AU’s Learning Centers Don’t Make The Grade

January 8, 2003

Athabasca university offers education with convenience that is unparalleled by traditional universities. Everyone who is capable of completing the course work, has equal access to an AU degree, regardless of their geographic location, work schedule, child-care [or elder care] responsibilities, or physical or psychological limitations.

AU, in so many ways, fulfills the promise of providing open and accessible education. Our school also, despite ever increasing tuition costs, continues to provide excellent value for our money by including books with tuition, and mitigating the cost of traveling to and from school.

I’ve been very happy with all of these aspects of AU, expect for one little thing – something that mystifies me, and makes me wonder if the school is really in touch with student needs.

I’m talking here about the location of the AU Learning Centers. Both Calgary and Edmonton have learning centers, and both — amazingly — are located in the downtown core area of the cities.

This makes little sense to me. No other university has set up shop in the highest rent district of a city, with the exception of Mount Royal College, and this is just one of four campuses, with the rest located in outlying areas. SAIT has a second campus, but it is in the low-cost Mayland heights area. It simply makes sense to locate a school in low-rent districts where large facilities can more easily be afforded. It is not like AU gets a lot of walk in business.

Nevertheless, AU has chosen to place a school — of all things — in the downtown core of both Calgary and Edmonton. Predictably, the AU office space is tiny, and poorly built. Most of the internal walls are only-slightly-better-than-a-cubicle partition dividers, and sound travels with amazing ease. Anyone who has written an exam at the CLC knows that the exam room is astonishingly noisy, and that any conversation within 10 feet of the door travels through with little impediment. I have been told that the Edmonton center is similar.

The Calgary office is located in an area that is currently under heavy construction. Large condominium complexes are being built nearby in three directions, and this construction has been going on for a couple of years. I had the pleasure of once writing an exam at the CLC while a huge crane noisily hoisted structural steel high into the sky just outside the window. I also had the good fortune to write on the day that one of the AU offices — the one adjoining the exam invigilator’s booth — was loaned out for use for an office party. There is nothing like peals of laughter, glasses clinking, screams, guffaws, and general everyone-is-happy-and-talking-louder-than-everyone-else banter to make the test writing process a real dream.

I complained after I was done my test, and I was told that if it was bothering me I should have said something earlier. But they knew the noise was going on. Everyone in the exam room was rolling their eyes, sighing, muttering complaints, and otherwise quietly griping. The thing is, I’m not sure much could have been done, anyway. As I said, the walls are so thin, you can only get quiet if no one outside the room talks. Even when the invigilator is on the phone in her booth, you can hear everything she says.

Size is a big issue with the Learning Centers. There is hardly any space for paced course rooms, and the exam rooms are simply too small. More students attend AU each year, and I’m already running into the problem of having to choose several alternate times when I want to write an exam, because often the exam room is full for the time I want. Of course there is always plenty of room if you want to write in the beginning or middle of a month, but this does mean that you have to forfeit some of your contracted course time.

AU really seems to need more space, but due to high rental costs for the buildings, they can’t get much more. Clearly, however, if the buildings were in an area outside of downtown, substantially more space would be easily affordable. Given that AU has indicated that they are feeling the crunch of inflation, you would think that they would stop wasting money on high profile downtown offices that offer little value to students.

Placing the offices downtown not only costs more for AU, but for students as well. Parking prices are astronomical downtown, and I have sometimes had to pay as much as $8 just to park long enough to write a test. Some AU courses now have 2 exams, which doubles the parking costs, and doubles the stress of driving around downtown trying to find a place to park. This assumes, of course, that you are brave enough to leave your car in a downtown lot, and that you are brave enough to walk around downtown alone. The CLC is on a really seedy street, and I’ve had a couple encounters with really scary individuals around there. In fact, I was told by a CLC staff member that they keep their stairwell door locked at all times due to vagrants coming in.

Writing exams is stressful enough, without the added stress of getting downtown and parking. Using transit is not an option for all people, and this should be a personal choice. Also, keep in mind that AU has a large number of students with anxiety disorders, agoraphobia, and similar conditions, and that for these people, the atmosphere of the downtown core at 9:00 am, 1:00 pm or 4:30 pm [the most common exam times, which also coincide with the highest traffic times downtown], is very distressing.

I asked once, why the CLC had to be in such a lousy location, and was told that they had to be located downtown as it was easily accessible by transit, and most people use transit.

I think that sounds like bullshit, to be honest. Pardon my language, but really? Let’s look at that. First, you have little choice but to use transit downtown, but that does not imply a preference for it. Second, the mean age of AU students is higher than most universities, and older students more often have vehicles. In fact, when I’ve been sitting around waiting to write an exam, the common small talk among those waiting has been about the difficulty of finding parking. Third, while transit access is important, you don’t have to be downtown to ensure it. There are many places in the city with excellent transit access. Why in northeast Calgary there are many large, low cost office locations with ample parking, and the c-train runs right along large portions of it. I know of two technical schools that have had their space in this area for some time. I’ve peered in the door of the tech school in my area, and noticed all the space and thought longingly how I’d love to park out front, come inside, and write my exams there. I have wished I lived more than 100 kms from a campus, so that I write at a school of my choice.

I was excited a year ago when I heard the CLC lease was about to expire, but stunned when I heard that AU actually signed on for another term in this crappy location! I hate writing tests there so much, I actually avoid those courses with extra invigilated exams. A while back, I was thinking of taking Norman Temple’s much lauded nutrition course [and probably will eventually], but didn’t due to the fact that it is only 3 credits but has 2 invigilated exams. It’s just too much hassle to take a course that hauls me downtown twice for only 3 credits. I find exams to be pretty stressful (based on all the books on coping with exam anxiety, I’d say I’m not alone) and writing at the CLC is the worst.

IKEA keeps prices low for customers by utilizing a number of cost saving techniques. They ship items flat, produce in bulk, eschew on-floor salesmen, and they only build IKEA stores in areas of the city that have low property value. It’s right in their mission statement. It makes good sense. Most universities, colleges, and technical schools are also located in lower cost areas, where they can have a lot of land and ample classroom space. Only AU has decided that expensive, cramped office space with a downtown address is preferable to a more functional, and cheaper space elsewhere.

It’s mysterious…

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.

%d bloggers like this: