Athabasca University: System Analysis

This paper surveys the distance education system at Athabasca University.

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System Analysis 1 Running head: SYSTEM ANALYSIS OF ATHABASCA UNIVERSITY System Analysis of Athabasca University Jennifer Maddrell Old Dominion University System Analysis 2 Focus and Purpose Institution Typology Athabasca University was formed as a distance education university by the Government of Alberta Canada in 1970. While Athabasca provides distance education course offerings for colleges and universities throughout Canada through inter-institution course transfer credit, it continues to operate as an autonomous degree granting distance learning university. With liberal transfer of credit options within the Canadian college and university system, credit for prior learning, rolling enrollment, and admission provisions that allow undergraduate admission to anyone over 16 years of age without regard to prior academic achievement, Athabasca classifies itself as an Open University. The government remains a major force behind Athabasca. In 2007, the Province of Alberta provided $31,064,000 (CAD) in grant funding which represented over 30% of the university’s operating revenue. Further, the university’s governance is dictated by Alberta Regulation 50/204, the Post-secondary Learning Act, which establishes the powers and duties of the university’s administration by the Athabasca University Governing Council. As of March 31, 2007, the Governing Council, headed by an Executive Officer (also the President of Athabasca University), included one nonacademic staff member, one tutor member, two academic staff members, two student members, nine appointed public members, and one alumni member. Mission and Mandate Since its inception, Athabasca University’s stated mission has been to offer distance education to residents of Alberta, the rest of Canada, and the world. As presented within the 2007Annual Report, the university’s mission is to 1) remove barriers that restrict access to university level studies, 2) increase equality of educational opportunities for adult learners System Analysis 3 worldwide, 3) commit to excellence in teaching, research, scholarship, and public service, and 4) focus on distance education and the associated learning technologies. Athabasca’s mandate is restated in the 2007 Annual Report and calls for the publicly funded university to offer undergraduate degree programs in natural and pure sciences, humanities, social sciences, interdisciplinary studies, administrative studies, commerce, nursing, and allied professional fields, as well as graduate degree programs in distance education, health studies, and business administration. Strategic University Plan for 2006 – 2011. A new strategic plan was drafted in 2006 and is presented as an appendix to the 2007 Annual Report. The plan outlines specific goals intended to achieve Athabasca’s continued commitment to open access and the delivery of high quality distance education, as well as a renewed focus on research. Features Open Admissions and Enrollment As noted, edibility for admissions to undergraduate courses at Athabasca is liberal compared to other degree granting universities in North America. Students age 16 or older are admitted throughout the year regardless of their previous educational experience or achievement. From 1997 to 2007, total course enrollment increased a dramatic 415%. Currently, 34,000 students are enrolled in undergraduate courses and 3,000 are enrolled in graduate level courses which Athabasca reports as a full load equivalent of 5,930 undergraduate students and 1,263 graduate students. Of the total number of students enrolled, 35% are residents of Alberta. System Analysis 4 As is common in other distance education programs, nearly all enrolled students work while attending classes. During a recent survey conducted by the university and cited in the 2006 Annual Report, 94% of graduates reported working while completing their coursework. Course and Degrees During the 2006 - 2007 fiscal year, 68,284 individual courses were taken representing an increase of 6.4% over the prior year. Over that same time period, 780 undergraduate degrees and 208 graduate degrees were conferred. Athabasca currently offers 11 undergraduate degrees, 20 certificate programs, and 8 graduate degrees. In the fall of 2008, Athabasca will begin a new doctoral program which will grant a Doctor in Distance Education (EdD). The undergraduate degree programs with the highest current enrollment include Bachelor of Arts with 2,413 enrolled, Bachelor of Nursing with 2,122 enrolled, Bachelor of Commerce with 1,760 enrolled, and Bachelor of Professional Arts with 1,614 enrolled. The graduate degree programs with the highest current enrollment include Master of Arts with 632 enrolled, Master of Business Administration with 835 enrolled, Master of Distance Education with 369 enrolled, Master of Health Studies with 465 enrolled, Master of Nursing with 529 enrolled. Despite the growing admission figures and the increasing number of degree programs, graduation rates are low compared to other Canadian universities. Powell and Keen (2006) report that while hundreds of thousands of students have enrolled at the undergraduate level, only several thousand undergraduate degrees have been conferred. While these figures could imply poor student satisfaction with the courses, biennial Government of Alberta Graduate Satisfaction and Labour Market Experience surveys consistently report high perceived quality ratings from Athabasca University students. Most students attending courses at Athabasca do not intend to System Analysis 5 