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Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring? Not exactly.

Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring? Not exactly.

The ever wonderful and thought-provoking Tony Bates asks in an inflammatory post whether Athabasca University is moving away from a tutoring model. The short answer is 'not exactly'.  The overlong and fuller answer follows...

We are not getting rid of tutoring and it's not exactly a call centre...or maybe it is...or maybe we are...

As I understand it, the Faculty of Science and Technology (FST) has no intention of changing the way that students interact with tutors. Students will continue to engage with a single tutor much as they do now, with the bonus that they will get faster, more accurate and less frustrating responses when they seek information about the administrative or operational issues that make up a signficant portion of support calls. This is thanks to directing some communications through a knowledge management and gatekeeper tool built on Grey Matter. Secondly, we describe this as a 'support centre', not a 'call centre' because that is a clearer description of what it does: it's about helping students to find support with their learning, via a knowledge base and from the people that know the answers, who are not always their tutors. Telephones are very rarely used nowadays, especially in the School of Computing and Information Systems that makes up a sizeable chunk of FST, so 'call centre' is a misnomer. However, under the new system, students and tutors should interact much as they have always done, directly, personally and socially. In fact, it ought to be a more connected, supportive system, if it is done right.

At least that's my understanding. But what is fascinating is that a lot of people who you might imagine would be well-informed appear to have many different views that conflict with mine and with one another in all sorts of different ways. The people who have responded to Tony's article give some quite diverse and contradictory responses, our own AUFA mailing list is full of different interpretations. Our own VPA has shared a version of it with the university staff that is not identical to the way that people charged actually implementing it at FST have explained it. All of this might be quite surprising unless you understand how AU is constructed, of which more below. But first...

A worm inside an otherwise perfectly decent apple

There is one very sad aspect to the support centre idea that needs to be pulled before it is too late. At the moment, tutors get paid per block of students, a fixed sum that largely disregards the actual workload involved for any particular student or course but that averages out fairly sensibly. In the new system, the plan is (allegedly - it is hard to get facts straight) that tutors will get paid for contact time recorded in the system.  This is based on the fiction that you can accurately quantify learner support by the hour or by message sent. This fiction has two sides to it, both bad:

  1. There is a fair chance that tutors will get short-changed in this process and, at the very least, will not be able to rely on a regular income any more. The chances are that, financially speaking, some will gain and some will lose, but I'm guessing the average is not going to be in tutors' favour. 
  2. Whether tutor wages rise or fall this will be highly demotivating. It takes away control from tutors to decide how best to manage relationships with students and, worse, it makes reward hinge on an extrinsic and irrelevant measure of work that has nothing whatsoever to do with the value of that work. Performance-based pay at the best of times is a thoroughly and comprehensively discredited idea in itself, but the approach being implemented here lacks even the poor justification that it employs a meaningful measure of performance.

The solution is simple and obvious - just decouple the good idea from the bad one and get rid of this noxious worm inside it or, at the very least, delay introducing it until proper consultation and research has been conducted on its impact. The two ideas are completely independent and separable.

But the fact that anyone even entertained the idea in the first place, let alone set it in motion, is disturbing. My colleagues are smart and mean well, so it is hard to understand how they could even think of such an idea. This leads me to the main point of this post and the most significant thrust of Tony's article.

