CUPE Adds its Voice to the Third-Party Review

 

Your Co-Chairs and Executive members met with Ken Coates, the Third Party Reviewer, on Monday afternoon, April 10.  We shared this CUPE vision statement with him, to emphasize the vital role that we play at AU as the front line educators.  We found Dr. Coates to be thoughtful and respectful, with a complex understanding of AU problems and potentials.  We felt that our concerns were heard and taken seriously by the Third Party Reviewer.  We await the outcome of his Report, due at the end of April.

 

 

April 10, 2017

Statement by Academic Instructors of Athabasca University to

Dr. Ken Coates, Third Party Reviewer

 

We represent the part time Academic Instructors (tutors and academic experts) at Athabasca University. We are the front line academic workers at AU, the “face” of the university to students. Our academic work and our relationship with our students is a key factor in the academic success of students in their courses and programs and key to Athabasca University’s success.

 

Many of us have taught at AU for more than 10 years, some of us have more than 30 years academic experience at AU and other Institutions. We have graduate degrees and professional certificates, and we have Doctorates and Masters Degrees in our fields. We are currently practicing in our professions as lawyers, accountants and financial planners, registered nurses and dieticians, psychologists and other professionals.  We are faculty members, administrators and department heads at other universities.  We do research and publish articles, we develop and revise courses as “subject matter experts,” we provide university service on AU faculty councils and committees, and we engage in many forms of community service.  Our knowledge, expertise and experience are an asset to AU and we gladly share these with students.

 

Even though we are all “part-timers,” this is our university and we want to play an active role in visioning the future of academic programs and structures.  We have a keen interest in discovering how we can most effectively provide academic support to our current and future students, in a way that fully supports our mission statement as an open access distance learning institution of higher education.

 

We know that much of the success of AU has been based on direct contact between the academic and the student by way of the “individualized study tutor model,” where students are assigned to specific academic instructors (tutors) who guide them through the course in an integrated way, building relationships with students, providing feedback on assignments, and sharing knowledge about our subject area. 

 

As academic instructors and researchers, we have studied the factors that influence students who report greater satisfaction with their studies and those who are more likely to complete their courses and graduate.  We hope you will agree with our findings that more engagement between instructional staff and students is a powerful predictor of student satisfaction and student retention. 

 

We are concerned that our academic role is being degraded by the introduction of a call centre model (which has undergone several name changes) which is now referred to as the “Student Success Centre” model.  This model places barriers between students and instructors, placing non-academic workers as the first point of contact with students.  In effect, non-academic workers become the gatekeepers who decide whether or not students should have contact with academics who are the experts in their fields.  If a student breaks through this barrier and makes contact with the academic, a teacher / student relationship may develop, but many students do not break through.  The vetting process that a student’s issue must go through creates delay and frustration on the part of the student; it also has an impact on us, the academics, who are then reduced to anonymous markers and “question-answerers” rather than the academic mentors that students deserve.  In our experience, these barriers between students and instructors negatively impact on the credibility of the university and the quality of the education that students receive.

 

At a time when on-line university education is on the increase and competition is fierce, we believe that the success and sustainability of the university depends on maintaining and strengthening our “AU Advantage” of personalized academic support for students.  As other online university programs emphasize their pedagogical mentoring of students, this is the time to expand our role as academic mentors for students – in order to maintain our credibility as a quality provider in distance university learning and remain a university of choice.

 

We have concerns about the long term sustainability of AU. Thus far, it seems that only financial issues are being addressed. However, to be truly sustainable we must offer quality education that is accessible and pedagogically sound, where there is a direct teaching and learning relationship between academic instructors and their students.  Anything less risks the academic credibility of our university, and ultimately the sustainability of AU.  

 

Our members would love to play an expanded role at AU, where “academic success” for students is seen as a key component of student success, and pedagogy is central to our relationship with students.  Our members are in the best position to provide pedagogical support to students.  We would like to expand our role as academics at AU, playing more of a role as highly skilled instructors and experts in our fields, so that we can fully contribute to the successful future of Athabasca University.

 

Yours truly,

Ronnie Joy Leah, Ph.D.

Glynnis Lieb, Ph.D.

Dougal MacDonald, Ph.D.

Academic Instructors &

Co-Chairs of Local 3911, Canadian Union of Public Employees

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