Posts Tagged With: Athabasca University

On Leaving the Circus

Circus_poster,_1890

Circus poster, 1890. (Library of Congress)

My last day of work at Athabasca University was Friday, June 3. That weekend was the most relaxing I’d had in… ever. Even finishing my PhD didn’t come close to the sensation of lightness. For the two weeks prior, it was almost impossible to concentrate because I felt like a kid about to start summer holidays.

If I had stuck around until September, it would have been 8 years. Unlike most schools, Athabasca University does not break up its year into terms or quarters. It has a continuous enrollment model, where new students start the course every month. Students can submit their assignments at any time during their contract period. The result is that there is no way to predict workload. There is also no way to predict income, because it depends partly on monthly enrollment, as well as the number of papers graded. For me this meant that my life was in a perpetual holding pattern to accommodate the irregular income and schedule. Eight years is a long time to stay in an unproductive holding pattern.

The message I got upon being hired by Athabasca was that my position was intended to be a small auxiliary source of income, kind of like babysitting is for a teenager. Nevertheless, I would be expected to offer the highest possible standard of customer service. If I could coin a phrase, it would be “work like you’re full-time.”

But I managed this. I also had the opportunity to revise my courses, which made me feel like I was actually in a teaching position. However, Athabasca’s financial concerns soon came to the forefront. There was the email requesting that employees take unpaid vacation to reduce the burden on payroll. AU entertained the notion of laying off all tutors for a day to save money. Large-scale layoffs happened. There was the move to digital textbooks, where savings realized from the lower cost of digital textbooks were not passed on to students as a decrease in fees.

And then there was the call centre. This news came in the form of a sternly worded email from the acting president that a) tutor costs were unsustainable, and b) this problem would be solved by getting rid of the system of tutors and replacing it with a “one stop shop” for all inquiries.

The claim was that students contacted their (unhelpful, unprofessional) tutors infrequently, and when they did it was mostly with administrative questions that tutors were not equipped to handle. Therefore, there should be a call centre that students would contact first. Knowledgeable and professional call centre operators (in sharp contrast to tutors) would then connect the student with appropriate resources. If it were deemed necessary, a highly qualified Academic Expert (former tutor) would be contacted and informed that the student had a question. The Academic Expert would then contact the student within 2 business days.

They argued that the centre could be open for longer hours, and on weekends, whereas there were limited office hours during which students could contact their tutors. First of all, these office hours were limited because AU was not willing to hire tutors full-time- so it’s hardly fair to blame the tutors for that. But second, and far more importantly, who uses the phone anymore? If I got more than 30 phone calls in the time I worked there, I’d be surprised. But I did get emails at all hours of the day and night, 7 days a week. The vast majority of those questions were about the course material.

The call centre would save money because the Academic Experts would be paid only for specific activities, rather than the “block pay” determined by the number of students assigned to a tutor. Getting paid would require filling out time sheets to document those activities. You can see a list of what counts here, in the appropriately named Outsider newsletter of CUPE 3911 (the tutors’ union).

And that’s were my self-respect threshold came into view. The notion of having to subdivide my job into tiny bits and pieces, and keep meticulous track of them in order to get paid, seemed incredibly burdensome. That’s not why I teach. Add to that rumblings about Academic Experts having their time sheets rejected, and the suggestion that I could expect a 40% decrease in my income, and it just didn’t seem worth it anymore.

My initial plan was to wait until my courses were moved to the call centre. I would see how things went, and then resign if the situation got as bad as I thought it would. But I got tired of waiting for the axe to fall. I got tired of there being an axe. I started to feel like a chump for staying there.

I might have been able to tolerate the problems if I had felt valued, but I didn’t. Even before the call centre, I had the sense that AU felt its tutors needed to be scolded into doing a good job. On an employee pulse survey, someone commented that tutors as a whole lacked professional development. This is in spite of the fact that no-one had bothered to ask what kind of professional development tutors had done. There also seemed to be a pro call-centre PR strategy to denigrate the abilities and work of tutors, as a means of emphasizing that AU was making the tough choices and seeking solutions.