Bigger issues

I came to AU in 2007 because it had (and still has) the finest, largest and most diverse collection of world-class online and distance learning researchers in the world, together with an infrastructure and process model that can and should revolutionize distance learning. Attending meetings at AU is often like going to a top international online/distance learning conference and hanging out with the best and most interesting keynote speakers. However, at the time I arrived, I did not realize how difficult it would be to diffuse the innovations of those thought-leaders into practice, nor how entrenched the Otto Peters-style industrial model of production, geared around postal service and telephone, might be. I was astonished that, despite having many of the top online learning researchers in the world and a set of learning designers and support staff that is second to none, at the time only around half the courses at the university were actually fully online, and few of those were a model of good practice, using pedestrian if mostly functional pedagogies and failing to take full advantage of even the simple technologies they ran on. It was here that I learned the term 'text-book wraparound', which is as bad as it sounds. It is not that courses at AU were, on average, worse than elsewhere - I have seen many that are much worse, including from the Ivy League and Oxbridge as well as other online institutions. They just weren't the shining examples that I had assumed I would find. This has changed for the better considerably over the past few years, and a much larger number of AU courses are now worthy of pride and admiration, with the majority that I have seen being significantly above average for the field, and most are online. But it is shocking that we still have any courses that are still wrapped around textbooks, that rely mainly on paper or, worse, are part of a surprisingly large number that made the transition from paper to network without even the slightest change in pedagogy, as though the technology made no difference and the rest of the world had not become filled with serious competitors who can also teach at a distance quite well. I am just as shocked by the still-too-common use of unseen written exams sat at physical exam centres which, again, are transitioning to an electronic format with no changes to the underpinning methods and procedures, further entrenching and automating something we should not be doing in the first place. The same thing is happening with e-books, to which we are transitioning without more than a passing thought to how it changes things, what more we can do as a result, and where the pitfalls lie (apart from in dully operational areas and costs), despite a lengthy and complex analysis and consultation process to get there. Equally strange, there is remarkably little use of the advanced pedagogies and technologies that our stonkingly good researchers invent, outside their own teaching (if even that). Given the superfluity of brilliant researchers in the field at AU, this weird state of affairs needs to be examined a little to find out why it should be happening.

Structural challenges

We are victims of the same rules of transactional distance that govern our teaching. The less dialogue we have, the more structure we impose to fill the void, and vice versa (incidentally Shearer, one of those who first noticed this relationship in the early 90s, has done some more interesting work recently on clarifying how it works). Because our workforce as well as our students are distributed, there is far less of the oil of informal communication that keeps less distributed institutions running despite their manifold structural failings. With relatively little non-focused informal dialogue we consequently harden systems, building structure, thereby making them brittle and more difficult to change.

The triumph of structure is all the more inevitable because our teaching was historically largely structure-oriented rather than dialogic, so we developed habits and patterns of working together at a distance that largely ignored many-to-many dialogue. From the start we built efficient systems for print delivery that are still part of our structural DNA. Quite apart from the harmful cultural effects, such processes are highly inefficient for most online teaching methods, with processing and transactional costs that are completely unjustifiable and artificial constraints on flexibility and creativity that are positively heinous. It has often taken three years or more from a course being written to being in production. If you are a teacher it's like making someone with a red flag walk in front of your car, doubly infuriating because there are plenty of others that zoom by at whatever speed they like. Unfortunately the systems are so tightly integrated, embedded not just in processes but the skill-sets and assumptions of employees and the buildings and tools that we use, that they cannot be easily dismantled. Take away one piece and others fall, so change is painful.

It is not helped by the generally excellent fact that we have steadfastly stuck to a self-paced model of course design in our undergraduate teaching: students have a six-month contract and can choose when they learn at whatever pace suits them. This is brilliant from the perspective of freedom and choice, and is one of our great differentiators that marks us out from the crowd and that makes AU a really cool institution. But it makes it really hard to change things on the fly if you also build highly structured courses, and it makes it awfully tricky to make use of social pedagogies, because everyone is working on something different at any given time, which reduces the chances that we will destructure the process. As a tutor or coordinator, you cannot adapt and change a highly structured course while it is running because it could disadvantage students who are currently taking it - even spelling errors or referencing errors are hard to amend and have often taken months to fix as a result.

And it is not helped by processes that make communication slow, procedure-laden and clumsy, nor that  programs have to be approved by micro-managing government (our PhD in science has taken 6 years and counting to get approval).

