Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On credibility, Bill 46 and PSE

Yesterday, a judge ordered a temporary stay on the implementation of Bill 46, which would otherwise have imposed a contract on public servants on January 31. This temporary stay (until Valentine’s Day) gives the judge a chance to review AUPE’s application for a long-term stay of the Bill (i.e., until the constitutional challenge can be sorted out).

It has been interesting watching Deputy Premier Dave Hancock try to spin Bill 46 over the past few days. Bill 46 strips the right of civil servants to arbitration and replaces it with a (lousy) legislated contract. Bill 46 also provides that the legislated outcome can be avoided if AUPE (the union representing civil servants) and the government negotiate some other agreement before Friday (or possible March 31, if the government extends the deadline).

Hancock claimed in the Legislature that Bill 46 was designed to bring AUPE back to the bargaining table (this oft-repeated statement is clearly one of the government’s key messages). This ignores that it was the government’s intransigence in the spring that lead AUPE to declare impasse and send the matter to binding arbitration.

After the judge temporarily stayed Bill 46, Hancock said “We are willing to negotiate anywhere, anytime. I hope the AUPE will meet us at the negotiating table.” Apparently Hancock thinks a dynamic that AUPE characterizes as “negotiating with a gun to its head” is a meaningful negotiation. Or maybe he doesn’t think that and his is just trying to make lemonaide while the cameras are rolling.

Anyone with any experience in bargaining can see that the government has little incentive to meaningfully negotiate because it will get the contract it wants regardless of negotiations. And, consistent with this analysis, the government has not made any significant changes in its position since it decided to impose a contract on October 8 (despite several bargaining meeting with AUPE) or, indeed, since its opening offer last March.
Hancock’s clearly fatuous statement undermines the government’s credibility as an honest dealer. Of course the government was already on pretty shaky ground here. For example, last spring the government reneged on its promise of three years of 2% funding increases in post-secondary education (PSE) and then hit the system with a minus seven-and-a-bit cut, which resulted in layoffs and programs closures.

Yesterday Hancock also spoke about the post-secondaryeducation file. His main message was that there won’t be a lot of money in the upcoming budget and the government is working under a three-year plan. Of course, the government was also working under a three-year plan last year… which tells us that budget plans in Alberta are really just political tools to manage dissent and expectations—they don’t actually guide government action.

A more intriguing part of Hancock’s talk was this bit:
He said the government is still interested in pursuing measures championed by Lukaszuk in the advanced education system, such as reducing duplication of programming and commercializing research. But he said his primary goal is assisting universities and colleges and getting out of their way.
 So, on the one hand, government wants to assist institutions and “get out of their way”. On the other hand, the government is still committed to Lukaszuk’s ill-defined (but intrusive) “Campus Alberta” plan (so the government isn’t “getting out of the way”). And there likely isn’t going to be any more cash (which is primarily how the government assists institutions).

Hancock also said the government wants the PSE system to prepare for major enrollment growth. But somehow the system is also supposed to reduce duplication. What “reducing duplication” has actually meant is closing programs and offering fewer courses (because of the government’s funding cut). How a reduction in student spaces jives with rhetoric about preparing for enrollment growth is hard to fathom—because it simply doesn’t.

Hancock is smart and pretty slick. But it is also pretty clear the emperor is facing a wardrobe crisis. If your words are untrustworthy in labour relations, you’ll never get anywhere with the other side. (While annoying, the phrase “show me the money” pretty much sums the government’s present level of credibility.) If the conservative government wants to dig itself out of its messes, it might be worthwhile revisiting this bargaining 101 lesson.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Athabasca moves forward on call centre model

I’ve had several questions from students about Athabasca University’s undergraduate instructional model following a recent article (including several follow-on letters that are not available online) in the Athabasca Advocate. In short, AU appears to be about to replace the tutor model to a call-centre model. Here is the low down as far as I can tell.

Athabasca currently offers undergraduate courses using two models: the tutor model and the call centre model (sometimes called the student support centre model).
  1. Tutor Model: Students are assigned an individual academic, sometimes a full-time faculty member and sometimes a part-time tutor. Students use the course materials (e.g., an online study guide that replaces traditional lectures plus textbooks and other readings) and then interact with the academic as needed (e.g., asking questions, discussing material, clarifying assignments) and the academic also marks the students’ assignments.
  2. Call centre model: Students get the same course materials but send queries to a call centre. The support staff in the call centre try to filter out so-called administrative questions and then generate tickets (i.e., service requests) that get sent an academic expert to answer. Academic experts can be full-time faculty or part-time tutors. Academic experts also do marking.