So I felt about as valued as a piece of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. I didn’t realize how deeply that feeling went until I received a 5-year service pin in the mail. I was surprised and confused because I honestly didn’t think tutors counted as employees for purposes of service recognition.

I’ve never quit a job before. I expected that quitting this one would happen when I was angry and bitter, but instead I was completely blissed out. If this post sounds like an angry rant, it isn’t. It is more of an exorcise- an exercise in exorcising those demons so I can leave them behind and begin whatever healing is required. Being chewing gum is hard on a person’s psyche.

My resignation letter was one sentence saying only what date my resignation would be effective. I didn’t say why I was quitting, and no-one asked. I was a little surprised that they didn’t ask for a hand-off overview of how the courses were going. They should have. Maybe I could have offered that information, but there would have been a lot to say. I’ve tried to communicate issues and solutions before, only to be disregarded, and I didn’t have it in me to try again. And anyway- not my monkeys, not my circus.

I don’t have a new job lined up, per se, but I do have a project that I’ve been meaning to start. I will get to use my research skills, and learn new things. I will have an opportunity to progress rather than being trapped in a holding pattern. I won’t have to read messages from administrators about how I’m not worth what they’re paying me. I won’t have to be afraid of decisions others are making about my future. I won’t need the approval of people who are less qualified than I am to make decisions. I’m not leaving higher ed just yet, but I am branching out and trying to make my own opportunities. What comes after remains to be seen.

Categories: Challenges, Distance education and e-learning, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 12 Comments

Crowd-sourcing distance education (or, Why Athabasca University’s problems are just getting started)

mortar quoteLast week there was another missive from Athabasca University interim president, Peter MacKinnon. The post appears to be damage control after a Metro article by Jeremey Nolais, Fears arise that Alberta’s Athabasca University will be lost as tough budget looms.  The post says that while Athabasca is facing “financial challenges that are acute,” and “a decline in the rate of enrollment growth,” the rumors in the media that it will be merged with another school or shut down are untrue.

What I found interesting about the article were the comments. There are only 6 of them at this point, and three of the comments were complaints about insufficient interaction with tutors. They weren’t complaints about the call centre model, where students contact the call center and a call center employee determines whether an Academic Expert should be informed that the student needs assistance (contact ensuing within 2 business days). Instead they were complaints by students who had tutors but felt that they weren’t hearing from the tutors enough. As one student says, “… I did not pay to be completely ignored and paid to be TAUGHT.” [original emphasis]. There were complaints about the quality of education, and the blame for that laid at the feet of tutors as well.

Given the controversy surrounding the call center, and the seemingly obvious thing to comment about- that those who were unhappy with insufficient contact from their tutors could rest assured that they would soon have no contact with a tutor whatsoever- it is surprising that no comments of that nature were posted. After some experimentation, I determined that those points of view were being moderated out. The upshot is that readers will come away with the conclusion that what is wrong with Athabasca is its tutors, which is very convenient for the administration at present. However, there is also a very real risk of discouraging students who might otherwise register for courses that are still running under the tutor model. If someone at AU thought that was a risk worth taking… well, make of that what you will.

I’m not saying that all tutors do the job that students want them to- some tutors may not do the best job they can for any number of reasons, and some students may have bought into the misconception that they have a full-time teacher assigned to them.

But Athabasca’s problem isn’t tutors not doing what students want them to. Its problem is a structure designed in the days when distance education required sending students boxes of paper in the mail. This is a problem because the system that can most efficiently manage hard-copy course materials is one in which teachers cannot have the autonomy to alter their course materials at will to respond to students’ needs. Think of the nightmare that keeping track of document versions would be! There would be no control on the workflow (and therefore on costs) if instructors could alter materials whenever they found a better way to teach. In order for the school to function, teaching has to take a back seat to operations.

kids these days

Kids these days

On the surface, it would seem that Athabasca has moved past this, with an online learning management system, online exams, and digital textbooks. At its core, however, Athabasca is still structured so that it is necessary to inhibit its teachers in order for it to operate as efficiently as possible. The reason I think that Athabasca’s problems are just beginning is that the costly and harmful structure they are fighting to protect is rapidly becoming unnecessary for distance education.

