Interview with the Associate Vice President Student and Academic Services, Part II

Dr. Alain May is the Associate Vice President of Student and Academic Services for Athabasca University. She was kind enough to take some time from her busy schedule so that The Voice Magazine could bring you this interview. This week, we look at her research, and what she feels is important for students of AU.

Your AU page says that your research interests reside in “enterprise systems, system implementation, and gender and information technology” and “user competency and IT outsourcing” (Athabasca University, 2015). Why these research interests? What interrelates them?
I think that, especially when we talk about the first three – “enterprise systems, system implementation, and gender and information technology” ? those arise out of my experience in industry. My last role at JDA Software was in enterprise systems and system implementation. It was the guiding decision for me about choosing to go back to school — to think about how we can implement enterprise systems in ways that are more successful in the organization.

Enterprise systems are big cross-organizational systems. They bring challenges to organizations because they affect business processes across the entire organization. They bring so-called “best practices” to organizations — practices that might work in other organizations but don’t necessarily fit with every process that an organization has. These and other things cause challenges in how you do the system implementation. But having been involved in this industry, it is an area of interest for me — understanding how we go about these implementations.

Gender and information technology is one that, I think, also comes from my own experience. I went into computing science in something like 1982 (betraying my age!). However, there weren’t many women in the field at the time. There aren’t many today; we certainly haven’t found some 50/50 place. So I’m interested in the ways in which IT is gendered. Both in terms of process and in why it is that it is gendered. So, That’s the interest in those areas, which come out of the background in industry.

User competency and IT outsourcing were two that really arose for me because I worked with some colleagues doing work in those areas. I had the opportunity to become involved and found them interesting. I haven’t done a lot in the IT outsourcing area. I have one paper around IT outsourcing, but, certainly, user competency (how we develop information technology skills) is of continued interest. I would definitely say that the first three ? enterprise systems, systems implementation and gender — would be my bigger areas of interest.

Tell us about Kibera, Nairobi, where you are developing the implementation of an electronic health record (EHR). What is this and what will it do?
Yes! I will say at the outset that in my new role I just haven’t had much time to be continuing with this project. So, it isn’t something I am currently working on to my disappointment; if I find some time to get back to this group, I certainly will.

An electronic health record is the electronic version of the patient chart. It stores the information about an individual’s health encounters into an electronic information system.

Kibera is a large slum area in Nairobi. Because it was considered an illegal settlement, there isn’t any government provision of healthcare. As a result, there are a lot of different kinds of healthcare clinics that have been started by various NGOs. There are HIV clinics, TB clinics, child and maternal health clinics, but they’re all very focused on specific diseases or chronic conditions, or specific kinds of healthcare. So if You’re a resident in Kibera, there are few places where you can get care for the whole person. There is also no continuity of care across clinics.

So, the notion here was to create a cloud-based electronic health record. Different clinics could sign on to be part of the network, and they could share the electronic health record to create greater continuity of care in the provision of healthcare within Kibera. Clearly, this is critical to providing strong healthcare.

The project is also intended to impact the residents of Kibera through improved referrals. You could go to the one clinic in Kibera that has an ultrasound machine and be able to more easily share the results of that ultrasound with the clinic that sent you there. As well, by connecting the system to geographic information systems, it may be able to pinpoint epidemiological issues that are happening in Kibera. A final benefit is that, partially because of the lack of information about healthcare in the area, there is almost no provision of health insurance. So, there was a notion that once this got up and running we would have better information on healthcare outcomes and that might lead to possibilities for healthcare insurance.

As the Associate VP of Student services, what do you think tends to attract students to AU?
I would say different things for different students; I don’t think there’s one thing. If there is a common factor, it is probably flexibility, whatever flexibility happens to be for a particular person. You work full time. You have family at home that you need to take care of. You don’t want to leave your community. Regardless of your life context, you can seek education and work it around whatever happens to be going on in your life.

But flexibility is probably not the key attraction for every student. Some people just like the online environment better, I suppose!

What is important for students to know about academic and student life coming into AU?
I think students need to know they aren’t alone here. It is making sure that students know that they are part of a community. They should and can reach out to their tutors, academic experts, and course coordinators about the course to seek academic support.

