Mara Gulens
February 21

EMBAS: They bring the learning to you
The Globe and Mail

Airlifting a campus from the 'burbs to the financial core of Canada's largest city is not to be taken lightly. But that is exactly what the Richard Ivey School of Business has done with its Executive MBA program, transplanting it from Mississauga to the old Toronto Stock Exchange.

"It's important to differentiate your program," Carol Stephenson, Ivey's dean, says of the big move.

From a Toronto-financial-district perspective, Ivey has it down, boasts John-Derek Clarke, director of program services. About 8,500 people a day walk past the new, state-of-the-art facility, called the ING Leadership Centre, which opened last month.

Ivey's home base is the University of Western Ontario in London. But 80 per cent of the school's students live in the greater Toronto area, as do 40 per cent of its alumni.

Given the increasing popularity of EMBAs, and the stiff competition between schools, a convenient location is a major selling card.

Since 2000, the number of schools belonging to the non-profit international Executive MBA Council (EMBAC) has grown to 220 from 150. EMBA programs, many of which involve part-time or online studies, are increasingly recognized as a good thing to offer people who might not be able to stop working and attend school full time.

"It's a tremendous experience to those people, because it's a cohort-driven academic experience," says Maury Kalnitz, managing director of EMBAC. "They're learning not just from the faculty, but from their peers in the class. They see a lot of value in that, and there is demand for that."

In addition to exotic international offerings that take EMBA students to China or Switzerland, basic programs are putting more on the menu to attract students.

"The trend is to broaden marketing areas as more programs enter the market and competition increases," says Mr. Kalnitz.

EMBAC, however, is not as concerned with physical location as it is ownership. "Who developed the program, who is delivering it, what's the quality? That's key to us -- accreditation," he says.

Chris Falloon, a consultant with Telus Mobility, commutes to his Toronto Ivey courses from Vancouver.

"I was happy to hear that Ivey had moved the classes from the Mississauga campus to Toronto," he says. He believes the downtown location, with its prestigious address and amenities, is more befitting Ivey's name and reputation.

Queen's School of Business may lack a trading-floor address, but it, too, holds classes in downtown Toronto -- as well as Calgary, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa.

"You want to be close to where the students are that you want to attract," says Bill Blake, associate dean of MBA programs at Queen's, in Kingston. "When we launched the national Executive MBA years back, we realized we could increase our national footprint."

The Queen's satellite program is built on real-time video conference technology. Mr. Blake refers to the state-of-the-art Kingston studio, where faculty members teach while connected to classrooms across Canada and the United States, as "the Starship Enterprise."

"The reason we went to video conference was to allow us to offer Queen's programs and reputation right across the country without people having to leave their jobs and move to Kingston," he says.

What you don't get with such arrangements is having faculty available at any time for one-on-one meetings outside class, says Beatrix Dart, academic director of Executive MBA programs for the University of Toronto's Joseph L. Rotman School of Management. "That's a huge benefit, and hard to replicate if you have a satellite campus and fly-in faculty," she says.

Companies expect MBA programs to produce better leaders who understand management teams, adds Ms. Dart. "Those are soft skills that are very hard to learn in an online environment."

Andrew Arifuzzaman, director of clinical operations at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, works in downtown Toronto and studies at nearby Rotman. He chose the school because of the one-on-one contact but has been surprised by how the university environment (such as standing "right there at the Chinese food truck with the undergraduates") has affected his learning. "There is a certain buzz or a crackle that happens in a university environment that you don't get when you're working," Mr. Arifuzzaman says. "That's something that occurred to me, but I didn't see it until I got here."

Not all EMBA students are fortunate enough to be living in a city with such a program, however, and that's where distance education comes in.

The world's first online Executive MBA, at Athabasca University's Centre for Innovative Management, was launched in 1994 and has been included in the Financial Times's list of the world's top 75 EMBA programs for two years now.

"For our students, location is not an important factor," says the program's executive director, Lindsay Redpath. In fact, there are no students at the physical Athabasca campus -- everyone goes to school wherever they are, via the Internet.

"Being at a certain place and time can be a real impediment," Dr. Redpath says. "Business schools are no longer about having a prestigious building in a high-profile location. It's about managing work and family lives."

Gary Ng-Wai, director of relationship management for Visa Canada, is based in Toronto but working on a sales project in San Francisco. "I chose Athabasca because it allowed me to work through an MBA curriculum while on the road," he says. "I could complete my MBA course work from my hotel room, airport lounge or from any location that I could get an Internet connection."

Athabasca's asynchronous learning platform, where students do not have to be online at the same time as other students or professors, is especially helpful for those in different times zones. It gives hardcore travellers such as Mr. Ng-Wai a chance to not only complete a degree but to not be away from family on those short weekends when he doesn't have to be on the road.

The Executive MBA Council, whose guidelines call for a program that is about 50 per cent cohort, has neither admitted nor denied membership to a 100-per-cent online EMBA. "It hasn't come up," says Mr. Kalnitz.

The council's goal is to be as inclusive as possible but maintain quality in content and delivery. Mr. Kalnitz acknowledges that as online programs proliferate, this type of offsite learning will have to be assessed, too. But, he says, "the cohort face-to-face is going to continue to play a big role."

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