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National CrossTalk Fall 2001
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

1 of 5 Stories

Learning Online
Canada's Athabasca University offers college courses at the click of a mouse

By Kay Mills

ATHABASCA, ALBERTA PROVINCE, CANADA

Graduation day at Athabasca University in Alberta last June looked like any graduation at countless Canadian and American universities -a sunny day, students wearing caps and gowns, proud family members snapping photographs, the university president awarding degrees. But many of the graduates who attended the convocation had never been to Athabasca before because it offers its classes entirely at a distance, mostly online.

The university held its convocation in a tent in the parking lot because it has no gym or stadium-not even a campus, if you get right down to it. Without a university band, Athabasca's academic procession features a bagpiper. Athabasca holds a convocation because, as its president Dominique Abrioux said, "Traditions are important"-even for online learners. "It's the only time we meet our students. We want to leave them with a lasting impression."

Athabasca University, which is 30 years old, is located in the small town of the same name (Cree for "land of whispering reeds and hills") 84 miles north of Edmonton. The university is the town's largest employer with about 300 people on staff. From the outside, the offices resemble a small liberal arts college. But inside, there are no classrooms. The modern building is set in a wooded area, and deer are often seen on the grounds. Once in awhile, a bear may amble along to peer into the registrar's window.

Accredited by the government of the province of Alberta, Athabasca is one of three public universities in Canada offering all its courses at a distance. With about 25,000 students, Athabasca is the largest of the three. The Open Learning Agency, which provides a variety of education opportunities, has 14,251 university-level students enrolled. Tele-Universite du Quebec, which serves French speakers and is a branch of the Universite du Quebec, has 12,000 students, most of them part-time.

Canadian universities are free to offer their courses on campus and at a distance, so they compete with Athabasca, whose mandate is limited to distance education. Most of those who do offer distance education, Abrioux said, tend to focus on what they consider profit-making subjects such as business and health.

This year about 250 of the 529 people receiving Athabasca degrees attended the convocation. It is not uncommon for a distance-education graduate to have taken six to ten years to finish a degree.

One of those finishing in considerably less time-two and a half years-was 31- year-old Weby Mograhbi of Lac La Biche, Alberta. She attended the convocation with her husband, Kamel, three children (aged four to eight) and her sister, a high school teacher who constantly prodded her to stay on schedule with her coursework. Mograhbi fits one of the classic profiles of a distance learning student: a mom who wants to be at home with a young family and wants to earn a degree at the same time. Two-thirds of Athabasca's undergraduates are women.

A psychology major who received her bachelor's degree in June, Mograhbi liked working at her own pace. She could be with her children during the day, taking them to ballet class or wherever else they needed to go, doing the laundry, making lunches, then complete her class work every night from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. "I never allowed this to take away from my family," she said. "If this didn't work for my family, it didn't work for me."

Mograhbi works part-time at a residential treatment center for troubled teenagers and also has helped with remedial reading at a local elementary school. "I didn't sit in a bubble for years and never look up," she said of the period during which she earned her degree. She did, however, make a big push at the end, finishing ten courses in the last eight weeks of the spring semester, six of which were already in progress. She completed her last course needed to graduate in 12 days.

Mograhbi wants to be a high school counselor, and this fall she starts work on education courses toward that goal-again online, this time through the University of Alberta. Her husband, who owns a Tire Craft shop, bought her a new computer when she started, and she never has had a problem with it. "That's my best friend," Weby said of the machine through which she would receive her assignments, turn them in and learn how she fared.

Distance education isn't for everyone. More mature students, people with jobs or families, see the advantage. But people who need face-to-face contact and deadlines may not do as well. As Jaap Tuinman, president of the Open Learning Agency, said, "Distance education is not the ideal way to educate an 18-year-old. They need to go to a campus. "There is, after all, more to a college than its courses.

Anyone 18 or older can take courses at Athabasca, with or without a high school diploma. Students can take either individualized "home-study" courses, or group classes, sometimes referred to as "paced study." A typical home-study course package might include a student manual, study guide (which is required reading), textbooks, CD-ROMs, audiocassettes or videotapes, and home-lab kits where relevant. Paced study classes, which may be preferred by students who like the discipline of a schedule, include some business courses in which students do group assignments and engage in online discussion forums, with a set time table.

The important thing to remember, most distance learning providers agree, is that it is not sufficient for a professor simply to put lecture notes online; such courses are not very good.

