Editorial Pages

THIS WEEK

EDUCATION – From Communism To Free Enterprise – New Voice writer, Jana Thurova, talks about how education has changed in Slovakia with the fall of communism, and how North American education compares.

GRADUATION – What Comes Next? – Debbie Jabbour learns that earning a degree is only half the battle.

BRYON PAEGE MEMORIAL AWARD WINNER ANNOUNCED – Congratulations to AU student Joy Krys!

AU SHORT ON RESEARCH OPPORTUNTIES

Research. To a new university student, it sounds intimidating – something you read, not something you do. Something engaged in by professors and grad students. Certainly not something a lowly undergrad would perform on their own.

Very little emphasis in placed on research in the undergrad years, although you will be taught about how it should be done, how the results should be tabulated, and if you are going to succeed, you will quickly learn how to locate quality, current research from the vast sea of scholarly publications filling any university library.

Once you get past the first couple of years, and start tackling the senior courses, research will become less something you learn about, and more something you do. The change happens almost imperceptibly – first you are simply quoting from a few good sources, and then – later on – you are developing theses and writing in-depth literature reviews to support your theory. You begin using the information that is available to reach new conclusions, to disprove old theories, or to find new avenues of discussion that have been previously overlooked.

This is research, in its first stages.

If you are AU student, this may be as far as you go. In a senior psychology course you may be asked to run a small experiment and analyze the data; you may interview or counsel a friend or fellow student as part of a project or practice session in career counselling, or counselling psych. But serious research, of the kind that becomes published or that is integrated into future teachings? Forget it.

This situation is unique to AU. Other universities offer significant research opportunities. Professors at those schools are not simply teachers – they are working doctors, who continually work to advance their knowledge of and participation in their fields through research projects, published papers and books, and symposium participation. Most often, professors are assisted in their research by students, who apply for the positions as part time jobs while they work on their degrees, or as extra-credit projects to speed up their learning process.

Students nearing the end of their degree may also apply for teaching assistant positions, where they can get hands-on experience with instructing a class, answering student questions, and developing confidence in their academic ability, all while working under a more experienced professor. The professor also benefits by being able to handle more students, or by being able to devote more time to precious research, thus furthering learning for everyone in the field.

AU also has many experienced and dedicated academics among its faculty, but research within AU is sparse. Certainly many AU tutors attend and present at conferences and symposiums, they publish papers and books, and many also work concurrently at other universities. Full-scale research projects, with student involvement, are rare, however.

This represents the greatest shortcoming of an AU education. People often ask DE students if they feel they are receiving a lower quality of education through distance learning. In most respects I would say no. I know that our tutors are as skilled and experienced as those at any university – some exceptionally so. We have more tutor contact, and the work-at-your-own-pace philosophy allows students who want to excel to take their education as far as they dare to dream. We have many opportunities to learn beyond the material..

Nevertheless, I sometimes do feel that my AU education is substandard to a traditional education, and this simply because of the lack of research opportunities.

At other schools, research jobs can range from massive projects that span multiple semesters, to small, finite studies that are completed over the course of a few weeks. Sometimes the job of the student is challenging and time consuming, while in other projects students many simply collect data or perform some interviews. But what is true of all research opportunities is that they allow a student to go beyond their learning and begin to experience what it is like to be part of the evolution of knowledge in a field. It is part of the real world experience that is common to colleges and trade schools, but de-emphasized in traditional university course learning.

Most importantly, it is something that a student can place on his or her Curriculum Vitae or academic resume.

This resume might not seem very important if you simply want to become a university graduate and not take your learning any further. However, research experience may be relevant to an employer looking for an educated employee, and it might give you an edge over other applicants. More importantly, research becomes a significant factor when a student decides to apply for a graduate program.

Not all universities practice ‘open’ enrolment like AU, and most of us want to keep our options open so that we can go on to study anywhere in the world. But, if you want to get into a masters program at another school, you will have to go through an application process and receive approval from a professor in that program.

Many factors are taken into consideration when a student applies for masters studies. Generally a student must show aptitude in their chosen field of study, have an undergrad degree in that field, and demonstrate high academic skills. These criteria are almost always listed in vague terms, as it’s up to the course professors to make individual assessments of interested students. I recall from my own reading on the subject, that the American Psychological Association – in their manual on applying for grad studies – lists previous research experience as being of medium importance in grad applications. In cases where many students apply for limited spaces in a program, a background in research can often be the deciding factor. The more challenging the program, and the more limited the space, the more important research experience becomes.

Additionally, research is very important for professors and other academic staff. It is what helps an academic professional remain in high standing among others in his or her field – and it is a significant factor when a professor wishes to apply for work at another school. If a university wants to draw the very best academic staff, it must provide an environment that nurtures academic growth.

AU, however, does not do this. I have had discussions with two AU academics in the past who have said they would very much like to launch a research project, but those projects never seem to take off. Several students have indicated an interest in being involved in research, and the further along their studies, the more urgent this need becomes. Nevertheless, the opportunities are not here.

Part of the reason is that AU simply does not have a program whereby academics can apply for research funding. We reported last week that two AU professors had received significant research funds, but this money came from the Canadian government. There is nothing so unusual about this, but in most cases universities have at least some involvement in providing research opportunities. For example, universities are responsible for hiring teaching assistants – something AU simply does not do.

I would like to hear from other AU students on this very important issue. Do you want to be involved in research at AU? Do you feel that the lack of such opportunities has had a negative impact on your learning?

Send me your comments, and I’ll publish them in an upcoming Sounding Off column. Even if you don’t want to be published, let me know what you think. Write me at voice@ausu.org. You may also contact the students’ union at ausu@ausu.org if you feel this is an area that the union should focus on.

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