I haven’t written a lot about my new role and just what exactly I’ve been getting up to over the last year, mostly because it has seemed so trivial compared to all of us trying to get through this bloody pandemic. However, it’s been over a year now, and I’ve had cause to reflect on some of my early months in the job.
When the pandemic unfolded over March and April last year I asked my team what ideas they had for best supporting students.* I wanted us to think of ideas that would ultimately help our students to achieve their educational goals, so we discounted options like an enhanced withdrawal process. Cutting our students loose at the moment they needed our support and understanding just didn’t feel right (we did still flex the withdrawal rules, but it wasn’t the cornerstone of our response).
In the end we came up with a range of options including:
- Creating a set of guidelines on alternative assessments, providing an expanded range of options for Faculties to help students complete their courses.
- Waiving a number of exam booking and change fees.
- Creating a “pause” process for students working on the front-lines of the COVID response and who needed to put their studies on hold for a non-specific period of time.
- Creating an emergency bursary scheme in partnership with our student unions and disbursing unspent travel funds to students in need.
The single biggest thing we felt we could give our students though was time. Just like everyone one of us in the world, they were suddenly adjusting to changes in their work, their homes, their family lives.
Most of the undergraduate courses at Athabasca are continuous enrollment self-paced offerings, reflecting the need for flexibility amongst our students, who are often studying on top of all the other responsibilities that life brings. Students get 6 months to complete a course, and can purchase a small number of additional 2 month extensions (courses include tutor support so there are labour costs in here).
We offered all undergraduate students a free 2 month extension, no questions asked. Due to the constraints of the various student financial aid systems in Canada not all students could take this option, but even still we processed 11,000 course extensions.
Close to a year later, and as we head towards the end of the financial year, we are seeing the outcomes of these early actions. We didn’t see mass withdrawals and failures in courses, and like most online universities we’ve seen some slightly higher than predicted enrollment numbers over the last year.
We’re not a rich university by any means, but that’s given us the opportunity to start a few wee things earlier than planned, and to accommodate a few new items of expenditure. One of those, I am pleased to say is another round of emergency bursaries for our students. Second wave lockdowns persist in many forms all across Canada, many kids are back home, life continues to be complicated.
Now, this is a nice story for sure, but the specifics of what we did are actually less important than the thinking that lies behind it. A lot has been written over the last year about the importance of care in many different forms (and you can find a lot of collective wisdom crowd-sourced here). I want to add one more angle now. By investing in supports focussed on care for our students when the pandemic first hit, we also invested in the sustainability of the institution. By investing in sustainability then, we have been able to offer more care now.
Care is a sustainability practice.
* It is important to acknowledge that although we did a lot, for some students it will still have not been enough. Our response hasn’t been perfect at all times. Nobody’s has. My team and all my colleagues have been extraordinary in their dedication to our students, but we are all struggling and sometimes nothing we do is enough, nor is it even possible. This has been personally one of the hardest things, and I know many working in higher ed have been haunted by some of the emails from students we’ve received.