Editorial – A Little More Conversation

Last week, Dr. Neil Fassina, President of Athabasca University held a 90 minute town hall meeting over lunch on Tuesday at the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce. Students were invited to attend both in person and by teleconference, so I popped by virtually to hear what was being said. The meeting seemed to be well attended, with a number of different voices asking questions and making comments. If you didn’t attend, I’ll give you a brief rundown of some of the most notable questions I heard and their responses.

The meeting started with Ric Harlan, the VP Advancement for AU, welcoming us and introducing Dr. Fassina, who gave a short set of opening comments about his joining AU, and his hopes and vision for the future of the school. In his eyes, AU is poised to be leading the way in the changes that are currently happening with education. Everything that traditional universities are just starting to deal with, AU has been dealing with for the bulk of its existence. He also wanted to point out how he was looking at this town hall meeting to be akin to episode 1, season 1, of a new series, “where we’re just opening the door to the people who are core to AU, our learners.”

He pointed out that while there’s been a lot of public attention on some of the challenges AU is facing, That’s all they are, “challenges”, and he feels that AU’s strengths and opportunities far outweigh the challenges AU is facing. This positivity was something he retained throughout the meeting, but at this point, he opened it up to the audience to ask what it was that makes students proud to be at AU.

The first person to speak was a student calling in from Abu Dhabi, which, to me, was just kind of cool as an example of how far AU can reach. The student pointed out that the ability to interact with the course materials at your own pace, as opposed to being forced to absorb it during a 90-minute lecture or after waiting half a day in line to speak to the instructor personally during office hours was one of the primary reasons he was currently with AU. However, he had a number of concerns he noted including one that later seemed to become almost a theme of the townhall: AU’s use (or lack thereof) of modern technology, both for course materials such as video lectures, and for exam communication and invigilation.

The student also noted that with AU’s model, it should be seeking accreditation in many countries, such as the UAE where he was currently studying from.

Dr. Fassina noted that many in the room were nodding as the problems with AU’s technology were brought up, and said that while the point is well taken, and taking advantage of technology is “absolutely front and centre about what AU needs to do”, but that the context we are operating in is so much different than it used to be, as the technologies available for learning almost go through a cycle of becoming regularly obsolete. So rather than just worry about catching up he also wants AU to look beyond to what will be coming down the road next.

He also acknowledged that international options are one of the major opportunities that AU has, and while many universities are striving to create some sort of international experience for their students, so that students can get different lenses through which to view the world, AU has that advantage almost naturally, with its far-flung cohort being able to create such experiences for every learner without them ever having to leave their home community. He also noted he would be happy to explore the point of becoming recognized in the UAE and other Gulf areas.

The next question also revolved around AU’s use of technology, specifically in their user interface, and how modern interfaces are designed for mobile use. Again, Dr. Fassina noted that AU’s opportunities are beyond just building for the now, but in preparing for the next. “Five years ago” he said, “internet ready was all about optical line. A physical infrastructure that gets signal from one point to another, it all had to have a wire, and AU has diligently prepared for that, but in the meantime, the rest of the world has leapfrogged that technology and instead moved directly to high-speed wireless and cellular. Market penetration of mobile devices is nearing 100% in some areas, so one of the questions he and AU’s faculty are already dealing with are how do they set the content up to take that leap forward, into mobile friendly apps, so that when You’re looking at your phone on the bus, You’re able to meaningfully study, and beyond that, how can AU get ready for the next interation, the next leap in infrastructure, whether That’s cell-tech, low-orbit satellites, or who knows. Fibre-optic is great for today, but his thought processes are how do we get beyond that to whatever is coming next?

“Right now, today,” he pointed out, “the largest provider of online asynchronous learning is Microsoft through LinkedIn” (via their ownership of lynda.com, which all AUSU members have free access to). People have gone from searching for information in libraries and navigating the dewey decimal system to searching first google, and then YouTube, and so is there a way that AU can become a provider of authoritative information for simple questions that people might search out on sites like that, and, if it can, to then have that information lead people to consider taking full courses at the university?