Think of it this way- these days most universities run courses through online learning management systems. Using these systems, instructors can post documents, set up quizzes and exams, post video links, post videos and podcasts of lectures, host class discussions, and more. It is entirely doable with a very minimal outlay for me to broadcast my in-class lectures live online, and have students answer questions in real time through Poll Everywhere while watching that lecture. We could discuss their answers as a group, and I could adjust my lecture on the fly to address issues that they were having. Students could even submit questions through Twitter during the lecture.

With courses set up this way, no-one sends students a box of paper course-materials. Students download and print what they want, access the rest online, and purchase textbooks directly from vendors in the format they want. Students can take a course and engage fully with a community of learners and an instructor without being in the classroom, whether that course is designated as distance education or not.

In contrast, Athabasca is structurally incapable of empowering its front-line teaching staff to act in their students’ best interest. It has people to grade papers and answer questions, but it doesn’t afford those people the mantle of teachers, the salary so they can be committed to students full-time, or the autonomy to fix issues with courses as they arise. Consider this: I don’t have access to the course materials that I wrote.  If I want to fix a typo, there is a separate group of people who handle that sort of thing, and I have to make a request to get it done. I had to hunt around to find out who those people were. If I had the same control over my Athabasca courses as I do with some other courses I teach, I would just take the three seconds to fix the typo myself and not tie up IT people, and who knows who else. I would likely be updating the course regularly to improve it, which means that a separate expenditure on a Subject Matter Expert (who is also me) to revise the course every so many years would be unnecessary.

From a business perspective, it might have been safe at one time to compromise on teaching if you were the only game in town that could mail out those boxes of paper. But what happens when mailing out boxes of paper becomes irrelevant to serving students at a distance? What happens when the competition is no longer other distance education schools or programs- when it becomes hundreds or even thousands of individual creative, energetic, and innovative instructors at traditional brick-and-mortar schools who choose to build and manage their own online courses? What happens when the additional cost of running those courses is trivial, because the resources are already there as part of how on-site students are served? Well, what happens is that the competition is essentially crowd-sourced, and can do a better job with lower costs and happier teachers.

I don’t know what will become of Athabasca. As long as it offers programs that no-one else does, there will be a demand for its product, and perhaps it will begin to focus on that segment of the market instead of a broad swath of undergraduate courses. But if it does offer programs that no-one else does, that will have more to do with no-one else choosing to offer those programs, rather than being unable to do so in a cost-effective manner. Athabasca will not change the way it does business because it is firmly committed to the notion that as long as the school is run as a business, the rest will take care of itself.  The call centre model- where by design, the first person students talk to will never be the person teaching them- is evidence of that. There is an entrenched culture which holds front-line teachers in such low regard as to view answer databases and non-teaching call-center employees as a better alternative.  This exists because at some level, Athabasca views itself as an organization for delivering courses rather than for teaching students.

Categories: Distance education and e-learning, Learning technologies, The business of education | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Customer relationship management (CRM) as a paradigm in distance education

I’ve been trying to gain more insight into the changes that are coming to Athabasca University with the new contact centre model that I discussed in an earlier post. After finding AU’s report, Evaluating the relative efficiencies and effectiveness of the contact centre and tutor models of learner support at Athabasca University, I think I have a better idea of what’s going on.  AU is adopting a customer relationship management system, similar to those that are used to run the call centres of large businesses.  These systems have been adapted for use in higher education over the past decade.

The report outlines AU’s system as follows:

Under the Contact Centre model, undergraduate student advisors, available six days a week, field initial queries via fax, telephone, or e-mail, and act as the first point of contact for accessing other advising services. Using flexible, shared, and secure contact databases, contact centre advisors handle issues for which they have established answers and refer course-related inquiries to the appropriate academic experts. … “Frequently-asked question” databases are also available to students and advisors to answer some academic queries. If applicable, students are referred to faculty and part-time academic experts for academic assistance.

