Communities we live in and serve: universities and places

Voluntourism, geoarbitrage, and digital nomads

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.

Communities we live in and serve

This brings me, rather obliquely, to another news source on my regular morning reading list, OLDaily, in which, not long ago, Stephen Downes made a wonderfully succinct comment about the ongoing fracas at Athabasca University:

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?

Well…

The economic value of in-person universities

medieaval lecture 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.

 

Over 150 AU staff signed this letter to the Government of Alberta and AU’s Board of Governors

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.

We shape our buildings and, afterwards, our buildings shape us: some lessons in how not to build an online university, and some ideas for doing it better

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 High Street
Athabasca High Street at peak season

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.

Moving on

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.

However…

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.

#AthaU22 – may your journey be rich, gentle, and challenging

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.

And I wish the same to you, too.

Higher Education: an Owner's Guide – slides from my Times Higher Ed Student Festival keynote

Higher Education: an Owner’s Guide, slides from my keynote at the THE Student Festival, UK, 2021

With a possible audience of thousands, and without a clue they were there because the Zoom output was streamed to a different site (weird), I talked very fast about my experience of higher education for about 20 minutes at the THE UK Student Festival yesterday. The talk was recorded and will be used again for the THE Canada Student Festival later in the month. It’s a huge event – over 8000 enrolled (though not all attending every session) – with quite a lot of other keynotes and a great many other talks, panels, and discussions, aimed at helping students starting out in higher education. The audience was very different from those I normally talk to, and the  (very sensible) strict 20-minute format gave me a lot less leeway than the usual hour allowed, so I found it interestingly challenging. These are the slides I used.

The brief I was given was not to preach, but to share my experience of higher education, as a student and as an educator. My personal agenda was to talk about why and how online learning is worth doing (especially at AU), so I tried (a bit clunkily) to aim my story in that direction. I failed to remember to mention some key things, I spent too long on others, and I suspect that the most memorable message that came through was, for in-person students living on campus, to get a kettle (it’s a great way to make lots of new friends fast) but, hopefully, my bigger message got through to some. kettle

The essential point of my wild ramble was not that kettles are the solution to success in higher education, but that students and the rest of us should take ownership of our own education: it should be done by us, not to us. We should learn the way we want to learn, and we should learn what we want to learn; we should seek adventure and challenge rather than easy pickings; and we should hang out with interesting people and/or those we care about, because that’s how most learning happens, as well as being a large part of what makes it meaningful. I noted that we should focus on learning and should to try to ignore grades as much as possible, because grades destroy the love of doing something simply because we enjoy it. Essentially, my advice was about finding the things that intrinsically motivate us and reducing the effects of things that demotivate us. My own educational journey, and (I think) that of most committed educators, has largely followed that path: that’s how we thrived in a system not conducive to intrinsic motivation, and it’s the path we try to encourage our own students to take. I observed that it is much easier to own your own education when it is done online, at least if it is done in ways that take advantage of the medium, and not through a pale simulacrum of in-person teaching, because the teacher cannot be in control, the level of challenge is much more controllable, and there are way more people (online and in your own environment) who can support you.

Professor Jon Dron | Beyond Busy

An interview with me by Graham Allcott, author of the bestselling How to be a productivity ninja and other books, for his podcast series Beyond Busy, and as part of the research for his next book. In it I ramble a lot about issues like social media, collective intelligence, motivation, technology, education, leadership, and learning, and Graham makes some incisive comments and asks some probing questions. The interview was conducted on the landing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, last year.

Address of the bookmark: http://getbeyondbusy.com/e/35495d7ba89876L/?platform=hootsuite

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Posts by Matthew Prineas – Athabasca University’s new Provost and Vice-president, Academic

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

These are exciting times at AU!

Address of the bookmark: https://evolllution.com/author/matthew-prineas/

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Athabasca’s bright future

Tony BatesThe always excellent Tony Bates provides a very clear summary of Ken Coates’s Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University released a week or two ago and, as usual, provides a great critical commentary as well as some useful advice on next steps.

Tony rightly points out that our problems are more internal than external, and that the solutions have to come from us, not from outside. To a large extent he hits the nail right on the head when he notes:

Major changes in course design, educational technology, student support and administration, marketing and PR are urgently needed to bring AU into advanced 21st century practice in online and distance learning. I fear that while there are visionary faculty and staff at AU who understand this, there is still too much resistance from traditionalists and those who see change as undermining academic excellence or threatening their comfort zone.