Generally speaking, each Athabasca student has a tutor for each class and can contact him or her by e-mail or by toll-free phone line if they live in Canada or the United States. For example, at any one time President Dominique Abrioux tutors fifteen students who are enrolled in an introductory French course, and he does that no matter where he is traveling. One Monday last spring, Abrioux conducted an exam on language proficiency by telephone from his hotel room in Vancouver, where he was attending the World Education Market exhibition. Some of the students he tutors know Abrioux is the university president; some do not.

 
Debby Carlson, leader of the opposition in the Alberta Legislative Assembly, earned an online Master of Business Administration degree from Athabasca University last June. 
The university has about 400 tutors and about 100 tenured faculty members. The tutors hold at least a master's degree in their discipline, and about 40 percent have doctorates. Most hold down a full-time job-not necessarily teaching-in addition to tutoring. Almost all the undergraduate tutors live in Alberta, but graduate tutors (usually called adjunct faculty or mentors) are more dispersed across Canada. Athabasca draws on professors at other universities as well as its own faculty to design the courses.

Some courses require participation in online conferences with other students. Students also can communicate with their tutors by e-mail, attaching their assignments and having them returned through the Internet. There may be online quizzes as well. Students can check their grades, use the library and find help with problems from the student support system-all online.

That support system offers a primer, for example, on "mastering exam anxiety." Students can choose whether to take courses by mail and telephone or online. "We consciously took the position that we were not going to disenfranchise people because they didn't have the technology," said Judith Hughes, Athabasca's vice president for student services. About 15 percent of Athabasca's students do not have Internet access.

 
 Athabasca University now enrolls about 25,000 distance education students, but President Dominique Abrioux worries about increasing competition from prominent U.S. universities.
Almost all of the individualized courses have midterm and final examinations. Students usually take the exams at a nearby community college or other educational center so that they can be supervised. Although there are some online exams, most must be proctored. Students who are not near any college nominate someone, with the approval of the university, to monitor the exam. The university tries to ensure that students need drive no more than 100 kilometers-or 60 miles-to an exam site.

Athabasca also has learning centers in Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta's largest cities, where many of the group-study courses are offered for students who want the discipline of a schedule. Students also can take these courses through collaborating institutions across Canada. If they are not able to attend the classroom physically, the students may be able to participate through teleconferencing or videoconferencing. These classes usually begin in September and January and last 13 or 26 weeks with one three-hour session per week. Many of the higher enrollment classes, such as introductory statistics and introduction to accounting, are offered in this fashion.

Some subjects are harder to handle online than others. The sciences are more difficult and more costly to offer, especially lab sciences. Athabasca's science faculty enables students to do physics experiments in their own homes by using a combination of commercial equipment and some developed by the university. Students borrow from the distance education library a small kit containing almost everything needed to set up an experiment, do measurements and analyze the data. The faculty also are working on simulated and digital video experiments to help students set up the experiments and understand the concepts.

Since 1975 Athabasca has offered classes on First Nations reserves (which in the United States would be called Indian reservations). All the courses needed for a bachelor's degree can be taken from instructors who travel to the reserves. The Blue Quills First Nations College, located about 220 miles from Athabasca, is on a Cree reserve with no nearby university. Twelve students received degrees there in June. Athabasca operates this portion of its distance education program because it feels it has "a mandate to serve people typically underrepresented in higher education," said Judith Hughes.

Athabasca's catalog lists 460 undergraduate courses for credit, ranging from Accounting to Women's Studies. Four out of every five undergraduates take their courses on an individualized basis. There are also several master's degree programs, including business administration, health studies, and counseling. In 1994 Athabasca started offering a master's degree in distance education because a number of teachers wanted to move into this field and needed instruction about how to do it.

 
 
Kathy Elliot, who lives in the Yukon Territory, was among the first group of students to enroll in the distance education masters' program. She completed her degree in seven years, working on it part time while leading wilderness trips in the summer and training park rangers in emergency care in remote areas in the other months. Elliot wanted to learn more about distance education because the Yukon is planning and deploying information technology now, and she would like to work as a consultant to help ensure that it is planned well and that people who already might have difficulty gaining access to education and technology aren't left even further behind.

Distance education also allowed Elliot to "fit study into my life rather than change my life to study," she said. She enjoyed her classes' asynchronous conferences -that is, online conferences in which students could post their questions, responses and other comments within a particular time period but on their own schedule within that period. In contrast to what might happen in a traditional classroom, these online conferences "equalized the playing field. There wasn't the opportunity for one person to dominate the conversation," Elliot said. With an online course, she found that people pondered what they were going to write and gave more considered responses than they would in a traditional classroom. "It's less off-the-cuff," she said.

