Trends in HE: Online pioneer blooms with 'join-anytime' offer

June 11, 2004

As student demand for more flexible ways of studying grow, a Canadian online university that has abandoned that central building-block, the semester, is attracting international attention.

Athabasca University, based in Alberta, allows undergraduate students to begin a course on the first day of any month.

The flexibility this allows students is seen as a model for distance learning, especially after it received an endorsement this year from Sir John Daniel, who this month moved to the Vancouver-based Commonwealth of Learning after a three-year spell at Unesco and a decade at the UK's Open University.

Satisfaction surveys from students have given Athabasca higher scores than other universities in the province. The single-mode university has also seen enrolment triple, to 30,000 registrations in the past nine years.

Dominique Abrioux, the president of Athabasca, says the flexible starting date is why many students choose Athabasca. Students have moved from other universities, where they may have found out at the beginning of the fall semester that they could not enrol.

"Many cannot wait until January, but they can start here in October," he says.

He says Athabasca has a social mission to remove barriers that have been put up by universities, which require students to adapt to their schedules, instead of the other way around.

Athabasca's scheduling, which is referred to as self-paced or unpaced study, gives students up to six months to complete a three-credit course.

It is most successful with mature learners, according to Eleanor Pierre, a distance-education researcher. But she has found that it does not work so well for those with poor time-management skills and that many students lack self-motivation.

Terry Anderson, a professor at Athabasca who holds the Canada research chair in distance education, is examining ways to increase motivation. "An Athabasca course can be pretty lonely," he says.

Anderson is working on three separate research projects that he expects to "build community". One uses "study-buddies", another has a voluntary peer critique service, and the third has students taking part in a comment board. Don Kasta of the University of Waterloo, who has been involved with distance education for 30 years, says Athabasca's no-semester schedule could not work at a university where many of the same professors teach online and on campus. If 10 per cent of his students registered one month, 30 per cent the next and the rest by the next month, he says "there would be no end to my work".

But Athabasca seems to have accomplished its feat partly by using a high number of non-tenured part-time professors. It employs four sessionals for every tenured professor - four times the rate of the typical Canadian university. Also, being a single-mode online university has allowed Athabasca to give its distance courses priority and to build its student registration system around them.

Abrioux acknowledges that Athabasca's rising numbers of enrolments suggest it has captured a niche. Although it plans to continue to operate without the traditional semester structure, there are limits on how many more concessions can be made to students, he admits. "As we grow, that degree of flexibility becomes harder to maintain."

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