Meeting the Minds – Dr. Kenneth Coates

As part of the process to help AU determine a route to stability, the Alberta Government required a third-party review be conducted, and hired Dr. Kenneth Coates, public policy professor and the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan, to conduct the review. Dr. Coates was also the Dean of Arts at Waterloo and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

He has been interviewing and consulting with all levels of AU and the provincial government, including meetings with members at all four Alberta AU locations (if You’re wondering what the fourth is, It’s probably the Faculty of Business? location in St. Albert that You’re missing). He’s held three teleconference meetings with AU students and has received hundreds of emails from interested undergrad and graduate students, as well as alumni of AU, and is looking for even more (hopefully before the end of March). He is particularly interested in what you’ve found that works, and what doesn’t at AU, and, if you have a comment, You’re encouraged to get in touch with him at

I took the opportunity to attend all three student sessions and then later spoke with him myself to find out what’s going on.

One of the questions I had for him was what the “Canada Research Chair for Regional Innovation” actually means, and Dr. Coates explained it by noting that the Chair comes with funding devoted to a specific research question. In his case, the question he brought was “Can we use scientific and technological innovation to improve the quality of life in rural areas and small towns, including the north and indigenous communities.” Judging by some of the stories I heard in the teleconference meetings, the answer to this is a definite yes.

However, in all of the meetings, one of the first things he emphasized is that AU is under no immediate threat of closure. The Minister of Advanced Education in Alberta, Marlin Schmidt, has made very clear to him that the Minister hoped that the report would point to a way for AU to survive not just in the short term, but also for the long term. In the teleconferences, Dr. Coates specifically asked people what they thought or hoped AU would look like in 2030, 2040, or beyond, so this is not planning for just a short-term fix.

This is important to re-iterate because the idea that AU might close was distressing both for students and for alumni who were present at the meetings. Dr. Coates provided further reassurance, noting how even if that were on the table, governments and universities accept a certain responsibility when a student starts a program to be able to see students through to completion of that program, even if it means finding other options that allow them to do so.

Another theme that seemed to come through during the teleconferences was that students were concerned about the effects of competition on AU, and worried that AU had not been keeping up with technology and other institutions as they develop their own online courses. When I asked him about this in our interview, he pointed out that competition does not necessarily imply a single winner and a loss for everybody else, it merely means competition. And while other institutions have some advantages over AU when creating their distance offerings (because they’ve been able to watch how AU develops and emulate the successful techniques while not pursuing the ones that haven’t worked as well) AU is one of only a very few in Canada that offer the opportunity for a substantial set of accredited degree programs to be taken fully by distance. This is something that gives AU a competitive edge, so It’s a matter of finding a way to fully leverage that advantage.

We spoke a lot about the effects of competition, with Dr. Coates noting that “You have to deal with the reality that everybody will be learning online at some point in the future, and may be working online or at least in a mixed modal format. There’s a huge investment coming down the line in learning objects—someone develops an app that shows up on your computer to demonstrate photosynthesis or some other concept. The competition is just going to get more intense and will be coming from a variety of areas. AU is going to have to live with this, has been living with this, for the past 10-15 years already.”

But with the idea that this need for change is a constant across all universities, I had to ask whether it would be possible for Alberta, then, to be able to make AU sustainable on its own. One of the comments made during the interviews was that, in many ways, AU is almost a gift that Alberta is giving to the rest of the country, and there was a question as to whether that should still be the case.

Dr. Coates noted that, depending on how AU is positioned, it can provide excellent service to its own (Alberta) audience, but because of how it operates, that service can also be provided globally easily, and does it really make sense if it has a model of great service that can be provided anywhere to simply deny access to it for people who happen to live in Manitoba, or Nunavut. He pointed out that we all have to be constant innovators, and gave an example of how the first Faculty of Environment opened in the 1970s at the University of Waterloo, but soon found itself facing increasing competition, eventually even from within different faculties at Waterloo. It took a re-imagining of the faculty to create a school of environment and economic development to bring back the level of interest and the students, which revitalized the Faculty, and how it takes that kind of constant change to keep raising yourself to the new environment, which is something that Alberta itself also needs.

