many winners we are accused of grade inflation or a dropping of standards.
This makes no sense if you believe, as I do, that the purpose of education is to educate. In a system that demands grading, unless 100% of students that want to succeed get the best possible grades, then we have failed to meet the grade ourselves. The problem, though, is not so much the judgments themselves as it is the intimate, inextricable binding of judgmental with learning processes. Given enough time, effort, and effective teaching, almost anyone can achieve pretty much any skill or competence, as long as they stick at it. We have very deliberately built a system that does not aim for that at all. Instead, it aims to sort wheat from chaff. That’s not why I do the job I do, and I hope it is not why you do it either, but that’s exactly what the system is made to do. And yet we (at least I) think of ourselves as educators, not judges. These two roles are utterly separate and inconsolably inconsistent.
Who needs 100%?
It might be argued that some students don’t actually want to get the best possible grades. True. And sure, we don’t always want or need to learn everything we could learn. If I am learning how to use a new device or musical instrument I sometimes read/watch enough to get me started and do not go any further, or skim through to get the general gist. Going for a less-than-perfect understanding is absolutely fine if that’s all you need right now. But that’s not quite how it works in formal education, in part because we punish those that make such choices (by giving lower grades) and in part because we systematically force students to learn stuff they neither want nor need to learn, at a time that we choose, using the lure of the big prizes at the end to coax them. Even those that actually do want or need to learn a topic must stick with it to the bitter end regardless of whether it is useful to do the whole thing, regardless of whether they need more or less of it, regardless of whether it is the right time to learn it, regardless of whether it is the right way for them to learn it. They must do all that we say they must do, or we won’t give them the gold star. That’s not even a good way to train a dog.
It gets worse. At least dogs normally get a second chance. Having set the bar, we normally give just a single chance at winning or, at best, an option to be re-tested (often at a price and usually only once), rather than doing the human thing of allowing people to take the time they need and learn from their mistakes until they get as good as they want or need to get. We could learn a thing or two from computer games – the ability to repeat over and over, achieving small wins all along the way without huge penalties for losing, is a powerful way to gain competence and sustain motivation. It is better if students have some control over the pacing but, even at Athabasca, an aggressively open university that does its best to give everyone all the opportunity they need to succeed, where self-paced learners can choose the point at which they are ready to take the assessments, we still have strict cut-offs for contract periods and, like all the rest, we still tend to allow just a single stab at each assessment. In most of my own self-paced courses (and in some others) we try to soften that by allowing students to iterate without penalty until the end but, when that end comes, that’s still it. This is not for the benefit of the students: this is for our convenience. Yes, there is a cost to giving greater freedom – it takes time, effort, and compassion – but that’s a business problem to solve, not an insuperable barrier. WGU’s subscription model, for instance, in which students pay for an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, appears to work pretty well.
It might be argued that there are other important lessons that we teach when we competitively grade. Some might suggest that competition is a good thing to learn in and of itself, because it is one of the things that drives society and everyone has to do it at least sometimes. Sure, but cooperation and mutual support is usually better, or at least an essential counterpart, so embedding competition as the one and only modality seems a bit limiting. And, if we are serious about teaching people about how to compete, then that is what we should do, and not actively put them in jeopardy to achieve that: as Jerome Bruner succinctly put it, ‘Learning something with the aid of an instructor should, if instruction is effective, be less dangerous or risky or painful than learning on one’s own’ (Bruner 1966, p.44).
Others might claim that sticking with something you don’t like doing is a necessary lesson if people are to play a suitably humble/productive role in society. Such lessons have a place, I kind-of agree. Just not a central place, just not a pervasive place that underpins or, worse, displaces everything else. Yes, grit can be really useful, if you are pursuing your goals or helping others to reach theirs. By all means, let’s teach that, let’s nurture that, and by all means let’s do what we can to help students see how learning something we are teaching can help them to reach their goals, even though it might be difficult or unpleasant right now. But there’s a big difference between doing something for self or others, and subservient compliance with someone else’s demands. ‘Grit’ does not have to be synonymous with ‘taking orders’. Doing something distasteful because we feel we must, because it aligns with our sense of self-worth, because it will help those we care about, because it will lead us where we want to be, is all good. Doing something because someone else is making us do it (with the threat/reward of grades) might turn us into good soldiers, might generate a subservient workforce in a factory or coal face, might keep an unruly subjugated populace in check, but it’s not the kind of attitude that is going to be helpful if we want to nurture creative, caring, useful members of 21st Century society.