The most obvious difference between the two models is the level of student access to academics. The tutor model offers reasonably direct access by phone or email and the academic can also initiate contact with a student who is struggling or lagging. By contrast, the call centre model requires students to go through the call centre and academic experts cannot initiate contact with students.

Proponents of the call centre say there is little difference in student satisfaction or outcomes. Of course, most of this research is done by proponents of the call centre model and not everyone agrees with their conclusions. A recent survey by the Athabasca University Students’ Union shows widespread resistance to the call centre model among students. 

Proponents of the tutor model have a number of concerns about the call centre. This student’s comments outline many of the concerns:
Currently I am in a business class and when I called twice into the call center for assistance, no reply was given for a week. By the time I had received a response I had forgotten why I had called in the first place and had to search my papers for a prompt to remind me with an annoyed Athabasca University representative waiting impatiently on the phone. Even still, when the call ended I had forgotten other questions I had intended to ask and had to call back.
One example is not conclusive evidence of a problem by any means. But there are lots of similar stories about the technology of the call centre impeding learning.

So why use call centre technology then?

Cost is the main reason. After experimentation in the 1990s, the Faculty of Business adopted the call centre for all of its undergraduate courses about 10 years ago. Under the tutor model, the teaching cost in the Faculty of Business was about $1.5m. The call centre “saved” about $700k, although it is not clear whether that accounts for the additional costs associated with operating the call centre (I’m working from memory—I’d be happy for documentation if anyone has it).

Of course, “cost savings” is just a euphemism for “reduced tutors’ wages”. Under the tutor system, tutors get a fixed amount of money per month to teach a class plus piece-rate pay for marking. Under the call centre model, the tutors get paid by the minute for teaching plus piece-rate pay for marking.

Proponents of the call centre say the call centre is more efficient: academic experts don’t spend time answering “administrative” questions. In my experience, the number of purely administrative questions I get from students is negligible.

Those administrative questions I do get often open the door to academic discussions. For example, when a student asks “what is the format of the final exam?” (a seemingly administrative question), that is an opportunity for me to probe their readiness for the exam (e.g., “so, are you comfortable with concepts like the commodification of labour?”). The call centre model obstructs teachable moments like that.

I’ve taught in both models and, while this will likely anger some of my colleagues, my experience is that the call centre model is a lousy way to teach and learn. There is less interaction between students and academics (70-80% less according to call centre proponents!). The teaching is almost always reactive--no teaching happens unless a student calls and successfully gets past the call centre (only 20-30% of the time!). And there is often a lag between a question and a response. Much like any call centre experience (e.g., trying to resolve an issue on your cable bill), it is a frustrating experience. And this frustration means students don’t call—which saves the university money!

It is also a lousy way to work. The university grinds tutor wages by disputing the minute-by-minute time sheets they must submit. Some activities—like ongoing professional development—is not compensable. And the entire process is alienating for Athabasca’s tutors who are being treated as disposable workers.

Until recently, the call centre was limited to the Faculty of Business (plus a small number of other courses). Then, in the spring of 2012, the then-VPA quietly announced that the call centre would be rolled out across all courses starting in September in order to save $1 million.  

This decision was never presented to the university’s General Faculties Council because it was an “administrative” rather than an “academic” decision. We’d obviously call bullshit if a health bureaucrat overruled a doctor’s treatment decision to save some cash on the patient's back and this is no really different. Clearly cost-driven and quite fundamental pedagogical change was (and is) afoot with no academic oversight.

Academics resisted this change and it stalled. Presently the issue is languishing in a subcommittee of a subcommittee of General Faculties Council. 

Yet, at the same time, the Faculty of Science and Technology is apparently implementing the call centre so it looks like our current university administrators remain hell-bent on implementation in order to resolve the university’s financial woes. 

While academics continue to push back, it is unlikely academics alone will be successful in preserving the tutor model. Frankly, only students have that kind of power.

One of the most troubling unknowns about AU’s intent to move wholesale to the call centre model is whether other universities will continue to accept Athabasca University courses for transfer. This is important because somewhere around 25% of Athabasca course registration (~19,000) are by “visiting” students—students who pick up 1-3 courses to help them complete a degree elsewhere. Another 36% of registrations (~27,000) are non-program students—many of whom will take their AU courses to another institution for credit at some point (i.e., they are undeclared visiting students).