We have a strong set of student service professionals to help them: advisors, counsellors, our ASD unit for students that requires their services, and student communities through the AUSU and AUGSA, even Facebook. There are communities of support around being a student at AU that when You’re sitting in your office in your house working on a course might not be as readily apparent to you, but they’re there. My experience in education was that community is important. Students need to know that these supports for students exist at AU.

What is the single most important moment in an instructor’s life when teaching?
It is that moment when you know that you have reached a student in a way that has been important in their life in some way. That they understood something that they didn’t before. That you helped them achieve a goal of theirs. That you maybe helped them in a reference to a new job, right? It is knowing that you made a difference. That is the most important moment.

How can you make this connection with students in spite of the online nature of education at AU?
It’s interesting. The mechanism is different, but overall I don’t think the important part changes. I have taught in a traditional environment, and I have taught at AU. It is making yourself available and open to those conversations. So, in a traditional institution, the students still have to know that they can come up to you at the end of a class or come to your office. It is about creating that same accessibility, even though instead of coming to your office, they will be calling you or contacting you through email. It’s about making sure that they know you are available and that you encourage that contact, regardless of how that contact is mediated.

What has been the greatest emotional struggle in personal life?
I was doing my PhD. It was early 2000s. My husband and I were involved in the technology area during the Dot-com bust and I needed to do quite a bit of sessional teaching to be able to finish my PhD. So I was teaching, trying to finish a PhD, I had four kids, and then I ended up going through a divorce. It was extremely challenging. I mean, the number of times I thought, “Oh, I just cannot finish this.”

Whether the details are the same or different, I feel like it is the story of what our students are going through. It is trying to complete these goals in their lives while real life is happening. It was an extremely challenging time for me, and getting through it was about reaching out to the whole community of people I had. When I thought to myself, “I don’t think I can do this anymore. I have to quit.” It was those communities of people around me that helped me keep going.

What about professional life?
This is interesting. I think the one that strikes me the most is my first job out of university. What’s interesting is the university environment is stressful, and in ways that You’re not prepared for coming out of high school, which is when I did my undergrad degree. It was a struggle, but then that first job out of university was emotionally difficult because it was my first experience with having to manage many stakeholders, delivering on something that mattered more than just if I got a good grade on it. I had clients depending on me, other team members depending on me, and learning how to manage those stresses was a challenging time for me.

That’s the one that strikes me the most, learning how to manage some of those demands that kind of go beyond yourself. And I think that first experience of it for me was challenging.

So What advice do you have for women in education who may have dependents, or are going through emotional struggles, to get the support that they need?
That’s really interesting and hard. I don’t know if I feel comfortable giving advice to anyone. I can speak about what worked for me and that is being willing to seek other people’s help, so as I said, when I asked myself, “Oh, can I do this anymore?” I went to my family and friends and asked for advice and asked for counselling, and support. My mom did a lot of babysitting. (Laughs) And those were all important things. It was looking around me in my community and in my circle for people who could support and who were willing to support. It was about talking openly with my own family, my children, and asking for their support ? bribing them with a family vacation when I finally finished my PhD. They picked the vacation we went on! (Laughs) It was very much those things, and it was a little bit of just digging in, knowing what it was that I needed to achieve for myself ? knowing that I would have been disappointed had I not continued.

I could’ve chosen to take some time out and people have to make those decisions along the way too. I decided, at the time, to just put one foot in front of the other and not get too overwhelmed, and so it was about very much seeking support throughout my community.

Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
I don’t think so. I think it is such a wide-ranging interview. I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to share some of the personal challenges, but I do think that It’s really important that students know that many of us at AU have gone through similar things, too. There is support here. And I think that being open about the kinds of experiences we’ve achieved or had along the way is important.

I hope That’s helpful in some way.

References
Athabasca University. (2015, May 11). Dr. Alain May: Associate Vice President, Student and Academic Services.
Retrieved from http://ovpa.athabascau.ca/staff/amay/.
LinkedIn. (2016). Alain May.
Retrieved from https://ca.linkedin.com/in/alain-may-29795411.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is an AUSU Councillor. He works with various organizations, and runs In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, and In-Sight Publishing.