Athabasca: Earning a degree by distance

Students work in Digital Library. Monday, October 6 2014.  Photograph by Amber Bracken.

Photograph by Amber Bracken

Bethany Tynes, 28
English and Literary Studies

I didn’t plan to complete my degree by distance—I hadn’t even thought of it as a possibility. After a year of classes at Dalhousie University, I signed up for two Athabasca courses. But instead of transferring my AU credits toward my Dal degree, as planned, I fell in love with the flexibility and quality of Athabasca. I never went back to Dal and, two degrees later, I’m still taking Athabasca courses.

Most AU courses can be started on the first day of any month and, if there are units that I grasp quickly, I can breeze through at my own pace. On the other hand, if I’m confronted with a conceptually challenging assignment, I can take my time to work through it. If there are issues at work or with family that require more of my attention, I can also take two weeks away from my courses without fear of missing anything.

A huge part of my AU experience has been the “tutor model” of instruction, where students receive the contact information of a qualified tutor for each course in which they enrol. Tutors provide students with one-on-one instruction and assistance. AU tutors are not simply upper-year TAs, but usually hold advanced degrees. (Many of those who taught me are also tenured or retired faculty members from AU or other universities.) The ability to build personal relationships with academics can be invaluable when it comes to seeking references for future studies or employment. In some courses, I have only contacted the tutor a few times to submit my assignments, but, in most courses, the conversations I’ve had with my tutors have been integral to my learning.

Athabasca has both undergraduate and graduate student unions that function entirely by distance. As on a traditional campus, these organizations provide services that range from individual advocacy and networking opportunities to scholarships and bursaries. Students can get involved and gain leadership experience by running in online council elections or serving on committees by email and teleconference.

City Vibe
Although AU students are scattered across Canada and the rest of the world, the online community can be engaging. Students have the opportunity to interact with faculty, staff and their peers through the AU Landing (a social network hosted by the university), as well as many groups found on mainstream social-media sites. The largest AU Facebook group ( boasts 1,500 members and is a great place to get feedback on courses you’re considering.

AU also hosts annual convocation ceremonies in Athabasca, Alta., giving grads the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the “main campus” and meet faculty face-to-face.

The Skinny
Make sure to follow Athabasca recruiter @Shouldice on Twitter. He might not have the answers to all your questions, but he knows how to find them.