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

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

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. This time, Scott Jacobsen questions him about his views on how AU fits into the larger scheme of post-secondary education in Canada, how it can continue to improve access, and about the best story he’s heard about AU students.

Moving from the institution to the nation, Canada has a small population that is very highly educated. How can we leverage our highly educated population to improve the economy while preserving the richness and diversity of our civil culture.
I can’t speak on behalf of an entire nation. But rather, I can speak on how universities, like Athabasca University, can help enable that. We’re somewhere in the mid-30s in terms of millions of individuals in population, but then you compare that to nations with much higher numbers. I suggest that we need to do a couple of things. The first one is let’s focus on the learners and the learning population first.

I believe that, as a system, we can come together to enable and strengthen the concept of lifelong learning. It is what Stanford refers to as “Loop Learning.” You never stop being a learner. You may at some point in your learning journey earn a credential. You never stop learning. The idea that our population always has the most up to date state of knowledge that they can enable and put into practice will help accelerate the use of knowledge that people have. It is making it accessible to those individuals.

Another element, and this is where Athabasca University comes in and truly shines, is recognizing that not all learners want or can attend a traditional university, or institution, in which they have to leave the pressures of their life or job, or their community or culture. Or frankly, they don’t have the academic history to be able to enter what one might call a traditional university that is face-to-face.

So, if I look at the population of Canada, while there might be over 1 million people at any given time within the higher education system within the country, that means that there are many millions more that don’t currently have access to it. So, how do we as Athabasca University open the door to the population that has a passion to learn, but otherwise doesn’t have the opportunity to learn at a university?

Our job is to figure out how to create the sustainable and scalable learning platform to enable it so that we have a higher proportion of, not only access, but of completion in higher education, which feeds into the lifelong learning concept that I mentioned first.

The next element is enabling and facilitating a lot of the research we have going on in Canada through the innovation cycle into new opportunities or new diverse economic drivers. Arguably, Canada is an incredible leader in the pure research side of things. We’ve got some of the most incredible scientists across the country. How do we then as a system enable that pure research to be converted into new ventures, or into new diversities, within the economic sectors? How do we enable people to take that knowledge that we’re creating as a country and help create new opportunities? That is, to me, one of the focal points we as a nation and a country need to come together, as I have spoke on before.

The universities are part of the system. We are not the system. We are part of it. We are integral to the pure research or with respect to the applied research. In turn, we are integral to the element of the diversification initiatives because, in many cases, it is our learners that are seizing the knowledge that is coming out of the university to create those new economic drivers. So, how do we become part of that entire value chain from pure research to new economies?

AU’s already very accessible, for instance with 12 points of intake during the year instead of the typical three, but what else could we do to make education through AU even more accessible to students?
So, great question, I would say a couple of things. For nearly 50 years, we have been systematically breaking down a lot of barriers that learners face when it comes to higher education. So, the example you gave around 12 intakes. We can take those barriers that we’ve already broken down and continue to build in the accessibility of that. So, we could go from 12 intakes to instant intakes. Your starting point is only limited by the point at which you say, “Yes.”

The other way that we can do it, and this is the second focal point of creating higher levels of access and, frankly, participation, is to identify the barriers learners potentially face when trying to get a university education, and trying to find ways to break down new and additional barriers. So, what we’re doing is that we’re strengthening the ones we’ve already undertaken and doing ones to complement openness and accessibility.

Let’s take, for an example, persons with a disability. We have sought ways to break down barriers associated with certain disabilities. As the world comes to understand the intricate elements of some disabilities that are just now becoming focal points of research, how do we work with that new knowledge to break down further barriers?

So like a student with a physical disability that would need to travel to a specific bricks-and-mortar institution, where now if they’re attending AU they can attend from home?

Absolutely! That is an example that I think right now we’re accomplishing. We still have room to strengthen it, but we are accomplishing it. Let’s say an individual has a mobility restriction, and so it’s not just a function of it being difficult to travel to a bricks-and-mortar university for their entire learning experience, bur even for an exam environment or an assessment environment. How can we utilize technologies to have that person never have to leave the comfort of their own home study space using biometric indicators to know that they are the individual completing the assessment, and supporting them in doing it?

