Leadership, Governance, and Policy | Innovators

Athabasca University

Project: Open Knowledge Environment

Project lead: Brian Stewart, VP of IT and CIO

Technologies used: Developed in-house

As an open university, Athabasca University (Canada) guarantees access to post-secondary learning for anyone age 16 or older. All of its teaching, learning, and administrative functions are executed in virtual space, with a fully online, distributed workforce serving 38,000 students across Canada and internationally.

Founded in 1970, the university transitioned over time from correspondence courses (print-based, independent study) toward an online model. More recently, Brian Stewart, VP of IT and CIO, along with other senior institutional leadership, identified the university's next challenge: "Once you provide the connective technologies to create the wide accessibility needed to be an open university, how can you boost the experience for both faculty and students, to offer the best teaching, learning, and research environment?" The answer for Athabasca involves a complete overhaul of its IT infrastructure and the reorganization of operations and education processes.

Athabasca's first step in comprehensive, transformational change was the Open Knowledge Environment (OKE), a project that ran between June 2009 and October 2011. More than 30 initiatives were mounted to recharge technology infrastructure, redefine skill sets, and revamp processes across the entire organization. A sample of the learning tools implemented includes simulation, gaming, immersive environments, and visualizations, as well as synchronous conferencing, social networking, and collaboration technologies.

As part of the move to an all-digital environment, the project team implemented content-management workflows, digitization of course material, asset management, and the use and creation of open educational resources. Mobile computing, desktop virtualization, storage systems, voice over IP infrastructure development, CRM systems, analytics, and new exam systems were other key components of infrastructure development or refinement.

Stewart, who led the project, notes that the OKE was facilitated by two government-funded programs totaling $14 million, as well as the university's existing capital IT funding strategy. The funding gave the university only about two years in which to enact changes. "That provided the shot in the arm and determination to follow through with concrete programs," says Stewart. "It created a dynamic and the impetus to move forward."

All these technology changes--and the accompanying organizational, pedagogical, and behavioral changes--are guided by research: A newly established Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca is informing both technology decision-making and education practice. Its research will also support the university's commitment to become fully digital with an open knowledge infrastructure. Stewart describes a continuum in digitizing the institution as a whole--from teaching and learning practice to course delivery to administrative systems. "Everything has to be online or the result will be suboptimal," he says. "You have to look at the whole university in a digital context."

It's an approach echoed by Cindy Ives, acting associate VP for learning resources and director of the Centre for Learning Design and Development. "Institutions that make a commitment to becoming fully digital, virtual teaching and learning organizations are in the best position to add to the wealth and widespread sharing of digital knowledge resources--while broadening the reach of education worldwide," she notes.

As anyone who has worked in a college or university can attest, implementing changes of this scope is a daunting task. "Moving an institution to adopt fundamental transitions in its operations, processes, and methodologies is no small undertaking," acknowledges Stewart. "Sometimes it's easier to start afresh, because it's so hard to overcome learned behaviors." For this very reason, the changes and technology areas targeted are purposefully far-reaching, challenging, and game-changing. "These are big changes that take time to implement and mature," adds Stewart.

Some of the university's new initiatives will take years to complete, but their directions and the vision to move the institution forward are well established. "Athabasca has created a culture of change that will continue far into the future," concludes Stewart.