The report refers to a keynote address by James Taylor of the University of Southern Queensland at the 2001 ICDE World Conference on Open Leaning and Distance Education. In the address, Taylor describes the USQ’s e-University project which seeks to automate the delivery of information to students. Taylor explains that tutors’ responses to students’ questions are added to a database. Subsequent students’ queries are first run through the database to see if the question has already been answered. If so, the student is provided with that information. At the time of Taylor’s keynote address, tutors were involved in vetting the automated responses, but Taylor anticipated that this would soon become unnecessary. It is only when the answer does not exist in the database that a tutor is required to interact with a student, and as he put it,

As the intelligent object databases become more comprehensive, enabling personalized, immediate responsiveness to an increasing number of student queries, the institutional variable costs for the provision of effective student support will tend towards zero.

By this he means that regardless of enrollment numbers, the costs will remain the same because students will access the database rather than needing attention from tutors. The irony is, the more dedication and care that tutors put into answering questions, the more they hasten their own obsolescence.

The AU report emphasizes this outcome:

Most importantly, individually-tailored services can be provided to an increasing number of learners with the same economic resources by using knowledge management software to reduce the need for direct, human interaction in the teaching and learning process.

The AU report takes issue with the idea that student-teacher interactions are necessary. They point out that, according to the equivalency theorem of Anderson (2003), only one of the following types of interaction is required: student-teacher, student-student, or student-content. As long as one of these is done well, the others can be eliminated entirely with no negative consequences for the student. I wonder at the wisdom of leaving a group of students to their own devices, sans teacher or content, as a method of education, but perhaps I’m missing some nuance of the scenario.

My question as I read through the report was, “Does this work?” The report was written to present the results of a survey of students who had taken part in the initial roll-out of the contact centre model at AU. The data presented are a list of attributes of the contact centre and tutor models, and students’ ratings of the importance of those attributes.  I’ve summarized the results below.  Keep in mind that although the report says the survey asked about the importance of each of these attributes, some of the attributes read as though students were asked to rate the outcome of their interaction with the model in question.  I’ve kept the original wording so you can decide for yourself what the survey items mean.

Study results

Even if it were clear whether the survey were evaluating the perceived importance of or the perceived satisfaction with various attributes, it still wouldn’t answer my questions.

One thing I would like to know is how students felt about having an advisor with no specific knowledge of the course material answering their academic (i.e., course-matter specific) questions by referring to a database. The survey reports (item 2) that 76% of the 300 students sampled rated “Importance of talking directly with an academic expert for academic support” as “Important” or “Very Important.” I wonder if that number would have been even higher if it had said “communicating directly” rather than “talking directly.” Very few of my students “talk” to me because the vast majority communicate by email.  (The prevalence of email could also have affected the outcome of item 3.) More importantly, this item doesn’t answer whether or not students were happy with the amount of direct communication they had with an academic expert under one model or the other.

The report does not address how beneficial students felt either model to be in terms of their learning outcomes, and it does not provide any metrics such as differences in grades or retention. The closest it comes is addressing satisfaction with response times for academic assistance using each model (item 8). Read literally, the results are students’ rating of how important satisfaction is in this regard (i.e., how important it is that response times be satisfactory), but it is possible that students were actually asked how satisfied they were with response times.  Regardless, response time is not the same thing as help with learning.

Because this report did not tell me what I wanted to know, I spent the better part of a day searching for studies of similar systems, and the outcomes for learners.  Much to my chagrin, the only relevant thing I found was a paper by Coates et al. (2005) stating that there were no generalizable studies addressing this issue. The paper was very interesting nonetheless, and foreshadowed the present developments:

While ‘academic-free’ teaching may seem only a very distant prospect, major online delivery ventures already have business plans based on the employment of a limited number of academic staff who create content with the support of larger numbers of less expensive student support staff.

