After four years as President of Athabasca University, Dr. Neil Fassina has announced that he will be leaving the University in April 2021 to become President of Okanagan College in British Columbia.
When Dr. Fassina arrived at Athabasca he faced several challenges; many outlined in the Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University commissioned by the Government of Alberta and the Governors of Athabasca University. He used the report as a starting point for what the future of Athabasca University could look like.
Working to create energy, a passion for learning and a focus on innovative, technology-enabled learning, Dr. Fassina has reinvigorated the University, launched new programs and initiatives, and rekindled the innovative spirit, which was the hallmark of the University in the past. Each year, the University hosts about 43,000 learners, many of them working full-time. Almost 70% of those who graduate are the first in their family to do so.
The strategic direction of the University, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, was captured in a bold and imaginative strategic plan: Imagine:Transforming Lives, Transforming Communities. The plan was built around these four pillars:
- Moving Beyond Open – Bridging open and inclusion
- Moving Beyond Place – Transforming communities through belonging and relationships
- Moving Beyond the Norm – Adopting innovative ideas, taking calculated risks
- Moving Beyond the Now – Making change through agility and adaptability
The plan sought to unleash the creative energy of faculty, enliven learning with smart technology and streamline the ways in which work at Athabasca University got done.
This bold plan was matched with a plan aimed at transforming learning: the Imagine Learning Framework. In addition to leveraging universal design for learning, the framework sought to reimagine how learning is experienced by students, how assessment is done and how learning can have deep personal, social and community impacts.
To enable this work, investments have been made in powerful enabling technologies – AU is moving to D2L’s Brightspace, Microsoft Teams and related software and is now embracing artificial intelligence supports for learning, including chatbots and augmented and virtual reality. One of its business courses involves a virtual co-operative, enabled by IBM Watson. It is also the first university in Canada to move its entire IT infrastructure to the cloud.
There has also been a rethink of Athabasca University’s research agenda. As a Comprehensive Academic and Research University (CARU), academics are encouraged to develop their own research interests, but the University is also seeking to build a reputation for excellence in specific fields: environmental and social dynamics of sustainability, disruptive pedagogy, digital futures and society, culture, health and wellbeing. The University is home to four Canada Research Chairs, two Campus Alberta Innovation Program Chairs, a UNESCO/ICDE Chair and A Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Emerging Technologies for Open and Distance Learning.
New to the University in 2019 was the development of short courses and micro-credentials offered through AU’s continuing education division PowerED. The Faculty of Business, home to the world’s first fully online MBA program since 1994, also offers professional learning opportunities through its Leadership and Management Development Programs. Some of the faculty’s certificate programs are modular, stackable credentials which can be transferred to its graduate degree.
Collaboration has been a major theme of Dr. Fassina’s tenure. Contact North | Contact Nord collaborated with Athabasca University to offer a free MOOC to students across Ontario helping them Learn to Learn Online. Athabasca University partnered with Algoma University to help them offer courses on the Brightspace platform. They have a strong partnership and alliance with the Commonwealth of Learning – providing a MOOC on Blended Learning, a MOOC on Technology Enabled Learning as well as a post-baccalaureate diploma program in Legislative Drafting. Athabasca University and the Commonwealth of Learning will host the 10th Pan-Commonwealth Forum in Calgary in September 2022 – the first time this major international conference has been held in Canada.
Neil Fassina is also the current President of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), which works to support over 190 educational organizations around the world in their efforts to bring quality online, flexible and distance learning to learners in 70 countries. In this role, together with members of the executive committee and a small, dedicated staff, he has helped ICDE focus resources and skills to support the sudden pivot to remote teaching caused by the global pandemic.
There are always challenges, but the University under the leadership of the team headed by Dr. Fassina has achieved in a short period of time a remarkable turnaround. It is well-positioned for the next stage of its journey as a remarkably innovative, creative organization.
As the search for the ninth President of the University begins, the next President will arrive at a place which will look and feel very different from the university Dr. Fassina arrived at in October, 2016 – more agile, equipped with the technology it needs and able now to demonstrate its innovative capacities.