As part of our innovation agenda for post-secondary education in Ontario, we need to look systematically across Canada, North America and the world for best practices, as well as examples of early-stage innovations that hold promise for Ontario. The focus for this search should not be on technologies for learning per se, but on activities which lead to improved student outcomes, higher levels of student engagement and a lowering of the cost per student. That is, “best practices” are best only if they lead to these three outcomes.
Athabasca University in Alberta has been seen by many as an example of a Canadian best- practice institution. In this short note, we examine what we can learn from Athabasca to apply to “made-in-Ontario” innovations for our post-secondary education system.
Some Facts about Athabasca University
Athabasca University (AU) is a dedicated flexible learning institution, making increasing use of online and technology-enabled learning so as to provide services to students. It operates nationally and internationally, even though it is a publicly funded university in Alberta. It is a major player in Ontario, with a significant body of students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Indeed, for Athabasca University, Ontario is an important market providing a significant proportion of its registrations and revenue.
Here are some facts that put Athabasca in context:
- AU currently provides courses and programs to approximately 40,000 individuals (approximately 8,000 full-load equivalents), with most undergraduates taking an average of 1.5 courses. Some 35-40% of these students live in Ontario.
- AU offers over 830 courses in more than 50 undergraduate and graduate programs in a range of arts, science and professional disciplines.
- In 2011-12 AU had a $118 million annual operating budget.
- AU employs over 1,200 faculty and staff members on four Alberta campuses located in Athabasca, St. Albert, Edmonton and Calgary.
- AU maintains over 350 collaborative agreements with other Canadian and international post-secondary institutions, with professional associations and employer groups and with First Nations institutions and communities.
Its core strength is a flexible approach to undergraduate study and its range of graduate programs with minimal (or no) physical residency requirements.
Why Athabasca University Succeeds in Ontario
Athabasca University has a powerful value proposition which is successfully responding to a demonstrable market need in Ontario.
The five part value proposition looks like this:
1. Athabasca University offers effective and uncomplicated credit transfer
2. Athabasca University provides extensive and diverse prior learning assessment
3. Athabasca University offers flexible start dates and an open admission policy
4. Athabasca University is a centre for the creation and delivery of innovative programs
5. Athabasca University has focused marketing and branding
Let’s look at each of these in more detail:
1. Athabasca University offers effective and uncomplicated credit transfer both to and from AU – AU has block transfer agreements with a numerous post-secondary institutions in Ontario, enabling automatic transfer into degree programs for rapid completion. It also has effective and long-standing credit transfer and recognition agreements with many professional bodies, thus enabling professional recognition of courses completed. Transfer credit management is thus a straightforward and quick process. Indeed, for some degrees (such as the three year equivalent Bachelor of General Studies), the number of courses which must be taken from AU is minimal. Students also use AU to obtain credit needed to complete degrees at Ontario universities - many registrations are for just one or two courses taken on a letter of permission. Students benefit by either accelerating their degree completion at an Ontario institutions or by obtaining an Athabasca credential by credit consolidation.
2. Athabasca University provides extensive and diverse prior learning assessment – AU looks at student learning portfolios and assesses the credit worthiness of the prior learning which has taken place outside of a post-secondary institution (for more information see http://prior-learning.athabascau.ca/how-PLAR-works.php#long). Students receive credit through challenge based assessments. The opportunity for prior learning assessment greatly benefits students – ensuring that all of their learning is taken into account, whether it has been recognized in the past or not.
3. Athabasca University offers flexible start dates and an open admission policy - For undergraduate level students, start dates are offered at the beginning of any month for every course, there are no admission requirements for undergraduate degree programs and students undertake the examination and assessments when they are ready. Students can finish a course quickly or, through extensions, take their time. At the graduate level, there are few (if any) residency requirements for Masters, PhD or DBA programs. From a student perspective, this is a major advantage – students can schedule their study around their work and family life. Athabasca’s flexibility favours the students.