It is hard to disagree. But, though there are too many ostriches among our staff and we do have some major cultural impediments to overcome, it is far less people that impede our progress than it is our design itself, and the technologies – especially the management technologies – of which it consists. That must change, as a corequisite to changing the culture that goes along with it. With some very important exceptions (more on that below) our culture is almost entirely mediated through our organizational and digital technologies, most notably in the form of very rigid processes, procedures and rules, but also through our IT. Our IT should, but increasingly does not, embody those processes. The processes still exist, of course – it’s just that people have to perform them instead of machines. Increasingly often, to make matters worse, we shape our processes to our ill-fitting IT rather than vice versa, because the ‘technological debt’ of adapting them to our needs and therefore having to maintain them ourselves is considered too great (a rookie systems error caused by splitting IT into a semi-autonomous unit that has to slash its own costs without considering the far greater price paid by the university at large). Communication, when it occurs, is almost all explicit and instrumental. We do not yet have enough of the tacit flows of knowledge and easy communication that patch over or fix the (almost always far greater) flaws that exist in such processes in traditional bricks and mortar institutions. The continual partial attention and focused channels of communication resulting from working online mean that we struggle with tacit knowledge and the flexibility of embedded dialogue in ways old fashioned universities never have to even think about. One of the big problems with being so process-driven is that, especially in the absence of richer tacit communication, it is really hard to change those processes, especially because they have evolved to be deeply entangled with one another – changing one process almost always means changing many, often in structurally separate parts of the institutional machine, and involves processes of its own that are often entangled with those we set out to change. As a result for much of its operation, our university does what it does despite us, not because of us. Unlike traditional universities, we have nothing else to fall back on when it fails, or when things fall between cracks. And, though we likely have far fewer than most traditional universities, there are still very many cracks to fall through.

This, not coincidentally, is exactly true of our teaching too. We are pretty darn good at doing what we explicitly intend to do: our students achieve learning outcomes very well, according to the measures we use. AU is a machine that teaches, which is fine until we want the machine to do more than what it is built to do or when other, faster, lighter, cheaper machines begin to compete with it.  As well as making it really hard to make even small changes to teaching, what gets lost – and what matters about as much as what we intentionally teach – is the stuff we do not intend to teach, the stuff that makes up the bulk of the learning experience in traditional universities, the stuff where students learn to be, not just to do. It’s whole-person learning. In distance and online learning, we tend to just concentrate on parts we can measure and we are seldom even aware of the rest. There is a hard and rigid boundary between the directed, instrumental processes and the soft, invisible patterns of culture and belonging, beyond which we rarely cross. This absence is largely what gives distance learning a bad reputation, though it can be a strength if focused teaching of something well-defined is exactly what is needed, or if students are able to make the bigger connections in other ways (true of many of our successful students), when the control that the teaching method provides is worth all the losses and where a more immersive experience might actually get in the way. But it’s a boundary that alienates a majority of current and prospective students. A large percentage of even those we manage to enrol and keep with us would like to feel more connected, more a part of a community, more engaged, more belonging. A great many more don’t even join us in the first place because of that perceived lack, and a very large number drop out before submitting a single piece of work as a direct result.

This is precisely the boundary that the Landing is intended to be a step towards breaking down.

https://landing.athabascau.ca/file/view/410777/video-decreasing-the-distance

If we cannot figure out how to recover that tacit dimension, there is little chance that we can figure out how to teach at a distance in a way that differentiates us from the crowd and that draws people to us for the experience, rather than for the qualification. Not quite fair. Some of us will. If you get the right (deeply engaged) tutor, or join the right (social and/or open) course, or join the Landing, or participate in local meet-ups, or join other social media groups, you may get a fair bit of the tacit, serendipitous, incidental learning and knowledge construction that typifies a traditional education. Plenty of students do have wonderful experiences learning with others at AU, be it with their tutors or with other students. We often see those ones at convocation – ones for whom the experience has been deep, meaningful, and connected. But, for many of our students and especially the ones that don’t make it to graduation (or even to the first assignment), the chances of feeling that you belong to something bigger, to learn from others around you, to be part of a richer university experience, are fairly low. Every one of our students needs to be very self-directed, compared with those in traditional institutions – that’s a sina qua non of working online – but too many get insufficient support and too little inspiration from those around them to rise beyond that or to get through the difficult parts. This is not too surprising, given that we cannot do it for ourselves either. When faced with complicated things demanding close engagement, too many of our staff fall back on the comfortable, easy solution of meeting face to face in one of our various centres rather than taking the hard way, and so the system remains broken. This can and will change.