Claire Young of Cochrane, Alberta, who received a bachelor's degree in June, has been a student long enough to see the major shift in distance learning delivery from mail and the telephone to the Internet. She started working on her degree in the 1980s. (She also raised her two teenagers and helped 25 foster children in the meantime.) In those earlier days, the university would mail out a box with all the classroom material, assignments included, and students would work through it at their own pace but within an overall time frame. They had to rely on mail service to submit assignments and receive corrections.

"You'd send the material in and it would be several weeks before you knew how you'd done," Young said. "By the time you got the results back, you'd forgotten what you'd done. The Internet is fabulous, how fast it is. You can find out that day what you did wrong and then work on it."

"You have to maintain student interest," said Dominique Abrioux, "and it was hard in the old mode." Offering distance education online eliminates that downtime. It also provides better access to resources such as the library. "You used to have to phone the library, and the librarian would find your materials. The Internet is allowing the learner to develop the skills to search for information," Abrioux added. "In the old way, they weren't getting the full learning experience. Part of learning is learning how to learn."

 
 Weby Mograhbi was able to earn a psychology degree from Athabasca over the Internet, while staying home with her husband, Kamel, and their three children (left to right), Muhammad, Manal and Eman.
Using the Internet also has allowed distance learning institutions to produce "learner-centric activities" that require students to work together, something that the older methods of distance education did not facilitate. The masters of business administration programs, for example, all have modules requiring group projects. Students who may be working together on a company's marketing plan or some other business project make their contributions online-in comparison to a more traditional MBA program, in which they might get together at a campus coffee shop or in a study alcove.

Debby Carlson of Edmonton, who also earned an MBA in June, found that the level of debate online with her fellow students was excellent. "People think about what they say before they write it down. Often you don't get real Triple-A people in some traditional classes but everyone in this program was 'a real keener,'" she said. (A "keener" is sharp, aggressive and goal-driven.)

Carlson was no exception. She is a member of the Alberta Legislative Assembly, and its official opposition leader, as well as the mother of two teenagers. When the legislature is in session, it's an 80- to 90-hour-a-week job. "It was a challenge," she said about the process of earning her degree. She remembered once doing her homework on the assembly floor during an historic debate on privatizing the province's health care.

Formerly a business and financial planning consultant, Carlson had taken night courses in accounting at the University of Alberta. Asked the difference between that somewhat traditional setting and online learning, she said, "Having a set classroom time doesn't necessarily mean you're making the best use of the time. A lot of time gets wasted in idle chat. There are some people who take over the conversation. And sometimes you have a professor who veers off the course material."

As for the drawbacks of taking courses online, Carlson said that "you miss the strong ties you might gain in another program, contacts that are stepladders to future ties, the networking...Being in politics, I know how important these networks are. So I may have missed that, but the benefits at my age and at my stage far outweighed that."

At least half the undergraduates who register for Athabasca courses are "visiting students," that is, they are taking just a few courses or filling in courses they need at other universities but cannot conveniently obtain.These students like the flexibility of taking courses through Athabasca, President Abrioux said. "If the course is full at their university, ours never is." Credit for all Athabasca courses is fully transferable. All of the university's graduate students, however, are seeking Athabasca degrees. A three-credit course costs $476 for Albertans and $546 for out of province students. Half of Athabasca students live in Alberta, with seven percent from outside Canada.

Sixty percent of those who start courses complete them successfully, a rate that Judith Hughes considers high for distance education students. "That's because of the course design," she said. "The materials are well designed." Athabasca also prides itself on its counseling and advising and study skills assistance. "Up front we encourage prospective students to go through a readiness check" to see if distance learning would work for them, Hughes explained.

Granting students extensions to complete course work also helps. Students have six months to finish individualized courses, but may apply for several extensions. Many do just that. "Most of the students are adults, and we know life happens," Hughes said. "They have a baby, somebody dies, they move or are posted somewhere new. We try to provide as much opportunity to succeed as possible." In surveys to determine why people didn't finish a course, she said, Athabasca has learned that "it almost always has nothing to do with us."

Despite its surging growth-enrollment has more than doubled since 1993- '94-Athabasca is receiving only about 30 percent of its annual budget from the provincial government now, contrasted with 50 percent then. In an effort to balance its budget several years ago, the government cut spending on postsecondary education 21 percent over three years.

While some universities raised tuition to offset the loss of funds, Athabasca froze its tuition for three years, resulting in a real financial squeeze. In 1994-'95, Abrioux said, Athabasca had the highest tuition in Alberta. "The thinking was that we had to position ourselves better vis-a-vis the other Albertan universities. Our enrollments had stagnated between 1993 and 1995, and so we had to try different things to get going again."

