Building the E-University: Transforming Athabasca University

min read

At Athabasca University Dietmar Kennepohl is Associate Vice President Academic and Professor of Chemistry, Cindy Ives is Director of the Centre for Learning Design and Development, Brian Stewart is Vice President Information Technology and CIO, and Rory McGreal is Professor, Centre for Distance Education and UNESCO/COL Chair in Open Educational Resources.

Key Takeaways

  • Reinventing itself as an online university required that Athabasca University go beyond technological integration to make sweeping changes to its culture, skill sets, and processes.
  • Aided by two externally funded programs, the university launched complex, large-scale initiatives on a tight two-year time frame that demanded effective leadership and project management skills and led to key lessons learned.
  • Initial project results indicate not only that real change is occurring at AU, but also that faculty and administrators are increasingly willing to examine and change their traditional practices.

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.

Background: Preparing for Change

As an open and distance learning university, AU has no prerequisites for most entry-level courses. The year-round registration policy at the undergraduate level lets students start courses on the first day of any month and complete them at their own pace. The original AU model consisted of print-based, independent study courses with telephone tutor support. This approach was appropriate for its time and worked effectively for many years, but it also became a little too ingrained in the organization's culture. Although individual instructors adopted newer technologies and integrated them into their course design and delivery, these features were usually viewed as supplementing the existing print-based model. The only exceptions to this were newly developed graduate programs, which were designed to be entirely online from the start.

At the undergraduate level, AU's first concerted effort to move online appeared in 2002 in the Strategic University Plan. The supporting e-Learning Plan emphasized that course development should be based primarily on online delivery and that off-line options should be derived from primary online course components. Despite this explicit statement, the actual move to online was slow at best. AU needed an approach that would transform its stated strategic goal of e-learning into reality.

In the years following AU's strategic decision to go online, a series of externally funded special projects were initiated to address its need to integrate ICTs into the teaching and learning environment. As the "AU Special Projects" sidebar describes, these projects included the EduSource learning object project, the library's Digital Reading Room (DRR), and the multimedia enhancement of 150 courses in the E-Learning Accelerator.

AU Special Projects

Following its strategic decision to go online, Athabasca University launched a series of externally funded special projects to integrate information and communication technologies into its teaching and learning environment. Following are brief descriptions of three of those projects.


This initiative, sponsored by Canada's Advanced Research and Innovation Network (CANARIE), was a pan-Canadian collaboration to create a test bed of linked and interoperable learning object repositories. The project involved the development of the associated tools, systems, protocols, and practices to support this linked repository infrastructure using the Canadian broadband network CA*Net 3/4.

The EduSource project's broad goals helped determine the direction of the AU repository initiative. These included a metadata framework based on the IEEE Learning Object Metadata (LOM) and CanCore, an AU-developed metadata implementation profile.1 CanCore is an attempt to standardize the vocabulary and structure of the data implemented into the LOM. This is considered essential for semantic web applications and the use of intelligent agents.2 The project has also supported experimental research in pedagogy, accessibility, protocols, network engineering, hardware integration, quality of service, security, rights management, content development, and software applications.

Digital Reading Room

Another early attempt at an AU repository was the Digital Reading Room (DRR) implemented as part of the EduSource project. The DRR is an interactive online reading room offering course readings and supplementary materials in various formats. The metadata standard used is based on a subset of Dublin Core fields that are compatible with the IEEE LOM standard, rendering it interoperable with other international standards-based repositories. The implementation was guided by the CanCore implementation profile. Further work on the DRR led to the 2005 implementation of a comprehensive mobile library website that enabled access to the DRR using a variety of mobile devices.

E-Learning Accelerator

This two-year, $1.5 million project3 was sponsored by the province to enhance more than 150 courses with multimedia and to design generic course development guidelines using a typology of online courses. The primary aim was to "accelerate" the conversion of courses from print-based distance learning delivery to e-learning, while also enhancing their quality. Another goal was to build on and expand the DRR and EduSource applications, interoperability standards, and protocols.