The lack of habitual contact and dialogue and consequent rigidity of structure also means that the humans in the system are more likely to be treated as replaceable parts with fixed roles to play and value to the system, rather than creative, active smart people, capable of making good decisions and adapting and changing their environments, of value in themselves. Notably, rigid systems are built that intentionally limit the potential for people to make mistakes which, at the same time, means they also prevent those people from achieving greatness and devalue their agency as human beings.

And then, of course, there is the tutor problem. Tutors would often like to be more involved in bringing about change but, when offered the opportunity, quite reasonably expect to be paid to attend meetings, normally at an hourly rate plus expenses: that's what happens when you treat people as cogs in a structure instead of people engaged on a shared endeavour. If you are trying to develop a collegiate atmosphere and passionately engaged tutors, especially with faculty who are not paid this way, this does not help foster communication and sharing. Knowledge transfer is particularly tricky.

Another side-effect of this is that a number of very different and quite isolated cultures develop: the confused and contradictory responses to Tony's post are symptomatic of this. We do not even begin to have a single world view, with each faculty, school and centre implementing a different interpretation of what those within it think distance teaching should involve. Such diversity is a great thing and we need to cherish it dearly, but it's important that we understand one another's differences and learn from one another. Most of us see a part and imagine that the whole is much the same. It is not. Our cultural separation is further exacerbated by a concentration of administration and technical staff in one location, a tiny village with a hiring pool the size of a peanut (with some great people despite that, but not enough of them), and academic staff mainly in Edmonton or Calgary but also distributed much further afield. The fact that some meet face to face and some don't polarizes cultures further.

The good news

Happily, this sorry state of affairs is changing, thanks in part to things like this site, The Landing, and better use of other social tools, and in part to the fact that, after the best part of a decade spent trying to loosen the awful structures that bind us, progress is at last being made.

In terms of communication, there is a better awareness of others developing. We are getting better at working together online, and smarter at sustaining relationships at a distance. Tools like the Landing have helped cultures to mingle a little more: Carmen's photos of Athabasca here on the Landing, for instance, have really helped me to get a richer sense of what it is like to live there, as well as a greater sense of connectedness and social presence with people who work there. Similarly, it lets people see how others think and work in their teaching and research. Until the Landing came along, our systems had always been structured with an instrumental, functional focus, without embedding social engagement or giving any thought at all as to how cultures develop. Alternatively, (like email or telephone) they were so soft, flexible and ephemeral that the effort needed to manage them was too great to be of much use. But now things are improving, cultures are mingling and codeveloping more. Small groups are able to work together faster, form and unform flexibly, and share their ideas with other people easily. We can play more. Better webmeeting tools help too, particularly now that adequate bandwidth enables relatively high-fidelity audio and video, though reliability remains a big problem and it has taken some years for use of such tools to become a widespread norm.  Better online communication is becoming far more embedded not just in places like this site but also in Moodle courses, and even in greater sophistication of interactions via more basic tools like mailing lists and email. More people are getting more comfortable and proficient at communicating online, and the tools are improving.  Courses are becoming more social and more flexible: we are developing more effective and often innovative social pedagogies that focus on sharing and cooperative work rather than collaboration and guided dialogue, especially in those that are using the Landing. We have a long way to go yet and we need to loosen up a lot more of our structures before we can make great progress, but we are making progress.

In terms of process, things are looking up and improving quite rapidly. Within the last year, following a decade of very slow planning, we have adopted much more flexible policies and a better distribution of creative and skilled support staff. It is still rarely a particularly agile process, apart from in graduate teaching where more flexibility has long been allowed, but there is at last a bit of decentralization going on that means the right people get to work with the right people without the interference of process. Appropriate methods and technologies can now be chosen for different courses, rather than having to be crammed into a one-size-fits-all structure. Diverse approaches that were formerly stamped on or quietly ignored are not just allowed but encouraged. Responsibilities are being devolving to people that care deeply and can act accountably. Even for our structured courses, after years of deliberation, we are oh so slowly moving to a more adaptable framework, technology and policies that make timely changes within sensible limits possible. There is good reason to expect that we might leave the worst of our rigidity behind us soon. Social systems like the Landing, are helping to catalyze and support that change.