It also echoed my main concern: “What are the consequences of students increasingly seeking learning assistance from technology support staff rather than from teachers?”

The AU report concludes that there was no material difference in students’ satisfaction with response times between the two models, and that “[m]eans of first contact seems [sic] to be more effective under the Contact Centre model.” (If the last statement is based on item 4, it would appear the opposite is true.) Because there was a savings of over $60 for each student with the Contact Centre model,

Taken together, these results suggest that satisfactory educational experiences can be delivered under either model. Given this equivalency of outcomes, it is recommended that relative costs should primarily determine how student support is provided at Athabasca University.

After reading this report, my thoughts were (almost simultaneously) that response times are a dubious measure of how satisfactory an educational experience is, and that this point is likely moot for decision-making purposes at this stage. But maybe distance education is like the garment industry: at one time, it was a foregone conclusion that your clothes would be made to fit you. Now, most people aren’t particularly troubled by having to pick a ready-made garment from a clothing rack. It’s still a shirt, right?  Why should getting answers from a database/ advisor instead of from a teacher be any different?

In case you are wondering, yes, I do find the idea of purging humans from teaching to be disturbing. Aside from losing the human interactions and creative challenges that make teaching a meaningful undertaking, there are serious flaws in a system where students’ interactions with a course cannot be observed by someone who will ultimately be responsible for redesigning that course. In my present roles as tutor and course author, I have a very good idea of what is working and what isn’t, because of conversations I’ve had with my students. Sure, there are issues that commonly arise, and one could infer from the number of questions on a particular topic that something isn’t working. But if it were that easy to fix, I would have intuited the problems with my approach to begin with and avoided the issue altogether. It is only by communicating back and forth with students and asking specific questions that I can figure out exactly what’s going on. There is a diagnostic element in my relationship with students, and it is a crucial element for assisting students on a one-to-one basis, and for improving the course in general. The contact centre model is about removing the human element as far as possible.  (Wow!  At one time that statement would have been entirely facetious!)  If I were to participate in this system, I would have exactly one try to figure out what was going on, before my canned response would be distributed to all future students with a similar question. This model will result in lost access to valuable data, and these are data that can’t be recovered by a standard end-of-course evaluation by students.

There are some broader issues that I didn’t see addressed in this report, or in any of the promotional materials I read about customer relationship management software use in higher education, or in reports by administrative branches of different schools about the benefits of implementing these systems. What about confidentiality, for example? How are queries dealt with that could identify a particular student? What happens if students share personal information in their question? Does all of this become available for other students to access?

What about intellectual property rights? If students attach a file containing their own work when they query the system (which they can do), could their work be kept as an example when the question and response are added to the database? Who would use their work, and how?

What happens if there is an error in a canned response? What if I say “increase” when I meant “decrease,” or “north” when I meant “south?” If the advisor who is deciding on which response the student should receive doesn’t have the background to know the difference, will the error ever be caught? Or will it rear its ugly head in perpetuity?

What happens if we learn something new that changes everything? Will this system trap the old understanding forever, like an insect in amber? That is perhaps the most chilling outcome of handing off the job of teaching to an entity unable to think critically about the information it dispenses.

 

See what the students think: Instructional Model Survey

Categories: Distance education and e-learning, The business of education | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The self-respect threshold

It turns out that Microsoft Excel can be more efficient than soul searching. A few days ago I received a general email sent to Athabasca University staff by the interim president, Peter MacKinnon. It was a progress report on the new Student Success Centre model for changing how students access services (including tutors like me) at AU. This is not a call centre. Everyone will tell you that, and it is quite a touchy subject. It may be the place you have to call (or email) to be directed to the service you need, including your tutor, and there might be tracking numbers involved (I’m still sketchy on the details), and your call (or email) might be logged, and then referred to the appropriate person or department… but it is not a call centre because telephones will not be the primary communication technology. So there.

