Opinion: It doesn’t matter where Athabasca University students, staff live; it’s what they achieve
If online learning is good, open learning is great, writes Athabasca University President Dr. Peter Scott
It is a time of year, and a time in history, when people are understandably nostalgic. We all glance wistfully in the rear-view mirror at the days before a pandemic swept the world, before gas and grocery prices skyrocketed, before the world of work fundamentally changed. Can’t we just turn around and drive back towards that old comfort zone?
Of course, that’s the wrong question. Nostalgia for an allegedly idyllic past and fear of change does not help us move forward as individuals, as a society, or as educators. I believe it is the job of universities to help create a road to the future that’s genuinely better than that rear-view glance.
At Athabasca University, Canada’s open and online university, our road sees teachers working with students wherever they may be, in urban centres or in remote and rural communities. It means accessibility, flexibility, and yes, changes which some will find disruptive and uncomfortable.
AU students don’t care where their professors, tutors, or support staff live or work. They are connected digitally, and by a shared desire to succeed in an online, open environment. If online is good, open is truly great.
“I believe it is the job of universities to help create a road to the future that’s genuinely better than that rear-view glance.”– Peter Scott, Athabasca University President
Open access might sound odd to Canadians who are more familiar with a selective system of university entry, where only those with the highest marks, usually straight out of high school, often from the most successful backgrounds, are granted the privilege of higher education. At AU, our message to all students is, “we don’t pick you; you pick us.” We only focus on a student’s future success and how we can help them get there. AU is a university that holds learners to the same rigorous standards as any other institution, but judges them on what they accomplish, not what brought them here, and that has been AU’s role in Canada for the last 50 years.
Of course, AU is an academic and research university, just like the Universities of Alberta, Calgary, and Lethbridge. All post-secondary institutions do an excellent job to help our students drive down that future road with us. But for AU, our open mission allows us to reach a different learner. Like those great urban universities, our degrees are recognized across Canada (and, by the way, we are also accredited in the U.S.) and our research transforms lives.
We know that the road behind, travelled by our parents, does not define our road ahead. Close to 70% of AU grads are the first in their family to attend university. About half of our learners are supporting dependents. And more than 10 per cent live, work, and study with us in a rural or remote area.
For our 40,000 students, AU is open and online, everywhere in Canada and beyond, representing a flexible learning future which is approaching fast for everyone. Many of our learners are already in the workforce and are seeking new skills or credentials to advance their careers in the rapidly changing world. Theirs is the convenience of starting study any month, year-round, and studying online, whenever and wherever they need.
The pandemic put the pedal to the metal for many of the trends and changes that were already underway in education and in the global workforce—a desire for flexibility and independence, and a willingness and readiness to use technology to make that happen, outside of the office and the classroom.
As the world of work changes, and with it, the needs of learners, the role and value of open education will only continue to accelerate. AU is embracing that change, and is already creating the future it represents.
This opinion article originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal.