Presidential Interview – AU’s Interim President, Part I

Student Scott D. Jacobsen managed to get some time with Athabasca University’s interim president Mr. Peter MacKinnon. Scott interviewed him over a wide set of topics with the president, and the result is this three-part interview that we’re happy to present in The Voice Magazine.

Scott: You hold a number of distinctions in terms of educational background, previous stations, and academic and national honors. In 2014, you spoke on the honor to work for the advancement of the Athabasca University (AU) community, the benefits of online education in provision of education for those that would not otherwise have it, a personal hero in Nelson Mandela, the need for leadership to make vision practical and compelling, and preference for Starbucks, Star Trek, The Beatles, iPhone, and dogs in a previous video interview published online (Athabasca U, 2014). You spoke on some general issues relevant to the AU community and to let individual members know you. With some of this background, since arrival in AU as the Interim President, with respect to online education, what similarities and differences seem relevant for some comparisons to the traditional ?brick-and-mortar? institutions?
President MacKinnon : The first differences coming into a position like this one would be the differences in the online university environment compared to more campus-based institutions. Those differences are profound. Here in this community, of the university’s more than 500 academic employees, faculty and tutors, fewer than 10 live in Athabasca.

Our students come here for convocation, and from time to time for some work on campus in laboratories, particularly, but you do not have the same day-to-day, face-to-face, contact with your faculty colleagues, and with your students.

The other difference and the one that, frankly, I prize most about being here is the mission of the university. For me, at least, in an increasingly online dominated world, the openness of Athabasca University is a profound and positive part of its existence. We never close the doors on anyone! 78% of students tell us that without Athabasca University they either cannot access post-secondary education, or would have more than the usual difficulty in doing so

Scott: In Davos, Switzerland, from January 20th to 23rd, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke on issues related to the economic impacts of Canada’s resources ? wood, coal, and oil ? and Canada’s resourcefulness ? sometimes called human capital. Now, to relate this to previous statements, if students with the inability to attend a post-secondary institution can attend a post-secondary institution – based on the 78% you mentioned before, how important is Canada’s largest online provider of education to the Albertan and Canadian economies? Of course, the provincial economy embeds in the national economy.
President MacKinnon: That’s a great question. I have strongly believed since coming here that Athabasca University is an important national university as well as an important Campus Alberta university. If you look at student body demographics, you see students come from every province in the country, and large numbers of them from outside the province. So, yes!

Athabasca University plays an important role, not in Alberta alone, but in the country. In terms of adding to the human capital or the resourcefulness of our population, this is an important university.

Scott: To continue the line of thought from the first question, based on the differences provided, what best exhibit the greatest strengths of online education?
President MacKinnon: A great strength is the reach. The fact is when you can reach into people’s communities, when you can reach into their homes, when you can reach them where they work, when you can reach them wherever it is that they are. Online education provides accessibility and improves and increases accessibility.

Scott: What were your objectives when you took on the interim role?
President MacKinnon: My goal was to certainly contribute in whatever way I could to advancing the mission of this university. When I arrived, it was clear to me that there were some sustainability issues. These are documented in full in the Presidential Task Force Report?at Athabasca University (Athabasca University, 2015).

I wanted to put the issues of our sustainability on the record. They were discussed before by the way, long before I came here, but it was important to put them on the record in a disciplined way to be dealt with in a disciplined way. That has been my goal, and that continues to be my goal.

Scott: The Presidential Task Force Report at AU contained four possible options for the future of AU. In terms of the options for the future of the AU community, what seems like the most probable one (Athabasca University, 2015)?

President MacKinnon: Those options were not meant to be exhaustive, or a full list, but they were meant to challenge people to talk about them as some among all the options. They were not mutually exclusive either. For example, one of the options was to complete an educational review and a business process review. Those reviews are now underway. We expect reports on them by the end of April. So, that option has been implemented.

Some of the other possibilities included relationships with other institutions. Those relationships could be an association, an affiliation, a federation, shared service arrangements, or contracting out arrangements. Those matters continue to be on the table as potential contributions to our sustainability in the future. Another one: this is a national institution as well as a Campus Alberta institution.

We have eCampusAlberta, a consortium of the universities in Alberta for online learning. We have eCampusOntario, eCampus Manitoba, Thomson Rivers University, (which embraced the former open British Columbia Open University), and TÉLUQ University in Quebec. We have a lot of provincial initiatives in the world of open or, at least, online education. One of the points the task force report made was that, rather than hunker down behind provincial boundaries, there were opportunities for more in the way of national initiatives that could present a more ambitious Canadian face to the world in open online education.

(Come back next week to see the second of this three-part series)

A native British Columbian, Scott Douglas Jacobsen is an AU undergrad. He researches in the Learning Analytics Research Group, Lifespan Cognition Psychology Lab, and IMAGe Psychology Lab, and with the UCI Ethics Center.

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