I have a few problems with this. First of all, calling it the Student Success Centre sounds like a cynical branding exercise, even if it isn’t. Second, as far as I can tell (again, details are sketchy), my students will no longer be able to contact me directly. They will contact the [not a call] centre where someone will decide if it is really me that they need to talk to, or if someone else will do. If it is determined that the student does, indeed, need to contact me, I will be notified by the system to contact that student. The system will follow these transactions and apparently generate some statistics so appropriate oversight can be exercised and I can be presented with numbers to motivate my performance.

So why is this change happening? Because it will cost less. Cutting costs is done with fanatical zeal these days, and like fanatical zeal, it often does not involve consideration of the big picture. Some years hence, people will look at our gutted institutions and say, “Oops. I guess we needed that after all.” It seems that those responsible for the financial upkeep of public institutions like universities have forgotten the reasons for creating those institutions in the first place.

I am getting to Excel and soul searching. As you may have guessed, this [not a call] centre will cost less mostly because tutors will be paid less. At present, AU tutors are paid in two ways. One is a flat rate based on the number of students a tutor is assigned. This is called block pay. The second way is based on the number of assignments and exams that a tutor has graded. There are also allowances for computer use, phone, and internet expenses.  The block pay is meant to cover the time I spend communicating with students, and the related work. If I were to have a month where I graded no assignments or exams, then my wages would consist of the block pay, plus allowances. Under the new system, block pay will be eliminated. I’ve read that tutors will be paid for each interaction with a student, but to my knowledge, AU has not officially commented on exactly how this will work… likely an indication that they don’t expect it to win over any tutors.

Update (13 June 2016): Here is a list of items that Academic Experts will be paid to do.

Ok, almost to Excel and soul searching. The email from Peter MacKinnon raised my ire because it reflected many of the attitudes toward tutors that I’ve heard expressed elsewhere. I’m hesitant to post an internal email, but if you read through the comments on this post about the [not a call] centre by Tony Bates, you’ll get the idea. I would draw your attention in particular to the comments of Professor Rory McGreal of Athabasca University (who is apparently not averse to the term “call centre”):

In the call centre, they will reach a professional immediately. This professional, unlike the tutor, will have training in the most common questions, queries, concerns that student have regarding administration, schedules, programme requirements, etc.

This quote is helpful because now you won’t mistake a tutor for a professional.

Let’s try another:

The call centre model is especially designed to provide students with the response they need as soon as possible. The previous tutor model allowed for a reasonable call back time of 48hrs. This is no longer acceptable. Students demand the response they need when they need it.

The 48 hour response time exists because tutors are not paid enough to have tutoring as their only employment. It allows for flexibility so that it is possible to manage both jobs. I’m not sure if this means the 48 hours will be changed to “immediately, dammit!” or if it is meant to imply that being told your tutor will contact you counts as a response. Either way, this strikes me as being extremely out of touch with what the reality is for tutors… and it makes students sound like brats.

I crunched some numbers to see what a worst-case scenario might look like, such as a very slow month for grading. You might think this scenario would translate to a month of free time, but it doesn’t. There are a number of activities I engage in to assist my students, that aren’t represented in the pay scheme. Also, I have to keep an eye on email and make sure I respond within the required time frame (either 48 hours or immediately, dammit, I’m not sure which). Finally, I have to keep my schedule sufficiently open and not go too far from home so that I can take care of any tasks that might arise. This last point in particular amounts to a very definite opportunity cost.

The result of these calculations was laughable. I could make more money dog-walking (I like dogs… that wouldn’t be too bad), or sewing sock monkeys, or selling pressed flowers on Etsy. So, while I might otherwise have done some soul searching about my place in an organization where the people calling the shots clearly view me with contempt, Excel made it pretty easy to see the point at which it just wouldn’t be worth it to stay. We’ll call that the self-respect threshold, and I’ll be keeping a very close eye on it.

 

For an analysis of the rationale behind the call centre model: Customer relationship management (CRM) as a paradigm in distance education

Categories: Distance education and e-learning, The business of education | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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