Moving on

I am much heartened by the Coates report which, amongst other things but most prominently and as our central value proposition, puts our leadership in online and distance education at the centre of everything. This is what I have unceasingly believed we should do since the moment I arrived. The call to action of Coates’s report is fundamentally to change our rigid dynamic, to be bold, to innovate without barriers, to evolve, to make use of the astonishingly good resources – primarily our people – to (again) lead the online learning world. As a virtual institution this should be easier than it would be for others but, perversely, it is exactly the opposite. This is for aforesaid reasons, and also because the boundaries of our IT systems create the boundaries of our thinking, and embed processes more deeply and more inflexibly than almost any bricks and mortar establishment could hope to do. We need soft systems, fuzzy systems, adaptable systems, agile systems for our teaching, research, and learning community development, and we need hard systems, automated systems, custom tailored, rock solid systems for our business processes, including the administrational and assessment recording outputs of the teaching process. This is precisely the antithesis of what we have now. As Coates puts it:

“AU should rebrand itself as the leading Canadian centre for online learning and twenty- first century educational technology. AU has a distinct and potentially insurmountable advantage. The university has the education technology professionals needed to provide leadership, the global reputation needed to attract and hold attention, and the faculty and staff ready to experiment with and test new ideas in an area of emerging national priority. There is a critical challenge, however. AU currently lacks the ICT model and facilities to rise to this opportunity.”

We live in our IT…

We have long been challenged with our IT systems, but things were not always so bad. Our ICT model has made a 180 degree turnaround in the past few years in the exact opposite direction to one that will support continuing evolution and innovation, driven by people that know little about our core mission and that have failed to understand what makes us special as a university. The best defence offered for these poor decisions is usually that ‘most other universities are doing it,’ but we are not most other universities.  ICTs are not just support tools or performance enhancers for us. We are our IT. It is our one and only face to our students and the world. Without IT, we are literally nothing. We have massively underinvested in developing our IT, and what we have done in recent years has destroyed our lead, our agility, and our morale. Increasingly, we have rented generic, closed, off-the-shelf cloud-based applications that would be pretty awful in a factory, that force us into behaviours that make no sense, that sap our time and will, and that are so deeply inappropriate for our very unique distributed community that they stifle all progress, and cut off almost all avenues of innovation in the one area that we are best placed to innovate and lead. We have automated things that should not be automated and let fall into disrepair the things that actually give us an edge. For instance, we rent an absurdly poor CRM system to manage student interactions, building a call centre for customers when we should be building relationships with students, embedding our least savoury practices of content delivery still further, making tweaks to a method of teaching that should have died when we stopped using the postal service for course packs. Yes, when it works, it incrementally improves a broken system, so it looks OK (not great) on reports, but the system it enhances is still irrevocably broken and, by further tying it into a hard embodiment in an ill-fitting application, the chances of fixing it properly diminish further. And, of course, it doesn’t work, because we have rented an ill-fitting system designed for other things with little or no consideration of whether it meets more than coarse functional needs. This can and must change.

Meanwhile, we have methodically starved the environments that are designed for us and through which we have innovated in the past, and that could allow us to evolve. Astonishingly, we have had no (as in zero) central IT support for research for years now, getting by on a wing and a prayer, grabbing for bits of overtime where we can, or using scarce, poorly integrated departmental resources. Even very well-funded and well-staffed projects are stifled by it because almost all of our learning technology innovations are completely reliant on access, not only to central services (class lists, user logins, LMS integration, etc), but also to the staff that are able to perform integrations, manage servers, install software, configure firewalls, etc, etc.  We have had a 95% complete upgrade for the Landing sitting in the wings for nearly 2 years, unable to progress due to lack of central IT personnel to implement it, even though we have sufficient funds to pay for them and then some, and the Landing is actively used by thousands of people. Even our mainstream teaching tools have been woefully underfunded and undermined: we run a version of Moodle that is past even its security update period, for instance, and that creaks along only thanks to a very small but excellent team supporting it. Tools supporting more innovative teaching with more tenuous uptake, such as Mahara and OpenSIM servers, are virtual orphans, riskily trundling along with considerably less support than even the Landing.

