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Athabasca University

Teaching at AU

Most of the interaction between tutor and student is written rather than spoken — on discussion boards in Moodle, for example (AU’s main learning platform), and written in emails. Most learning resources, including a growing number of textbooks, are digital rather than printed. Many courses also include interactive media.

Teaching methods at AU continue to change as we experiment with how to design and deliver education in an era of disruptive technology, considerable challenges, and exciting new opportunities. But one thing that will never change is the need for academics with deep knowledge of the subjects at hand and strong teaching skills.

Types of Academic Roles

There are two broad categories of academics at AU: professors and tutors. Some of our graduate students also work as paid teaching or research assistants.

Tutors and Other Members of CUPE

Similar to sessional instructors at other universities, tutors work on a contract basis, often part-time. One key difference is that they usually work from home. Their union representation is the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3911.

In general, tutors make themselves available to students to answer their academic questions and explain course concepts. They also mark assignments and exams.

In some cases, tutors have a more traditional instructor role in which they lead students through courses that run on a semester schedule. Usually these paced courses are online. However, a small number of them, as well as residencies, labs and practicums for some courses, are held in person.
You’ll see different titles for tutors according to the types of teaching work they do and which faculty or academic centre they work for. The most common titles are as follows:

  • Academic coaches. Lead students through paced online courses that run on a semester schedule. They may also teach students in person at residencies for courses. The residencies are usually one week long. Used for Faculty of Business graduate programs.
  • Academic experts and markers. Focus on answering students’ academic questions and marking their work. Sometimes these two duties are split up, but more often than not, a single tutor performs both duties.
  • Instructors. Lead students through online or in-person courses that run on a paced semester schedule. Some also supervise students who are completing in-person labs and practicums.

Professors and Other Members of AUFA

Like tutors, professors teach students. But in addition to teaching, they also:

  • develop, design and write content for courses and programs
  • engage in research and service; and
  • undertake a variety of administrative work.

Their positions are usually full-time, and they’re permitted to do much of their work from home. Their union representation is the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA).

Like universities around the world, AU offers tenure tracks for professors and has a ranking system in which professors are promoted from assistant to associate to full professor.

In addition to professors, AUFA represents academics who work in the following positions:

  • Subject matter experts. Hired on contract to write and otherwise participate in the production of content for courses in their area(s) of expertise.
  • Academic coordinators. Supervise tutors and oversee the development, production and revision of the courses they’re assigned to coordinate. Also called course coordinators.
  • Program directors. Manage AU’s academic programs: undergraduate and graduate degrees, diplomas and certificates.
  • Centre chairs. Manage the academic centres that oversee AU’s academic programs.
  • Deans. Manage the faculties that oversee AU’s academic centres.

Modes of Course Delivery

Most AU courses are delivered asynchronously, online or at a distance. A small number are held in person, or are a blend of both.

Online Courses

Because we specialize in online learning, we deliver most of our courses online. Our main online learning platform is Moodle, which provides the course environment where teachers and students interact. Our online courses can be divided into two main types:

  • Individualized study online. Students work through a course individually, at their own pace, rather than as part of a class. Generally, they have six months to complete a 3-credit course equivalent to the traditional four-month semester course. They can also start these courses any month of the year.
    How individualized study affects your teaching: You’ll work with students at different stages in a course all at the same time. Rather than leading them through the course, you serve more as a resource they can call on for help with learning course content and completing assignments.
  • Grouped study online. These courses run on a traditional semester schedule and group students together in classes, but instead of being held in person, they’re delivered online. Another key difference is that they’re usually asynchronous, meaning that teachers and students log in to take care of their work when it’s convenient for them. They don’t have to be online together at the same time.
    How grouped study online affects your teaching: This delivery mode is much more like teaching a traditional in-person course, except that most discussions are likely to be written rather than verbal. It is not likely that you’ll verbally lecture on course content via webconference technology.

Course Outlines, Structures and Development

Most courses at AU have a predetermined outline and structure. All course outlines are publicly available to teachers and students alike in our course syllabi.

Much of the content for courses is predetermined as well — developed, designed, produced and regularly revised by professors with learning designers, IT staff and editors.


AU is transitioning to electronic textbooks with the eText Initiative, and more and more required textbooks for courses are in digital form rather than print.

Student Services

If students come to you with administrative or non-course questions, you can refer them to the plethora of student services we have. In addition to the traditional services that you see at most universities such as advising and counselling, we also offer services such as:

  • Ask AU, an automated FAQ system
  • the e-Lab, an open-access, virtual lab space that features a growing number of online learning tools such e-Portfolios, multimedia workshops and more
  • the Math Site, where students can get help with their math skills
  • the Write Site, where students can get help with their writing skills
  • the Landing, a social network for students and staff
  • Student support centres. The Faculty of Business and the Faculty of Science and Technology each have student support centres that are the first point of contact for students in these faculties who are taking individualized study courses. If students’ inquiries are administrative, the centres take care of them. If their inquiries are academic and require the expertise of a tutor, the centres forward the students to tutors.
  • AU’s support of open educational resources (OERs). OERs are online learning resources that are freely available for anyone to use. As a university with a mission to open up access to education and remove barriers, including cost, AU supports the growing OER movement. We’re building a collection of free, open courseware, and we also have a research chair in OERs.
  • Coverage of home Internet and phone costs. If you frequently work from home, AU will cover your Internet and phone costs.

Updated February 19 2015 by Employment Services, Human Resources

AU, CANADA'S OPEN UNIVERSITY, is an internationally recognized leader in online and distance learning.