So, they have no need to travel, even to complete an assessment for us. I am trying to think of another example. So, with the increased knowledge that society is gaining around something like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), how can we create not only a learning environment but an assessment environment that reduces the pressures that a learner may experience in relation to a PTSD experience? I am not looking to a specific instance of how we would use that. But how can we reduce any constraints that may be impacted by PTSD?

One of the most stressful areas of a students’ life comes from finals or exams in general. I want to tackle this topic from two angles. For the first one, what are some things that AU could do to make access and accomplishment in test-taking? For the second part, how can AU provide modernized services to students that are undergoing test anxiety?
I am going to come at this, as you’ve put it in two forms, from two perspectives as well. The first is enabling the learning in parallel to the content or the learning outcomes of the courses and programs that they are taking. By that, I mean, how do we put the wraparound services as a university through digital mechanisms to support a learner in their studying? How do we help the actual learning occur? Because the more that we can help the actual learning to occur, then a reasonable outcome would be that a learners’ experience would be less stress because they are more confident in the learning that they have undertaken.

That is, how do we continue to build on the advances in educational research, in cognitive research, in educational technology research, to not only enhance the learning experience, but to enhance the wraparound services that support the learning experience? As you know, learning online is different than learning in a classroom. It is, “How do we help people learn how to learn online?” The flip side is, “How do we make it so the assessment space or experience is focused on assessing the learning itself – as compared to that really stressful one episode experience?”

That, to me, is consistent with our mission of reducing barriers. So, how do we make it so the learner is able to focus only on the assessment while they’re there? It is partly making sure our technology is always reliable, consistent, and on the front edge. It is making sure we are putting in place things so a learner doesn’t have to worry about it. As an example, if someone is doing an exam at home, how do we validate it is the learner doing that assessment?

How do we make that validation process easy, seamless, and transparent, so the learner is, again focusing on the assessment of their learning rather than if the system will recognize them as the learner? How do we pull stressors out of the environment and allow them to focus on the things they are being assessed on? To me, that is, how do we further enable our technology support systems?

If you look at Indigenous students in Canada, the gap of university attendance and success is significant: sometimes, 2-to-1 (or more) between non-Indigenous and Indigenous students. What are some ways Athabasca University could reach out to Indigenous students specifically?
I think where Athabasca University can come together on this is not only in elements such as financial barriers. Those things are more tangible in nature. I think where Athabasca can shine is by working with Indigenous communities, Indigenous colleges, as a joint journey together to figure out how Athabasca University can help support Indigenous learners – enabling them to retain a presence in traditional ways of learning, in traditional ways.

How can Athabasca University bring Western learning in the direction of traditional learning? To me, it is then, how can we then partner to enable those Indigenous learners to find a pathway from traditional ways of learning into potentially Western ways of learning? But also, how can we shift the way we deliver our learning to be much more consistent with traditional ways of learning? That, to me, is something only accomplishable by working in partnership and walking that journey together with Indigenous communities and institutions.

What has been one of the more emotionally moving stories you’ve heard about a student that has attended AU during your time as president so far?
Wow – that is a fantastic question. I am going to give you a very recent example because, frankly, I think it is a very, very cool story. The number of people that have a personal story around how AU could help them, and the accommodation that we’ve provided for them to enable their learning, they are immense. They are most frequent in terms of our stories. My favourite, most recent one is someone who was at convocation, graduating at 93, having studied with us for 30 years.

That is someone who has said to themselves, “My personal learning goal is to complete the degree.” You know what? Life gets in the way. It has taken her 30 years to pick away at it. Nevertheless, she has shown unbelievable determination and persistence, and commitment. At the same time, it makes me incredibly proud to be the president of a university who is willing to be a partner in her learning journey for 30 years, and have an equal amount of persistence and commitment, and passion, to seeing her receive her credential.

Stories like that just land an immense smile on your face. You can’t help but think that that is an amazing learning journey.

I have one last question. What is your message to students who have entered courses for the summer at AU?
Oooh! I think the straightforward is, “Thank you for making AU part of your learning experience, know that, we will undertake everything that we can do to make your learning experience as positive as it can be now and into the future.”

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, again, President Fassina.
Glad I can! I am impressed you used literally every minute of it.

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