Online learning has become commonplace in the last two years, in large part due to the need to reduce contact and protect teachers and students from Covid-19. But digital classrooms aren’t new—and if you think virtual learning means passively staring at a screen while sitting on your couch…well, you’re in for a surprise.
“In a traditional classroom environment, you might have 50 people in an MBA-level class in an auditorium-style theatre, some of them sitting way in the back in the dark. I might not even know their name,” says Dr. James Bowen, who teaches MBA and executive MBA students at the University of Fredericton’s Sandermoen School of Business about technology, innovation, global strategy and other forward-thinking topics.
“But in an online course, I not only get to interact with students one-on-one in a live session, I know their names. We’re connected on LinkedIn. In a big classroom environment, some students may not feel comfortable contributing. Online, we typically have our cameras off and students don’t feel self-conscious. They participate more and there’s much more knowledge sharing and collaboration,” says Dr. Bowen.
That said, all online programs are not created equally. While many universities had to pivot from in-person classroom learning to online in 2020, the University of Fredericton was conceived from the start as virtual, and has been thriving as a fully online institution since it was established in 2005.
According to Dr. Bowen, therein lies the difference.
“Traditional programs are very much paper-based,” he says. “Exams are paper-based, books are paper-based. The traditional approach to university is very much time and place oriented—you need to be at this place at this time,” he says. Conversely, the inherent flexibility of online learning makes it a better fit for many individuals—especially for those at the MBA level, who need to balance education with their careers.
“Students can customize online learning around their lives,” he says. “Most of our students already have a job and they’re looking for knowledge. They’re looking for the advantages that come from an increased understanding of the world. And because of this, they’re coming into the program with intrinsic motivation to go beyond the readings and tests and assignments and really engage in the conversations. Our students are curious. They’re motivated to really learn.”
On an individual level, the accessibility of online learning removes barriers that might otherwise prevent students from participating in classes—or from enrolling altogether. But according to Dr. Bowen, the real magic is that by enabling broader participation, the University of Fredericton creates a potent environment for sharing diverse perspectives and opinions, expanding learning opportunities.
“Because of students’ varied backgrounds, there’s a lot of cross-pollination in our classes,” Dr. Bowen says. “Students in our program quickly learn that the challenges they’re facing in their careers are similar. For example, they’re all trying to address climate change and sustainability in their fields. On the student side, it gives them a network that goes beyond their learnings. There’s an alumnus of people that cross many industries.”
And for Dr. Bowen, maintaining connections with past students—an endeavour made easier because they’re already connected online—pays dividends to the next generation of University of Fredericton MBA students.
“My network of past students helps to build my knowledge,” he says. “I’ve built my own flow of information for what’s happening across different industries and professions. When I see what issues are coming up in my former students’ careers, it makes me think about how to address that in the course environment. It keeps me current.”
For more information, visit ufred.ca/mba.