Here’s the story (reprinted from Athabasca University’s News Blog June 2021, when I graduated with my EdD in open and distance education.)
After leaving high school without graduating, I spent a year working, travelling, and volunteering, and then enrolled in a community college where I discovered my capacity to do well academically.
I transferred to a university, becoming the first in my family to merely attend university let alone graduate on the Dean’s list. While a single mom of a seven-year-old, I earned a master of library and information studies degree. Through Athabasca University (AU), I have now completed a Doctor of Education degree.
Like many AU students, my path through higher education was unconventional. My work, research, publications, and conference presentations reflect a cohesive body of knowledge within open and distance education focusing on fostering the academic agency of individuals to freely set and pursue educational goals by removing systemic barriers to equity, diversity, and inclusion in lifelong learning.
Anyone in the world
When I have travelled to face-to-face conferences and “Athabasca University” was printed on my name tag, people would ask about my university. At one conference a few years ago, I was sitting with doctoral students from around the world, and they were asking me how dissertation defences are conducted at AU.
Since this was pre-COVID-19, there was considerable disbelieve that the doctoral oral exams could be conducted at a distance. Then, realizing the benefit of this uniqueness, one student said, “So… that means you can choose anyone in the world to be on your committee?”
At other institutions there is a financial constraint limiting the travel costs associated with having a person involved as a committee member. At AU, conducting this at a distance removes the travel costs. It means committees can genuinely ask, “who are the best people in the world to serve on this doctoral committee?”
Higher education in emergencies
From my first year in the Doctor of Education program my research interest was focused on the communities that post-secondary distance education can impact. During a course on innovation in leadership, I explored contexts in which it is harmful to the learner or instructor to attend in-person education.
My examples included threat of communicable diseases. At the time I named the Ebola virus, but in 2021, we can name the novel coronavirus COVID-19. My examples also included the threat of violence in conflict zones and the threat of physical harm in areas following natural disasters
I refocused my dissertation topic onto higher education in emergencies, and began understanding the related theories, the practical concerns, and my personal position on providing distance higher education to persons of concern, such as refugees, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and returnees. Less than one per cent of college-age persons of concern participate in higher education.
Distance education, where the learner and instructor are separated by time and space, is uniquely well suited to meet the educational needs of this population.
Conducting global research
My dissertation explores the social interactions of refugee and non-refugee learners in one undergraduate course who collaborated internationally using WhatsApp. The one course was delivered through York University and Borderless Higher Education for Refugees with learners who were refugees living in Daadab Refugee Complex in Kenya, non-camp-based refugees living in Thailand, and non-refugees living in Canada.
Conducting this research at a distance had a particular advantage. Through my mobile phone, I was in daily contact with the learners in the three countries. This would not have been possible if I was conducting face-to-face research, obviously because I couldn’t be in three places at once. But more specifically with this population, I would not have been granted in-person daily access to either the Kenya-based or Thailand-based refugee learners if I had traveled to those locations. Researching virtually opens the opportunities to conduct research that is not physically possible.
The path ahead
As a new graduate looking for work, I don’t know what’s ahead for me. I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because I have solidified by professional purpose to translate vision into action that fosters academic agency. AU has opened the doors to working anywhere in the world.