This week Debbie explains the proposed changes to the course extension policy at AU [a subject on which many readers voiced their opinions in the March 19th Sounding Off. Perhaps some of you went the extra step and contacted the university with your concerns as well, because it appears that the policy is being reconsidered, as Debbie explains.
For the rest of the articles in this series about AU tuition and fee increases, see:
Part one: April 2nd (http://www.ausu.org/voice/articles/articledisplay.php?ART=1052);
Part two: April 9th (http://www.ausu.org/voice/articles/articledisplay.php?ART=1065);
Part three: April 16th (http://www.ausu.org/voice/articles/articledisplay.php?ART=1447).
At the Academic Council [AUAC] meeting of March 5, a Notice of Motion from Athabasca University VP Academic Alan Davis was on the agenda. This indicated an item that would be placed on the upcoming agenda for the April 16, 2003 AUAC meeting. The Notice of motion concerned a proposed change to the current course extension policy that would require that students apply for an extension a full month ahead of the contract date. Currently students can apply for an extension right up to the last day of their contract, and according to AU Tutor Services, the majority of students have been doing this, extending during the final four days of the month. This situation has been placing tutors in an overload situation and creating extra work for Tutor Services, therefore they had proposed that students be required to request (and pay for) extensions a month in advance as a solution to the problem.
AUAC tutor rep, Nanci Langford, was sitting next to me at that meeting, and I immediately turned to her to ask what her viewpoint was on the matter. I indicated to her that I felt this proposed change went against the idea of flexibility and the removal of barriers, and that I felt it would create a hardship for students and result in increased non-completion rates. I asked if she thought tutors were in support of this. She agreed with me that the policy would create problems for students, and it was her opinion that tutors would not be agreeable to seeing this implemented, since they support policies that contribute to student success, not failure. After a brief discussion, we decided to take the issue back to our respective members. We would ask what everyone thought about the proposal, and we would seek suggestions regarding some better alternatives to the overload situation than what was being proposed.
Alan Davis was advised that both AUSU and CUPE (the tutor’s union) had concerns about this proposal, and that we would be opposing its implementation. He indicated that the proposal was being done at the request of tutors, and that it had already passed several sub-committees and been approved by each. I later confirmed with Shirley Barg, our AUSU rep on one of those sub-committees (Student Services Group), that she had objected to the proposal at that committee, but that her objection had been overruled. She had asked that the committee look at alternatives, such as bringing back “incomplete status,” an arrangement that was in existence at the university several years ago that allowed students an unpaid extension without access to tutor support. The other sub-committee, Council of Centre Chairs, has no student representative. Alan requested that we meet with him, and that we provide any information or suggestions that we might have as to alternate ways to handle the matter. A meeting was set for April 10.
In the subsequent weeks, AUSU made an effort to gather student feedback on the proposal, and CUPE polled the tutors to see what they thought about it as well. Students were overwhelmingly against this change, citing a variety of reasons why this would negatively impact us. We also came up with several suggestions for other ways AU could solve the problem of tutor overload, and AUSU drafted a formal policy to state our stand on the issue (see below).
CUPE did the same, and a few days before the April 10th meeting, I spoke with Nanci and Donna Koziak (CUPE representative) to compare notes. As Nanci and I had suspected, both students and tutors were very much in agreement on the issue. We all wanted the extension policy left as is, and both groups had come up with some excellent suggestions that we felt AU should consider. The suggestion we felt made the most sense was to plan in advance for extensions by building some extra room in each tutor block [the block system is explained in detail below]. This was based on the idea that there is always a minimum percentage of students who will extend in any given course, therefore room could always be left in advance for this. Another suggestion was to provide a financial incentive to students who extended early, such as a reduction in the extension fee.
The tutors were not in favour of bringing back “incomplete status” as an option. This was because in the past, even though incomplete status meant students were not allowed access to tutorial support, many would still continue to contact their tutors. Rather than turn down these student requests for help, tutors would end up working for free. AUSU suggested that rather than incomplete status, an option be considered that would allow students 15 days after the contract date to write their exam. This would mean students would be required to have all their course work done by the contract date, but if unexpected circumstances came up, they could delay the writing of the exam without having to pay for an extension. Since tutors are paid for marking assignments and exams separately, this would not impact their workload the way an extension does.