This can and will change.

… but we are based in Athabasca

There are other things in Coates’s report that are given a very large emphasis, notably advice to increase our open access, particularly through forming more partnerships with Northern Albertan colleges serving indigenous populations (good – and we will need smarter, more human, more flexible, more inclusive systems for that, too), but mainly a lot of detailed recommendations about staying in Athabasca itself. This latter recommendation seems to have been forced upon Coates, and it comes with many provisos. Coates is very cognizant of the fact that being based in the remote, run-down town of Athabasca is, has been, and will remain a huge and expensive hobble. He mostly skims over sensitive issues like the difficulty of recruiting good people to the town (a major problem that is only slightly offset by the fact that, once we have got them there, they are quite unlikely to leave), but makes it clear that it costs us very dearly in myriad other ways.

… the university significantly underestimates the total cost of maintaining the Athabasca location. References to the costs of the distributed operation, including commitments in the Town of Athabasca, typically focus on direct transportation and facility costs and do not incorporate staff and faculty time. The university does not have a full accounting of the costs associated with their chosen administrative and structural arrangements.”

His suggestions, though making much of the value of staying in Athabasca and heavily emphasizing the importance of its continuing role in the institution, involve moving a lot of people and infrastructure out of it and doing a lot of stuff through web conferencing. He walks a tricky political tightrope, trying to avoid the hot potato of moving away while suggesting ways that we should leave. He is right on both counts.

Short circuits in our communications infrastructure

Though cost, lack of decent ICT infrastructure, and difficulties recruiting good people are factors in making Athabasca a hobble for us, the biggest problem is, again, structural. Unlike those working online, among those living and working in the town of Athabasca itself, all the traditional knowledge flows occur without impediment, almost always to the detriment of more inclusive ways of online communication. Face to face dialogue inevitably short-circuits online engagement – always has, always will. People in Athabasca, as any humans would and should, tend to talk among themselves, and tend to only communicate with others online, as the rest of us do, in directed, intentional ways. This might not be so bad were it not for the fact that Athabasca is very unrepresentative of the university population as a whole, containing the bulk of our administrators, managers, and technical staff, with less than 10 actual faculty in the region. This is a separate subculture, it is not the university, but it has enormous sway over how we evolve. It is not too surprising that our most critical learning systems account for only about 5% of our IT budget because that side of things is barely heard of among decision-makers and implementors that live there and they only indirectly have to face the consequences of its failings (a matter made much worse by the way we disempower the tutors that have to deal with them most of all, and filter their channels of communication through just a handful of obligated committee members). It is no surprise that channels of communication are weak because those that design and maintain them can easily bypass the problems they cause. In fact, if there were more faculty there, it would be even worse, because then we would never face any of the problems encountered by our students. Further concentrations of staff in Edmonton (where most faculty reside), St Albert (mainly our business faculty) and Calgary do not help one bit, simply building further enclaves, which again lead to short circuits in communication and isolated self-reinforcing clusters that distort our perspectives and reduce online communication. Ideas, innovations, and concerns do not spread because of hierarchies that isolate them, filter them as they move up through the hierarchy, and dissipate them in Athabasca. Such clustering could be a good part of the engine that drives adaptation: natural ecosystems diversify thanks to parcellation. However, that’s not how it works here, thanks to the aforementioned excess in structure and process and the fact that those clusters are far from independently evolving. They are subject to the same rules and the same selection pressures as one another, unable to independently evolve because they are rigidly, structurally, and technologically bound to the centre. This is not evolution – it is barely even design, though every part of it has been designed and top-down structures overlay the whole thing. It’s a side effect of many small decisions that, taken as a whole, result in a very flawed system.

This can and must change.

