From the moment that they sign up for a course, AU students know they are in a unique learning situation compared to other university students because of the self-directed learning format. Even if they weren’t familiar with it before, AU students discover that they alone are responsible for their learning—no falling asleep in the back of lecture halls for them! Although this promotes independence and ownership of the education, one drawback is that there is limited interaction between AU students and their tutors, particularly at the lower undergraduate level.
Athabasca University’s study anytime, anywhere format means that its students do not need to construct their own timetables when making their course selections. Beyond the course name and number, there is no juggling of schedules and figuring out which professor would be best for them to work with and which is to be avoided. As university costs rise, university students in general are adopting a more consumerist mindset and want to get the best value for money. This may mean seeking out the academics who will best support their needs. But in Athabasca’s case, often it is a complete surprise which tutor a student is assigned. An even more baffling part of the AU student experience compared to that of other universities is that AU students often have no at-hand information about their tutors at all. There is the staff listing on the main AU website, and profiles on the department webpages, but the amount of detail is inconsistent. Students are often left completely in the dark about what their tutor looks like, what they are like as people or even what their voice sounds like. Students also don’t often know what the academic specialty, background, or research interests of their tutors are, so the AU student experience seldom goes beyond submitting assignments through the Moodle portal and then receiving a grade with some written comments by their tutor in return.
Of course, some students prefer this anonymity, and, in turn, don’t reveal a lot about themselves to their tutor. But for those that want to develop a bit of a rapport with their tutor there aren’t many ways to do this. They can either resort to a bit of online stalking through social media or a Google search to find out something about the academics who will be helping them through the degree process. Or, they can use RateMyProfessors.com, a website that has become extremely popular over the past decade as a way for students to learn about and evaluate the quality of the education experience.
For those unfamiliar with the website, anyone can search for a university for ratings and comments about the general quality of education as well as search for those of a specific professor at that school. The ratings used to include a “chili pepper rating” for a professor’s degree of hotness, but this was deemed inappropriate and irrelevant so was dropped.
While on the surface RateMyProfessors (RMP) seems like a valuable tool for students to gain insight about what a prof is really like, anyone who has been involved with statistical research knows that getting a truly a objective representative sample from a self-selected group is nearly impossible. In the case of RMP, the quality of the comments and ratings seem to fall in two main categories; those who hold a grudge against a prof because they may have been a tough marker or assigned a lot of work (or there was just a total personality clash), or those students who aced the course and want to curry favour with that person. Also, the ratings for many profs are based on a pitiful number of students who have taken the time to give a rating. Thus, a prof’s positive or negative rating can be based on just a few reviews. This meagre sample is not enough to give any sort of accurate profile, and even though the site asserts that it is completely anonymous, the comments made by students may be deduced as coming from them. There are also issues of slander/libel and what damage that might cause a professor in the future.
On the other hand, because there are so few ways for students to publicly voice their opinion, websites such as RMP are often one of the only communication avenues available. The comments on RMP can serve as valuable insights into a professor’s teaching style and way of working. There are of course social media forums such as Reddit and Facebook groups, but they are often based on mere anecdotes and opinion—not reflective of a large number of students. Many universities and colleges use some sort of internal student course satisfaction survey from students who have completed courses, but the results are rarely made public.
Because of AU’s format, students are unable to even chat with each other at a student pub or meeting place and are left wondering if other students are experiencing the same thing they are going through with a particular course or tutor. AUSU provided its own form of course evaluations by students but they were discontinued because student response was poor and they were often confused with AU’s own internal evaluations.
I asked on the unofficial AU Facebook page about whether AU students value websites such as RMP. I received some surprising feedback. Several students that they hadn’t even heard of ratings websites such as RateMyProfessors. Among those that had, they said that RMP is of little value to them.
The issue of RateMyProfessors and the student experience at Athabasca brings to light a larger issue: one of communication between students, teaching faculty, and AU’s staff and administration. Even though learning at AU is done primarily through the internet, arguably the world’s largest communication tool, AU is failing to achieve a real connection between the hubs that make up its community. As discussed in the August, 2018, AUSU monthly meeting (as well as AUSU’s recent in-person meet and greet events) the issue of communication and improving the student experience has been noticed by AU administration and is a key area for discussion in AU’s proposed learning framework. A summary of this framework is detailed in the ImaginePlan document.
The task to revamp AU’s best practices to decide how it will execute its programs and services in the future is huge. The framework is just beginning to be rolled out and the consultation process is also just starting with AU stakeholders. More details will emerge as the process gets underway.
But this engagement process by AU will only be as effective as its communication. It remains to be seen whether current AU students—as well as alumni—are invited to share their experiences and how they will be allowed to do that. The process will also only be as valuable as the level that the AU takes on board the recommendations and suggestions made through the process to improve the overall learning experience at AU. Until this happens, students are left with few platforms other than Facebook and RateMyProfessors to share their views.