The Challenges of Serving on a Distance University Student’s Union

My Role At AUSU

The Challenges of Serving on a Distance University Student’s Union

My first year as a Voice columnist recently came to a close, and I am already in my fifth month as a councilor on the student’s union. As I prepare my 52nd article I reflect on what I’ve written in the past, and on how I can make my future columns relevant to the AU studentry.

It is a daunting task. AU’s student populations is far more demographically diverse than most. Whereas many schools are dominated by full-time students in their early twenties, AU’s average student is in their thirties. Many already have careers, or have been in the workforce for some time. We live in all parts of the country, and a number of us live outside of it. A significant percentage of the AU population has never been to Alberta, and some have never set foot in Canada.

We have student’s who are senior citizens, retired middle-agers, mid-life career changers, and many who are mildly or severely handicapped. Many have children, many more have full time jobs, and some have both. Some come to AU for a full undergraduate or even a graduate degree – as I have – while others are taking only a few courses. The number of students who use AU courses to supplement a degree at their primary institution is always increasing.

So, there it is impossible to profile the average AU student, nor is there any simple way to know what many of our student’s most need to ensure their success. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of serving on the AUSU. Many of our students face unique challenges to completing their educations, and it is the task of the student’s union to work toward assisting with these stresses where possible. Therefore, determining the most pressing needs of the student body is essential in providing good service.

I knew this would be a difficult task when I ran for the union position. Often student’s unions will look to unions at other schools for direction, but as AUSU is currently one of the largest and most active distance learning student’s unions in the world, we are often the first to offer many programs and services. The lack of information regarding the role of student’s unions in distance learning became very apparent to me in April when I was working with AUSU’s Debbie and Shirley on a paper for the International Symposium on Educational Conferencing [ISEC]. We were writing from the student’s union perspective, and wanted to find as much material as we could that was published by distance learning student’s unions and their members. We found next to nothing.

This means that we must always look for new ways to gauge the needs of our students. A most pressing need, which was revealed through our work for the ISEC conference, is for access to and knowledge of the most modern electronic communications tools. This is a fundamental requirement that effects all AU students, regardless of age, locale, course-load, or program. Distance learners majoring in Psychology may be just as dependent on electronic communications with their tutors as are students of Computer Science. Because this need is so basic, we as a union have put a great deal of our energy into creating a more user-friendly and informative student’s union website and online newspaper. We are also working with the university through our involvement in educational conferences, and through direct contact with university staff to improve the quality of online communications for all students. These things take time. If all goes well, this article should appear in the first edition of the Voice to be published on our new searchable HTML driven format. A better AUSU site with improved services is soon to come.

I’m pleased that we have been able to address this need, but there is much more to be done. In order to continue to provide quality services to AUSU members, and to be able to provide relevant articles as a Voice columnist, I often worry that I don’t know enough about what is of interest to our readers.

This will continue to be a challenge. Our old website had forums where students could post messages on any topic. The new site will include these, and probably a live chat as well. The forums were a valuable tool for student-to-student communication but only a very small percentage of AU students used them, and the bulk of the posts were written by only a few. The posts provided a lot of valuable information to AUSU, but given the small number of students commenting, we must be careful to not assume that they constitute a representative sample of the larger AU student population.

Another source of information we rely heavily upon is our own experience as AU students. Most union members have attended AU for many semesters, and are enrolled in full degree programs. We all feel that AU is the best possible school for our needs, but we have also encountered challenges that are unique to distance learning and that are not yet addressed within the university and student’s finance systems. A number of other student’s have very likely encountered similar problems, and so we are able to put our own experiences to work in our office as councilors. Nevertheless, we also must be aware that councilors are unique in their high-level of school involvement, and are not necessarily representative of all students.

By far our most valuable tool for gauging how the union should distribute student services is to hear from you – the students. Some of you may feel that the AUSU is less accessible than other student’s organizations because we don’t have a fulltime office where you can drop in and talk to union councilors when you need to. This is true, but on the other hand, we are more accessible than most because any of us can be reached by email at any time.

No matter how well we promote the new AUSU website, and no matter how many other contact options we provide, I think we will always have a low response rate. This is due in part to a general discomfort with online communications, but I think more so it is because our students are busy people for whom school is only one major commitment that must be balanced with many others. When time for school must be carefully scheduled between children’s lunches, business meetings and picking up the dry cleaning, the functioning of the student’s union is not a pressing concern. Nor should it be. AU student’s success often depends on their ability to prioritize and effectively schedule large projects over scant pockets of free time. And so the onus is on AUSU to continue to learn about our students and their lives so that we can best anticipate their needs.

Serving on the AUSU is uniquely challenging, but also uniquely rewarding. We take pride in blazing trails that other distance learning student’s unions are only beginning to tread. Working with such a diverse group of students can be fascinating. It is especially interesting to learn about the factors which effect all of you, and to see how learning at AU can equalize the experiences of people from all walks of life. As our new newspaper site launches we will be working hard to promote it Our readership is certain to rise, and I sincerely hope that over the next year I can provide articles that are of interest to a number of students, if not all of you at once.

Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A fulltime AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.

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