Graduate education is growing at Athabasca. The success of the MBA program in particular-1,200 students now are enrolled -has helped improve the university's financial picture. Fees for that program have increased because, Abrioux explained, the people enrolled in it are already in the work force and are comparatively well off. That is not necessarily the case with undergraduates, and the university is wrestling with how to meet the demand without substantially raising tuition. It's considered an open university, Abrioux added, and "being open means not refusing entry."

Traditional universities must spend money on bricks and mortar, but Athabasca's budget is heavy on student support services. "The expectation is for '24-7' (around-theclock) service," Abrioux said. "We have to adapt to the commercial idea of service. This is our only business."

That in turn puts more pressure on tutors to be responsive. Some have dropped by the wayside. In general, though, tutors seem remarkably loyal to Athabasca, averaging 13 years with the university. "They were hired in a different work environment," the president said. "The part-timers were quite happy to be available for two hours once a week and do the grading. That's not what we need now."

Kathy Williams, an Athabasca tutor in literature and German courses since 1976, said that tutors are expected to set aside three hours of contact time a week for each group of 36 students. "I get a lot more e-mail correspondence than I do telephone calls," she said. Williams has regular times during each week in which she handles calls and e-mails-the distance education version of on-campus office hours. Tutors also are expected to respond to students' inquiries within two working days.

Williams has a master's degree in German from the University of Calgary and runs a pottery with her husband when she isn't tutoring. She also co-chairs local 3911 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the tutors and has a collective bargaining agreement with the university (although under Alberta law the union cannot strike). She said that as tutors' workload shifted, the university at first "did not have a very good record of consulting with us." It's getting better now, she said, as everyone wrestles with the effects of technological change.

Athabasca University soon will seek American accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, hoping to sign up more students from the United States. Accreditation from a U.S. agency adds credibility, Abrioux said. "We've gotten 600 students in the U.S. without doing any promotion. That's part of our development strategy."

Challenges lie ahead for distance educators in general and Athabasca in particular, Abrioux believes. "Distance education, once treated as a peripheral element of university education, is now recognized as one of its central themes, albeit repackaged as 'online' or 'distributed' learning," he wrote in last year's annual report. "Athabasca can no longer afford to position itself as a major player in a relatively small field, but must remake itself in an environment where all universities are, or will be, fellow providers." Toward this end, the university is making many more global ties.

 
 Distance learning students earn degrees without once setting foot on the Athabasca University campus, which is in a small town 84 miles north of Edmonton, in the Canadian province of Alberta.
One of its most strategic partnerships is with the University of Monterrey in Mexico. Monterrey wants to ensure that its students develop online skills, perfect their English and gain international experience. It is steering its business students to e-learning courses. Abrioux said that the partnership also "helps us build international experience for our own students" because they take group classes with the Monterrey students. Athabasca also has a partnership with a program in Jamaica through which practicing teachers who have two-year certificates enroll in the university's distance education courses to help them receive their undergraduate degrees.That way, they don't have to leave their homes or jobs to complete a degree. Abrioux said that unless a university like Athabasca globalizes its programs, "ten years down the road, your domestic market is at risk." Learners can choose from a wide range of options, he said, and enrollment will flow toward an institution that has a global brand. If the best in traditional higher education-Harvard, for example-went fully online as Athabasca has done, "who would come to Athabasca?" he asked rhetorically.

"In online education, you are much more vulnerable because you don't have a protected region that you serve," Abrioux said, referring to an area in which, say, 60 or 70 percent of students live and attend a traditional campus because they can't or won't go farther from home. "Everybody who comes to us could go anywhere," he added. "Leadership on a global scale is important for us."

Online educators also face the challenge of changing expectations. Historically, Abrioux said, there was no expectation in distance education that there would be significant communication between the learners and the staff. With the introduction of computers and the Internet, students now expect such interaction, and fairly so, Abrioux said. "So the pedagogy has to change. That costs money. Interactions are only useful if they are well designed and moderated," he added. How universities and professors manage these changes, especially as enrollments increase, will determine who prospers and who does not, who fulfills the mission of access and who does not.

For a long time, distance educators were defensive and did not like to be thought of as offering "correspondence courses, "Abrioux said. Athabasca spent its first 15 to 20 years justifying distance learning, he added. "Traditional universities felt, 'it can't be the same value; it can't be as good.' But because traditional universities are getting into it, they are bringing credibility. They may not do it well, but their name brings credibility." While Athabasca may have spent its early years on the defensive, said Abrioux, "now it's on the cutting edge."

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