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25 years of disruption

A history of Athabasca University’s MBA

When Deborah Hurst began working for Athabasca University’s (AU) MBA program part-time as an academic coach, she immediately noticed something different about the students and the curriculum. It was 1995, just a year after the program’s inception, and Hurst was still a full-time sessional instructor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She would later move on to Nova Scotia’s Acadia University, but there too she found that students, most of them fresh out of high school, passively absorbed the material as they didn’t have a lot of life and work experience to bring the topics to life.

Her AU students, by contrast, were engaged and motivated. They all had, as a requirement, at least three years of experience as managers in an organization. And instead of tackling classic case studies out of Harvard, the AU program required them to bring forward their own companies’ business problems as they applied the curriculum—in an attempt to overcome tangible, relevant, business challenges that managers experienced, in real time.

“These were working managers concerned with issues of the day, the things that keep people up at night,” recalls Hurst, whose specialization was in organizational studies. “For those of us who do research in that realm it was a rich body of experience we got just by working with them. It was something that fed my intellectual curiosity.”

For this reason, Hurst seized the opportunity to join the AU business school full-time in 2001, moving clear across the country to do so. Today, following stints as associate dean and acting dean, she serves as dean of the faculty of business and the person charged with continuing AU’s now 25-year tradition of disrupting Canada’s once staid MBA school options.

Indeed, AU’s was the first online MBA in the world when it started in 1994. The idea of a distance-learning MBA program had been kicking around in the mind of then-dean Stephen Murgatroyd for a few years when a funding crisis at the university, precipitated by government cutbacks in Alberta, opened the doors to a new opportunity: Murgatroyd convinced the university’s president and board of governors that, with a loan of $1.5 million, he could set up the MBA program as a self-funding, free-standing business unit that would ultimately make money for the university.

“I said we’d run it as a business,” says Murgatroyd, who still teaches a course with the program. The university agreed to establish this, its first graduate program, on condition that he had 65 students enrolled for the first intake by a certain date. The deadline arrived, and there were just 61 signed up. Murgatroyd said he’d sign up his own relatives if he had to. Fortunately, there was no need; by the end of that week, enrolment was up to 65.

It may sound modest now, but that cohort made AU, in one fell swoop, one of the largest MBA programs in the country. “I went to a meeting of business school deans and I explained what we were doing, and they were horrified,” Murgatroyd says—at least, those who believed a graduate program could be delivered over the internet at all.

“The internet was just brand new. It was super clunky,” Hurst notes. The World Wide Web did not yet exist. What access students had was by dial-up modem and interaction, at first, was limited to text messaging on a variant of Lotus Notes. The course material was mailed to students in a series of floppy disks that had to be loaded into the computer’s port one at a time.

“We were about two courses ahead of the students in terms of creating this MBA,” Murgatroyd laughs. Though modeled on a framework offered by Henley Management College in the United Kingdom, AU’s course content was meant to be fresh, relevant, and heavily imbued with the business problems that the students themselves were grappling with in their work lives.

Despite these challenges, the program grew. It offered graduate-level business education to those ineligible or unable to access it previously—for example, people without a degree but who nonetheless had advanced managerial experience. AU partnered with other colleges and universities to offer specific programs in niches like agriculture. Later AU added a major in hockey management to its MBA—the first and so far only one like it in the world, launched with the help of former NHL general manager Brian Burke and internationally renowned player agent Ritch Winter in 2015.

Delivering an MBA online was disruptive, Murgatroyd says, but so was the scale that the program could achieve, not confined by the number of seats in a classroom. He set the goal of having 1,000 active students enrolled by 2000, representing one-fifth of all the MBA spaces in the country—which he could still offer with the same small team. With just four full-time faculty, AU’s MBA made use of contracted academic’s—Murgatroyd calls them “rent-a-profs”—around the world to teach a course here or a course there.

Where other MBA programs were teaching-centered, AU’s offering endeavoured to be learning-centred. It strove to serve the customer, the learner, not only by letting them take the course in their home town while continuing to work at their existing jobs, but by the little things, such as giving applicants personal phone calls and a yea or nay on their application within seven days.

Since reaching that target of 1,000 active students in the early 2000s, the MBA program has settled in at around 800 students at a time. With some 4,100 alumni, it is today the best-known and best-regarded of all AU’s programs.

The graduates’ demonstrated earning power—$146,426 upon graduation on average*—is a testament to the value of the program. Important to that is the teaching methodology; AU profs are coaches rather than lecturers. “The students learn as much from each other as they learn from instructors as a result of our learning environment,” Hurst says. They come out of the program not just with a well-rounded theoretical background but with experience collaborating with peers, she adds. “They can lead, deal with conflicts and solve problems and collaborate all in a distributed space”—very much the way modern organizations operate.

*Source: Annual MBA Alumni Survey 2018