Another option both CUPE and AUSU were very much in favour of was the idea of reminding students a month in advance that their contract end date was coming up, and asking them to extend immediately if they felt they would not be able to complete the course in time. Many tutors already do this, and students have reported that this is very effective (and greatly appreciated) in motivating them to get their course work done. Such an arrangement could even be programmed into the Banner registration system, so that an email reminder would be automatically generated.
On April 10, Alan and Cindy Kilborn (Tutor Services) met with myself, Nanci, and Donna. We presented our concerns about the negative impact this policy change would have on students, and offered our alternative suggestions. Alan was very amenable to trying out some different options. Cindy, however, was quite adamant that there was no other way to solve the tutor overload situation than implementing the policy. She provided a detailed explanation of how the whole process works, and it was quite informative.
The Academic Council agenda for April 16 also provided further background to the matter, and provided insight into why we have tutor overloads, and why students are often met with constant busy signals when trying to contact their tutors. According to the terms of the CUPE contract with AU, students are allocated to tutors in blocks. The number of students allowed per block varies from course to course. An individual tutor may have, for example, six spots in a course block, but only four registrations. When new registrations are received, the Banner registration system automatically distributes these students to tutors who have free space in their block. This is completed by the 10th of each month, which is the course registration deadline. However, at the end of the month, several of that tutor’s current students may extend, placing the tutor in an overload situation. Because there is currently no way to predict which students will extend, some tutors may end up with far more extensions than others. Tutors are paid for the overloads, however, it is still a frustrating situation when they are unexpectedly allocated extra students.
Hiring new tutors is also subject to the block structure, since new tutors can only be hired once a minimum block of 1/2 has been reached, and increases are always done in 1/4 block increments. Existing tutors are always given seniority preference when adding new blocks, and it is only once all existing tutor blocks are completely full that a new tutor can be hired. This means that, for example, in a course with blocks of eight students each, four new enrollments must occur before a new block will be created, and no new tutors will be hired unless all existing tutors are unable or unwilling to take on the extra hours. From discussions with Nanci and Donna, I also learned that tutor hours are allocated according to the block system, and that many tutors feel their telephone hours are inadequate.
In our meeting with Alan Davis, we acknowledged the need to solve the problem, but stated that we felt that implementing our suggestions would do this – without the negative impact that requiring one month’s advance notice for extensions would have on students. Rather than punishing students who extend in the last four days, we urged the university to accept that this is what students want, and we asked AU to find ways to be flexible and accommodating in accordance with the mission statement. Athabasca University is built on the notion of flexibility, a university that meets the needs of individual students. The reality is that students will keep trying to finish their courses right up to the last minute, only extending as a last resort. Donna pointed out that she would much rather see students have the option of extending at the last minute rather than seeing them dump all their assignments on their tutor in the last day in a desperate attempt to meet the deadline. We asked the university to plan in advance for extensions and encourage students to finish on time. Sending reminders would not only help course completion rates, it would also be a proactive, positive way for the university and tutors to maintain communication with students.
Although we felt our suggestions were excellent ones, and although Alan seemed quite favourable, Cindy’s insistence that there was no other way to deal with the problem left us feeling that the new policy would be implemented regardless of our objections. At the conclusion of the meeting, Alan said he would be discussing the matter with AU President Dominique Abrioux and would advise us regarding the final decision. I went home from that meeting very discouraged and advised AUSU Council that I felt we had been unsuccessful in our proposal.
Several days later, we were pleasantly surprised! I received an email from Alan Davis, in which he advised us that the proposed policy on course extensions was being pulled and that the university would be looking at other ways to solve the problem.