This made sense to me, because consider that other universities welcome out of province students, but are required, simply by the nature of their institution, to have those students come to their location. The innovation of AU is that it doesn’t have that requirement built in. But when you consider non-Alberta students coming to other Alberta universities, how much are they contributing to the government coffers that support their institution? They may not even be working while taking courses, yet, because they are in Alberta, they are treated as Alberta students, regardless of what province they hail from or will return to after their studies. Post-secondary institutions in Alberta receive less total funding for a student who studies online from Ontario as opposed to a student from Alberta ? but the cost of providing the course are essentially the same, and there are no assurances that the Alberta graduate will remain and work in Alberta, or that the Ontario graduate will not move to Alberta to find work after graduating.

I also wanted to dig into what Dr. Coates had found out so far with his reviews. As he noted during his teleconferences, all universities are dealing, in some fashion or another, with many of the same problems that AU is currently facing. All universities are having financial issues. All universities have a small number of courses or instructors that are not providing good value. So was there anything specific about the concerns he’s hearing from AU students that are unique to Athabasca University.

He pointed out that he’s had hundreds of people commenting, with some of those comments being very specific about certain courses or specific problems, and people are of course being presenting each issue as being unique to them?and to each person it is absolutely a unique situation with its own unique challenges, but the interesting thing is to look at the trends. Are there any areas where there seem to be a preponderance of complaints? And while the results aren’t at all complete yet, he noted that lots of students are having difficulties with various aspects but the number one concern he’s seen is the fear that the opportunities AU provides will be lost to them and to future students. Many of the students have told him, “I’d never be able to do any of the things that I wanted to do academically,” and this is entirely unique to Athabasca University.

He suggested that if you were to ask a University of Calgary student what they’d do if the U of C shut down, the answer would likely be that they’d find another institution to go to. At the end of the day, all brick and mortar institutions that deliver a degree are quite similar. They differ in details, not in kind. Athabasca University stands out, in that respect, that it delivers an education which, in years past, couldn’t be obtained otherwise. Now, of course, there are more institutions offering courses online.

As we’re all well aware, AU makes it possible for people who wouldn’t be able to attain a university education, whether That’s because they’re place-bound, or have time constraints that keep the traditional classroom setting from being an option.

Of course, when speaking of how AU opens up opportunities for more people to pursue post-secondary, I asked him about the thesis that comes through in some of his books and previous interviews that a university education really isn’t for everyone. I was curious if he still stood by this, and what kind of effect this belief might have on his reporting about AU.

“Yes,” he said. “30% of students who start programs don’t finish. This tells us that we’re letting people in who aren’t ready, motivated, or interested. Or perhaps that we aren’t serving them properly. For example, some of the big universities have difficulty dealing with certain types of learning challenges. And often we’re not preparing students properly for what they’ll encounter when they start taking university courses and that can be really damaging. In my work in northern communities, I found that if You’re clear and up front with students about the challenges they’ll be facing, and take steps to modify the academic programs to address some of the learning styles they can successfully start taking the programs in an incremental fashion.”

“Second,” Dr. Coates continued, “we have a situation where the university becomes a default. You finish high school and go into university. Period. But I’m a huge fan of the whole range of post-secondary: apprenticeships, colleges, poly-technics, and what we need to do is match people with their abilities, motivations, and life expectations.

So if someone wants to be a professional and have a white collar career, there are strategies to do that, and perhaps university is among those.

If you like working outdoors or with machinery, though, there’s a different direction that would better serve you.

But in our current system, we’re incautious about how we direct people. we’re not very good at it in high school, and parents are even worse. Ask parents about the trades. Is being a plumber or an electrician a high paying job? Yes. Is it a stable job, will it provide steady work? Yes. Do you want your kids there? Oh no.”

But why not? It’s not done with an assessment of their children or anything else, It’s more just a lifestyle expectation. The impression they have of a university graduate is they end up working in a Google campus-like environment, with ping-pong tables down the hall and great benefits, and not only are most white-collar jobs not like that, but without evaluation, is that even what their kids are suited for?

