Posts Tagged With: CRM

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

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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