The University of Ottawa’s Gregory Richards says it’s not every year the Executive MBA (EMBA) program includes students from Nunavut, the Persian Gulf, and other geographies far from downtown Ottawa.
Then again, says the vice-dean of Graduate Professional Programs and Executive MBA director at the Telfer School of Management, it’s not every year the program performs an ongoing “pirouette” to keep up with ever-changing COVID restrictions.
“We’ve pivoted from in-class, to online, then pivoted back to in-class, and then one more time back to online,” he explains.
Although, challenges can also be opportunities, and Richards says the silver lining in this case is the increased accessibility and richer classroom diversity that remote learning has enabled.
“Imagine you’re talking about marketing. The big organization view of the world can sometimes dominate,” he explains, “but then we have students from Dubai and India for example, and some who work in the public sector, some in not-for-profits. These different perspectives generate rich discussions about how to apply the tools the cohort is learning.
“I find these diverse perspectives fascinating and enriching, and we’re hoping to get more people in from different parts of the country to facilitate that.”
The pandemic as a catalyst for change
Richards – a Telfer School veteran of more than two decades – has seen plenty of changes since he began teaching in the EMBA program in 1999. He says the program’s North Star has never wavered in all those years.
“We’re focused on creating the next level of executive leadership,” he explains. “That could mean somebody who is ready to step into an executive role, or someone who’s in an executive role who’s looking to move up.”
One of the things the school spends a lot of time talking about is what kind of content is relevant to executives and executives-to-be in an ever-changing business world.
Those conversations took on a new importance as the uncertain environment whipsawed from online, to in-person, to online and back again, with the program quickly adjusting content to fit changing delivery methods.
Investments were made in virtual classroom technology and wide-ranging discussions were had regarding the best ways to deliver management education in a changing world.
“Everything is now on the table,” he says, adding that many longstanding trends – such as remote work, the blurring of organizational boundaries, and more robust diversity and inclusion initiatives – have existed for years but were accelerated by the pandemic.
“The core things that executives do have not changed – they want to lead and grow the organization,” he says. “But the ‘how’ is changing almost every day. One of the promises of this program is that we bring you relevant, practical knowledge you can use right away.”
To do so, Richards says that EMBA alumni and others join classes as guest speakers to provide first-hand examples of the types of adaptations possible.
How remote learning helps (almost) everyone
The most impactful transformation, however, has been the added flexibility brought about by remote learning, despite the fact that a distance educational model can be challenging for educators.
“It’s a bit more intense in terms of managing the process than in the past, when everyone was in class,” he says. “The professors are continuously adjusting their content.”
Despite these challenges, Richards says even local students – most of whom have other commitments like jobs and families – benefit from a distance learning model and the flexibility it offers.
Along with improving the diversity and richness of academic discussion, Richards says Telfer’s newfound ability to reach a much broader audience via online classes can help engage remote communities.
One of the program’s students, Malcom Ranta, who is in Clyde River, Nunavut, comments on how seamless his learning has been in the distance learning environment.
“Professors in the program use cases well to stimulate discussion in the distance learning context…this really makes a difference,” he says.
Ranta says he has not had any issues at all with participation in the classroom and in fully contributing to discussions, providing his own unique take on business issues.
“One of the biggest differences I noted is in the Human Resource Management course. Some of the people-management issues we experience here up North are very far removed from what you would see in other areas of the country,” Ranta says.
Still, Richards notes that the nature of an EMBA program means in-person learning has a great deal of value.
“I’m not sure preparing senior leaders lends itself completely to online delivery,” he says. “As you move up higher in your organization, your work becomes more people intensive. So the face-to-face experience is critical. The rich debates in the physical classroom provides a currency that cannot always be replicated online. As a result, EMBAs currently participate remotely when they need to, but they also come into the classroom on a regular basis. At the moment, we think we have struck just the right balance between remote and in-person.”