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.

Three reasons why Athabasca University’s leaders must never be made to live in Athabasca

I’ve said this before but it needs more emphasis. In the past week or so it has become increasingly clear that the real agenda of the Albertan government is not (directly) to forcibly move 500 unwilling AU staff to the town of Athabasca. That’s just smoke and mirrors intended to distract us from the real agenda, which is to oust the current (brilliant, visionary, capable) executive team  – most of whom will resign rather than relocate to Athabasca – and then to replace them with lackeys who will (quietly, out of the public eye) do the government’s dirty work for them. This has been made very explicit by the minister for post secondary education over several months, saying, for instance:

“When it comes to the non-instructional staff, particularly the senior administrative and executive management positions, those should indeed be based in the town” (Town & Country Today, May 2022)

The government has already installed a chair of the board of governors (ironically, a Calgary-based lawyer) who is explicitly on their side, as well as board members from the town of Athabasca. All they need to do now is to replace our leaders with people they can control, and the job is done.

This is the real threat. This is the real plan. This is what will destroy us.

Firstly, the chances of getting a great executive team will be very slim if they have to live in Athabasca. On average, our past hires in the town have been mediocre at best though, admittedly, this is skewed by some who have been outstandingly awful. On average, acknowledging the odd high spot here and there, the remainder have been pretty average. The executive team is, more than everyone else, the group of employees that has the biggest effect on the university, its vision, its teaching, and its success. More than anyone else, they must be the best. Everyone accepts this when it comes to faculty and tutors, so why not for the exec team that matters more?

Secondly, whether they are lackeys or simply those who are less capable of resistance than our current team, they will push through the agenda that has been causing so much bad press of late. It will take a bit longer to move 500 people than the two years required in the minister’s recent letter to the board, and maybe it will ‘only’ wind up being a few hundred people, but it will happen, without the adverse press headlines and multiple channels of resistance.

Thirdly – and ultimately perhaps the most damagingly – the executives who live in the town will inevitably pay more attention to those physically surrounding them. These will never include faculty and tutors (everyone agrees on that, even the minister) so we will slide back into the admin-driven mire that messed up many things over the last few decades, and from which we have only been emerging for the last 5 years.

As a result, we will fade into obscurity, if we survive at all.

Our nascent but emerging online, inclusive community that has struggled to grow over the past 5 years, despite resistance from those who love their comfortably complacent old ways, will once again shrivel to an irrelevance, crowded out by the in-person short-circuits. Faculty and tutors will again be isolated from administrators and professional staff, whose stronger influence will determine most of our policies. Faculty – the ones doing the teaching and research – will again be the ones ‘calling in’ to in-person meetings, inevitably less significant and with a smaller voice than those attending meetings in person. Online communication will revert to being instrumental, focused, and bland. Tacit knowledge will fail to spread, except among those working in person.

The systems, approaches and vision that have driven us for the last 5 years, most notably the near-virtual policy, that could and should lead us to expand in all good ways (pedagogically, geographically, demographically, digitally, in community, in quality, in belongingness, in numbers, and more) will be wiped off the map.

Ironically, the brighter future of the town of Athabasca itself – that, right now, involves us in repurposing and redeveloping our physical headquarters to be so much more than an admin centre, that is focused on developing the region, doing research, engaging with local partners, and upping the skills, knowledge, and significance of the community – will fade, as our campus once again slips back into being little more than a bunch of offices for administrators. Without diversity or investment in its infrastructure or transit options to it, there will not be jobs for the families of those required to work there. It will continue its long slide into decay. The university itself will diminish in numbers and relevance, so those who have moved there will lose jobs, with nowhere else to go.

All of this will occur thanks, ultimately, to the scheming and machinations of one minority faction of workers in Athabasca that instigated the political lobbying in the first place, that cares more about the short-term future of a small town of less than 3000 people than for our 40,000 students and the future of education in this country. Those who have led the attack have never even acknowledged this conflict of interest.

It is a far harder sell to start a movement to resist the relocation of less than 10 executive staff – whose popularity is far from universal, thanks to the huge disruptive changes they have spearheaded, the least popular of which have been (you guessed it) driven by the Albertan government – than to resist the uprooting of everyone else apart from faculty and tutors, but this is the real battleground. This is the fight that we must not lose.

Keep Athabasca University’s leaders out of the town of Athabasca!

Wherever you live, please make your views known by contacting the Minister, Demetrios Nicolaides, at ae.minister@gov.ab.ca, or comment on social media, by tagging @demetriosnAB on Twitter, , #abpoli. Blog about it, write to the press about it, lobby outside the gates of the Albertan legislature, tell your friends, whatever: make a fuss.

