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.