  1. Friesen and McGreal, "Technical Evaluation Report" and "CanCore: Best Practices."
  2. Richards, McGreal, and Friesen, "Learning Object Repository Technologies"; and Friesen, Fisher, and Roberts, "CanCore Guidelines 2.0."
  3. Hughes, The E-Learning Accelerator.

Each special project aspired to be the vehicle that would transform the university into a fully online entity. Unfortunately, none fully realized this goal. Despite the special projects, the new technologies were still viewed as add-ons or modifications to the existing AU model of course development and delivery. Concerted system-wide change across the organization did not materialize. Still, these initial projects did allow some interested staff and faculty to transform a selection of courses, which then served as inspirational examples to colleagues. The projects also built on each other and had some tangible benefits, including helping us better understand the need for standards. They also developed several important course enhancements through the E-Learning Accelerator and established a useful course resource through the DRR that has proven increasingly popular. (In 2003, there were 38 courses housing 2,500 digital items. By 2011, this grew to 320 courses with 28,299 items.) The initial projects' greatest impact was in bringing the whole idea of the university reinventing itself and moving online to the forefront of discussion. They substantially increased both the willingness and the momentum for change. However, something more was needed.

The Programs

Literature and successful practice suggest that while organizational change can be stimulated by effectively integrating ICTs, achieving such goals depends on coordinating and implementing a number of interdependent subsystems within the organization. Given that previous external funding programs did not result in deep changes in the university, AU management paid careful attention to ensuring widespread involvement in implementing the more recent program grants. A systemic and multi-perspective approach was created to design and integrate the projects into overall university activities. These funding programs were larger in scope and scale, required many more resources to manage, and involved significantly more people and processes than earlier projects. The opportunity for real change was at hand.

Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP)

Federal and provincial governments provided $7.6 million in funding, which was channeled into more than 30 complementary projects 7 to support AU's Online Knowledge Environment (OKE). The goal was to remodel and expand research and related activities through the OKE to greatly increase capacity and currency in research and collaboration, learning and content management systems, and student support. A key point is that the funders recognized ICT as infrastructure for AU. Although many other institutions used KIP funding for buildings and physical infrastructure, information technology is the bricks and mortar of an online university. Figure 1 shows some of the subprojects, demonstrating their breadth and depth across and within the respective student lifecycle phases.



Figure 1. KIP and CAF Subproject Relationships with Student Lifecycle Phases


In the following audio files, Brian Stewart offers an overview of the KIP program:

  • KIP's Importance(48 seconds)
  • The KIP Program Subprojects(52 seconds)
  • Advantages for Students(58 seconds)
  • Successes(2:41 minutes)

Community Adjustment Fund (CAF) Program

Funded jointly by the federal and provincial governments ($6.4 million), the CAF program was designed to accomplish AU's content digitization goals through a job creation and training program for under- or unemployed people in northern Alberta communities. Digitization activities were aimed at creating a standardized format for AU's course content. Efforts included using optical character recognition technology to digitize print materials and an institutional tagging scheme to convert and meta-tag existing digital materials and repositories. The program also developed an institutional content repository in the Alfresco content management system. Project offices were established in collaboration with postsecondary partners in three areas with extremely high unemployment: Grande Prairie, St. Paul, and Athabasca.

An essential CAF goal was to produce learning resources as components, or objects, using core XML coding so they could be easily adapted for different uses. Now that digitization is complete, course components are available to support multiple flexible learning environments for students. These environments will be adapted over the coming years for use on new devices, such as tablets and mobile phones, and with different software applications and interactive technologies, such as learning management systems, web pages, assistive technologies, and devices for the disabled. They will also be adapted for use as print publications.