Blossoming, but not yet blooming

We can and do innovate prodigiously in the field of learning technologies and online pedagogies, despite all the difficulties, and even despite the swingeing financial cuts that have hurt us deeply. I have highlighted the role of The Landing,  my pet project that Terry Anderson and I have sweated blood to make happen. We have built this in an attempt to bring about changes to our over-prescriptive processes and rigid culture, to become a more human learning organization, to amplify our strengths and diminish our weaknesses. It's not a solution by any means, but it's an important foundation for other solutions that is having a perceptible impact.  For at least some of the several thousand people that use the site it has been a game changer, providing control, connection and relatedness, new ways of learning and teaching, filling gaps between hard systems. It offers direct control to people, all people at AU, without hierarchies and structural constraints getting in the way. It lets us know our students better, lets them know us. It provides a space for dialogue and sharing that can overcome some of the structural brittleness of the university's systems, linking diverse cultures and allowing people to be at least aware of what other people are doing and how they are thinking, in a safe open space. It lets people learn together, from one another, with one another. One of the main reasons I know that great things are being done at AU, for example, is because I see them happening on the Landing. But this is not the end of the story. The Landing relies on passionate advocates and a lot of voluntary effort from a few individuals who swim against the stream. The Landing or something like it (I'm not proud - there are other ways to achieve similar goals and it's the goals I am after, not the tools for getting there) should be a major pillar of the university but is instead something that needs to be fought for every day and that has lived on a diminishing shoestring budget for a year now, after getting some one-off external funding that sustained it for its first three years. Moreover, it is another island, not yet the pervasive glue to hold things together that we are aiming for, used by less than 20% of the university population, albeit including most of the staff. This is a chicken and egg problem: it becomes particularly useful if everyone is here, but why would you join in unless at least most people are here?  And, without strong commitment from the university to its future and in troubled financial times, why invest in building content and relationships in a system that might not survive the next round of cuts? It will survive, but perceptions count.

The Landing is just one of AU's countless innovations. A Second-Life island, now migrating to an OpenSIM container, has provided opportunities for innovative online learning and engagement but, again, it remains a small and largely isolated project driven by passionate people who are running uphill. Adaptive systems and analytics tools emerging from our research have made their way into some of our Moodle instances, those bastions of rigid hierarchically managed conventionality, though they have not spread widely through the university and remain an interesting backwater sustained only by a few passionate researchers, despite extremely innovative and active research in these and related areas that draws together an exceptionally talented pool of researchers. Our e-lab, home to a range of useful innovations, struggles to survive and is, as I write this, treading water or possibly drowning, despite having implemented an e-portfolio system that is used for teaching by several courses and programs, enabling more interesting pedagogies for many people. A crowd-driven social annotation system lives only because of one or two people, with little support or sustenance from the university. A lot of fantastic research does more good for other institutions than our own - brilliant work on semantic technologies for learning from Dragan Gasevic, or mobile learning from Mohammed Ally, for example, has had more impact abroad than in our own university, and the Landing itself gets 6-8 times as many external visitors as internal users. Rory McGreal is a leading light in the OER movement but our own open courses are pitifully few. George Siemens is justly famous for his theoretical and practical contributions to online learning, among the most significant thought-leaders in the world, and has brought in large amounts of funding and kudos to the university, yet our rigid structural processes meant that only after significant struggles were we able to offer him an assistant professor post.  TEKRI, our flagship research institute for online learning that might drive adoption and coordinate change,  currently limps along without doctoral students and little funding. This is just a tiny representative handful of the many learning technology innovations and innovators that continue to blossom but not quite bloom around the university, and doesn't even begin to consider the vast numbers of great pedagogical innovations that are occurring across the board, from nursing and midwifery to astrophysics, from distance education to computing. Despite seeking them out, the limited communication that causes the problems also makes it hard for me to know about more than a few of these, but I see them wherever and whenever I look.