The town of Athabasca and what it means to us

Athabasca high street

Though I have made quite a few day trips to Athabasca over the years, I had never stayed overnight until around convocation time this year. Though it was a busy few days so I only had a little chance to explore, I found it to be a fascinating place that parallels AU in many ways. The impression it gives is of a raw, rather broken-down and depressed little frontier town of around 4,000 souls (a village by some reckonings) and almost as many churches. It was once a thriving staging post on the way to the Klondike gold rush, when it was filled with the rollicking clamour of around 20,000 prospectors dreaming of fortunes. Many just passed through, but quite a few stayed, helping to define some of its current character but, when the gold rush died down, there was little left to sustain a population. Much of the town still feels a bit temporary, still a bit of a campground waiting to turn into a real town. Like much of Northern Alberta, its fortunes in more recent years have been significantly bound to the oil business, feeding an industry that has no viable future and the morals of an errant crow, tied to its roller coaster fortunes. There are signs that money has been around, from time to time: a few nice buildings, a bit of landscaping here and there, a memorial podium at Athabasca Landing.  But there are bigger signs that it has left.

Athabasca Landing

Today, Athabasca’s bleak main street is filled with condemned buildings, closed businesses, discount stores, and shops with ‘sale’ signs in their windows. There are two somewhat empty town centre pubs, where a karaoke night in one will denude the other of almost all its customers.

There are virtually no transit links to the outside world: one Greyhound bus from Edmonton (2 hours away) comes through it, in the dead of night, and passenger trains stopped running decades ago. The roads leading in and out are dangerous: people die way too often getting there, including one of our most valued colleagues in my own school. It is never too far from being reclaimed by the forces of nature that surround it. Moose, bear, deer, and coyotes wander fairly freely. Minus forty temperatures don’t help, nor does a river that is pushed too hard by meltwaters from the rapidly receding Athabasca Glacier and that is increasingly polluted by the side-effects of oil production.

Athabasca

So far so bleak. But there are some notable upsides too. The town is full of delightfully kind, helpful, down-to-earth people infused with that wonderful Canadian spirit of caring for their neighbours, grittily facing the elements with good cheer, getting up early, eating dinner in the late afternoon, gathering for potlucks in one another’s houses, and organizing community get-togethers. The bulk of housing is well cared-for, set in well-tended gardens, in quiet, neat little streets. I bet most people there know their neighbours and their kids play together. Though tainted by its ties with the oil industry, the town comes across as, fundamentally, a wholesome centre for homesteaders in the region, self-reliant and obstinately surviving against great odds by helping one another and helping themselves. The businesses that thrive are those selling tools, materials, and services to build and maintain your farm and house, along with stores for loading your provisions into your truck to get you through the grim winters. It certainly helps that a large number of residents are employees of the university, providing greater diversity than is typically found in such settlements, but they are frontier folk like the rest. They have to be.

It would be unthinkable to pull the university out at this point – it would utterly destroy an already threatened town and, I think, it would cause great damage to the university. This was clearly at the forefront of Coates’s mind, too. The solution is not to withdraw from this strange place, but to dilute and divert the damage it causes and perhaps, even, to find ways to use its strengths. Greater engagement with Northern communities might be one way to save it – we have some big largely empty buildings up there that will be getting emptier, and that might not be a bad place for some face-to-face branching out, perhaps semi-autonomously, perhaps in partnership with colleges in the region. It also has potential as a place for a research retreat though it is not exactly a Mecca that would draw people to it, especially without transit links to sustain it. A well-designed research centre cost a fortune to build, though, so it would be nice to get some use out of it.

Perhaps more importantly, we should not pull out because Athabasca is a part of the soul of the institution. It is a little fitting that Athabasca University has – not without resistance – had its fortunes tied to this town. Athabasca is kind-of who we are and, to a large extent, defines who we should aspire to be. As an institution we are, right now, a decaying frontier town on the edge of civilization that was once a thriving metropolis, forced to help ourselves and one another battle with the elements, a caring bunch of individuals bound by a common purpose but stuck in a wilderness that cares little for us and whose ties with the outside world are fickle, costly, and tenuous. Athabasca is certainly a hobble but it is our hobble and, if we want to move on, we need to find ways to make the best of it – to find value in it, to move people and things away from it that it impedes the most, at least where we can, but to build upon it as a mythic hub that helps to define our identity, a symbolic centre for our thinking. We can and will help ourselves and one another to make it great again. And we have a big advantage that our home town lacks: a renewable and sustainable resource and product. Very much unlike Athabasca the town, the source of our wealth is entirely in our people, and the means we have for connecting them. We have the people already: we just need to refocus on the connection.