The six CAF subprojects included:

  • Converting course and other web-based content
  • Digitizing print materials
  • Creating assisted learning tools for large courses
  • Adding new quality assurance mechanisms
  • Integrating the digitized materials into online courses

In the following audio files, Cindy Ives offers an overview of the CAF program:

  • Course Materials Digitization(1:11 minutes)
  • Copyright Digitization(45 seconds)
  • Showcase Courses(2:16 minutes)
  • Calendar, Syllabi, and Centre Website Digitization(29 seconds)

The digitization project, for example, developed 25 interactive, multimedia learning objects and activities for 17 of AU's highest enrollment courses. These "showcase" enhancements were designed to focus attention on difficult content or concepts in individual courses with a view to increasing students' engagement and motivation. The Open Educational Resources include course enhancements such as a multimedia music crossword puzzle; the philosophical Mad Hatter's Tea Party discussion; a plagiarism video in nursing; the Grievance Discussion, a human resources audio quiz; and the Bacterial Toxicology Learning Tree.

Governance and Project Management

The combined KIP/CAF initiative was AU's largest information systems undertaking to date in terms of total funding, scope, and scale, as well as the number of people, physical work locations, and subprojects initiated. The funding announcements were delayed by several months so that the short-term programs (two years) became even shorter, with very little time to ramp up operations once the funding go-ahead was given. Moreover, the amount of activity proved larger than anticipated, and even with foreseen temporary hires, many permanent staff members had to absorb much more work in the short term. Properly managing abrupt increases in temporary hires and workloads in a unionized environment is not trivial. KIP/CAF was both a great challenge and a special opportunity for the university. Setting up the proper governance and project management frameworks was vital to AU's success.


The individual KIP/CAF subprojects were adopted by AU's existing Information Technology Systems (ITS) governance structure. This structure is governed by three ITS steering committees that reflect different constituencies: computing, administration, and learning and research.

Substantive IT projects are regularly vetted and coordinated through these committees. However, the size and complex nature of two major initiatives (KIP and CAF) occurring simultaneously with multiple subprojects required additional short-term governance on the initiatives as a whole. We adopted a two-tier structure consisting of a KIP/CAF steering group and operations group. This structure gave us both depth of analysis and simplicity of structure. The two groups had different purposes and were made up of different personnel. Figure 2 summarizes the overall structure. As the figure indicates, the projects mostly used existing institutional bodies; the yellow components were created to temporarily accommodate project needs, and the yellow and white indicates the existing PMO plus additional representatives to make up the Operations Committee.

Stewart Figure 2
Figure 2. The Two-Tier KIP/CAF Steering and Operations Structure

The KIP/CAF Steering Committee provided organizational direction and oversight of the program's ongoing performance, as well as regular reports to the university Executive Group, the governing board (Athabasca University Governing Council), and government funders. The Steering Committee consisted of faculty representatives, key members from senior administration (academic, student services, IT, finance, advancement), senior managers (communications, facilities, course design and development, web services, computing services, finance), the project management office (lead and manager), and strategic liaisons (academic, government). The group met approximately every six weeks.

The KIP/CAF Operations Committee was responsible for coordinating project execution. This group met weekly and consisted of the program and project managers, representatives from organizational units including the IT Project Management Office (PMO), Human Resources (HR), Financial Services, Computing Services, Office of the Registrar, and the Centre for Learning Design and Development. The group was critical to ensuring that the coordination of multiple projects was managed as effectively as possible, working in tandem with the PMO to manage issues related to resources, schedule, scope, risk, finances, and project process.

Project Management

The university's PMO, which acted as the hub for all project activities, was temporarily expanded to act as the KIP/CAF Operations Committee. It was responsible for day-to-day project management activities including performance tracking, resource management, issues management, and communication management. It achieved this by providing technical expertise, by ensuring that the projects were effectively managed, and by evaluating requests forwarded from the steering committee and creating projects to address requested directions. This operational group met weekly to identify and resolve issues. If problems could not be settled in the room or there were emerging concerns during the rest of the week, it was dealt with online. Larger questions were directed to the Steering Committee.

Addressing the Challenges

With the governance and project management frameworks in place, there were still several important aspects to be considered. The most immediate and pressing challenge was ramping up quickly to establish several physical work locations; hire, orient, and train more than 150 temporary employees; and initiate 40 subprojects that would make up the KIP/CAF initiative. Not surprisingly, the team built on existing structures and processes wherever possible. For example, existing purchasing practices were employed for securing hardware and software resources. However, we had to create some business practices specifically for the projects and modify or reinvent others as we progressed.