Thanks @demetriosnAB for your generous offer. We completely misunderstood that you wanted to help us. Here’s what we need…

Dear Demetrios Nicolaides

You say,

I’ve offered to provide any kind of assistance that the university needs. They haven’t asked for any.

This is very kind! I am sorry for all the very, very, very bad thoughts I have been thinking about you and your party. So, all we had to do was ask, eh?

We currently (in ball park terms) have about 300 staff in Athabasca out of a total of roughly 1200 staff overall. You want 65% of us to live there. So, what we need is:

  • ongoing funding to pay the salaries of 1500 new staff;
  • good, diverse, well-paid jobs for their families (yes, we have families);
  • support for building new homes to house the new staff;
  • computers, software, cloud services, high speed reliable internet to the town (not the rubbish we have now) for those new staff;
  • extra buildings to house them on the campus, including canteens, leisure facilities, etc;
  • regular, frequent transit links to the town of Athabasca.

We’ll let you off paying for 8 of those staff if you let our execs live wherever the hell they want. Maybe you could re-use the absurdly overblown presidential accommodation to house a family or six.

This is just a guess, but I think that, in total, such assistance might just about raise the government funding per student that you currently so generously provide us to around 70-80% of what you currently give to other Albertan universities.

It’s still a damn fool place to put a university so you’d better be prepared to offer some much better incentives for those you are forcing to live there. Higher pay, of course, maybe a free vehicle (electric, of course – you wouldn’t want to increase the outrageously high environmental impact of this proposal even more, would you?). If you expect us to do proper research, attracting international and national partners and research students, we will need at least a good rail link to the nearest international airport (you could have one built at Athabasca, perhaps? Imagine the additional benefits to Northern communities! Who wouldn’t want to fly to Athabasca rather than, say, Edmonton or Calgary?). You should probably improve and better maintain the road into town so that it stops killing and injuring our colleagues. We really don’t like that aspect of the job. It puts people off working there.

So, at the end of it, with all these additional expenses, you might have to put us nearly on par for per-student funding with the rest of Alberta’s comprehensive research universities. On the bright side, you’ll not have to pay for all the lawsuits and payouts for constructive dismissal, nor the humiliation of having destroyed one of the world’s finest universities, and I bet it would win you a ton of votes.

Thank you for the offer. Over to you.

Jon

P.S. And please, please, please would you just stop it with the micromanaging? It would save us all much unnecessary work and pain. More savings there.

P.P.S. And please stop talking about “not reinventing the school’s mandate but simply trying to reverse the trend away from it”  by the way. You’re just lending fuel to the popular misconception that there are liars, damned liars, and politicians. I suppose you mean the mandate forced on us against our will 40 years ago that made the president and half the faculty resign? The one that was rescinded decades ago because it was completely unworkable for a university hoping to hire top quality researchers, teachers, tutors, professional staff, and administrators? That one?

P.P.P.S. ‘An ultimatum (/ˌʌltɪˈmeɪtəm/; Latin for ‘the last one’) is a demand whose fulfillment is requested in a specified period of time and which is backed up by a threat to be followed through in case of noncompliance’. Sound familiar?

For anyone else reading this…

Wherever you live, please make your views known by contacting the Minister, Demetrios Nicolaides, at ae.minister@gov.ab.ca, or comment on social media, by tagging @demetriosnAB on Twitter, , #abpoli. Blog about it, write to the press about it, lobby outside the gates of the Albertan legislature, tell your friends, whatever: make a fuss.

 

Mediaeval Teaching in the Digital Age (slides from my keynote at Oxford Brookes University, May 26, 2021)

 front slide, mediaeval teaching

These are the slides from my keynote today at the Oxford Brookes “Theorizing the Virtual” School of Education Research Conference. As theorizing the virtual is pretty much my thing, I was keen to be a part of this! It was an ungodly hour of the day for me (2am kickoff) but it was worth staying up for. It was a great bunch of attendees who really got into the spirit of the thing and kept me wide awake. I wish I could hang around for the rest of it but, on the bright side, at least I’m up at the right time to see the Super Flower Blood Moon (though it’s looking cloudy, darn it).  In this talk I dwelt on a few of the notable differences between online and in-person teaching. This is the abstract…