4. Athabasca University is a centre for the creation and delivery of innovative programs – In 1993/94, AU launched the world’s first online MBA and the world’s first online Masters in Distance Education. In nursing, it is possible to move from a post-RN bachelor’s degree through to a Masters in Practical Nursing. Its Master of Arts in Integrated Studies degree features one of the most innovative program designs in Canada. In these developments, the university is finding an appropriate balance between technology-enhanced learning and personal contact – tutoring is very much part of the instructional model and is also very personalized..
5. Athabasca University has focused marketing and branding – AU knows how to recruit students in Canada and has been doing so in every province since 1973. It makes skilled use of professional and social networks, face to face marketing presentations, selected media and advertising and has become a recognized brand. For example, when its MBA was recognized as amongst the top 100 in the world by the Financial Times of London, it used its alumni and students to push this achievement in the communities, professions and industries in which they are based. AU has a modest marketing budget but it is smart in how it uses its brand and its people.
When the Rae Commission was being pressed to recommend the creation of a similar institution in Ontario, Mr. Rae resisted. His observation was simple. Athabasca University – a Canadian public university which is fully accredited in the United States and recognized as a leader around the world – supports students in their learning in Ontario at a minimal cost to the province and helps the province achieve its goals for post-secondary education. Why would we want to incur substantial new costs so as to achieve the same end result?
Using Athabasca University as a Springboard for Ontario’s Innovation
The key messages from this review of Athabasca University’s operations as they apply to Ontario are that it is a student-focused institution which is innovative, flexible, personal and affordable and has significantly leveraged transferable credits to build its presence in the province.
When Steve Jobs looked at his competitors’ products and services his question was not “how do we emulate” but “how can we use what they have done as a platform for leapfrogging” to a place where Apple can secure its own advantage? He saw what was possible in the future from what was happening now, as well as the need to go beyond what many thought was possible. This is why Apple has been, until recently, such a disruptive force.
Looking at Athabasca University through this same lens, we can suggest three things that could enable Ontario to innovate in powerful and effective ways.
- Transfer Credit and Innovative Ways of Providing Credit Recognition – This provides a strong starting point for innovation. Some of this is in progress – investments have been made through the Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT) and a number of consortia are in place. But much more could be done. A resolute focus on prior learning assessment; programs built in partnership with companies offering extensive training which make use of work based learning assessment; a system of challenge for credit which is province-wide; assessment based on student use of open education resource courses now freely available online - all these are being done elsewhere, but no jurisdiction has systematically focused on transferability and new forms of credit assessment as an engine of innovation. Ontario could do so.
- Flexible Start Dates – One of the keys to success for Athabasca University in Ontario is the “start a course at the beginning of any month and call the exam when you are ready” for almost all of its undergraduate courses. Others have taken this further. The Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) has an “on demand” policy – students can begin a course of study at the start of any week and call the assessment when ready. It is the fastest area of growth for the system and has high completion rates. Indeed, this “on demand” feature has significantly increased the capacity of the system without increasing costs. (See a description of this system in the Game Changers series on the Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty and Instructor.) Many courses in the first two years at colleges and universities could be offered using this model – increasing student access and flexibility and efficiency of the system.
- Innovative Programs – Programs that enable students to study in their own way in their own time (flexible starts) are one thing, but the big idea that Athabasca University explored in the 1990’s was innovative programs. Think of focused graduate degrees in which institutions offer the base year with the core skills required for graduate study in, say, psychology and then the second year of the program can be completed by combining credits from several universities who offer more specialized studies and electives taught by expert academics. Or a program designed around “wicked problems” which need to be solved for Ontario’s future – where students are challenged with solving the problem not just studying them. Or a program which leverages the connections Ontario institutions have around the world so that students study with others from several countries. Elements of all of these are in place, but are not been seen as part of a strategy for the province to leverage these innovative activities to scale.
The Model of Athabasca University: An Opportunity Not a Threat
Athabasca University does not pose a threat to colleges and universities in Ontario. It provides an opportunity. Ontario colleges and universities who understand why AU has attracted so many students in Ontario can leverage this knowledge to innovate and leapfrog. Doing so will create choice for students and grow the market for registrations from Ontario and elsewhere.