Athabasca University (AU) is reinventing itself as a 21st century e-university. Its road to transformation involves not only integration of technology into classrooms but also a cultural shift requiring the wholesale integration of systems, skill sets, and processes across the entire organization. This transformation was greatly accelerated by two recent externally funded university programs (video 3:26 minutes): one to increase systems capacity and currency for research, collaboration, learning, content management, and student support; the other to digitize all AU course content. The programs, which had a total budget of $14 million, were part of two separate national economic stimulus initiatives under Canada’s 2009 Economic Action Plan.
The sheer size, complexity, and deep institutional implications of this undertaking — coupled with the short time frame (24 months) — represented an unprecedented challenge for AU. Although these programs and their technologies are major characters in the central plot, focuses on how to effectively lead and manage large-scale change initiatives. Accordingly, here we analyze how the start-up and operation of these two major programs affected AU, focusing on project management, organizational change, acceptance by the academy, and the absorption of additional work. We also offer lessons learned for successful systematic integration of information and communication technologies (ICTs) within a large educational organization.
It’s quite rare to get this institutional level reflection, of how Athabasca deliberately transformed itself into an online university. As many universities struggle to find a new identity for themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace, there are some instructive lessons here.