Although we were very pleased that this policy will not be implemented, it remains to be seen whether alternative measures will solve the problem. Overall, the conclusion was reached that the whole issue of course extensions was one that should be investigated and studied further. Some questions worthy of further study:
:: Do some tutors have higher rates of extension than others? Do some tutors have very low rates of extension? If so, what would be the factors causing this and could this information be used to improve student retention rates?
:: Do reminders work? Do they result in higher course completion rates?
:: How can tutors and students work together to improve successful completion of courses?
:: Is the current tutor block system to blame for tutor overload problems? Is there a possibility that a per-student system could be agreed upon by AU and the tutors?
Nanci suggested to AU that she would be willing to undertake a study to seek answers in this regard, and I offered our assistance.
Student awareness is also an important factor. Understanding how the system works, and seeing things from the tutor perspective, can be helpful in reducing frustration on both sides. It is apparent that the current system has many flaws. It was also encouraging to note that when AUSU and the tutors communicated, we were successful in finding potential solutions. For this reason I would encourage students to continue to come forward with issues of concern, whether they involve tutors, coursework, or a problem with the university itself. Problems can only be solved if we know they exist.
It’s been a difficult few months, and our advocacy on behalf of students has not always been successful. We are facing a 7.3% tuition increase, but out-of-province students will receive a benefit in the reduction of their fee. We were unsuccessful in having a benefit for multiple course takers implemented this year, but we have an agreement that AU will work on this for the next budget. And we were successful in having the proposed change to the course extension policy withdrawn.
As funding for post secondary education continues to decrease, and the pressures on universities, instructors and students increase, it is likely that students will be faced with more and more policy changes, fee hikes, and other alterations to how post-secondary education is delivered. Athabasca University is treading new ground as a national university and a leader in distance education, and will be affected by changes to education policy across the country. With so much uncertainty, your best defence is to learn as much as you can about the changing world of post-secondary education. Take time to inform yourself regarding the issues, and speak out regarding those that affect you and your university education.
Following is the formal policy that AUSU presented to the AU Academic Council regarding the proposed extension policy changes.
Athabasca University Academic Council
Agenda Item Number:
Subject: Course Extension Policy
Submitted By: Debbie Jabbour – AUSU President
Action Recommended: That Academic Council not approve the Course Extension Policy as proposed in the March 4, 2003 Notice of Motion, unless significant revisions are made.
Background: The proposed Course Extension Policy will significantly impact the ability of students to complete their courses successfully and will cause a hardship, especially to students with special needs or those on student financing.
Given Athabasca University’s unique situation, many students are working under unusual or difficult situations that preclude them from a normal university education. The flexible nature of Athabasca University’s courses provide these non-traditional students with a means of successfully completing their education.
Part of this flexibility is embodied in the Course Extension program, as this allows a student to cope with exceptional or unexpected situations such as: an increase in outside work requirements; temporary personal hardships (eg the sickness of a child or spouse); a temporary escalation in the symptoms of a mental, physical, or emotional difficulty; an extended unavoidable absence (such as being called for active military duty); or a difficulty arranging for an invigilator for an exam (such as may happen in a rural, aboriginal, or far north setting)
Since these situations are unexpected by definition, it is impossible to expect students to be able to plan for their occurrence – especially if such planning involves a significant expense (approximately 1/3rd the tuition fee of the course) that they will not be reimbursed for if the extension turns out to be unnecessary.
To address these difficulties and those raised by VP Academic Alan Davis, AUSU endorses a policy that allows maximum flexibility and support to students and uses administrative solutions to facilitate such flexibility and support by:
1. leaving the final date for arranging extensions as the contract date.
2. to reduce the need for extensions, instituting and formalizing a policy whereby students may reschedule a final exam to within two weeks of their previous exam, even if such a rescheduling would fall outside of their normal contract date
3. to encourage early extension registration, building an electronic prompt into Banner (or other appropriate technology) to remind students one month in advance of their contract date to arrange for an extension if needed,
4. to reward early extension registration, giving a reduced extension fee to students who arrange for an extension a minimum of 25 days before the end of their contract
5. to not penalize early extension registration, allowing the course extension to be cancelled and the fee refunded to the student if the student completes the course by the previous contract date.
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.