Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

One Small Step for Athabasca

I participated in an interesting meeting of the Athabasca University Academic Council (our senate equivalent) this morning and the most contentious item concerned our option for ‘challenge for credit” alternative, that is offered in most of our undergraduate programs.
By way of background, Athabasca undergrad programs are offered as continuous enrollment and mostly self study programs that follow the old correspondence model. We offer support from an individual tutor, a study guide (that roughly serves as an interpretation of the study materials), a FEW interactive options (little used) via Moodle and a course pack that typically consists of a reading package and a text or two.  Students are given 6 months (can be extended with $$$ to a year), as much access (phone and email) as they want to an assigned  tutor, tutor marked assignments and an invigilated exam. We have recently been offering ‘optional’ networking and support via our elgg based social networking system (the Athabasca Landing) but the take up by tutors, faculty and students has (to date) been modest.
Credit for challenge (as opposed to seat time or completion of course activities), is an old idea first institutionalized by the University of London in the 19th century. In this model the university produced a course syllabus and allowed students to contract with any number of (or no)  tutorial or instructional resources to prepare for an exam (or two) and if they were successful – they were offered credit leading to full degrees. This model is becoming increasingly interesting and relevant with the expanding number of  of Open Educational Resources (OERs) from many educational institutions. The problem is that students are very instrumental and deserve to, want to, and need to get credit for the learning in which they show competence.
Athabasca has been a founding member of the OER University, which seeks to open and facilitate this model. The OER University has a nice diagram which illustrates the role of OERs (from anywhere) coupled with accreditation from participating institutions. This coupled with our provision for Prior Learning Accreditation and Assessment (credit for real life learning), outside of formal education, should position Athabasca as a world leader in innovative 21st Century learning and education.

The problem is as Clay Shirky aptly notes “Small decreases in transaction costs make businesses more efficient, because the constraints of the institutional dilemma get less severe. Large decreases in transaction costs create activities that can’t be taken on by businesses, or indeed by an institution, because no matter how cheap it becomes to perform a particular activity, there isn’t enough payoff to support the cost incurred by being an institution in the first place.” (Shirky, 2008).  Credit, without going through the ‘normal’ process is a challenge and potentially disruptive with significant economic and institutional effects from this alternative way to accreditation.

Giving credit without jumping through the normal hoops is very challenging. If students don’t choose to contact their tutors, should they be penalized? What is the value proposition of these ‘extra’ services if students don’t choose to access them?  Should our challenge exams question specific content based on the course content and/or activities or can we devise generic learning objectives that transcend particular course ideas, readings or activities??

Like all Universities, Athabasca has a surplus of divergent views on this and other academic issues. Some argue that this is just a way to bypass (and thus threaten) our ‘normal system’.  Like all open universities, we are constantly under scrutiny for the ‘academic integrity’ of our programming and credentials. Thus, this challenge ‘short cut’ is looked at with suspicion by many. Further, it challenges the value of our individualized tutorial system and further begs the question of what the ‘value add’ is for students  enrolling as regular students who get (for increased $$$) – if they can just challenge the course.

The issue came to a head after a 4 year review (university time!) of our challenge policy. As in any academic governed university, the challenge policy made its way up through various committees and surfaced at Academic Council this morning. The original proposal stated that students wishing to ‘challenge’ must first talk to the course coordinator and of course pay a fee (which in my opinion is too high). The original proposal also stipulated that challenge students are not able to acquire (for free or purchase) the course materials (as described previously). The policy was amended  to read:

Students registering for challenge for credit will have access to AU learning resource materials, limited to textbooks and readings at full cost.  Challenge students will receive no tutor or faculty member support.Any fees assessed for learning resource materials are not refundable.”

So, students can get the course readings (minus the course guides from the course author), library access and of course to our social networking system.

Thus, a small improvement from the origional proposal and a small step forward.

As I noted in the meeting, Athabasca has both opportunity and challenge to be a world leader in a world that values competence and knowledge  – however that is acquired. I hope we rise to this challenges and get beyond seat time or particular learning activities and continue to tackle (and accredit) real learning.

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  1. June 16, 2011    

    Hi Terry, thanks for sharing.

    I agree, as educators we must rise to the challenges and opportunities provided by OER and focus on accrediting real learning (irrespective of how it was acquired.)

    Athabasca University (AU) is a world leader in things open and is clearly carrying out its organisational mission. The university website says that AU “is dedicated to the removal of barriers that restrict access to and success in university-level study and to increasing equality of educational opportunity for adult learners worldwide. … Our approach to post-secondary education is based on four key principles: excellence, openness, flexibility and innovation.” The challenge for credit policy is another example of how AU is opening formal learning opportunities for students worldwide.

    Other important examples relating to OER include Athabasca University Press, which to the best of my knowledge is the world’s first university press dedicated to open access publishing. I believe that AU also prefers the incorporation of OER in its course design and development approaches as a matter of policy. It is also interesting to note that the inception of the policy review process for challenge for credit predated the OER university concept by four years. AU’s thinking is ahead of the game!

    Well done AU! OER university learners will now be able to apply for credentialisation at Athabasca University.

    The Clay Shirkly citation provides food for thought – particularly regarding what might constitute an “institution” in the future of a virtually connected post-secondary ecosystem. With reference to the OER university network model – the cost structures of performing activities based on sharing and mass-collaboration using open content licenses are different from traditional institution-based arrangements. The open web and corresponding OER model may require us to rethink what constitutes and ODL institution.

    I’m reminded of the photographic film industry. Kodachrome was a market leader in the sale of colour film, but the product was retired in 2009. In this case, technology did not displace photography – but it has changed the way we do things. Similarly the open web combined with OER will not be the end of universities as institutions – however, I suspect it may change the way we do things.

    We need to provide places for an additional 98 million learners in post-secondary education over the next 15 years. AU’s policy to recognise challenge for credit is a significant response to addressing the global demand for tertiary education especially for learners who may be excluded from the traditional ODL model.

    I appreciate the diversity of option within the academy. To some this policy may represent a small step forward. However, together a number of small steps will add up to a giant leap forward for OER learning. While learners may not be able to gain access to the AU course guides from the course author – this is where the OER university network will be able to help — all our course materials will be openly licensed and working together, institutions can achieve far more than working alone.

  2. June 24, 2011    


    In today’s world, every educational system is being scrutinized on a daily basis. It’s tough, especially when 60 minutes put on shows describing how some educators will do anything to get an enrollment. Unfortunately, it seems like the system that are doing everything by the books get punished as well.

    I’ve RSS your blog. I’m going to keep my eye on your posts.

    Good Luck!

    American Central

  3. Leslie Johnson Leslie Johnson
    July 9, 2011    

    It’s good to see that the option of PLARing your way to an education is moving forward, albeit slowly. Given the growing number of MOOCs and interest in OERs, it will be increasingly difficult for institutions to ignore the pressure.

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