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by Scott Douglas Jacobsen


An Interview with Professor Vivekanandan S. Kumar on AU, Students, and Research

(Part One)

Students at Athabasca University (AU) have a unique set of opportunities and benefits in terms of the online and at-a-distance education, especially in terms of resources for research. What distinguishes AU from other universities in terms of possible contributions to the larger human capital contributions of provinces and territories to the research and economic base of the country?

One of the research challenges we faced was about tackling the perception that instruction through online learning was subpar to the instruction at brick-and-mortar universities. Then, why top universities in the world are resorting to online instruction as supplemental to regular classroom instruction?

Is there an underlying assumption that ‘proper’ instruction yields optimal learning for students, which in turn implies students better suited to uplift Canada in its economic quest?

This is a core presumption in the current educational setup that Athabasca University has the power to investigate and reform.

It is not just proper ‘instruction’, but also proper ‘learning’ that yields human capital contributions that Canada needs.

Athabasca University offers its students to be better prepared in subject areas and most importantly, yet surreptitiously, engages them to build the capacity to self-learn, self-regulate, and self-persist. These are the kinds of students who are better prepared to shoulder the pursuit of knowledge-based economy of the country.

This ‘capacity building’ is the unacknowledged secret behind the use of online instruction as supplemental to traditional classroom-based instruction. Athabasca’s curricular design is geared towards this ‘capacity building’ in our students to self-propel to meet the challenges of the century.

In some circles, people refer to this as flipped-instruction. I would like to refer to it as flipped-cognition, where students drive the quest for learning, in subject matter excellence as well as in cognitive triangulation to become creative learners in broadening and deepening the economic base of Canada.

The opportunity to study should be completely open. Open to anyone irrespective of anything else. Students should feel the yearning for learning. Students should shoulder the burden of learning. Teachers and curricula should take the responsibility to guide students to excel, not force them towards excellence.

There is a fine-line between me thrusting myself to reach a clearer goal than me being pushed by someone to reach a vague goal. This fine-line defines the long-term success stories of our students. This fine-line advances the kinds of research we offer our students. This fine-line opens up economic drivers for Canada.

Canada used to be the world leader in online instruction and online learning. The rest of the world has already caught up with us. In many cases, the rest of the world has overtaken us, forcing us to pursue. One of these cases is about catering to the masses of students from around the world who have the capacity to learn but not the opportunity.

There are many off-share campuses from traditional university around the world. Why?

These are students who do not fit the regular educational stream.

How about students who live in remote places? How will we offer the same opportunities that students in populated centers enjoy?

How could we make geographical distances disappear when it comes to learning? How to cater to such masses, high quality study material, instruction, guidance, and self-learning potential, in a scalable and sustaining fashion?

Athabasca University has that know-how.

Athabasca University students go through that know-how and have the opportunity to investigate it further and make it the common currency of learning in the near future. I am from India, and I know for sure (sad laughter) a large percentage of students who graduate from high school simply do not have opportunity to study further.

This is common in many developing nations, because of a lack of infrastructure to offer traditional instruction.

How about Athabasca University students spread the message about how they learned online and explore ways to bring such opportunities to these deprived students?

I believe in online learning. I believe it is the way of the future and will become main-stream. I think, we at Athabasca University, especially students, should strive further to commit ourselves to show that online learning is on par, at least on par, with traditional universities.

We should strive to research the fundamental changes and challenges online learners experience and make it a staple global platform of learning in the near future.