Taking the Classroom Online

2013 BCBusiness Guide to MBAs in B.C.

Gone are the days when distance learning was simply an online version of classroom lectures; e-delivery finally comes of age.

Going back to school for his MBA, Charles Boname, IT manager for the courthouse libraries in Vancouver, was reluctant to add the commitment of a face-to-face MBA program and a rigid class schedule to his already demanding work schedule and the responsibilities of two small children at home. Instead, he chose Royal Roads University in Victoria in large part for its online delivery model. “So much of what we do nowadays is online anyway,” says Boname, who completed the program in December 2011. “Making that jump to a learning model online – I don’t think it’s too big of a leap.”

But if a survey of graduate business programs at B.C. universities is indicative of current trends, that’s not necessarily always the case. In fact, only three of B.C.’s nine universities deliver an online MBA program: Royal Roads, Trinity Western University and University Canada West.

One hurdle to widespread acceptance of online learning may be lingering memories of paper-based correspondence courses of days gone by. These perceptions were only perpetuated by first-generation online learning models, which involved course handouts and written essays; the only difference from classroom learning was physical separation and alienation.

In fact, connection and engagement are the watchwords of modern distance education, and the latest tools in online delivery have significantly enhanced the way students engage with course material and with each other, both in class discussions and through side conversations with other students.

Instructional design has improved dramatically since the days of correspondence courses, says Raquel Collins, associate director of UBC Continuing Studies, which offers a number of online certificate programs for business professionals. She explains that Continuing Studies courses are designed to be both flexible and structured enough for working learners, with coursework divided progressively into modules, lessons and lectures, and with multimedia content presented in bite-size chunks. The platform, referred to by educators as the “learning management system,” through which many UBC Continuing Studies online courses are delivered is called Moodle, an open-source web application used to create an online classroom environment replete with resources, activities and discussion forums. Logging into a particular course, students might read white papers, listen to podcasts or watch videos, participate in a poll or questionnaire, contribute to an instructor-moderated forum discussion or student-generated wiki glossary, or chat online with other students.

The technology is advancing daily, thanks to the open-source nature of Moodle and other learning managements systems, such as Blackboard, WebCT and Canvas. “There is constant development around the world for new tools and plug-ins for this system,” says Collins. “If the UBC Continuing Studies Professional Learning Office observes a need or has an idea for doing something new, there’s often somebody who’s already done it and shared it.”

Royal Roads also uses Moodle and, working in IT, Boname has a unique appreciation for its capacity to function as an online classroom. He acknowledges that it was “a bit clunky” when used for real-time, whole-class discussions, but there were improvements as the technology evolved. “I think people tend to expect way too much of technology and do not fully appreciate what goes into an online learning platform for 24 people, complete with video streaming.”

By hosting all elements of the course in one place, a learning management system also creates an environment that allows students to engage not only with the material but with each other – often more inclusively than in a face-to-face classroom. While UBC Continuing Studies courses offer some synchronous engagement opportunities, such as live webinars, most are asynchronous, such as discussion forums to which students post at their convenience throughout the week. “Engagement depends on the student,” says Collins. “There are different types of engagement opportunities, so they can engage in the ways they’re most comfortable.”

Rather than rely solely on virtual interaction, both Royal Roads and Trinity Western have chosen a blended model, in which face-to-face time is condensed into short, intensive, on-campus residencies. Ultimately, says Donna March, MBA program manager at Royal Roads, “nothing will replace the traditional classroom setting. It’s not that one is better or worse; they really just are different.”

And while online programs draw on face-to-face components to supplement the learning experience, the reverse is also true: business courses in traditional classroom settings are increasingly looking to online delivery concepts to increase student engagement. “Some of the more traditional schools are using more online learning, whether it’s an element brought into one class, or more. I think that’s only going to increase as we move forward,” says March.

As an example, Paul Cubbon, marketing instructor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, points to PulsePress, a UBC-developed live-blogging tool similar to Twitter but operating in a closed environment. “Beyond 25 people, it’s not possible for everyone to participate, and you end up with five or six people dominating the conversation,” says Cubbon. In class, he issues a challenge or question, then sends students off in small groups to discuss and publish their thoughts. Cubbon then scrolls through the feed, highlighting posts that are particularly noteworthy for class discussion. Having students put their thoughts into writing with PulsePress, he says, helps keep comments relevant and gives less gregarious students an equal opportunity to contribute.

Cubbon is also borrowing a concept from distance education by delivering his lectures online instead of in class: “We do the lecture before the class via video, then do the application in class, as opposed to the opposite.” The 10- to 30-minute high-production-value videos are not intended to replace the lesson, but to serve as an efficiency tool. “These videos are valuable, but only if you link them to in-class discussion and application,” says Cubbon. “Face-to-face time is really precious, so in my mind you shouldn’t waste it doing things you might do other ways.”

Cubbon was met with significantly greater student engagement in class discussions when he introduced the concept last fall in a first-year introductory business course, and he now plans to scale the approach, eventually including MBA and executive education courses. So far Cubbon has used videos that he produced himself, but he foresees the day when best-in-world videos will be curated in each subject, available as a resource for course designers to repurpose, similar to the historical adoption of textbooks and cases.

“I think it’s going to be game changing,” he asserts.