It might be argued that accreditation serves a powerful societal function, ranking and categorizing people in ways that (at least for the winners and for consumers of graduates) have some value. It’s a broken and heartless system, but our societies do tend to be organized around it and it would be quite disruptive if we got rid of it without finding some replacement. Without it, employers might actually need to look at evidence of what people have done, for instance, rather than speedily weeding out those with insufficient grades. Moreover, circularly enough, most of our students currently want and expect it because it’s how things are done in our culture. Even I, a critic of the system, proudly wear the label ‘Doctor’, because it confers status and signals particular kinds of achievement, and there is no doubt that it and other qualifications have been really quite useful in my career. If that were all accreditation did then I could quite happily live with it, even though the fact that I spent a few years researching something interesting about 15 years ago probably has relatively little bearing on what I do or can do now. The problem is not accreditation in itself, but that it is inextricably bound to the learning process. Under such conditions, educational assessment systems are positively harmful to learning. They are anti-educative. Of necessity, due to the fact that they tend to determine precisely what students should do and how they should do it, they sap intrinsic motivation and undermine love of learning. Even the staunchest of defenders of tightly integrated learning and judgment would presumably accept that learning is at least as important as grading so, if grading undermines learning (and it quite unequivocally does), something is badly broken.
A simple solution?
It does not have to be this way. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: at least a large part of the solution is to decouple learning and accreditation altogether. There is a need for some means to indicate prowess, sure. But the crude certificates we currently use may not be the best way to do that in all cases, and it doesn’t have to dominate the learning process to the point of killing love of learning. If we could drop the accreditation role during the teaching process we could focus much more on providing useful feedback, on valorizing failures as useful steps towards success, on making interesting diversions, on tailoring the learning experience to the learner’s interests and capabilities rather than to credential requirements, on providing learning experiences that are long enough and detailed enough for the students’ needs, rather than a uniform set of fixed lengths to suit our bureaucracies.
Equally, we could improve our ability to provide credentials. For those that need it, we could still offer plenty of accreditation opportunities, for example through a portfolio-based approach and/or collecting records of learning or badges along the way. We could even allow for some kind of testing like oral, written, or practical exams for those that must, where it is appropriate to the competence (not, as now, as a matter of course) and we could actually do it right, rather than in ways that positively enable and reward cheating. None of this has to bound to specific courses. This decoupling would also give students the freedom to choose other ways of learning apart from our own courses, which would be quite a strong incentive for us to concentrate on teaching well. It might challenge us to come up with authentic forms of assessment that allow students to demonstrate competence through practice, or to use evidence from multiple sources, or to show their particular and unique skillset. It would almost certainly let us do both accreditation and teaching better. And it’s not as though we have no models to work from: from driving tests to diving tests to uses of portfolios in job interviews, there are plenty of examples of ways this can work already.
Apart from some increased complexities of managing such a system (which is where online tools can come in handy and where opportunities exist for online institutions that conventional face-to-face institutions cannot compete with) this is not a million miles removed from what we do now: it doesn’t require a revolution, just a simple shift in emphasis, and a separation of two unnecessarily and mutually inconsistent intertwined roles. Especially when processes and tools already exist for that, as they do at Athabasca University, it would not even be particularly costly. Inertia would be a bigger problem than anything else, but even big ships can eventually be steered in other directions. We just have to choose to make it so.
Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Great critique by Tom Worthington of an alleged for-credit MOOC from MIT that was anything but a MOOC. As Tom rightly points out, two instructors, 31 students, and online materials from EdX do not a MOOC make. As he notes, this kind of instructional process has been working pretty well for decades, including at Athabasca, as it happens. What is relatively novel, perhaps, is that the fact that the course itself was supplied at no (extra) cost to the institution. Effectively (though not quite in this case as it was an MIT course in the first place) this was a typical use of an OER course with accreditation and tuition wrapped around it, following a practice that has been common in many places – especially in developing countries – since the earliest MOOCs in 2008. Tom himself has created a great OER course on green computing that we use here at AU, which follows much the same pattern (though we have lightly adapted the Australian course for local use).
Less stress in online learning?
Tom observes that in this intervention, as in his own teaching, students tend to take the online option due to scheduling difficulties, not by preference, but that they are less stressed by the process than their face-to-face counterparts. This makes sense because there’s a lot more teaching presence in a course that is a) designed for online delivery (usually with great care and attention to detail) and b) supported by live teachers. Online learners in this kind of set-up are getting a huge amount of support for their learning, both from course designers/developers and from their own professors. Technically speaking, some of that exuberance of teaching will cancel out due to the inevitable tension between structure and dialogue implied by transactional distance theory, but the opportunities for feedback on coursework, at least, more than compensate for the high transactional distance caused by the industrial teaching approach of a pre-prepared online course. At least, I hope so, because (though mainly with courses we have developed ourselves and only rarely with OERs) this is exactly what Athabasca University has been doing for nearly 50 years, apparently with some success.