Another area of concern that was noted was that of graduate studies. A student was completing their Master of Health studies, but there was no room at the Doctoral level after that at AU. How can AU hope to compete against universities like the U of A because it seems to have so few research programs.

Dr. Fassina suggested that some of this is in the context. AU is a fairly new university in the graduate space, but its programs there have been expanding exponentially, and he wants to make sure AU has the systems in place to support future graduate work. With those systems in place, the question then becomes what does the population need? He wants to be sure that AU isn’t just opening up graduate opportunities that duplicate other offerings already out there if those are already sufficiently being taught. And then on the research side, the question becomes exactly what areas does AU want to specialize in. There will never be an Athabasca University Hospital, he pointed out, because such a structure simply wouldn’t make sense for AU, but the important thing is to find out what AU can excel at being in the business of teaching.

A suggestion was made that AU wasn’t leveraging the researchers it had well enough. As AU has some world-renowned researchers who are researching and teaching there, but even the students who have those researchers as their tutors may not know the depth of knowledge at the other end of the line. Concerns were also noted that AU needs to maintain It’s services to be accessible to students with disabilities.

Some people on the line from the Calgary office asked if there was any further comment that could be made about the state of funding for AU, since it has been in the news lately.

The situation, suggested Dr. Fassina, is not as dire as the news has made out. An expected budget deficit of over 3 million dollars, for instance, has been turned into an actual deficit of just over half a million. Staff and faculty have all been going out of their way to mitigate the risk associated with deficit funding. AU is also, he noted, remaining deeply involved with the government of Alberta’s examamination of new universities funding models to make sure that funding for AU is fair and equitable with other universities in the province, something that, currently is not at all the case. He also noted that other universities are also looking for ways to diversify their funding sources, and AU is at a particular disadvantage because of the four traditional lines of revenue (Government, Tuition, Philanthropy, and Ancillary Services), AU really only has access to three of them, as ancillary services means things such as parking, restaurants, renting out halls and lecture spaces, all of which are items that are difficult or impossible for AU to pursue profitably. Event with that, he wanted to assure students that steps are and will continue to be taken to make sure that nobody ever questions the sustainability of AU. “It will take a few years to do so, but it took a few years to get to this point, so it will take a few years to get out, but It’s the focus of the entire management team.”

He then went further and noted that in just two and a half years, AU will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary, and his goal is to make it so that by that anniversary, nobody will ever need to question the financial stability of the institution again.

The last question posed noted that while there’s been a lot of talk about technology and how there are opportunities to use it to improve, AU has been supposedly concentrating on that for a long time already without a lot of progress to show for it. And if the university is in a tight budgetary situation, what are the trade-offs that are going to be needed to support this technological development?

Dr. Fassina’s answer, in brief, was that this was essentially the question that defines his job. And so the answer is what his job over the next years is about.

That essentially brought the discussion to an end, with everybody thanked for choosing AU, and Dr. Fassina noting that being able to discuss the opportunity and challenges ahead of AU with the very people who are being affected by those right now is both humbling and a distinct honour.

Personally, I thought the meeting went well, and while no concrete answers were given, those at the meeting seemed satisfied that the concerns and questions noted had been at least heard and understood, and as was noted at one point, “It’s good to hear that you’ve been thinking about this and what it means.” Personally, I’m a bit of a cynic, and so while the words were impressive, and seemed to be what people wanted to hear, I find myself wondering what actions will eventually come from this. But It’s still early days, so we’ll see.

In the meantime, this week, our feature is an interview with the AUSU’s new VPFA. What brought him to the position and what does he hope to do with it? Read the latest “Minds We Meet” to find out. We also have a look at how you can get your hands on some of the $15,000 that AUSU is looking to give away in its awards program, creative advice for your essays, a serious discussion about pineapple on pizza, scholarships, events, news, reviews, and some thought provoking and insightful pieces, such as why you need a surge protector on your computer.

Enjoy the Read!

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