An Interview with AU’s 8th President – The Second Session – Part II

Dr. Neil Fassina is the 8th President of Athabasca University (AU). He earned a BSc in Psychology from the University of Calgary and PhD in Management from the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto. He is an active researcher in the areas around applied decision-making. He was installed in mid-January, 2017.

His first interview with the The Voice Magazine was conducted in late 2016, before he was officially president. Part 1 and part 2 of that interview are both available in our archives. This second session was conducted in late May, 2017 as the 8th president of AU. In this section, Scott asks about modern technologies, and what Dr. Fassina feels are some of the specific ways that AU can prepare for an ever-changing future.

You mentioned the more modern technologies called upon from both the faculty and staff, as one group, as well as the student learners. What are some of the more modern technologies that AU is looking into?
To consider the technologies, I will break it down. It is not a technical answer, but I look at three components to our technology. One is the hardware. The switches and circuits that we rest everything on top of, and so making sure our network is not only up to date on its design, but it is incredibly reliable and minimizing its downtime, and increasing its security. It is making sure that we’re designing and implementing the pieces of that accurately.

In terms of the learning technologies and the academic computing side of things that rests on top of that hardware system, it is making sure that we are moving towards the most up to date version of our learning management system, and having that consistent experience across the university. It is integrating new data analysis tools within that learning management environment and connecting it to some of our content environments.

So we’re not only able to understand how things are happening within our learning environment, but also so we’re able to predict and shape the learning environment more effectively using data analytics. In terms of integrating some of the modern technologies that are becoming available within educational technologies, whether it be the augmented reality environment or the virtual reality environment. How do we create those spaces? So, our learners can seize the learning opportunity as best as they can.

How do we make all our learning as mobile ready as we can? Our learners can access their learning opportunities any time, anywhere. How do we create digitally enabled, but potentially offline, learning opportunities? When we’re talking about making some of the communities that we want to try to serve, an online option may not always be possible. How do we enable that through technology without having to rely on a fibre-optic high-speed internet line?

How do we keep ahead of it on the learning side? On the university systems side of things, how are we seizing the technology so that it is easy and simple for our faculty and staff to interact with. So it is not necessarily a specific technology. But rather, how are we making the interfaces between the user and the university system the most fluid that we possibly can?

When you came into the position the big issues you suggested were sustainability, development of a vision within the university mandate, and re-establishment as the global pioneer in online education.

What are the targeted objectives now, as you chart a course with the AU community? How can everyone come together to make this university the global pioneer in online or distance education?

That’s a great question. The objectives remain the same, creating the vision that we can all hang our hat on, or embracing that vision. It is one of those pieces that, in terms of talking about the mission of the university, the ability to be open, accessible, inclusive, flexible, and distance-based. That is something that to a person people are passionate about. It is a function of creating, whether that one straightforward statement that we can all look at as our vision and say, “That is what we are heading for.”

If I were to suggest, or to be so bold, I would think you’re not that far off when you asked the question, ’How do we become a global leader again, and being a pioneer or an innovator in open, accessible, and distance learning?’ From there, it is going to have the community come together to create strategies to get there. It is recognizing that those strategies create the framework from which we’re able to make decisions.

Then I said to either you, or certainly in other environments, that the largest challenge facing us right now is choosing among the opportunities that sit before us, but to get there and seize those opportunities. We must get to that stable platform from which to jump. By creating some of the strategies that we’ll need to recapture our place as a leader in open and distance learning. Those strategies will help us figure out what must be prioritized.

When it comes to solving some of the financial constraints, it is a function of being able to solve which things we shouldn’t be doing anymore, which things we need to invest in, but also be able to diversify some of those revenue streams to be able to enable some of the things that we’re not yet doing. When the community comes together, it is very much about creating those strategies and those actions, again, just the language around them so that we have the framework to start making decisions and actions on.