We are extremely good at innovating. We have a pretty decent internal grant system that makes it possible to try out small learning technology and pedagogical projects fairly easily, and we are not unsuccessful in getting larger grants to implement bigger changes. But our culture of structure, our industrial teaching model and our still too-weak, instrumentally oriented communication channels make it very hard to diffuse and sustain such innovations effectively, especially when our executive leadership is perceived as being weak, secretive and untrustworthy (whether that perception is fair or not). When our focus is on courses and each course can take several years to go from planning to production, pedagogical change is hard to bring about at a fundamental level. Good ideas get lost in isolated spaces or run out of steam as people move on. I hope that the improvements in pace we are starting to see might change this, especially if we can continue to grow the Landing and tools like it to improve the flow of knowledge and culture around the university. AU has hit some hard times in the last year or so and a lot of stupid decisions have been made.  Sadly, a lot of what remains of our slashed resources are currently being channeled into more structure that will not move us pedagogically forward, that harden systems and that may, from a cultural perspective, make things worse, but this will pass. I think the outlook, though still cloudy, has some blue sky peeking through, as long as we can continue to build in the same directions we have started building and fight so that we don't lose what we have already worked so hard to begin.

In conclusion

Tony likens AU to the Titanic, cruising directly in the direction of an iceberg. I don't think that is quite right. It is more like a railroad company that built its tracks to towns that few people want to visit any more, and that is struggling to retool itself for an age where everyone else has personal automobiles, buses and airplanes, while suffering the burden of having to maintain the now-redundant steam-driven rolling stock and rusting lines that once made it successful. There is still a vital role for trains. They are very efficient, fast, comfortable, reliable, predictable, and (potentially) sociable and cost-effective vehicles, if they go to the right places. But we should also be looking to diversify into other forms of transport because trains can't take us everywhere we need to go when we need to go there and are certainly not always the most cost-effective alternative, as anyone who has looked at Rocky Mountaineer prices will agree. Sticking with the transport metaphor, living in Vancouver I have no car because I don't need one: an integrated transit system with trains, buses, airplanes, subways, float planes, ferries, helicopters, water taxis, bike lanes, cycle rickshaws, shuttle buses, streetcars, gondolas, ski lifts, taxis and car co-ops works remarkably well. The key lies in valorization of diversity combined with good communication, and a concerted will to make it work. Let's hope we can figure this out at AU. If we do not continue to turn this round, we will only wind up going to ghost towns on rusty tracks in train carriages that smell weird and have seen better days.


  • Hi Jon--As usual, you've done a good job of analyzing our situation, with a needed emphasis on our strengths. Since the beginning of my time at AU in 2006, I've been aware of our communication problem and also wondered why there was such a disconnect between the research and the practice. Sadly, I stopped seeing myself as an effective change agent at some point, but I feel that hope returning with some of our recent internal adjustments (not the layoffs!). Thanks for your work on the Landing, which helps a lot with both the communication and the praxis for those who use it.

    - Mary Pringle

    Anonymous February 2, 2014 - 11:54am

  • You have identified what AU is doing well, its weak links, the emerging issues and suggestions for improvement. 

    Consider this post as my standing ovation, finally someone has had the balls to state what others have either hinted at or were afraid to talk about. The elephant in the room is exposed. Let us work together to get rid of it, one bite at a time.

    Barbie Bruce February 2, 2014 - 1:07pm

  • Thanks Mary and Barbie

    We are all agents of change - Mary, you more than most.  We're all taking bites at the elephant but it is so big that we don't see one another doing it so it is hard to see the effect. Personally, I'd prefer the elephant to go and find its own room and leave us to teach properly rather than have to chew on its flesh, but one way or another we need to get it out of here.