And this is where I’m impressed with AU because it gives people who made a wrong decision earlier on in their lives, or who found they can’t handle the campus based education or the large classes a chance to dip their toe into university. Open means they can take a single course when they have the time, and that gives them the best chance to do well, which may lead to taking a second course. And they do well in that one too, and then seven years down the line they’re finishing a master’s degree.

And on the other side of this, of those who drop out, many are completely capable of doing university when the time and interest is right. And AU provides an opportunity for these people to ease themselves into a system that they may not have been ready for before. It gives these people the chance to exercise the intellectual itch they may have.

we’re moving into an era of really quite dramatic change, with AI and automation. People are going to have to be learning and re-learning. Training and retraining on a regular basis. AU knows this is a big portion of its marketing opportunity. Say somebody working in the oil-patch, just to bring it home to Alberta, just got laid off. they’re looking around saying, ?Okay, I had a good run, I’ve done well, but I still have a house, a mortgage, a family, obligations I’ve got to meet. I’ve got to find a job but I’m going to have to retrain for something that will last for the next several years.? This is a great opportunity for AU, and with AU’s potential and practices, It’s impossible to say that there isn’t a role for an online university in the future.”

I wondered, given that most of what we talked about seemed to be related toward professional employment, if he thought that there was room for AU to be running Liberal Arts education with the constant push, from both parents and government, for education that moved directly toward careers.

His answer? Absolutely. “There is an absolute clear role for liberal arts, It’s something That’s critically needed now as much as, if not more than, before. But there’s a problem with it. In Ontario, the humanities faculties have seen a 30% decline in enrolment over the last few years. You can’t force students to go obviously. But then Waterloo humanities faculties got together and created a new program: Digital Arts and Global Business. It was an entirely social science and humanities program, and turned out to be the largest first year launch in the history of Waterloo.”

Isn’t that just a case of repackaging though, I asked, of making the course sound palatable to parents. And while he conceded that partially this was the case, parents (and students) are certainly interested in things that sound like they’re career ready paths, he noted it was also the kind of innovation that needs to be happening through-out post-secondary ? of creating programs that have application today.

While all this is interesting stuff, none of it speaks directly to what he might be thinking of for the third-party review that he’ll soon be presenting to government. So, I asked. I asked if he’s already developed some ideas for what he’ll be writing about how AU should proceed into the future. He demurred, noting that he’s still receiving (and looking for) more responses from AU students and other stakeholders.

Since many of the things we spoke of, however, seemed to be larger concerns, and because the Alberta government has recently started a review of the funding model it uses, I wondered if the task would have been a bit easier if he’d been given the scope to be part of that funding model review.

He noted that funding is, of course, the easy answer. But his review is about more than that. It’s about sustainability and quality as well. And part of that plays into the idea of external accreditation organizations that evaluate the job universities are doing. It also plays into the idea that there needs to be a larger strategy for Canadian education, skills, and training in general, because eventually he sees a situation occurring where people will not be thinking of education as tied to a specific institution, but one where people will be able to move back and forth to other institutions, and in fact should do that, but that we have a problem in that we don’t look at the idea of student success across the entire system. There’s no real incentive for a university to recommend a student might do better with a different teaching model That’s used at a different university. If a student doesn’t cut it in their model, they just fail the student and move on.

And he also noted that while people, especially those in the university system, are very impressed with what AU does, and is doing, there’s also a broad knowledge that the future doesn’t look like the past. “The Ontario government”, he pointed out, “is still trying to expand its post-secondary system. But we’re reaching the end of the millennial generation,” he said, and pointed out how the bricks and mortar schools, that are dependant on the students coming straight from high school, are going to be experiencing a form of generational shock in short order. Meanwhile, in northern Ontario, the universities there are already short of students. In the Maritimes, they’re desperately short of students, so do we build a new institution that may soon be empty or do we move the students between provinces? But parents also usually want their kids close to home.

All told, it means that “There’s no easy answer. After all, there are a lot of smart people looking for one, so if t existed, it probably would have been found already.”

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