More stress in online teaching?
Personally, I have to admit, I normally hate teaching other people’s courses, although it is something I have often done. However well-developed they might be, there are always things I disagree with, factually and pedagogically, and I deeply dislike the strait jackets such structured courses create. This is perhaps a little hypocritical of me because I expect tutors on my courses to do exactly that, and routinely allocate my own faculty to teach courses that others have written, putting them in exactly that position. Whatever. Few seem to suffer my aversion to the same degree and many seem to positively relish it. I guess it makes it easier, with fewer choices to make. To each their own. But even I am very happy to take an existing OER (like Tom’s) and alter it to my own purposes, and am even happier to offer alternative OERs for my students to use within a pedagogical framework I have created. I think this is just common sense, giving both me and my students plenty of freedom to do what suits us best. Either way, re-use of existing well-designed courses is at least as great an idea as it was when Otto Peters came up with his industrial model of distance learning some decades ago.
The reputation of online learning
Tom notes that online and distance education has a bad reputation: to some extent, yes, sure, some people feel that way. Yes, there have been some bad examples of the modality that have resulted in bad press (ahem…Phoenix) and naive folk that have never experienced online learning do tend to believe that there is some magic that happens face to face that cannot be replicated online. They are right, as it happens: some things are difficult or impossible to replicate and it is a kind of magic. But the converse is also true – great things happen online that cannot be replicated face to face, and that’s a kind of magic too. And, just as not everyone gets a great online experience, for many ‘face to face’ learners the experience is uniformly dire, with large impersonal lectures, ill-conceived pedagogies delivered by untrained teachers, and considerably less human interaction than what would typically be found online. On balance, while it is not quite correct to say that there is no significant difference, because there really are some basic differences in the need for self-management and control, there is no significant difference in the outcomes we choose to measure.
But, to return to the point, although some look upon online degrees less kindly, there are many employers who actively prefer those that have learned online because it is strong proof of their self-determination, will-power, and desire to succeed. I can confirm this positive perception: our students at AU are, on average, streets ahead of their traditionally taught counterparts, especially when you consider that a great many do not have the traditional qualifications needed to get into a conventional institution. I am constantly amazed by the skill and perseverance of our amazing students. On my own courses, especially in graduate teaching, I do everything I can to enable them to teach one another, because they tend to come to us with an incredible wealth of knowledge that just needs to be tapped and channelled.
A workable model
Though Tom is a little critical, I see value in what MIT is doing here. For some years now I have been trying to make the case at AU that we should be offering support for, and the means to credential, MOOCs offered elsewhere. This would give freedom to students to pick ways of learning that suit them best, to gain the benefits of diversity, and allow us to provide the kind of tutorial support and accreditation that we are pretty good at, at only a fraction of the (roughly) $100K cost of developing a typical course. It would give us the freedom to extend our offerings quite considerably, and avoid the need to keep developing the same curricula that are found everywhere else, so that we could differentiate ourselves by not just the style of teaching but also the subjects that we offer. This can in principle be done to some extent already through our challenge process (if you can find an equivalent course, take it, then take our challenge paper for a lot less than the price of a full course) and we do have independent study courses at graduate level that can be used much this way, with tutor support. But we could make a lot more of it if we did it just a bit more mindfully.
I suspect everyone on Athabasca University’s staff will be very interested in these posts by Matthew Prineas, who we will welcome on September 5th as our new provost and VPA, that show a great understanding of at least some of the benefits and challenges of distance learning. Amongst other things, he has done some really good work on embedding OERs at UMUC, and has strong credentials (!) in the field of competency based methods of learning and accreditation. These things matter a great deal to our future. It also seems that he has a subtle appreciation of our distributed teaching approach, though I should note that there are more ways to skin this cat than the industrial model – we need to aim for post-industrial, where we achieve economies of scale not (just) by write-once-deliver-many teaching but by leveraging the value of human interaction on a large scale that distributed network technologies enable. It is great, though, that we’re getting a VPA who seems aligned with our mission and who reaches out to the world through social media. See, too, his Twitter posts at https://twitter.com/mprineas?lang=en