caseylynn_1.jpg

caseylynn_1.jpg

Online options don’t have to mean isolation

On every second Friday and Saturday, sales executive Daniel Watson leaves his wife and one-year-old daughter in Surrey for a boardroom in Vancouver’s Bentall Centre. There he joins 17 students locally and 46 others in similar settings across the country for two days of video-conferenced lectures as part of Queen’s University’s national executive MBA program. A screen shows the professor and another displays slides that illustrate the lecture. The students discuss the material in teams, and the fortnightly video conferences are supplemented by intensive one- to two-week sessions at the Queen’s campus in Kingston three times over the course of the 15-month program. The setup allows Watson to receive a Queen’s education without sacrificing his career, family life and everything else that has brought him to the point where he was ready for an MBA. “Distance learning is basically giving you access to a school you would not otherwise be able to attend,” he says. And the desire to attend is significant: Queen’s currently has 183 students enrolled in its distance MBA programs, all of them in Canada. The distance options typically attract students who, like Watson, are in their 30s, have established careers and, frequently, some management experience. Many are seeking the formal education needed to hone the leadership skills they’ve been demonstrating. Watson, now 34, graduated with a commerce degree from UBC and followed his undergrad studies with courses in France and the Netherlands prior to joining MTU Maintenance Canada Ltd. in 2000. A posting to Germany followed, and in 2005 he was appointed director of sales and marketing in the Americas for the aircraft-maintenance company. After investigating several professional designation courses, he came to the conclusion that an MBA could provide the breadth of education he needed. The 15-month program, weekly schedule and curriculum of the Queen’s program fit, as did the cost – $80,000 including tuition, books, learning materials (with software and technical support) and the cost of the residential sessions. And the school, he keeps finding, is well-respected. The reputation of Queen’s was also a deciding factor for Casey Lynn, senior sales manager of specialty products for the Yellow Pages Group. Although she considered SFU (where she did her undergrad) as well as programs at UBC and York University, Queen’s standing and the ease of participating in its 12-month accelerated MBA program won her over. “Queen’s was the top of the list, and the fact that they had a part-time program that I could take from Vancouver and still work – the decision was made,” Lynn says. She was delighted to find that she is one of 80 students across the country in the program. Repre­senting 20 different industries, the program’s diversity allows Lynn to tap into a variety of experiences that enrich her own 10-year career, which has seen her move through the financial-services sector into her current position with Yellow Pages. The video-conferencing technology that Queen’s uses doesn’t completely replicate a classroom experience, but it hasn’t been a disappointment. In fact, being able to discuss lectures without distracting the professor is an advantage that both Watson and Lynn mention. “If you use the technology properly, it really gives you the best of both worlds,” Watson explains. “You actually do end up with a lot of peer learning as well, which for me was a little bit unexpected. Without interrupting the professor, you’re able to discuss a point or a question with some of your colleagues.” The team discussions that take place around the lectures prevent students from becoming isolated, as might happen in a more traditional distance-learning experience – something Lynn wanted to avoid. They also establish collaborative habits that Lynn believes are important outside the classroom. “You still have that human interaction. It’s not like you don’t see anyone, that it’s completely online,” she says. “It really enriches the experience. We conduct our activity just like a company.” [pagebreak] But video conferencing requires students to be in a specific place at a specific time and lacks the flexibility many students need, says Lindsay Redpath, executive director at the Centre for Innovative Management at Athabasca University, which lays claim to the world’s first online executive MBA program in the increasingly competitive distance-learning market. The program, launched in 1994 and coordinated out of St. Albert, Alberta, currently boasts 800 students around the world who participate in an asynchronous learning environment, which allows them to work from a variety of locations as time permits. Students work independently of one another, contributing to online discussions and providing feedback on each other’s work via a Lotus Notes-based software platform. Average time for completion of the program is three years. A similar program exists at Royal Roads University in Victoria, albeit on a tighter schedule (completion is in two years), with some required periods of on-campus residence. The totally asynchronous arrangement offered by Athabasca suits students who would rather not be tied to studying at a specific time or place. “Many of them just couldn’t do an executive MBA program any other way,” Redpath explains. An asynchronous arrangement was a selling feature for Doug Grant, VP and COO of the Oppenheimer Group, who plans to complete the program this year. While he was attracted by the reputation of Athabasca’s program, Grant was particularly pleased he could participate despite a demanding travel schedule. A program such as Queen’s, no matter how reputable, wouldn’t have been possible. “The self-directed approach is working pretty well for me,” he says. But distance learning isn’t for everyone. Tasi Gottschlag signed up for SFU’s Graduate Diploma in Business Administration program, a 12-month online course providing a grounding in business basics, but eventually transferred to SFU’s regular MBA program because she felt she needed the face-to-face interaction and dedicated study time of a classroom setting. Gottschlag was an account executive for Rhino Print Solutions Inc. in Richmond when she started exploring her course options. She chose distance learning because it allowed her to study while working, maintaining an income she would have had to sacrifice if she returned to school full-time. “I could do it in my spare time and that really appealed to me,” she says. It also meant she could pursue the program at her own pace – in her case, faster was preferable to slower. Ultimately, she shifted to a classroom despite fearing her progress might be slower because it allowed her to focus on her studies and have regular interaction with peers who are at her level and able to discuss course material in real time. “The online program does try to facilitate discussions through its platform, WebCT,” she says. “But you can’t beat being in a classroom with 40 other people with all different opinions and cultural backgrounds and experiences, all sharing their experiences… You can’t replicate that, no matter how good the [online] application is.” Gottschlag is not alone in her preference for the classroom. UBC is introducing a new distance-learning program this fall for part-time students in Kelowna. It will allow them to access professors in Vancouver, but they’re losing the group experience they’ve had until now. Students currently fly in from Kelowna to participate in UBC courses, but that will change thanks to upgrades at UBC’s campuses that will allow for video conferencing between UBC Robson Square in downtown Vancouver and UBC Okanagan in Kelowna. Wendy Ma, assistant dean and director of MBA programs for the Sauder School of Business at UBC, says the reticence to accept video conferencing stems from the value many students see in the networking that happens during their studies. “The value is more than just the education itself; it’s the networking among the students,” she says of the classroom experience. “We actually have difficulty convincing people afterwards, after they have the contact experience, to go to a distance experience. Once people have it, they find it more valuable.” l