Dr. Shauna Reckseidler-Zenteno is an Associate Professor and Centre Chair for the Centre for Science in the Faculty of Science and Technology at Athabasca University. Currently responsible for about 800 students per year over five courses, Biology 325, 341, 401, 480 and Chemistry 301, she started with AU nine years ago in 2005. She was kind enough to consent to be interviewed by The Voice Magazine, and we talked at some length. This is the second part of our interview, you can read the first in last week’s issue.
What is your opinion on AU’s move to e-texts so far?
Initially I had some questions. I’m not really one to worry about change or progress, usually I’m on board with any new initiative–anything we can do to make things better or more progressive. But the move to e-text involved some critical questions that had to be asked, the biggest one being accessibility to students, and the next biggest one, especially for science, keeping the texts after the courses. How are these students going to be able to keep these texts for their lifetime, so that they can refer back to them as they move forward in their studies and careers?
It ties in with accessibility, somewhat. There are issues I’ve seen with companion websites for regular textbooks that caused me to worry about e-texts. Because AU doesn’t run on the regular course semester system, I’ve had students who have lost access to websites after a couple years. I went to meet with publishers personally to encourage them to increase access or create special websites that take into account the AU system.
I feel most of those questions around e-texts have been answered, so I’m happy now. The accessibility issues have been handled, That’s my understanding. We’ve all been told that students will be able to download any e-text on to four different devices, which they will have for the life of the device. Students will also have the ability to print if needed and can purchase a hard copy of the text at a reduced cost. Of course, we want to make sure things are linked in properly, and that It’s all easy to get into and use. The e-texts do have features that are very useful such as highlighting, quizzes, and animations.
If there’s one outstanding issue, It’s that the publishers? formatting for e-texts is sometimes messed up. It happened with a couple of courses and it can really make the material difficult to understand. But we’ve already been in there telling them to fix things. I know there are other issues such as cost. A lot of the costs associated with resources aren’t going to go away, even with e-texts. The university isn’t pocketing money from changing to e-texts. We still have other costs covered by the learning resource fee that need to be maintained.
But I think when you have a learning resource fee, professors and coordinators should be designing their learning materials so that they fall within that fee in the first place. We have some blatant examples in the university where that fee is exceeded, and as the Chair of the Centre for Science, I have to work to make sure that people are mindful of that.
The other thing is that there might be books that are not available as e-texts, especially from smaller publishers so we may not be able to move all AU courses to e-texts. Open Educational Resources (OERs) are an area of interest that the university has been looking into for quite some time. The issue there is making sure the OERs have the rigor and content that match our course learning objectives. I have one course moving to e-text very soon, and That’s BIOL 325, and will be very interested to see what students think of it.
People really need the right questions asked and the information put out there. I understand from CLDD (Centre for Learning Design and Development) that academic publishers, are moving away from print. So it might be better if we get ahead.
How about the shift to a call-centre model?
Augh. I don’t like that name. We don’t want to call it a call-centre model, because That’s got specific connotations. In the Faculty of Science and Technology (FST), how you typically define call-centre isn’t what the model is. Ours is a mixed model, if you want to call it a call-centre because it goes through a central repository then You’re missing that we’re still using a one-on-one tutor to student model.
The faculty in FST understand the importance of the tutor-student relationship, and all of us with courses using the Student Success Centre, as it is called, elected to retain that. When more courses are rolled out into the new model, my bet is that it will be 100% of the people in science saying we need to retain the tutor-student relationship.
It’s the kind of move where we should be asking what we can do to make things better. Will this increase response times for our students, will it be a more efficient system? It will definitely improve tracking, so when I, as chair, have to be involved in a student concern or issue, an appeal or something, I don’t have to get a bunch of e-mails from different people to know the entire story. I’ll be able to see the history of that student and all their communications. I do think It’s beneficial for students too in that it will let us get a general feel for their experience as an AU student and the issues that they’re dealing with in their courses. The other benefit is that students will receive answers to administrative questions by directly contacting the Student Success Centre. The new model will also allow us to see how our students are helped and make sure response times are honoured. However, change is difficult and the implementation has been hard. There have been technical issues that need to be resolved before we’ll see the full potential of it, but everyone is working hard on that. One thing that makes people resistant is that it will change how tutors are paid and That’s a sensitive issue.
I don’t think implementation of this model has to put a block between students and tutors as some have suggested. Response times should not be different than they are now and in some cases will be better. We have to, as tutors, be vigilant to get into the new software system to use it. It is not difficult to use. My biggest priority is my students, and I sometimes have back-to-back e-mail conversations with students, and I am very prompt. Having used the new system I am now comfortable with making sure I can maintain the same response times I have with email.
What do you think of social media use in education, is it useful?
Yes, it is, but I don’t have too much else to say about that. As I mentioned earlier we do use the AU Landing in CHEM 301 and in BIOL 325 as well. FST has a Facebook page and we have contributed to the AU YouTube channel. All of these initiatives are great and if they help students and promote the university I applaud them. I just think any use or way that students have to connect to each other or the university is great as long as it is for in the best interests of all participants. We have a lot of technology that can be used bring a sense of community to distance learning and community is an important part of learning.
What do you think AU needs to do to improve itself for the future?
I think we’ve been through some tough times in the past couple years, and I think That’s affected people quite a bit. I maintain that there are a lot of great people that are doing a lot great things, and that hasn’t changed, so I think we need to continue to support those people and ideas, and continually keep moving forward and trying new things.
There are so many initiatives that continually go on in the university. In FST, specifically, there is excellent research and teaching in the Centre for Science, and our colleagues from the School of Computing and the RAIC Centre for Architecture do amazing things. But the one thing lacking from AU is communication. Many of us are separated by distance as well and this can create a communication gap between different departments. There are so many ways we’ve tried to connect people, but we’re all so busy with our regular jobs it can be hard to remember to get in touch with those other people who you aren’t immediately dealing with. This can sometimes create a lag in projects we would like to undertake. However, in spite of this, I am still impressed by the things done by AU staff and students. I think if people can continue to communicate, connect, and move forward on things it can only be good.
And in science we continue to have increases in enrollment every year, so we must be doing something right. We don’t have many concerns with the quality of courses and the student experience, but anything we can do to continue to improve and innovate is certainly something that we are interested in.
Also, programs are a big issue for the Centre for Science and FST and we’re moving ahead with new programs, but there’s been limited funding, especially in the current environment in Alberta. Still, our Masters of Science in Environmental Science has just gone to government. We’ve got a lot of cool people involved in that program from the Athabasca River Basin Research Institute (ARBRI). Funding is a major issue in the development of new programs and in research and so we have been very strategic in our planning. We look forward to continued program offerings and research expansion in FST.
Another issue is AU does not have any graduate programs in Science yet. In computing, yes, but not pure science?and that makes it difficult to get government grants for research. There’s a lot of good research going on here already, but with a graduate program that would be even better, which is part of why this MSc Environmental Science degree is so important. It will also give our students more options, and we already have students interested in it. We also have a Bachelor of Science in Applied Math in the approval process. AU will be the only online program in applied mathematics and It’s received some excellent comments from external reviewers.
We have to prioritize and be conservative in what we work on, but were? always looking at new programs and opportunities for students.
Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Just that in a lot of the initiatives that are started, the students are kept in mind, and we do want to know what the students think. The biggest concern is that with any of these new initiatives communication is key and I am glad to have had the opportunity to share what I know with you.