Back in 1994, the Internet was still new and relatively unknown; its potential power to connect and educate was seen by only a few forward thinkers. It’s not surprising then that the decision on the part of Athabasca University to launch the world’s first online Executive MBA program was viewed with skepticism. It was a brand new idea, a radical idea, and there were no guarantees. Today it’s a different story.
“The program was ground breaking and innovative,” says Dr. Deborah Hurst, acting dean of the AU Faculty of Business and MBA program director. “There were people who said the university was risking disaster, that building meaningful online networks couldn’t be done. People didn’t think MBA learning could occur in an online environment. But the original entrepreneurs behind the program knew that it could. They built a program and a whole new organizational structure to make sure.”
The first year, about 60 students took a leap of faith and logged on. Within five years of launching, the AU MBA program was the largest EMBA program in Canada. Word-of-mouth quickly spread and today nearly 3,500 students have graduated from the program, and there are roughly 800-900 active students at any given time.
Tim Carroll, business professor and former minister of agriculture for PEI, has been an academic coach with the program since its earliest days. He remembers the first call he received from AU, inviting him to join, “They said ‘we expect to grow, so we’ll probably need you in the next year or two.’ A month later, they called me back and said, ‘this thing is exploding with new students. Can you start now?’ And I’ve been there ever since.”
In 2014, unlike 1994, there are many competitors in the field, and most universities are now offering some form of blended (online and onsite) programming. But Athabasca University continues to set itself apart. The biggest differentiator of the AU MBA is its unique learning environment. It is high tech, high quality, and high touch—a combination that puts students at a definite advantage in their increasingly global and mobile work environments.
This key aspect of the AU MBA program’s success is rooted in its early vision to provide quality graduate management education driven by peer learning, engaged networking, and skill building within a highly collaborative, paced learning environment. It worked then, and it still works today. The technical platform becomes almost invisible, as the real magic has always developed through student discussion and application of theory to practice, guided by talented academic coaches.
“We have talented and dedicated core faculty, academic coaches, and alumni. We have this amazing learning environment. And we have exciting initiatives on the go to make our programming even better,” says Dr. Hurst. “But we have challenges, and we acknowledge that. And one of the biggest to this day remains constantly having to promote and defend the credibility of online management education. We have to do more to stamp out lingering resistance to the idea that an online MBA is just as good as, if not better than, a face-to-face program. Especially among an older generation of executives who themselves went to bricks-and-mortar schools.”
“Many times our students will have a friend or colleague (sometimes even spouse!) studying at one of the high profile face-to-face programs. So they have ample opportunity to compare, and believe me, our students know they’re not getting the easier ride! They love that, because they also know they’re really learning. But they also want everyone to appreciate what they go through, how hard they work, and what quality they can bring as a result of their online MBA.”
“The attitude toward online education has changed, you can see that in how many top-tier schools are implementing online courses into their curriculum. One of the main factors that helps change perceptions is the performance of our graduates. We are still quite a young program, and it takes a while to build up a critical mass of AU MBAs out in the workforce, proving in concrete terms what kind of education they’ve had. We’re getting there on that front with nearly 3,500 grads, but we also recognize that we as a school have to continually be on top of increasing general awareness of how special our program and its graduates are.”