Establishing Physical Locations

The CAF initiative required that we set up temporary digitization operations in the targeted centers in northern Alberta. In addition, other parts of the overall KIP/CAF project required that we establish further space on AU's Athabasca and Edmonton campuses. Success rested on two crucial factors: (1) the flexibility of the AU facilities staff; and (2) help from collaborative partners in the rural communities.

In the first case, the facilities staff accommodated the project — outside their regular work and on short notice — and created effective and comfortable work environments by renovating purchased portables and existing spaces (such as a community center and a school). Given the short timelines, the locations' distributed nature, and the variable circumstances, the logistics were substantial.

The second crucial factor was solved by our collaborative partners — high schools, colleges, and municipal administrations — who were invaluable in providing local knowledge and connections, including identifying available space and assisting with local employee hires.

Absorbing Additional Work

One overarching strategy was to use permanent AU employees for higher-level work with the intention of back-filling more routine work with temporary employees. The reasoning for this was three-fold. First, permanent staff already understood the AU context and could step into these roles almost immediately. Second, the experience and expertise gained would more likely remain in-house once the projects were finished. Third, it was generally easier to find employees for the lower-skill positions. In addition, the larger projects were assigned project managers to keep projects on track and to free project staff from administrative functions, letting them better focus on applying their own expertise to functional activities. This worked very well for the CAF-related projects; however the KIP projects required hiring subject matter experts (SME) both to augment our existing knowledge and to help fill gaps in our understanding. The addition of external SMEs created a need for and strong focus on documentation to ensure critical knowledge was not lost when the program ended.

Recruiting Temporary Staff

AU's HR staff administered all the recruitment activities. Given the large number and temporary nature of the hires required in a short timeframe, the HR department negotiated with the unions to waive some of the regular hiring processes. In addition, the Purchasing department had completed a request for proposal (RFP) process to create a preferred vendor list of HR companies. Although these helped substantially, it became evident that recruitment-related processes were neither scalable nor suited to securing employees with the required skill sets and in the numbers needed quickly. The program helped identify areas for improvement that will be incorporated into future practice. For example, AU advertised on local radio stations and on the professional and social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook. These avenues increased awareness of AU and resulted in more than 500 hits to the university's career website. AU will continue to investigate how emerging social and broadcast media can help lead to new opportunities.

Orientation and Training

Our HR department offered one general orientation session for the bulk of the CAF and KIP employees via videoconference to satellite locations. The remaining orientation sessions were in-person contacts with HR staff.

CAF team members also received training in First Aid, Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Adobe Acrobat, and other software specific to their project tasks. As the projects came to a close, AU facilitated career skills training in resume writing, interviewing techniques, and job search strategies. Team members also had the opportunity to enroll in two complimentary three-credit courses with AU. At the end of the projects, an external company was contracted to assess the contract employees' experiences. They collected data through questionnaires and individual interviews with contract employees at each of the four sites. The resulting comprehensive report will be used to inform how these types of projects should be managed in future.

Financial Tracking

Initially, the financial side of our project management (in terms of budgeting, reporting, expenditure tracking, and estimation) was weak and needed to be significantly enhanced. With help from an external consultant, we developed a project financial management process with accompanying tools that was consistent with our financial system, general ledger, and accounting policies. The project management financial tools let us develop project-specific budgets and operating statements linked to the general ledger that enabled consistent reviews of project expenditures to budget. Also, each project was assigned a General Ledger code to ensure all expenses were attributed correctly. These were critical financial controls for managing time-bound grant-based programs such as KIP and CAF.

In addition to the process improvements, we hired a dedicated accountant for the KIP/CAF programs. Having a focused resource with an accounting skill set let the team know — with much greater confidence — where the projects were financially. It also assured senior management that the grant was being well managed. This proved a critical capability as projects progressed: reallocating funding between subprojects while also ensuring overall budget compliance was ongoing and correctly practiced.