    Jon Dron February 2, 2014 - 2:28pm

  • The fundamental flaw in the new pay model is that it represents a worst case payment model. It actually rewards bad tutoring. That is, if you get paid by the minute, then those who take more time to do a job get more pay than those who take less time.

    Extended to tutoring, it pays the most money if you always take a lot of time to answer student questions - even simple ones you've answered a thousand times before. In other words, a terrible tutor who must look up every answer every time gets way more money than a tutor who knows the subject inside and out and can quickly answer student questions.

    It rewards terrible work and punishes excellent work. The exact opposite of the way any payment=reward system should work. At least with tutor block pay, everyone got the same pay for the same number of students. Block pay actually rewarded tutors who were efficient (i.e.developing FAQ files and banks of answers to common questions). It wasn't perhaps the best payment model, but at least it wasn't counter producive.

    Richard Huntrods May 29, 2015 - 9:18am

  • I totally agree, Richard. I was appalled that this model was even considered for a moment and the fact that it was actually implemented, even if only locally in a pilot that may yet be undone, makes me quite ashamed of my university. We should be better than this. I have seen it justified in terms of equity but, as you rightly point out, the choice of recorded time as a proxy is hugely counter-productive: it disempowers professionals in deeply demotivating ways, rewards mediocrity and punishes competence. The block pay approach may be unfair inasmuch as some courses do demand a lot more of tutors, but there are plenty of other ways to deal with that which don't demean the professional role: a simple weighting based on load would do the trick, for instance. We already do that at a coarse level  - e.g. doctoral students demand more per-student time than undergraduates - so there is no good reason we cannot do it per course. We do need quality, but quantity of time spent is a completely inadequate and counter-productive way to either measure it or reward it. It's a naive cost cutting measure that reduces the value far more than it cuts the cost.

    Jon Dron May 29, 2015 - 11:20am

  • Actually, the entire argument against the block pay model can be summed up in this: it is thought to be too expensive by management.

    The basic argument is that they (management) really hates the idea of paying someone for students who might never contact the tutor. They hate it so much they will make up any excuse just to kill the existing model. Instead of seeing it as a "cost of doing business" in the e-learning / self guilded world, they view it as a waste that must be eradicated at any cost.

    Funny thing is in a brick and mortar university, a contract instructor is paid to teach a class of X students (I did one for UofC Electrical Eng. in 2000 with 150+ students in the lecture). It does not matter one whit if anyone attends the lecture, or if most of them sleep through the lecture (pre smart phone days...). All that mattered is that I was paid to show up M,W,F from 1-2pm and lecture from the provided slides. If I wanted to bore them to tears, or if I wanted to engage them - it didn't matter. I was paid either way. Sort of / exactly like/ our block model. As far as I know, UofC is still doing this.

    Richard Huntrods May 29, 2015 - 11:32am

  • Indeed, it does seem that cost-shaving played a role in this, however ineffectively.

    I don't think we should slavishly copy brick and mortar institutions that only do things that way because of the laws of physics and a tradition of one-to-many lecturing that have no relevance to us at all. Even in such institutions, it is normal to adjust staff workloads according to numbers of students, if only to allow for differences in marking effort, and many such institutions use far more complex metrics to allocate workload.

    If we are seeking equity (as opposed to simple cost-cutting alone) it would make some sense for us to take into account the subject and pedagogy. Some courses in some subjects really do only require tutors to do a bit of mechanical marking and demand almost no other engagement. From a pedagogical perspective I don't like the idea that we have such courses in the first place and will readily argue against them, albeit that I approve of the implied diversity and accept that in a few it makes sense, but I don't see why courses that demand more (intellectually, socially, administratively) of their tutors should not employ a higher pay-scale. That's totally different from pay-per-minute rewards/punishments and it's not about cost, it's about value.

    Jon Dron May 29, 2015 - 12:12pm

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