Last time, we also talked about the knowledge economy and The Fourth Industrial Revolution with robotics and AI. Economy 4.0. How can AU surf the wave of Economy 4.0?
That’s an interesting question. If I think about the concept of Economy 4.0 and the knowledge economy, part of it is shifting the impression of what knowledge is and what knowledge has the power to do. If I look at the evolution of a concept of a vocational skill, at one point of our history, a vocational skill was thought of as a hands-on, tactile action. We’re seeing within that knowledge economy. It is that knowledge itself is becoming a vocational tool.

It is part and parcel of an individual interacting with either their work environment or community environment, home environment, or the like. So, it is embracing the learning opportunities or objectives as AU, and embedding them in the learning context in which the learner finds themselves. Whether, they come to AU because they want to improve their job, or their community, or they want to improve their own knowledge level, we’ve got the ability because we’re not limited by bricks-and-mortar and people coming to us.

We can work with the learner in their community with that knowledge in a much faster fashion. We can be at that front-end of that wave by making sure that we’re continually looking for learners and looking for learners around the learning objectives and making sure our programming is consistent with what they’re trying to do with their own learning journey. It is also working with our learners to help them understand how their own environment is a key element of their learning.

So, it is that they’re learning and their life experience are separate. They are one and of the same thing. So, it is, “How do we then enable the learner to use what they learned from us faster and more effectively in the environment without having to go into a bricks-and-mortar institution?” That’s framing it in terms of a knowledge side of things. With regards to the AI wave, and as you point out, there is a social and an economic benefit to a highly knowledgeable community and workforce.

With the continued progression into the future of AI, to me, our answer is almost two parts. One, it is, “How do we enable our learners to embrace the technology that are available and AI for the betterment of their personal life, their communities, and their job?” That is a function of making sure our learning environment is staying up to date with the evolution of AI. The flip side of it is, “How do we as a university system use AI to help enable either our learners or our faculty to conduct their research, or enable our staff to be effective and responsible in their own roles?”

The post-secondary or higher education system overall is one of the sectors that is going to be impacted by AI. So, how can we as a virtual university take advantage of some of those technologies and use them to our betterment and then in turn to make better the learning environment? So, the AI piece is two questions. It is, “How do we put it in the hands of our learners?” It is also, “How do we utilize it to improve our learning opportunities?”

Does it seem then, as we move into Economy 4.0, that lifelong learning will become more prevalent in this country and, as one of AU’s main attractions is flexibility of access, it could be a big draw? After all, a substantial portion of AU’s audience is already students with dependants.
Absolutely, I would not only echo what you’re saying, but complement it with what I believe is the way we see people talk about dependents. As the Boomer population continues to age in Canada, I would suggest that a lot of our learners will not only be talking about their dependent children, but are also going to be talking about elder care – which then creates another dimension of complexity for that learner who now needs an even higher degree of complexity to put their family first.

To me, that is where Athabasca University can step in. We are able to work with our learners and understand their needs for both child and elder care, and be able to meet the flexibility that they need. When you hear the story of parent having to study after their kid goes to bed, the story may evolve, where they are talking about having to put their studying in between supporting their children and parents. So, flexibility will have to become key for that lifelong learner.

AU has an international reputation as a “global pioneer” in distance education. We concluded on this note in the previous session. You mentioned wanting to have people see “a university that’s here to stay” and work with the AU community to develop and execute the next steps, as well as being that global pioneer. Any further details since the first session to this palpable vision for you – for us?
You know, Scott, I think the further details are a function of some of the external validation of that need. So, one of the things that I had been told prior to arriving at AU and continue to be told, again, is that emphasis that AU has always been that global leader. Now, I have had an opportunity to experience that firsthand in terms of hearing that from leaders at other institutions around the world.

Where truly, they look to us. When I say, “They look to us.” They are looking to us as a university and as a group of individuals as well, in terms of our researchers – whether that is data analytics or embedded technologies. So, when other people from around the world are presenting, they are quoting people who are part of the AU community. So, it is not that there is more detail. There is a more robust understanding that it is important to go after that.

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

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