Athabasca University | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Athabasca University

Canada’s leading provider of ​distance and online university education, Athabasca University is a public institution whose main campus is located in ​Athabasca, ​Alberta.

Canada’s leading provider of distance and online university education, Athabasca University is a public institution whose main campus is located in Athabasca, Alberta. The institution offers courses in both official languages (French and English), and it has gained an international reputation for its innovative approach. Accessible and tailored to the needs of students across Canada, the United States and the world, the university’s programs are particularly popular among those who wish to continue or complete their education without leaving their career or family. Athabasca University is also deeply committed to education for individuals with physical, sensory, psychological or learning disabilities, offering a wide range of support services for these students.

Founding and Background

The need for a fourth Alberta university became evident in the 1960s, when university enrolment rose sharply in the province. In response, Athabasca University was created in 1970 in Edmonton by an order-in-council of the government of Alberta. Soon after its opening, however, enrolment began to decline and the development of yet another campus-based university was halted. Instead, a pilot project was initiated to study new teaching and learning strategies for post-secondary students that would enable them to pursue their educational goals without leaving their homes, jobs or families. Hence, Athabasca University became a distance-learning centre that specialized in the delivery of distance-education courses and programs.

A total of 650 students enrolled in the pilot project from 1972 to 1975. Athabasca University held its first convocation ceremony in 1977. Its future was ensured in 1978, when a revision of the Alberta Universities Act granted the university permanent, self-governing status (approval in principle had been given in 1975).

In 1984, the university moved from Edmonton to the town of Athabasca, 145 km north. Satellite learning centres were then established in Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray (the Fort McMurray location was closed in May 2000). The centres provided students with additional education-related services, including career counselling.


Athabasca University offers 9 undergraduate degrees (bachelor) and 18 university certificates in the areas of science, arts, social sciences and business. In addition, the university offers Advanced Graduate Diplomas in Management and Community Nursing Practice and six master’s programs: Master of Arts - Integrated Studies (MAIS), Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Counselling, Master of Distance Education (MEd), Master of Health Studies and Master of Science in Information Systems (MScIS). It also offers doctoral programs in Business Administration (DBA) and Distance Education (EdD).

Courses are taught through a variety of means, including traditional methods such as home study and classroom instruction. Over the years, Athabasca University has expanded opportunities for students to access courses through teleconferencing, videoconferencing, electronic platforms and the Internet. A leader in online education, the university has also distinguished itself with the individualized follow-up it offers to students.

Global Reach and Research Initiatives

Athabasca University has also placed emphasis on attracting international students: its approximately 21,500 students are based not only in Alberta and the rest of Canada, but across North America and overseas.

In addition to university education, research is an important component of the institution’s mission. Distance teaching and learning using digital platforms — a defining feature of Athabasca University — is also the field of choice for many its researchers. Research is performed to a high standard within disciplines, too. Serving more than 3,000 graduate students, the university ensures that the research and publishing activities of its professors are comparable to those of faculty at other public universities in Canada. Its research institutes include the Canadian Institute of Distance Education Research (CIDER), which publishes the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.

Since its founding in 1970, more than 265,000 students have enrolled in Athabasca University courses.

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