Currently, Faculty of Business courses seem to transfer well enough. But I suspect academics at receiving institutions have no idea that these courses are “taught” via the call centre model. That will no longer be the case if all courses AU are taught via the call centre.

While the government of Alberta may be able to pressurize Alberta institutions into recognizing call-centre courses, only about a third of visiting students are from Alberta. Another a third of visiting students come from Ontario and the government of Ontario has no reason to pressure its institutions to accept call centre courses.

As 50% of Athabasca’s revenue comes from tuition, any enrollment losses among visiting students are devastating. Ontario’s recent announcement that it is setting up its own online consortium may well make Ontario school less likely to accept AU credits, especially if AU gives those institutions the perfect pretext by making the credits look dodgy “degree-mill” credits earned from a call centre.

-- Bob Barnetson

Edit: A number of people have asked me how they can express their concerns about the call centre model.

AU’s Board of Governors has the power to stop the call centre and you may wish to email the Board Chair (Barry Walker) via the University Secretary (Carol Lund): .

My own experience dealing with the Board is that they are more likely to respond to you if you copy your email to the Athabasca University Students Union ( and perhaps the Minister of Advanced Education (Dave Hancock): .

For those of you who prefer to tweet, here are some useful hashtags: #abpse #AthaU @DaveHancockMLA

For those of you who are old-school, you could also write a letter to the editor of the Athabasca Advocate: .

I'd be happy to receive copies of your messages at or @bobbarnetson .

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Redefining citizenship and migration

I recently ran across a paper entitled Exclusion, failure and the politics of citizenship. This (rather challenging) paper examines how categorizing individuals as "citizens" or "migrants" often obscures important similarities and differences to advance a political agenda. Here is a snippet that is broadly representative of the rather disingenuous legislative discourse around migrants in Alberta since 2000:
The problem of poverty in wealthy countries is a problem that is, we are led to believe, seriously exacerbated by immigration. Immigrants are said to take jobs, thereby increasing unemployment and lowering wages, and they rely on social assistance, thereby both reducing state resources and undermining the social solidarity that redistributive mechanisms require.

...This conclusion, however, rests upon the deeply problematic assumption that labour markets and communities are inherently stable systems that are only subject to change because of immigration. But, of course, labour markets and communities are always changing: women entering labour markets, the age structure of the population, new skills sets and technologies, are only some of the factors that shape the changes in labour markets and communities in the last fifty years. Change is thought of extremely negatively when it comes to immigration. Furthermore, political groups on the right who generally do not prioritise unemployed or homeless populations will often have them at the top of their agenda, claiming that these are the groups who suffer the negative impacts of immigration (p. 2).
-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Employer efforts to influence TFW availability in low-skill jobs

A recent UBC doctoral dissertation entitled Behind the counter: Migration, labour policy and temporary work in a global fast food chain has just come available. This dissertation examines the shift from local to global recruitment practices in western Canada’s low-waged service sector, with fast food and Tim Hortons serving as the industry and case study.

Beginning on page 34, the author documents employer efforts to access TFWs to fill low-skill jobs. Among the conclusions are that growth in unskilled TFWs does not reflects an absolute labour shortage, but rather an employer preference for TFWs who will accept undesirable jobs. Here is a particularly unflattering passage.
While all of my interview participants were well aware of the economic downturn and rising domestic unemployment levels, many stakeholders were nevertheless still openly critical of these policy changes, but especially the loss of the E-LMO. Some were quite candid that the growing unemployment rate is irrelevant to the ability of employers to attain food counter attendants; the shortage is not a numerical one but rather a question of available and preferred workers to labour in low-status jobs under unfavourable conditions. For instance, during an interview with a fast food labour consultant he explained that the LSPP (now the S- LSO) exists to recruit workers into occupations that are “unattractive to Canadians” and in which the only people available for the jobs are “people that you would not want to employ to serve food in the restaurant because you’ll lose your restaurant”. As he elaborated, while some of these workers would like employment “they have to be able to handle customers, handle health regulations and do things in a reasonably methodical time manner, make change, and there’s lots of people out there that are not capable of that”. He later identified Aboriginal peoples, recent immigrants, and aging populations as constituting this group of undesirable workers (pp. 38-39).

 Overall, this dissertation suggests that the notion of a labour shortage being at the root of the expanding use of migrant workers in Canada is highly contestable.