complete a degree at Athabasca, but are interested in taking courses to fulfill requirements within other degree programs (about half the enrollment) or for other personal and professional reasons. Tuition Tuition rates for the degree programs are reasonable compared to most public or private universities in North America. Based on current tuition rates, the approximate tuition range for an undergraduate degree is $5,900 - $6,890 CAD for Canadian residents and $10,500 - $11,970 CAD for those residing outside of Canada. Tuition for graduate degree programs currently range from $10,250 – 13,000 CAD for Canadian residents and $12,250 – $15,500 CAD for those residing outside of Canada. During the 2006 – 2007 fiscal year, Athabasca collected $33,485,000 CAD in undergraduate tuition and $12,282,000 CAD in graduate tuition, representing 35% and 13% of revenue, respectively. Instruction Method of Study. Athabasca offers instruction in either grouped or individual study. Grouped study typically begins at a set date, either in September and January, and continues for either 13 weeks, for a 3 credit course, or 26 weeks, for a 6 credit course. Grouped study courses represent only about 20% of total course enrollments (Davis, 2001). The courses are generally facilitated by an instructor and instruction is delivered in either a print based or online format. However, some group study is offered in traditional classrooms at designated Athabasca learning sites or at partner institutions with collaboration agreements with Athabasca. Individual study, the far more common method of study, begins on the first day of any month. Students must simply register by the 10th day of the preceding month. Instructional materials are delivered in either a print based or online format. The course term, known as the “contract period”, lasts 6 months for a 4 credit or less course and 12 months for a 6 credit course. System Analysis 6 While the individualized study courses are self-paced, the learners are offered a tutor. Upon registration in a course, the student is introduced to the assigned tutor via letter or e-mail. The tutor’s role is to provide subject matter assistance, feedback on assignments, exam preparation, and grade assignment. Tutors generally provide assistance via e-mail or phone. Within the School of Business, Athabasca has also begun the use of tutor support call centers as an alternative to traditional tutors. Learners call a toll free number and work with the tutor on duty at the time the call is placed to the call center. Faculty. As of March 31, 2007, Athabasca employed 1,226 people, including 152 in academic full time positions, 168 in academic part time positions, and 322 tutors. The balance comprised management, professional, and support staff. Over the three year period from 2004 – 2006, the annual average number of referred articles, books, and conference presentations by faculty was 146, 53 and 281, respectively. Design and Delivery of Instruction. Athabasca employs a team approach to course design. A typical course design team includes a subject matter expert, visual designer, digital media technologist, copyright officer, and editor. Course materials are delivered via fax, regular mail, or the Internet. Print and digital course materials are delivered to students as part of a course package of resources distributed from the Materials Management Office which, depending upon the course, may include student manuals, study guides, and text books. While print and digital media, including CDs and DVDs, have historically been mailed to students, instruction via the Internet is rapidly becoming a primary means of instructional delivery. As outlined in the 2006 – 2007 Annual Report, Athabasca has budgeted $21 million for information technology hardware and software upgrades between 2006 and 2011 in order to accommodate this shift in instructional delivery. Along with e-mail delivery of content, other System Analysis 7 forms of Internet based instructional delivery are also employed. In 2005, Athabasca began facilitating online courses using Moodle, the open source learning management system. In addition, live instruction is often delivered via streaming audio and video and some live class sessions are being held using web conferencing tools, such as Elluminate. Other technology. In addition to the learning technologies noted above, Athabasca maintains an online student web portal, myAU, based on the open source uPortal software (Guohua & Bonk, 2007). This online web portal offers students and faculty a single sign-on to university services, including the campus administrative systems, the learning management system, as well as the library information systems. Student Services Financial Assistance. Students at Athabasca are eligible for financial assistance. Full time students may apply for grants, loans, and scholarships while part time students (those enrolled in less than 9 credits in a 4 month period) are only eligible for grants and loans. Learning Services. Athabasca offers students a host of learning services, including academic advising, access for students with disabilities, admission and registration services, and exam supervision. In addition, all actively registered students have library borrowing privileges. The library information desk is manned 24 hours a day via e-mail, fax, mail, or phone to provide instructions on how to access information or to provide research assistance. The Athabasca library website provides online access to the entire library catalogue, thousands of electronic books and reference websites, and over 32,000 journal articles contained within 200 full text subscription journal databases. Athabasca also