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Transforming lives and communities with access to education

Aingeal Stone has a bet with her partner that the last to graduate with an advanced degree will change the surname to that of the first. This may sound as if Ms. Stone were a 20-something-year-old full-time student, but she’s not. She is a mother, grandmother and information management specialist who lives in the subarctic capital of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife.

What helped to ignite her passion for lifelong learning was an online program at Athabasca University (AU), says Ms. Stone. “My successful re-entry to academia after a 25-year hiatus signalled a significant change in my general understanding of this world and my place in it. I studied an eclectic mix of humanities and social sciences with a dash of hard science thrown in for flavour [and] discovered subjects of interest that would broaden my horizons.”

While her educational path is unique, Ms. Stone shares one trait with the majority of AU students – she is a “post-traditional learner,” says Matthew Prineas, the university’s provost, who believes more and more people require alternatives to the traditional pathway from school via university to employment.

“My successful re-entry to academia after a 25-year hiatus signalled a significant change in my general understanding of this world and my place in it.”

– Aingeal Stone

“We are seeing disruptions in the workforce now, and this will only accelerate,” he says. “Along with economies and industries, jobs will change; and the need for lifelong learning is going to increase.”

Online learning options add resilience into the education system, a fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has served to illustrate, and Dr. Prineas believes this will permanently change the landscape of education.

Shifting most of its courses online in 1995, AU became a pioneer in online education and has leveraged its considerable expertise to create a robust student support system.

“We brand ourselves as Canada’s open online university – and the word ‘open’ comes first. This means we are not setting up barriers at the outset,” says Dr. Prineas, who adds that AU currently offers 950 online courses to more than 43,000 learners in 87 countries around the world. “All students have an academic expert who is responsible for supporting them. And student services, advising and the library are also virtual, wrapping around the learning experience.

“Making sure that the entire infrastructure is available online is an important consideration at the time when many institutions move to online delivery,” he adds.

“You come to realize that for many, this was the only way to complete a university degree due to the obstacles they’ve faced. That’s incredibly humbling–and we know it serves to inspire the next generation.”

– Dr. Matthew Prineas

AU’s 50th anniversary this year has inspired a reflection on five decades of innovation as well as an exploration of “what learning in the next 50 years could look like,” according to Dr. Prineas. While this includes discussions about technology and the potential of artificial intelligence and virtual and alternate reality as learning tools, what “brought the framework together was a focus on an entire lifetime of learning,” he says. “We are looking at digital technologies for providing a platform that can follow an entire learning journey with all educational and work experiences.”

And since online learning allows students to stay in their communities, Dr. Prineas envisions a spillover effect. “We know that community is important, and we want to empower our learners to tap into the values of their communities and give back to them,” he says, adding that AU’s main theme is “transforming lives, transforming communities.

“We provide resilience for individual learners through flexible learning pathways and hope their success can help to strengthen their communities.”

For Dr. Prineas, the fact that 70 per cent of AU graduates are the first in their family to complete a university degree speaks to the impact of the model. “You come to realize that for many, this was the only way to complete a university degree due to the obstacles they’ve faced,” he says. “That’s incredibly humbling – and we know it serves to inspire the next generation.”

And examples such as Ms. Stone’s can motivate others to embrace lifelong learning. “AU has given me the impetus to continue my educational journey,” she says. “I have traversed a vast distance as a person since – and because of – my experiences learning with Athabasca.”

 

Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. Originally appeared in the Globe and Mail Technology and Future of Education Report.

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  • June 2, 2020