-- Bob Barnetson

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Low-stakes student testing still has negative effects

It appears changes are coming to Alberta’s provincial achievement tests. Instead of assessing learning at the end of grades 3, 6 and 9, there is talk of testing at the beginning of each year (and perhaps every year) to identify each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Given the low cost of machine-marked tests, there is also discussion of retesting at the end of the year to see what gains have been made (cue ritualistic chanting of “accountability and transparency, uber alles!”).

On the surface, this sounds pretty reasonable. Yet it is worthwhile considering what kind of impact this approach would likely have on teachers and instruction. The government is saying that it has no interest in linking testing results to pay (so-called high-stakes testing).

That sounds levelheaded.

But my sense of Alberta’s Conservatives is that they will say virtually anything to get what they want and then conveniently forget their promises. And, even if Education Minister Jeff Johnson is earnest in his promise, governments have a hard time resisting the temptation to exploit the surveillance opportunities that come with any new technology.

But let’s say annual pre- and post-testing is on the up-and-up and teachers and parents get info on student performance at the beginning and end of the year. What effect is that going to have on instruction?

Even without explicit pay incentives, teachers are going feel pressured to ensure their students (as a group) get high scores. The pressure will come from parents who will use the tests as the desiderata for determining who the “good” teachers are and which schools are “good” (no doubt egged on by Fraser-Institute rankings of schools).

The pressure will also come from principals (and perhaps peers) who will use the test scores to inform their assessment of teacher performance. Even with no explicit consequences, hearing one’s boss or colleague say “boy, it looks like you had a tough year this year” is something no worker wants to hear. It means a loss of status and credibility and all the intangible benefits those things entail for workers. It also means fear of future consequence if one’s scores don’t improve.

In essence, the existence of a testing technology that makes workers “transparent” to their boss (google panopticon for a fuller discussion) and strips performance of context (which is the purpose of quantification) creates the negative effects most often associated with high-stakes testing. These effects are pretty well established:
  • Teachers will teach to the test. Maybe emphasizing tested content is a good thing. My guess is that it will make for a less diverse curriculum that emphasizes easily testable material (e.g., calculation, definition, association) moreso than creative application of knowledge.
  • Teachers will teach test taking. Taking a test is a learned skill. Good teachers will teach students how to game tests. Yeah, the government can control for that to some degree. But the bigger issue is that gaming tests a skill with limited (and frankly negative social) utility outside of the school system.
  • Teachers will triage students: The biggest gains over the year will come from those students who enter the year in the middle of the pack. High scorers simply have few gains to make. And low-scorers require a lot of effort to see test gains (or have other challenges that make gains unlikely). So teachers will (quite rationally) spend most of their effort maximizing the gains for average students.

This list of behaviours isn’t meant to demonize teachers (who are generally hard working and lovely people). It is simply meant to identify the behaviours that this kind of testing rewards—even without explicit employment consequences.

Over time, this kind of testing will also serve a sorting function among teachers (“Griffindor!”). To the degree that teacher performance varies due to effort and other factors, some teachers will eventually amass records of better and worse performance. Teachers with better records will then be able to use these records to acquire “better” jobs (i.e., jobs at schools where there are fewer students who struggle) because principals will (if only informally and perhaps on the QT) use test scores as a selection criterion.

The effect of this sorting is that “good” schools will get the better teachers while “bad” school will get worse teachers, creating a vicious cycle. Obviously there are counterbalancing factors in hiring (e.g., some good teachers will relish a challenge, the flow of teachers is and can be constrained in many ways).

But why create a system that naturally produces bad classroom and system-wide effects? Why create a system where the public must rely upon teachers and principals to act contrary to their own interests to avoid those effects?

Now there may well be some value in testing. It might well inform teachers’ practice. Although how much slack the average teacher has in his or her workload to address individual weaknesses is a fair question to ask. It is also fair to ask whether teachers really need standardized tests to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses?

A second value of testing is that it will make it easier to hold teachers to account for student progress. There are lots of issue with this, the most obvious being that learning outcomes are not often or fully within the control of the teacher. And, of course, suddenly we’ve drifted towards high-stakes (for teachers) testing haven’t we?

I certainly appreciate the public’s appetite for better information about their children’s progress. But could that not be remedied via incremental change—such as more quantitative report cards and replacing the tedious and uninformative “student demonstrations of learning” with parent-teacher conferences?

-- Bob Barnetson