has inter-loan library agreements through the Alberta library system and the Canadian University Reciprocal Borrowing Agreement (CURBA). System Analysis 8 Student Interaction. Students have the option of participating in established school clubs, peer support groups, online discussion forums, or social groups. Athabasca also publishes a quarterly online magazine (the e-zine) which highlights current information of interest to Athabasca students. Open Access Publishing. Athabasca is committed to providing open access and online dissemination of publications produced by the university. This includes open online access to The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, a refereed journal published by Athabasca. Evaluation and Accreditation Athabasca’s internal review protocols are contained within a comprehensive Program Review Policy document. Under the terms of the review policy, all programs must be reviewed by internal and external assessors at least every six years. The material assessed during the review includes such items as the current course syllabi and related course materials, feedback from partner institutions, program financial statements and budges, surveys of students and graduates, and opinions of tutors and instructors. As in the United States, the Canadian central government does not accredit universities. However, Athabasca was accredited by the United States’ Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) in June 2005. In addition, the recently established Campus Alberta Quality Council, formed as a quality assurance agency as part of the 2004 Post-secondary Learning Act and the Approval of Programs of Study Regulation (51/2004), has reviewed and recommended several new programs within the university, including the new Distance Education EdD program. According to the mandates under the Act, all new degree programs must be reviewed and recommended by the Council. System Analysis 9 Strengths and Weaknesses Strengths As a pioneer in the delivery of university level distance education, Athabasca offers distance learners a flexible, affordable, and accredited education with a comprehensive roster of student services. Enrollments are growing and the university has seen an increase in research funding ($2,117,000 CAD for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2007 representing a 14% increase from the prior year). Further, with backing and oversight from the Alberta government, Athabasca is financial secure and is operating at a net profit ($1,446,000 CAD for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2007). Weaknesses Athabasca’s rapid growth over the past decade is straining the university’s infrastructure. As noted in the 2006 – 2007 Annual Report, Athabasca’s infrastructure was designed for 10,000 students and the rapid growth over the past decade has caused a critical need for additional space. While space is not needed to support classrooms, physical space is needed to house curriculum development, learner support services, and research functions. Further, Athabasca is struggling to recruit and retain faculty to accommodate the growing enrollment; a difficult task given the limited pool of doctoral level candidates within the university, the location of the main campus in Athabasca, and the limited research opportunities outside of distance education. However, there are threats to Athabasca’s continued growth. Once one of only a few distance education universities, Athabasca now faces increased competition from both stand alone online universities and distance education arms of traditional universities. In addition, while the Alberta government subsidy to Athabasca covers a substantial portion of the operating System Analysis 10 budget, currently over 30% of annual revenue, Athabasca’s operations would be at risk should the government decide to alter the amount or provisions of the operating grant. Further, graduation rates are low. While this does not point to a problem in overall quality or learner satisfaction, it does suggest that most students are merely pursuing individual courses or taking transfer credits back to a home institution. As such, it becomes difficult for Athabasca to make a mark as a standalone degree granting intuition when the majority of students are taking individual courses for transfer credit to receive a degree from a traditional (bricks and mortar) institution. System Analysis 11 References Athabasca University - about Athabasca University. Retrieved from Alan Davis. (2001). Athabasca university: conversion from traditional distance education to online courses, programs and services, The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning; Vol 1, No 2 (2001). Retrieved from Alberta Government. (2004). Alberta Post Secondary Learning Act. Retrieved from Athabasca University, Office of the President. (2003). Athabasca University Policy - Program Review Policy. Retrieved March 13, 2008, from Athabasca University. (2007). Athabasca university annual report 2006 - 2007, 30. Athabasca, Alberta Canada: Athabasca University. Retrieved from Athabasca University. (2006). Athabasca university annual report 2005 - 2006, 30. Athabasca, Alberta Canada: Athabasca University. Retrieved from Campus Alberta Quality Control Council (CAQC) - Program Assessment Standards, Campus Alberta Quality Council. Retrieved from Guohua Pan & Curtis J. Bonk. (2007). The emergence of open-source software in north America, The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning; Vol 8, No 3 (2007). Retrieved from Powell, R., & Keen, C. (2006). The axiomatic trap: stultifying myths in distance education, Higher Education, 52(2), 283-301. doi: 10.1007/s10734-004-4501-2.