A comprehensive plan was created to cover communication activities for academics, government stakeholders, media, the broader AU community, and the general public. The plan further ensured that the subprojects met reporting requirements for both AU governance and government funders. A dedicated communications team was an integral part of the overall project and was represented and active on both the Operations and Steering Committees. The team coordinated a wide range of activities for the KIP/CAF projects, including news releases (internal and external), a public website, a project newsletter (see Figure 3), information sessions, staff e-mails, milestone celebrations, and the final wrap-up event. Communications were well in hand as the projects progressed, but could have been started a little earlier, especially on the internal side. Almost immediately after the funding announcement, the university community was eager to know what was happening with the projects. The reason for the initial delay was due to the project's formal initiation and the establishment of the communications plan itself. In retrospect, it would have been better to have a preplan in place to handle the transition and avoid any gap between the award and the project communications start.

Stewart Figure 3
Figure 3. The Focus Newsletter Highlighted Subprojects

Coordinating Change and Regular Business

Perhaps the most difficult motivational challenge was to effectively manage project and regular work and ensure both were accomplished satisfactorily. Each program subproject represented different challenges, requiring different managerial approaches to address the work-work balance.

In the CAF project, for example, a key challenge was how to digitize course materials and other content without impacting negatively on the regular business of course development and delivery. Regular staff had to manage production of several hundred courses each day and did not have the time to transform files from multiple legacy formats to a consistent standard. However, the hiring of more than 100 individuals to perform the digitization within 12 months in four locations posed training, supervision, coordination, and technical challenges that required internal expertise to manage. Balancing the needs of existing responsibilities with the demands of untested digitization processes required considerable attention to detail and an abundance of personal energy from the start.

Initially, we assumed that the digitization processes would be straightforward technical work, but this proved incorrect as the digitizers struggled first with bandwidth issues in the rural areas, and then uncovered unanticipated anomalies in the original files. To avoid idiosyncratic judgments, coordination between the sites and the central office became critical; we accomplished it through site visits, regular web and teleconference meetings, and the development and sharing of procedural checklists and best practices. Quality control processes ensured consistent methods for file transformation and storage across the sites. Follow-up training with regular staff since the project ended has helped them determine how best to use the new files as courses are revised in the future. This has also helped to address organizational change issues by ensuring integration of the major program results with core business.

Reporting and Documentation

One key to managing a mega project like this was reporting and documentation. As noted earlier, both the OKE concept and the ICT Capital Plan had been established well before this funding opportunity arose. In addition, several subprojects were already fully developed project proposals. The availability of good planning documents was invaluable. The attention to documentation carried on throughout the project. The project management group's reporting to the committees improved with time, as did the review and analysis of the documents the group provided. At the end, each subproject prepared closure documents (including lessons learned) for sign-off by key stakeholders and storage in the project repository. Together with the communications reports, all this documentation provided excellent and transparent tracking.

Observations and Discussion

Taken together, the KIP/CAF projects represent a large and complex undertaking that, at first glance, appears to be primarily an institution-wide change in technology. However, this is certainly not the entire picture. Driven by the need to improve the AU teaching and learning experience while also facilitating greater ease of administrative and support services, the transformation necessarily involved fundamental changes to process and organizational culture. Indeed, it was the management of the human component during the projects' start-up and operation that demanded the most attention.

For example, although positions were nominally back-filled with term employees, the workload of core business staff was not always effectively covered. Many permanent employees felt overworked, and the risk of burnout was serious. To mitigate that risk, it became important for management to quickly identify positions needing additional support, seek other strategies to equitably balance workloads, or somehow recognize the additional work being done. Another example was simply realizing the importance of matching the right project manager with a particular project. Project managers are critically important to getting work done. Their ability to interact well with the rest of the team and their enthusiasm for the project itself greatly influences outcomes. Even considering whether a project would be better served by an existing AU staff member versus a new term employee became significant. Sometimes, adjustments were made once the projects were underway.

