From online meetings to physical distancing, COVID-19 has changed the everyday routine of many across the province. For most students, the global health pandemic has meant switching to fully virtual curriculums. While students may not be heading into classrooms or touring campus, that hasn’t stopped eager learners from applying to Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs.
For the University of Alberta, applications for Alberta School of Business’ MBA programs saw a fairly large increase in fall 2020 according to the senior director of the Master’s Programs Office, Chris Lynch. The increase was concentrated amongst Canadian students looking at full or part-time MBA programs while international admissions decreased with students abroad deferring their studies.
“While the pandemic has impacted everyone, the impact is quite varied. For those who have been lucky enough to continue working and found themselves with more free time, education is a great way to put that free time to use. For those who have found themselves out of work, downtimes in the economy are an ideal time to retrain or upskill,” Lynch explains. “The opportunity cost of being out of the workforce is lower during a downtime than it would be when the economy is going strong, and you will be well prepared to re-enter the workforce in a new role.”
Like many programs around the province, the Alberta School of Business has shifted the majority of courses to online delivery. In some cases, classes have made the move to fully asynchronous models, allowing students to progress through the course without the need to follow the usual lecture schedule.
Lynch continues, “The pandemic has also greatly impacted the student experience outside of the classroom. Traditional experiential learning opportunities have moved online where possible and we have tried to include opportunities for students to interact and build relationships with their peers in the program. However, things certainly looked very different in 2020 than they had in previous years.”
The University of Alberta isn’t alone in seeing an increase in admissions for MBA programs. As explained by Martin Halek, PhD, associate dean of Graduate Professional Programs at the University of Calgary, higher than normal admission rates come as no surprise.
“Anytime there is significant disruption or shock to the economy, there tends to be an uptick in MBA applications as people look to invest in themselves in order to upskill or reskill.”
Heading back to the classroom comes with a number of benefits for learners and pandemic or no pandemic, MBA programs continue to provide a nuanced business education for current and prospective industry leaders.
“One of the main benefits of obtaining an MBA in this environment is that students are truly experiencing and navigating this environment in real time as opposed to simply observing from the sidelines. While some aspects of the economy should and will return to pre-COVID operations, other parts of the economy will not, as they will adapt efficiencies learned during the pandemic,” Halek explains. “Organizations will benefit from employees who have these adaptable skills; who are capable of getting the job done whether it requires physically being in the office or home or somewhere in between.”
With the global health pandemic, programs have had to adjust not only the delivery of content, but also the delivery of co-curricular and outside-the-classroom learning opportunities, which are key to the MBA experience. Though adjusting to virtual programming comes with its own challenges for both instructors and students, the digital academic environment has its own unique benefits to bring to the table.
“Another significant benefit is the flexibility in learning opportunities. Guest speakers from around the world are becoming common practice in many courses. Further, students can choose where to be when attending synchronous learning activities and can choose when to engage in asynchronous learning activities.”
Western programs aren’t the only ones experiencing increased admissions. Business schools to the east report a similar trend with MBA admissions on the upswing. Donna Smith, graduate program director of MBA Programs at the Ryerson University Ted Rogers School of Management, provides insight into their own school’s latest admission figures.
“Despite COVID-19 and the challenges faced by the program and students, the Ted Rogers MBA program received a 32 per cent increase in domestic applications this year compared to the previous. The program also noticed an increase this year in students choosing to pursue their studies on a full-time basis versus part-time.”
Navigating academic learning during a global health pandemic is certainly no small task. Like their Albertan counterparts, the Ted Rogers MBA program has shifted to online learning and alternative methods for curriculum delivery.
Smith explains, “In a typical year, our students benefit from in-person events where they meet employers, alumni and business leaders. This year, the program is hosting a series of career-related workshops and webinars, as well as fireside chats with our alumni to discuss the changing workplace. Recruitment sessions with our industry partners are also being offered online.”
The global health pandemic has turned a number of industries and programs on their heads. Between public health orders and gathering restrictions, the in-person learning environment and networking aspect of MBA programs has required fine-tuning. As Smith shares, the updated curriculum has been molded to resonate with students living, studying, and working in the COVID-19 environment.
“There are many exciting initiatives being integrated into the virtual classroom space. Students will work on live consulting projects with companies around the world, connecting with their executive teams virtually. We will have executives from across Canada come into the classroom virtually as guest speakers,” Smith says. “Students also have an opportunity to hone their soft skills through live actor simulations in our leadership course virtually.”
The shift to virtual learning environments connects learners to industry leaders around the country and beyond. Universities are honing in on the digital doors being opened by the move to online learning environments. For the Ted Rogers School of Management, this is showcased by the development of a Conference & Case competition engaging schools around North America. For some Canadian students, the digital classroom has created rich opportunities including employment offers from beyond national borders.
“The benefit of getting your MBA during the current environment is you can now be exposed to the world, and through virtual delivery it’s easier to connect to the world and global companies through global guest speakers. People are now getting hired in different countries than they live in! We have a couple examples of this in our MBA program – students living in Canada, hired by companies in different countries – and the opportunities are growing,” Smith says. “We have seen that virtual delivery can have benefits and some aspects are here to stay.”
In addition to creating a global learning environment, the program has introduced mental health and wellbeing as a program centrepiece. As the Ted Rogers MBA curriculum illustrates, incorporating workplace wellbeing and social responsibility into academic learning is essential for training future leaders.
“Leading for performance and wellbeing is central to the new Ted Rogers MBA curriculum, as we believe these skills are important to succeed in today’s business world. The principle is driven by four themes: diversity, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship guided by ethical corporate governance, socially responsible decision-making and stewardship of the environment,” Smith says. “With the impact of COVID on individuals’ wellbeing and the workplace, the focus on these themes is more relevant than ever.”
While COVID-19 may have forced the syllabus to move online, MBA programs around the country are finding innovative ways to provide learners with high quality academic programming. Though virtual learning comes with its own challenges and no shortage of calls to tech support, the increased concentration on transprovincial and even transnational learning provides students with transferable skills they will be able to carry with them into the future world of business.