Why so many questions?

Athabasca River Flood

At Athabasca University, our proposed multi-million dollar investment in a student relationship management system, dubbed the ‘Student Success Centre’ (SSC), is causing quite a flood of discussion and debate among faculty and tutors at the moment. Though I do see some opportunities in this if (and only if) it is very intelligently and sensitively designed, there are massive and potentially fatal dangers in creating such a thing.  See a previous post of mine for some of my worries. I have many thoughts on the matter, but one thing strikes me as interesting enough to share more widely and, though it has a lot to do with the SSC, it also has broader implications.

Part of the justification for the SSC is that an alleged 80% of current interactions with students are about administrative rather than academic issues. I say ‘alleged’ because such things are notoriously hard to measure with any accuracy. But let’s assume that it actually is accurate.

How weird is that?

Why is it that our students (apparently) need to contact us for admin support in overwhelming numbers but actually hardly talk at all about the complicated subjects they are taking? Assuming that these 80% of interactions are not mostly to complain about things that have gone wrong (if so, an SSC is not the answer!) then it seems, on the face of it, more than a bit topsy turvy.
 
One reasonable explanation might be that our course materials are so utterly brilliant that they require little further interaction, but I am not convinced that this sufficiently explains the disparity. Students are mostly spending 100+ hours on academic work for each course whereas (I hope) at most a couple of hours are spent on administrivia. No matter how amazing our courses might be, the difference is remarkable. It is doubly remarkable when you consider that a fair number of our courses do involve at least some required level of interaction which, alone, should easily account for most if not more than all of that remaining 20%. In my own courses it is a lot more than that and I am aware of many others with very active Landing groups, Moodle forums, webinar sessions, and even the occasional visit to an immersive world.
 
It is also possible that our administrative processes are extremely opaque and ill-explained. This certainly accords with my own experience of trying to work out something as simple as how much a course would cost or the process needed to submit project work. But, if that is the case, and assuming our distance, human-free teaching works as well as we believe it does, then why can we not a) simplify the processes and b) provide equally high quality learning materials for our admin processes so that students don’t need to bother our admin staff so much? If our course materials are so great then that would seem, on the face of it, very much more cost-effective than spending millions on a system that is at least as likely to have a negative as a positive impact and that actually increases our ongoing costs considerably. It is also quite within the capabilities of our existing skillset.
 
Even so, it seems very odd to me that students can come to terms with inordinately complex subjects from philosophy to biochemistry, but that they are foiled by a simple bit of bureaucracy and need to seek human assistance. It may be hard, but it is not beyond the means of a motivated learner to discover, especially given that we are specialists in producing high quality learning materials that should make such things very clear. And in motivation, I think, lies the key.
 
 

Other people matter

Other people are wonderful things when you need to learn something, pretty much across the board. Above all they matter when there is no obvious reason that you should be interested or care about it for its own merits, and bureaucratic procedures are seldom very interesting. I have known only one person in my whole life that actually likes filling in forms (I think it is a meditative pursuit – my father felt much the same way about dishwashing and log sawing) but, for the most part, this is not a thing that excites most people.  
 
I hypothesize that our students tend to need less academic than bureaucratic help at least partly because, by and large, for the coursework they are very self-motivated people learning things that interest them whereas our bureaucracy is at most a means to an end, at worst a demotivating barrier. It would not help much to provide great teaching materials for bureaucratic procedures because 99% of students would have no intrinsic interest in learning about them, and it would have zero value to them in any future activity. Why would they bother? It is far easier to ask someone.
 
Our students actually like the challenge of facing and solving problems in their chosen subjects – in fact, that’s one of the great joys of learning. They don’t turn to tutors to discuss things because there are plenty of other ways of getting the help they need, both in course materials and elsewhere, and it is fun to overcome obstacles. The more successful ones tend to have supportive friends, families or colleagues, or are otherwise very single-minded. They tend to know why they are doing what they are doing. We don’t get many students that are not like this, at least on our self-paced courses, because either they don’t bother coming in the first place or they are among the scarily large percentage that drop out before starting (we don’t count them in our stats though, in fairness, neither to face-to-face universities).
 
But, of course, that only applies for students that do really like the process of learning and most of what they are learning, that know how to do it and/or that have existing support networks. It does not apply to those that hit very difficult or boring spots, that give up before they start, that hit busy times that mean they cannot devote the energy to the work, that need a helping hand with the process but cannot find it elsewhere, or that don’t bother even looking at a distance option at all because they do not like the isolation it (apparently) entails. For those students, other people can help a lot. Even for our own students, over half (when asked) claim that they would appreciate more human interaction. And those are the ones that have knowingly self-selected a largely isolated process and that have not already dropped out. 
 
