The Value of Discussion at Athabasca University

I take distance classes because they fit into my life, but I also take them because I’ve attended campus-based schools and found Athabasca University classes to be as challenging and as productive. I’ve had to apply myself, and work as hard as a student who attends classes. There are, of course, certain elements of campus-based life that I knew would be lacking at a distance university. The biggest of these elements is classroom conversations and the interaction with other students. To counter this lack of interaction, AU classes may offer a discussion board or you may have the option, if you prefer, to take group study classes. Athabasca University professors are also available during office hours for one-on-one interaction should you need it.

Should these options fail you, however, you are left with little help and it can be very frustrating. The discussion boards are often not used enough to be helpful. The few classes that I’ve taken with this component have often been filled with students of past classes and the discussion borders on irrelevant. Not all classes are offered through online study, and thus we are mostly dependent on our tutors for discussion or interaction. Unfortunately, I don’t live in the Alberta time zone that many of my tutors do, and often their office hours fall too early or too late in the evening for me to reach them during these times. When a tutor has hours only once a week, and they aren’t quick to respond on email, it makes contacting them difficult.

Let me explain further. When I attended a campus-based school, it seemed like every class I attended had at least one student who raised their hand just to hear themselves talk. I know that not all in-class conversation is particularly educational, and not everyone has the same questions or the need for discussion. But usually such discussion offers perspective, and it can often allow for a better understanding of the material. The best part of in-class discussion was when professors taught you something outside of the texts. Professors are not there to reiterate textbooks. Professors are most helpful when they can give you an alternate perspective, or a “real-world” example of when the material being studying was applied.

I’m not expecting tutors to have time in their office hour time blocks to have conversations about the weather or trade life stories. When a student calls, it’s best if that student has something to say, and can give the tutor a clear message as to what the call is for. Sometimes, however, it would be nice to just discuss the works, like you would in a classroom setting. When I’ve tried this, I’ve often been met by a professor asking me what exactly I would like to discuss and do I have a thesis prepared? I’m not looking for them to write my paper for me. Nor am I looking for them to fill my head with what I should think. It’s just a discussion. A discussion that might help me understand the meaning of a concept or the relevance of what I’m studying. The reasons for the calls might vary, but I believe that most students aren’t making calls to tutors because we have nothing better to do. We are trying to learn and gain the most out of our classes as we can.

For the most part, I’ve been impressed with Athabasca University and its tutors. AU has tried to provide students with the right mix of flexibility and interaction. It encourages initiative and independence. Students can write an evaluation on any tutor or class you’ve taken, and someone will read your feedback. The discussion boards, the types of classes offered, and the tutor’s office hours are all attempts to make Athabasca University a better university.

Perhaps the flaws in the system could be dealt with by giving tutors less students or by making interaction part of our grade. I don’t pretend to know what it takes to run a university or even a university class for that matter. I only know that as students, we should be allowed the chance to discuss, without feeling like we are wasting anyone’s time or looking for an easy way out.