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Desktop EMBA opens doors for remote students

Working as a district vice-president for TD Canada Trust in Kamloops, B.C., Derek Turner found he had little time or opportunity to pursue an Executive MBA with a leading Canadian university. Living far from a major centre where such courses are offered, he also travels every second week among the 15 branches he manages from the interior of British Columbia to the Yukon and corporate headquarters.

When Queen's School of Business announced it would add a virtual component to the EMBA it delivers in eight boardrooms across the country, Mr. Turner leapt at the chance to be among its first students. Six months into his rigorous studies, he's enjoying the flexibility that allows him to attend class, whether he's home in Kamloops, on the road in his district or on holiday halfway around the world.

Every second Friday and Saturday, Mr. Turner, 35, joins six classmates in a "virtual boardroom," connecting to the bi-weekly videoconferences Queen's offers via high-speed internet on their computer desktops using webcams and software, wherever they happen to be.

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"Whether you're in your home office or in Germany, you can connect in and you can fully participate," says Gloria Saccon, director of the National Executive MBA program at Queen's. She explains that expanding the EMBA program – which has been running in specially outfitted boardrooms in major Canadian cities for about 20 years – to people in remote places is something that came about with demand and advances in technology.

The 16-month Queen's program, with a total of 85 students, includes instruction delivered via videoconference sessions for two days every second week, as well as three residencies that total four weeks, held on the Queen's campus in Kingston, Ont. In addition to Mr. Turner, the other desktop team members hail from Bermuda, Fort McMurray, Alta., Peterborough, Ont., Winnipeg, Montreal and Nunavut.

Collaborating with colleagues and peers from a broad range of places, industries and backgrounds "really makes learning interesting and a lot of fun," Mr. Turner says. "There's a tremendous breadth of perspective that's brought to the table."

He had the option of taking the EMBA in Vancouver, but that's at least four hours away by car. "Now my commute is walking down the stairs in the morning," he says, which is handy given the time pressures that pursuing an EMBA presents, in addition to his day-to-day work. He has connected to the sessions a great deal on the road and even from Hawaii, where he was vacationing.

The seven virtual team members join in the regular sessions on Fridays and Saturdays and then meet together via videoconference on Sundays. They collaborate on documents using software and talk on the phone all of the time, Mr. Turner says. "You feel really connected."

One downside of the technology is that it can be hard to turn it off. "It's about balancing," he says, adding that e-learning, webinars and virtual communications are becoming the norm in business. "Managing and working with people remotely is a skill … I'll be using more and more in the future."

Helen Murphy, communications manager for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, says there has been an increased trend to "blended learning, students and faculty using technology in new ways," along with traditional distance learning via computer.

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"Our universities are finding innovative ways of using new technologies to enhance the learning experience," she says, adding that this results in "rich learning experiences" that go beyond our borders. "As Canada's universities become more globally focused, these tools are particularly beneficial, allowing faculty, students and staff to work with people around the world in building new partnerships and collaborations."

John Moore, a professor of accounting at Queen's who has been teaching in the EMBA for 12 years, says the desktop team is a unique extension of the distance learning model. "It's quite amazing to have somebody make a presentation sitting in their home in Bermuda and it being seen right across the country."

It's critical to engage people as a teacher when dealing with people remotely, Prof. Moore says. The face-to-face aspect that videoconferencing brings is much better than online MBA courses that are more text-based, he says.

Having people from so many places and experiences join in the class "broadens the base," he adds, and using advanced technologies mirrors "the way the world is going."

The Queen's EMBA especially benefits from the virtual model, Ms. Saccon says, because it can draw from a larger and more diverse pool of qualified professionals. Those who might have been limited by geography can now enroll, she explains. "It's exciting: We can continue to add more and more exceptional people into the classroom mix."

She expects Queen's will offer more virtual spots to its EMBA in future years. "There are really no limits where you can go with this type of model, throughout North America and internationally."

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