Announcing an AI-powered virtual cooperative learning experience
Some Athabasca University students could soon have the opportunity to get on-the-job training without ever having to leave their homes and communities.
In the strategic plan for Athabasca University Faculty of Business (AU-FB), The Difference Makers, the faculty sets out to innovate and enhance teaching and learning success as one of its three strategic intentions. One of the ways AU-FB identified was to move forward with a virtual cooperative experience powered by artificial intelligence (AI).
AU-FB Dean Dr. Deborah Hurst and her team are pioneering this first-of-its-kind experience through their partnership with Ametros Learning deployed with IBM Watson AI. To date, there are no other universities offering something like this.
Traditional cooperative learning means learners get credit for relevant full-time work experience for a set period of time and are graded on completion. For an online university like AU-FB, this poses a challenge for our learners.
“Students come to AU-FB because we offer flexible, open educational options to them. The majority of our learners are already in the workplace; they’re located all over the world and are taking our programs to supplement their background knowledge. They’re coming in at any time and at any place, so we needed to come up with a cooperative learning experience that could fit into our individualized, open, flexible format.”– Dr. Deborah Hurst, Dean, Faculty of Business
Cooperative experience is also something that Hurst knows employers are looking for when they’re hiring. Learning the technical and theoretical knowledge and skills are only part of what today’s employers are asking for in a work-ready graduate. AU-FB saw this as an excellent opportunity to enrich the Bachelor of Commerce program and to use this tool as a model for potentially enhancing other courses and programs in the future.
“Many employers have stated that universities are not producing work-ready graduates. We know that AU-FB’s graduates are already work-ready and promotion-ready, but now we are doing even more to prepare our students,” Hurst said. “Graduates must be able to apply their disciplinary and theoretical knowledge, while being able to work collaboratively as a part of a team and to navigate the work environment with both technical and soft skills.”
When the idea occurred to Hurst, she said it was an “electrifying” eureka moment bringing together a way to provide a coop for AU-FB program students. She said she is excited to be able to offer this cooperative learning experience for senior Bachelor of Commerce learners starting in January 2020, because it is an incredible opportunity for experiential learning, while still getting the flexibility and open educational experience that attracts learners to AU-FB in the first place.
The projects that learners will experience in the virtual cooperative reflect real work projects and problems. Developed by AU-FB faculty, who have deep industry experience, the coop is grounded in technical and theoretical knowledge that incorporate actual business challenges.
By using the AI tool to simulate team members, clients, subordinates, and organizational leaders, learners will work in the AI environment with team members to complete projects. The AI tool enables AU-FB to mirror the same environment that a distributed workplace would be using in real life. Learners work via communication technology, including email and text to interact and work on projects and problems.
“Not only are the learners getting practical work experience, but they are also honing the soft skills that employers are after. Learners are assessed at the outset of the AI experience for their baseline skills, so we will be able to track their progress after each simulated project within the cooperative learning experience.”– Dr. Deborah Hurst, Dean, Faculty of Business
“More than 25 percent of Canadian jobs will be heavily disrupted by automation in the next decade, and half will require a new mix of skills even if the job title remains the same. We believe that an investment in work-integrated learning opportunities will be key to making the leap forward. This is why we are especially proud to partner with the Athabasca University Faculty of Business to support the virtual cooperative course and help Canada’s youth adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing environment.”– Jeff Boyd, RBC Regional President, Alberta and the Territories
At the end, learners will have completed six projects within the AI-powered simulation. All projects will reflect different industries and real-world scenarios, challenging the full range of learners’ skills and knowledge. Hurst explained that one project example could perhaps include a major merger or acquisition within the simulated organization.
“The learner will have to do the background work to ensure that the merger or acquisition is implemented successfully,” Hurst said. For example, “If you know that most mergers and acquisitions fail because of a lack of cultural due diligence, then how will that affect your implementation plan and recommendations?”
Each project in the virtual cooperative learning experience will require learners to draw from the range of courses that they have taken to that point in their program. Such content may include financial, marketing, human resources, operations, to information technology content, drawn from their experience and learning.
“They’ll have to make decisions—ethical decisions—that are befitting of a business manager,” said Hurst. “With decisions made, students will also experience outcomes and move forward in working with and through others to implement.”
Of course, learners will have support as they work through the course, too. From faculty to academic and student support services, AU-FB ensures that the learner is supported while being challenged to apply their skills and knowledge in this innovative environment.
The virtual cooperative learning experience will serve as a model for other courses and programs to explore how AI-powered tools can further enhance AU’s other educational opportunities. It is a truly innovative example of how that team at AU-FB is working with industry partners to make graduates even more work-ready and promotion-ready.
“Through constantly learning, training and upgrading to meet the demands of a changing world, we can support and unleash the skills of Canada’s youth and fundamentally reshaping Canada,” said Boyd.
“An AI-powered virtual cooperative is going to be a game-changer for us, for our industry partners, and ultimately for students around the world.”– Dr. Deborah Hurst, Dean, Faculty of Business