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 .


Unknown said...

It is hard to not get discouraged at the direction this is taking. I don't think the issue of academic credibility is factoring in on this with them.

Unknown said...

I am very puzzled by the claims that there are so many administrative questions posed by students. Since my experience is that less than 10% of inquiries are "administrative" in nature, I am left with the inescapable conclusion that this entire move is based solely on further marginalizing "non academic" teaching staff by reducing pay and, more importantly, reducing value. The call centre model treats tutors (who generally have PhDs and Masters) as piece workers with no ongoing education relationship with students. They mark papers, they answer specific questions. They lose the pay that acknowledges ongoing involvement in AU, academic matters, and, more importantly commitment to students (that's how I see my "block pay" when I spend 2 hours marking a paper for a student who needs help when I only get paid for .6 hours!) It is unfortunate to be working for an employer who appears not to care about quality of education and who appears to not care about its employees.

Unknown said...

I am starting to wonder if long distance education is really worth it if we will be denied direct access to even a tutor. It is disappointing to see our school adopt this system.

mmaclean said...

Still another angle is 'academic accountability.' I do not doubt that many students have been enriched by their access to and exchanges with tutors. By the same token, the Student Support Centre model has many, many, proponents. I read with regret of the one student's negative experience. I am involved with the Faculty of Business at the sub-ground level, and my praise for this model is not based on wonk or spin. I am among those who assist students, so yes my interests are vested in that sense. I take my duties personally, I am proud of the service we offer our students, and I work with exceptional people who share this passion. Anecdotal evidence cuts both ways, and you will find students who have not been served well by the tutor model. How about the tutors who are not available, or who are too busy to provide feedback? To quote Dire Straits: "Money for nothin," and that is no exaggeration. I have experienced this, and I hear of many others who can cite similar circumstances. I do not slap a broad brush across the tutor model and say it has failed, or that we need a more efficient model. I do say that criticisms of the Student Support Centre model are often, in my opinion, grossly unsubstantiated in the face of actual student feedback. The tutor model is, in theory, wonderful. But its vaunted superiority in comparison to a Support Centre model should not go unchallenged. I do not have all the facts, and I would not dismiss some of the tutors' concerns, but I feel that this discussion tends to assume the most negative qualities with the Student Support Centre model. I defend this model--it works--and I defend what I do. My colleagues and I provide service to students, we solve problems, and we increase the value of student experience in FB courses.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bob Barnetson said...

Nuked an idiot spammer selling call centre services.

Anonymous said...

I strongly urge Athabasca to move away from the Call Centre approach. As a student, I am even finding tutors to fall short of what I need to complete my program/course. What really needs to happen is that Athabasca needs to provide access to the Professor that is teaching the course. As of right now it seems that the distance education being provided is falling short of what a University is required to provide.

A good example of a course model can be found in the "ACCT253" course - Intro to accounting. The Professor that teaches that course (Tally Jensen I believe) provided a weekly lecture and was available for questions if needed. She also archived all of her lectures so that we would be able to watch them at a later time, should we miss the live lecture. This approach was what I was expecting from Athabasca, and I feel that they have grouped all of the Business courses together and truly washed out the meaning of taking classes to begin with.

End of story - Athabasca could be missing out on Scholars simply because Tutors and Call Centres combined are no replacement for a Professor. Without a Professor to teach the students, we are left with other student's opinions on how we should proceed - not what is actually expected in the course.

Nickon said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bob Barnetson said...

Nuked another idiot spammer selling tutoring services.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bob Barnetson said...

Nuked idiot spammer selling call centre services!