Perhaps more worryingly, it raises concerns about the quality of the learning experience. Doing things alone means that you miss out on all the benefits of a supportive learning community. You don’t get to argue, to explain, to question, save in your own head or in formal, largely one-way, assignments. You don’t get multiple perspectives, different ways of seeing, opportunities to challenge and be challenged. You don’t get the motivation of writing for an audience of people that you care about. You don’t get people that care about you and the learning community providing support when times are hard, nor the pleasure of helping when others are in difficulty. You don’t get to compare yourself with others, the chance to reflect on how you differ and whether that is a good or bad thing. You don’t get to model behaviours or see those behaviours being modelled. These are just some of the notable benefits of traditional university systems that are relatively hard to come by in Athabasca’s traditional self-paced model (not in all courses, but in many). It’s not at all about asking questions and getting solutions. It’s about engaging in a knowledge creation process with other people. There are distinct benefits of being alone, notably in the high degree of control it brings, but a bit of interaction goes a long long way. It takes a very special kind of person to get by without that and the vast majority of our successful students (at least in undergraduate self-paced courses) are exactly that special kind of person. 
 
If it is true that only 20% of interactions are currently concerned with academic issues, that is a big reason for concern, because it means our students are missing out on an incredibly rich set of opportunities in which they can help one another as well as interact with tutors. Creating an SSC system that supports what is therefore, for those that are not happy alone (i.e. the ones we lose or never get in the first place), an impoverished experience, seems simply to ossify a process that should at least be questioned. It is not a solution to the problem – it is an exacerbation of it, further entrenching a set of approaches and methods that are inadequate for most students (the ones we don’t get or keep) in the first place.

A sustainable future?

As a university seeking sustainability we could simply continue to concentrate on addressing the needs of self-motivated, solitary students that will succeed almost no matter what we do to them, and just make the processing more cost-efficient with the SSC.  If we have enough of those students, then we will thrive for some time to come, though I can’t say it fits well with our open mission and I worry greatly about those we fail to help. If we want to get more of those self-guided students then there are lots of other things we should probably do too like dropping the whole notion of fixed-length courses (smaller chunks means the chances of hitting the motivation sweet-spot are higher) and disaggregating assessment from learning (because extrinsic motivation kills intrinsic motivation).
 
But, if we are sticking with the idea of traditional courses, the trouble is that we are no longer almost alone in offering such things and there is a finite market of self-motivated, truly independent learners who (if they have any sense) will find cheaper alternatives that offer the same or greater value. If all we are offering is the opportunity to learn independently and a bit of credible certification at the end of it, we will wind up competing on price with institutions and businesses that have deeper coffers, cheaper staff, and less constraints. In a cut-throat price war with better funded peers, we are doomed.
 
If we are to be successful in the future then we need to make more of the human side of our teaching, not less, and that means creating richer, more direct channels to other people in this learning community, not automating methods that are designed for the era of correspondence learning. This is something that, not uncoincidentally, the Landing is supposed to help with, though it is just an exemplar and at most a piece of the puzzle – we ideally want connection to be far more deeply embedded everywhere rather than in a separate site. It is also something that current pilot implementations of the SSC are antagonistic towards, thanks mainly to equating time and effort, focusing on solving specific problems rather than human connection, failing to support technological diversity, and standing as an obstacle between people that just need to talk. It doesn’t have to be built that way. It could almost as easily vanish into the background, be seamlessly hooked into our social environments like email, Moodle and the Landing, could be an admin tool that gives support when needed but disappears when not. And there is no reason whatsoever that it needs to be used to pay tutors by the recorded minute, a bad idea that has been slung on the back of it that has no place in our culture. Though not what the pilot systems do at all, a well-designed system like this could step in or be called upon when needed, could support analytics that would be genuinely helpful, could improve management information, all without getting in the way of interaction at all. In fact, it could easily be used to enhance it, because it could make patterns of dialogue more visible and comprehensible.
 

In conclusion

At Athabasca we have some of the greatest distance educators and researchers on the planet, and that greatness rubs off on those around them. As a learning community, knowledge spreads among us and we are all elevated by it. We talk about such things in person, in meetings, via Skype, in webinars, on mailing lists, on the Landing, in pubs, in cafes, etc. And, as a result, ideas, methods and values get created, transformed and flow through our network. This makes us quite unique – as all learning communities are unique – and creates the distinctive culture and values of our university that no other university can replicate. Even when people leave, they leave traces of their ideas and values in those that remain, that get passed along for long after they have gone, become part of the rich cultural identity that defines us. It’s not mainly about our structures, processes and procedures: except when they support greater interaction, those actually get in the way much of the time. It’s about a culture and community of learning. It’s about the knowledge that flows in and through this shifting but identifiable crowd. This is a large part of what gives us our identity. It’s exactly the same kind of thing that means we can talk about (say) the Vancouver Canucks or Apple Inc as a meaningful persistent entity, even though not one of the people in the organization is the same as when it began and virtually all of its processes, locations, strategies and goals beyond the most basic have changed, likely many times. The thing is, if we hide those people behind machines and processes, separate them through opaque hierarchies, reduce the tools and opportunities for them to connect, we lose almost all of the value. The face of the organization becomes essentially the face of the designer of the machine or the process and the people are simply cogs implementing it. That’s not a good way forward, especially as there are likely quite a few better machine and process designers out there. Our people – staff and students – are the gold we need to mine, and they are also the reason we are worth saving. We need to be a university that takes the distance out of distance learning, that connects, inspires, supports and nurtures both its staff and its students. Only then will we justly be able to claim to have a success centre.

 

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair.
I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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