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
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.
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.
|Debby Carlson, leader of the opposition in the Alberta Legislative Assembly,
earned an online Master of Business Administration degree from Athabasca
University last June.||
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
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
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 University now enrolls about 25,000 distance education students, but
President Dominique Abrioux worries about increasing competition from
prominent U.S. universities.
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."
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.
| ||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.
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
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
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,
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
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
raising tuition. It's considered
an open university,
Abrioux added, and "being
open means not refusing
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)
said. "We have to adapt to
the commercial idea of
service. This is our only
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
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.
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.
| ||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
"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."