The reporting requirements and deadlines alone gave a sense of urgency and immediate purpose that got things going. Still, the university had already seen other externally funded projects come and go with little impact. In part, the scope of the KIP/CAF projects was such that a substantial part of AU was involved; it literally demanded institution-wide commitment. However, we felt that the organization itself was ripe for change. The previous programs, which prompted technology integration discussions and won allies, did much to influence AU's teaching and learning culture and how it viewed technology integration. Such programs helped pave the way for KIP/CAF. Indeed, at this point, early indications of change are positive. In addition to unprecedented participation, we see internal changes in attitude, willingness to collaborate, creative thinking around the use of new processes and resources, and the growing  credibility of departmental and individual efforts in support of technology-facilitated innovations. Quantitative outcomes include decreased course production time, increased use of collaborative technologies, increased student services, improved cost efficiencies, and a significant greening of the institution through the dematerialization of the institution's formerly paper-based processes. However, as with most ICT change initiatives, the full effects are not felt instantly; changes to the organization take time to become the new normal. The digitization of AU's processes will continue to grow as we fully employ the new technologies and realize ongoing improvements in functionality, efficiency, and overall university performance.

There has also been external recognition of this initiative and its success, including praise from the government funders, as well as our winning the Campus Technology Innovators Awards 2012 in the leadership, governance, and policy category.

Dealing with Unexpected Outcomes: Two Illustrations

Innovation is not a smooth uninterrupted flow of adoptions based on a predetermined master plan. Although a plan is critical, adaptability and a focus on execution are the keys to eventual success.

Two KIP subprojects of significant scope illustrate some of the messiness of the organizational change and systems development process. The first project was the Digital Imaging Workflow System (DIWS) and Scanning, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) project. The DIWS was designed to automate the receiving and handling of paper-based communication, while the OCR and workflow technologies were to work in combination to auto-route documents such as transcripts and credit transfers. The project started with a very thorough needs analysis, which produced a requirements document. An RFP led to the selection of a local vendor who had recently worked with the university. The project was moving forward with further analysis when an unforeseen risk emerged: The company we had contracted to build the application went out of business. This was totally unexpected, as the vendor was part of a Western Canadian group with locations in four cities. Unprepared for this development, we halted the project to determine the best next steps. Fortunately, much of the work is still useful, but the code base needs a thorough review to assess its usability and continued value. The lesson — that is, the possibility that a vendor will "disappear" — was particularly well learned and is now incorporated into both our risk analysis process and our purchasing contract selection criteria.

The second project also provided important lessons for future developments. The Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) project was designed initially to determine institutional needs regarding student relationship management. From this discovery, a set of requirements would be produced that would form the basis of selection criteria for available CRM systems. However, it quickly became apparent that stakeholders did not agree on what aspects of student relationships were most important or to what extent we needed to manage the different areas of student interaction. For example, was converting prospective students into registered students a greater requirement than assisting active students through the many administrative processes? When we researched the available CRM applications, we discovered that there were none available with anything close to the desired functionality. The options facing us were to develop an in-house solution, acquire and implement a subset of available functions, or — lastly, and the choice we made — hold off on further action on the project. Our main reason for this postponement was that student lifecycle management was too important to handle in a piecemeal fashion or develop in a haphazard manner, as it would likely result in silos oriented to specific lifecycle phases, which would ultimately prevent a comprehensive solution. In essence, we chose to be best in class, rather than first in class.

Although this could be considered a project failure, the identification of our needs and the determination of an enterprise solution with input from all student experience stakeholder units was a major success. The methodology laid the foundation for our ability to adapt quickly to market developments and adopt new applications as they are available.

The two projects did not achieve their objectives as stated in the project charters. In both cases, we were faced with a market failure. In the first case, however, we could not react effectively to deal with our supplier's closure. In the second case, we reacted appropriately: we realized we were ahead of the market and decided to wait until it caught up. The two cases provide very effective lessons on the nature of innovation and organizational change — and remind us of what can happen to the best-laid plans.

Lessons Learned – Summary

Following is a summary of some of the more important take-away lessons that we plan to use in future large-scale change initiatives, as well as in ongoing university business.

