Editorial – A Real Difference

On September 28, the Alberta government announced it is investing $30 million in Athabasca University’s new Academic and Research Centre.

This is wonderful news. Construction on the new centre is scheduled to start next summer, and this funding will help AU provide capacity for as many as 15,000 more course registrations in distance learning each year, the equivalent of about 1,500 full-time students.

To some, this may appear to be just another news release; one more announcement lost in the sea of information that washes over them every day. The real story, though, is much more complex and far-reaching, and may have a profound effect on people who are not even aware of AU today, much less aware of last week’s announcement.

Like it or not, we live in a knowledge-based economy. The focus is on information: knowing it, knowing where to find it, or knowing how to manipulate it. Even the trades have experienced a shift; apprentices still learn on the job, but there’s a new focus on academics. Apprenticeship programs have a strong classroom component, and theory is just as important as practice. Gone (for the most part) are the days when a young high school grad could walk into a business and convince the boss to give them a shot, show them what they could do. The certificate (or degree) has become king. It’s been said that the BA is the new high school diploma.

Life, though, has a funny way of sneaking up on people. Sometimes, there just isn’t any money to go to school. Student loans can be hazardous to navigate; even a meagre income can disqualify someone from getting approved. Sometimes, high school grads have no idea what they want to do. Before many people know it, there are kids and jobs and mortgages. It isn’t possible to abandon responsibilities and return to school. Without the education to earn a living wage, but without the time or resources to get that education, there’s little hope of improving their lives. It’s a cycle that can be impossible to break.

Which makes AU–and other reputable distance education programs–that much more important. It’s not simply academic (no pun intended), a vague exercise in theories on delivery modes.

The ability to get a better education has a very real effect on people’s lives, on their children’s lives, and as a result on our society as a whole. Opportunities open up–real, tangible opportunities that may not have existed for them otherwise.

So while this funding announcement is good news, It’s also so much more than a new building. It’s a vote of confidence that recognizes quality programs are just as viable through distance education as through brick and mortar schools. Not better–just equal.

It’s another 15,000 courses, another 15,000 opportunities for people who may have believed that a better education was an impossible dream.

And who knows? That someone may even be you.