Editorial – Changing the Program

If You’re in the unofficial AUSU Facebook group, you already know of the report That’s on AlbertaPolitics.ca about how AUSU may take the university to court over the changes to nursing degrees that applied retroactively. But since you read The Voice Magazine, you already knew that was a possibility from our last Council Connection.

What’s interesting about the report is that it links to AUSU’s own report that gives the details about the situation. This report was only tabled in last night’s Council meeting, but has been linked to on the AUSU website for some time through the executive blogs. If you haven’t read it yet, you should, because as a student, even if You’re not in the faculty of health disciplines, this could affect you.

How? Well, while AUSU claims in the report that “President MacKinnon stated several times during the [June 15th] GFC meeting that a policy referencing retroactive program changes is not necessary, because AU does not perform retroactive changes,” it was recently noted on the unofficial FaceBook page that other retroactive changes are already happening, specifically within the Human Resources program.

The changes are much less onerous in this case, as rather than altering the required GPA, it is essentially limited to replacing one or two required courses with another single course, and it is noted that the requirements for students currently in the program are established so as to let the student graduate with either the old or the new in most cases. Further, associate professor, Dr. Bob Barnetson specifically points out that, “We will happily address any unforeseen wrinkles by varying student’s graduation requirements.” What seems to be clear, however, is that now that the gates have opened, other faculties are going to start taking advantage of it.

And why not? After all, Athabasca University poses a number of unusual challenges, as students can be in a program, part time, for years, taking courses at any point within that time frame. This makes it difficult to adjust programs, especially in an environment where faculties have very limited resources. It’s far more cost effective for the faculty to simply change the degree requirements than to hold old courses open for years for the few students who enrolled in a program many years ago and are proceeding slowly through their requirements, one course at a time.

Unfortunately, this works against the idea of an open university. If retroactive changes to degree programs become commonplace, the idea of lifelong learning, of taking courses when and as your schedule permits, starts to break down. As the risk for a retroactive change increases, so does the need to complete your degree within a short time-frame, or you risk being burdened with additional expenses and time required, or even the possibility of losing all the progress you’ve already made. With that, AU loses a key aspect of being an open university, and instead becomes merely a distance university.

I speak from my own experience here, as if graduating quickly had been a de facto requirement, I never would have. It took me a long time to sort out what my learning goals were, to raise the money, to be able to fit the learning required for a university education in with the rest of my life. And, frankly, for me to mature enough to be able to complete the degree. Had I thought that, half-way through my degree, it might change at any point and I’d have to re-take sections of it I simply wouldn’t have done it.

As an aside, it should be pointed out that when I spoke with Dr. Edwards (head of the Faculty of Health Disciplines) some time ago, she made a point of noting to me that the faculty was willing to work very hard with individual students who would be negatively affected by these changes, also being willing to adjust the graduation requirements somewhat, especially if there was a problem with the average grade threshold. And given that AUSU itself has said that all individual cases it has advocated for with the FHD have been a success for the student, this does seem to be the case.

It was also pointed out that the Faculty did not simply choose to do this on its own, as their ability to graduate nurses relies on the approval of the Nursing Education Approval Board and that body mandates a minimum pass percentage on the nursing exam. The nursing exam was changed by regulators in the College of Registered Nurses with little advance warning or consultation with the schools that were teaching the nurses, and all of the institutions have had to implement changes to their programs to deal with this as pass rates have dropped by 20% or more in any jurisdiction That’s made the switch. While other universities, where courses are grouped into definable years, have the opportunity to simply adjust some of the final courses, AU’s open registration system gives the faculty little ability to do this while making sure that all of the students cover the new material.

These are, obviously, important considerations, but AUSU makes the point that there may have been other ways, such as the creation of supplemental courses that graduating nurses are encouraged to take before a possible abortive attempt on the exam. The difficulty of this would be that such courses are obviously voluntary, and so do little to help the faculty maintain their pass rate if students decide to forego the expense. What the solution is, is not clear, as AU is, at least to some degree, having its hand forced by outside changes that could negatively affect the entire faculty. At the same time, given the number of student difficulties AUSU lists in their report, I have to think that AU should have gone further to come up with a better solution to the problem. We offer an entire graduate level program in distance education, for goodness sakes, so it seems to me that somebody should have been able to come up with a better solution than one that threatens the degrees of students who previously felt they were on their way to success. With the changes outlined in the recent AUSU Executive blog (specifically a delay in implementation for a year) there may be the opportunity to do this.

Meanwhile, in this week’s issue of The Voice Magazine, we have a new instalment of “Minds We Meet”. We interview former by-election candidate, Sarah Blaney Lews and find out a little bit more of what brings this Management student to AU. We also have a short look at some of the offerings from AUSU this month that you shouldn’t miss your chance for. The Creative Spark! riffs from our look at personal branding to bring you some advice on how you can create a personal educational brand for yourself in your academic work. Make your brand one that stands out to the audience that matters most, your marker.

Plus we have a couple of articles that look at what leads to success, whether in life or academics, and Wanda Waterman explores the boundaries of good taste, and finds that they’re circular.

Not to mention our regular selection of reviews, entertainment, and stories to pique the human interest in all of us. Enjoy the read!

P.S. If you didn’t already know, The Voice Magazine has a Facebook page and a twitter feed if You’re into that kind of thing!