Provost talks resource allocation while students, faculty concerned with communication, flexibility
This summer, the Mount Allison administration announced that correspondence courses would no longer be offered during the fall and winter semesters. Two weeks ago, at the first University Senate meeting of the year, students silently protested this decision.
Led by the MASU, students gathered inside Tweedie Hall with signs reading More Options Not Less and We Noticed. MASU representatives sitting on senate also presented a motion in response to the decision, asking the University to acknowledge the importance of offering a variety of course options to students, both online and on campus.
MASU presented three concerns with regard to the changes: that cutting correspondence courses would lead to a decline in the number of online courses available to students which would affect “students with disabilities, documented or not, student athletes and students who travel” in particular; that students had not been consulted during the decision-making process; and that the changes had not been effectively communicated to students or faculty.
The term “correspondence course” refers to the method through which instructors are paid for teaching. “Correspondence partly derives from a way that we pay people under our collective agreement. It doesn’t specify how you actually deliver the course. So in fact as the University we have no policy whatsoever on online courses,” said Provost Jeff Ollerhead.
The absence of correspondence courses also implicates faculty in that the University would cease to pay instructors using the correspondence model and would require faculty to plan in advance which, if any, courses would be offered online during the timetable planning process.
“Correspondence courses are paid on a per-student basis. The instructor is paid for each student that completes the course, or at least completes part of the course,” said Ollerhead. “The other model we use is called a stipend, and on a stipend it’s just a fixed amount for the course. And so the decision that was made last year was not to use the mechanism of payment which is a per-student payment, and that’s primarily because that mechanism of payment was used to pay for courses that had two, three, four people in them.”
As both MASU representatives and others at senate noted, the correlation between courses offered online and courses paid using the correspondence method is high. “Pretty much all our online offerings were paid using the correspondence course payment method,” said Noah Fry, the MASU VP academic, in an interview following the senate. “Ninety-nine per cent of correspondence courses are offered online. The distinction is entirely technical, not practical.”
At senate, James Devine, the political science department head, echoed this sentiment, saying, “Whether we’re talking about correspondence courses or online courses, those courses have historically provided us with a lot of flexibility and a safety net, and made it easier for us to provide a coherent program even though we’ve faced challenges with getting staff, dealing with staff going on leave and so on. It’s been a very useful part of how we’ve structured things, however you want to call it.”
Erin Steuter, the sociology department head, described correspondence courses as a “safety net” that allows her department to be flexible and accommodate the needs of both students and faculty. “If we’re going to make a change I guess I’d have liked to know about it much sooner, but I really don’t want to make the changes. I think it’s a cost-effective safety net, at least in my program,” she said.
The provost framed correspondence course offerings as a resource allocation issue. “It would be easier to manage and easier to plan if we were to put courses in the timetable, set aside the budget to run them, and pay the instructor using the stipend,” said Ollerhead at senate. “Part of my decision was that offering a large number of correspondence courses that had relatively low enrolments – one, two, three – was not as preferable as taking those same resources and putting them into full-time faculty in the classroom.”
Ultimately the MASU’s motion passed with 27 in favour, 11 opposed and two abstaining from the vote. What this means for the future is unclear – the motion asked only that administration “recognize in principle” the importance of online and correspondence courses and proposed no specific plan of action.
“It probably means we have to have a longer discussion,” said Ollerhead in an interview a week after senate. “What I tried to convey at the senate meeting was that I was faced with a decision about whether to allocate resources to a relatively small number of correspondence courses versus allocating those resources to have full-time faculty in the classroom.… Now the senate motion suggests that that decision should be revisited, that perhaps we should have a discussion about whether we want to have more online courses. I think that would be a good discussion – that might be a good discussion to have.”
With no further protests planned, discussion seems to be what the MASU has in mind. “We’re going to talk about it in University Planning Committee and we’re going to talk about it in Budget Advisory Committee. We might even have open sessions for students, faculty, staff who could all come in and talk about what it means to have online education at our university as well,” said Fry. “The communication that we received after the protests and after the motion was that the University acknowledges that this is what people want and they’re going to come up with different ways for how we’re going to do it.”
“There are all kinds of programs at Mount Allison that have no option for self-directed learning, and that’s the model that’s by and large been embraced by the University,” said Ollerhead. “So if we were actually to action the senate motion and suggest that we’re going to have a lot more self-directed learning options at the University we would really have to change course. It’s not what we’ve been doing. Holistically, within the University, it’s not what we’ve been doing. And we haven’t been doing it for years.”