I was pleasantly surprised to see a recent conference paper (reference below) by folks at the University of Greenwich who are reporting their first year results from a project (Greenwich Connect) that is designed to induce a variety of open and social programs to the university teaching and learning communities.  The surprise was pleasant because we have been attempting a similar project here at Athabasca University- known as the Athabasca Landing. However, it was unpleasant to read that the challenges they are facing are very similar to our own and some days they seem intractable.

The contrast between contexts is as striking as the similarities in challenges. Greenwich is a 2-campus University in the UK, while Athabasca is a 100% online and distance education institution in Canada. However we both share a passion “to enhance the connectedness of learners at a curricula and teaching and learning level” .

Greenwich Connect is a 2 year, $750,000 initiative funded and championed by their Vice Chancellor (President). (see project description)

The Project is designed to increase:

  • Social interaction and social construction of knowledge
  • Student employability and graduate attributes
  • Digital literacy
  •  Interactive, connected and relevant curriculum
  • Collaborative learning, teaching and assessment
  • Lasting connections and networks that go beyond the period of enrolment
  •  Inter and trans-disciplinarity research and content
  • Innovation and creativity
  • A sense of autonomy, personalisation and an enterprise attitude

The project’s first year report notes a number of key challenges- all of which we are wrestling with here at Athabasca. They are:

Challenge 1. Institutional impotence –“resistance manifested itself as both an active form of change blocking and in more passive forms of intransigence that become a form of institutional impotence both institutionally and at an academic and student level.” Universities seem to pride themselves on non-adaptation, a long term strategy that fear leads only to extinction.

Challenge 2 Governance “Governance itself became an activity rather than a means to implement activity”  At Athabasca we have mostly ignored or relied on grass roots governance with our Landing Initiative, but that has resulted in great danger of our work remaining orphaned and having a difficult time transitioning from a research led innovation, to a strategic institutional priority

Challenge 3 Social media: Greenwich Connect found that sharing of resources and artifacts happened “only on Moodle, which is a closed system accessible only to the people enrolled on that course. The benefits of wider sharing, open access and critiquing were all lost and social media usage and integration remained relatively low”  Like ourselves Greenwich has experimented with social networking like Facebook and other tools outside of the institution – with limited success. Our solution, which we still support, is the creation of a “walled garden with windows”  The Athabasca Landing is an elgg based system, hosted by ourselves, that provides access to every member of the wider Athabasca community- including alumni. It defaults to privacy settings to this wide community, but the windows on ANY contribution (blogs, photos, groups, wiki etc.) can be opened to the whole Net or restricted to any internal group or network.

Challenge 4 – Staff engagement “many academic staff felt they had no time to effectively learn about and embed open content made by students and staff, or social media into their learning teaching and assessment.” At Athabasca we too have had extremely varied engagement by faculty and staff. However, despite the low percentage of really active members, we have had enough faculty with passion to create some really innovative and generally well received (by students) teaching and learning opportunities.     I tend to think that the incentives (or more accurately, the lack of incentives) coupled with very little leadership or sense of urgency, have been major causes of the lack of engagement here at Athabasca. However we remain ever hopeful!

Perhaps it is just that misery loves company, but it is cheering and useful to see  comparative examples from others deep in the trenches of higher educational rejuvenation.


Bryant, P., Coombs, A., Pazio, M., & Walker, S. Disruption, destruction, construction or transformation? The challenges of implementing a university wide strategic approach to connecting in an open world. Retrieved from http://conference.ocwconsortium.org/2014/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Paper_30.pdf