Governance and Management

  • Ensure consistency with existing governance structures, both to reduce workload and to ensure that trusted processes and procedures encourage stakeholders to follow institutional norms.
  • Create a two-tiered structure with a steering group to provide organizational direction and oversight and an operations group to address requests from the user community. This separation is critical.
  • Use an accepted project management methodology that is consistent across all projects. The lifecycle of a time-bound portfolio requires a rigorous and accepted management approach.
  • Develop and agree upon a written plan with clearly articulated goals, and then be bold and responsive enough to adapt it as necessary.
  • Break down large initiatives into smaller chunks or subprojects whenever possible.
  • Involve the community appropriately and meaningfully, and always be transparent.
  • Implement financial oversight, which is critical to ensuring effective and efficient fund allocation and that records are kept that will satisfy the funder's audit requirements.

People, Process, and Technology

  • Manage programs as a portfolio and treat them as parts of a composite rather than as separate initiatives. This allows standardized methodologies to be accepted and used across the organization.
  • Emphasize the fact that projects need competent managers and active daily managing.
  • Hold discussions often and have regular and ad hoc meetings about what's being done, what's new, and what areas need creative thinking and brainstorming to develop fresh approaches.
  • Be flexible; many strongly held conventions will be challenged, and this fact must be accepted and responsive solutions found to overcome  resistance to change.
  • Document and keep records of plans, finances, progress, and results.
  • Relentlessly analyze results as you go and change plans and approaches where and when change is needed; always ask the dumb and the hard questions. Nothing is as it seems.
  • When things do not work, admit it, change it, and move on. Learn from your mistakes and don't be afraid to make changes — even big ones, when necessary.
  • Communicate externally and internally, in as many forms as you can manage. You can never over communicate.

A university is a complex organization where power is decentralized and there is a strong culture of ageless and revered tradition coupled with open discussion that considers multiple viewpoints. Despite the many positives, it is easy to get trapped into endless conversations and debates. Having gone through the changes catalyzed by these programs, we look back now and wonder why we didn't start earlier. We learned that yes, you need to discuss and plan appropriately, but you also have to move on from there to action. The lesson here? Just do it!


The transformation of AU is an ongoing process. It has been substantively influenced and accelerated by major programs. The mega nature of the KIP/CAF programs initiative not only helped push the transition from print to online but also created immense organizational, logistical, and cultural challenges for us. Initial indications are that real change is occurring in many areas, and that we have learned and grown from the experience. We see increased willingness on the part of faculty and administrators to change traditional practices. Resistance to moving teaching and learning into the online environment is less evident, and new ideas are being embraced by ever-larger numbers of staff. However, many of the projects are just freshly completed and have yet to show evidence of their longer-term impacts. It will take a little time to fully assess how the initiative (both overall and at the project level) has reshaped the university. Still, there is no doubt that we have become more advanced and more confident in tackling larger change initiatives. We have witnessed what can be achieved and have no desire to return to many of our past practices. We may not arrive at the exact future we envisioned for our university in the 21st century, but we start our journey knowing that, as Alan Kay was quoted as saying in 1971, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."


  1. Norm Friesen and Rory McGreal, "Technical Evaluation Report 11. International E-Learning Specifications," International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, vol. 3, no. 2 (October 2002).
  2. Norm Friesen, Jon Mason, and Nigel Ward, "Building Educational Metadata Application Profiles," presentation, International Conference on Dublin Core and Metadata for e-Communities, Florence, Italy, October 2002.
  3. Norm Friesen and Rory McGreal, "CanCore: Best Practices for Learning Object Metadata in Ubiquitous Computing Environments," Proc. 3rd IEEE Conference on Pervasive Computing and Communications Workshops (Piscataway, NJ: IEEE Press, 2005), pp. 317–321.
  4. Griff Richards, Rory McGreal, and Norm Friesen, "Learning Object Repository Technologies for TeleLearning: The Evolution of POOL and CanCore," Proc. Informing Science + IT Education Conference, Informing Science Institute, June 2002, pp. 1333–1341.
  5. Norm Friesen, Sue Fisher, and Anthony Roberts, CanCore Guidelines 2.0, Athabasca University, 2002.
  6. Judith Hughes, The E-Learning Accelerator: Mid-Project Accountability Report, Athabasca University, Sept. 2004.