Pedagogical methods (ways of teaching) are solutions to problems of helping people to learn, in a context filled with economic, physical, temporal, legal, moral, social, political, technological, and organizational constraints. In mediaeval times books were rare and unaffordable, and experts’ time was precious and limited, so lectures were a pragmatic solution, but they in turn created more problems. Counter-technologies such as classes, classrooms, behavioural rules and norms, courses, terms, curricula, timetables and assignment deadlines were were devised to solve those problems, then methods of teaching (pedagogies) were in turn invented to solve problems these counter-technologies caused, notably including:
· people who might not want (or be able) to be there at that time,
· people who were bored and
· people who were confused.
Better pedagogies supported learner needs for autonomy and competence, or helped learners find relevance to their own goals, values, and interests. They exploited physical closeness for support, role-modelling, inspiration, belongingness and so on. However, increasingly many relied on extrinsic motivators, like classroom discipline, grades and credentials to coerce students to learn. Extrinsic motivation achieves compliance, but it makes the reward or avoidance of the punishment the goal, persistently and often permanently crowding out intrinsic motivation. Intelligent students respond with instrumental approaches, satisficing, or cheating. Learning seldom persists; love of the subject is subdued; learners learn to learn in ineffective ways. More layers of counter-technologies are needed to limit the damage, and so it goes on.
Online, the constraints are very different, and its native forms are the motivational inverse of in-person learning. An online teacher cannot control every moment of a learner’s time, and learners can use the freedoms they gain to take the time they need, when they need it, to learn and to reflect, without the constraints of scheduled classroom hours and deadlines. However, more effort is usually needed to support their needs for relatedness. Unfortunately, many online teachers try (or are required) to re-establish the control they had in the classroom through grading or the promise of credentials, recreating the mediaeval problems that would otherwise not exist, using tools like learning management systems that were designed (poorly) to replicate in-person teaching functions. These are solutions to the problems caused by counter-technologies, not to problems of learning.
There are better ways, and that’s what this session is about.

front slide, mediaeval teaching

Beyond learning outcomes

What we teach, what a student learns, what we assess This is a slide deck for a talk I’m giving today, at a faculty workshop, on the subject of learning outcomes.

I think that well-considered learning outcomes can be really helpful when planning and designing learning activities, especially where there is a need to assess learning. They can help keep a learning designer focused, and to remember to ensure that assessment activities actually make a positive contribution to learning. They can also be helpful to teachers while teaching, as a framework to keep them on track (if they wish to remain on track).  However, that’s about it. Learning outcomes are not useful when applied to bureaucratic ends, they are very poor descriptors of what learning actually happens, as a rule, and they are of very little (if any) use to students under most circumstances (there are exceptions – it’s a design issue, not a logical flaw).

The big point of my talk, though, is that we should be measuring what students have actually learned, not whether they have learned what we think we have taught, and that the purpose of everything we do should be to support learning, not to support bureaucracy.

I frame this in terms of the relationships between:

  • what we teach (what we actually teach, not just what we think we are teaching, including stuff like attitudes, beliefs, methods of teaching, etc),
  • what a student learns in the process (an individual student, not students as a whole), and
  • what we assess (formally and summatively, not necessarily as part of the learning process).

There are many things that we teach that any given student will not learn, albeit that (arguably) we wouldn’t be teaching at all if learning were not happening for someone. Most students get a small subset of that. There are also many things that we teach without intentionally teaching, not all of them good or useful.

There are also very many things that students learn that we do not teach, intentionally or otherwise. In fact, it is normal for us to mandate this as part of a learning design: any mildly creative or problem-solving/inquiry-oriented activity will lead to different learning outcomes for every learner. Even in the most horribly regimented teaching contexts, students are the ones that connect everything together, and that’s always going to include a lot more than what their teachers teach.

Similarly, there are lots of things that we assess that we do not teach, even with great constructive alignment. For example, the students’ ability to string a sentence together tends to be not just a prerequisite but something that is actively graded in typical assessments.

My main points are that, though it is good to have a teaching plan (albeit that it should be flexible,  reponsive to student needs, and should accommodate serendipity)learning :

  • students should be participants in planning outcomes and
  • we should assess what students actually learn, not what we think we are teaching.

From a learning perspective, there’s less than no point in summatively judging what learners have not learned. However, that’s exactly what most institutions actually do. Assessment should be about how learners have positively changed, not whether they have met our demands.

This also implies that students should be participants in the planning and use of learning outcomes: they should be able to personalize their learning, and we should recognize their needs and interests. I use andragogy to frame this, because it is relatively uncontroversial, is easily understood, and doesn’t require people to change everything in their world view to become better teachers, but I could have equally used quite a large number of other models. Connectivism, Communities of Practice, and most constructivist theories, for instance, force us to similar conclusions.

I suggest that appreciative inquiry may be useful as an approach to assessment, inasmuch as the research methodology is purpose-built to bring about positive change, and its focus on success rather than failure makes sense in a learning context.

I also suggest the use of outcome mapping (and its close cousin, outcome harvesting) as a means of capturing unplanned as well as planned outcomes. I like these methods because they only look at changes, and then try to find out what led to those changes. Again, it’s about evaluation rather than judgment.