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When Dr. Deborah Hurst began teaching part-time at Athabasca University in 1995, it was during the days of dial-up modems, clunky internet and floppy disks. While that was the case for all learning institutions at the time, the Faculty of Business at Athabasca University relied on fledgling technology more than most: The pioneering Alberta-based school had launched the world’s first online MBA program a year before Dr. Hurst began.

Drawn to the school’s innovative thinking and entrepreneurial spirit, Dr. Hurst joined the Faculty of Business full-time in 2001. She went on to lead a mammoth undertaking that would further set the Faculty of Business apart on the global stage: getting Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation. The Faculty of Business achieved this remarkable feat this past February, after a nearly decade-long process.

What makes this achievement so special? AACSB accreditation recognizes institutions that have demonstrated a focus on excellence in all areas, including quality of teaching, research impact, program and curriculum development, student learning and more. Athabasca University’s Faculty of Business is among only six per cent of business schools in the world to receive this prestigious and international recognition.

“Getting AACSB accreditation means a lot to our school,” says Dr. Hurst, now former dean and associate professor at the Faculty of Business, which has around 800 students in the MBA for executives program. “It signals that we are one of the top business schools in the world, it means we have the highest standards in education, and it means our students receive the best possible business education to prepare them for their careers.”

The achievement came after a long, sometimes bumpy road. In the mid-2000s, faculty member Dr. Lindsay Redpath led the first exploration of the accreditation. She was also part of the original entrepreneurial team, along with then-dean Dr. Stephen Murgatroyd, that established the world’s first online MBA program. Dr. Alain May, Dr. Terry Beckman and Dr. Alex Kondra led the second investigation in 2009.

“Our online program stood alone in that space for a number of years and we were able to grow very quickly because there was high demand,” Dr. Hurst says. “But, as the world realized the value and flexibility of online learning, we started to get more competition and felt a need to differentiate ourselves once again to communicate the quality assurance of the program.”

However, their initial and second investigation into accreditation found the school wasn’t the right fit for AACSB at the time. “The accreditation was very much focused on place-based universities and traditional MBA programming, which wasn’t what we were doing,” Dr. Hurst says.

In 2013, AACSB introduced an evolution of its program, with the areas of engagement, innovation and impact becoming cornerstones of accreditation. “Dr. Terry Beckman and I looked at it and said, that’s us,” said Dr. Hurst. “While we still were somewhat non-traditional, we thought we now had a shot at it.”

Every step of the way, we improved existing reporting, created new systems, and set up new infrastructure

Dr. Deborah Hurst

Thus began the faculty’s multi-year process of rigorous internal review, engagement with an AACSB-assigned mentor and peer-reviewed evaluation. Like any school involved in the process, the Faculty of Business focused on developing and implementing a plan to align with AACSB’s accreditation standards. Each year, it reported to AACSB on how it was filling gaps in meeting the standards, and where it was along the journey.

“Every step of the way, we improved existing reporting, created new systems, and set up new infrastructure,” Dr. Hurst says. For example, the Faculty of Business created an “assurance of learning” system and handbook – an integral part of the accreditation process – that demonstrates students are achieving learning competencies in their programs.

A key challenge throughout the accreditation process stemmed from how the faculty does things differently. For example, the MBA is specifically designed for working individuals with significant experience as managers and professionals, and it integrates theory and practice by focusing on real-world business programs in a coached, collaborative peer leaning form.

“Over the years, we developed our own language and how we described roles that were fulfilled,” Dr. Hurst says. “For example, we use the term ‘academic coaches’ rather than ‘professors’ because of how our faculty connected with students, encouraged conversations connecting theory to practice in a facilitated learning environment. We had to translate a lot of our language, as well as go to extra lengths to talk about our history in providing open, accessible, and flexible programs and what it means to be Canada’s online university.”

Despite the challenges, Dr. Hurst’s motto was “let’s keep our eyes on the prize.” However, it wasn’t just about getting the quality stamp of approval. “As we pushed forward, we realized there were things we could be doing better, so we did them, and it made us a stronger school,” she says.

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Dr. Deborah Hurst led the effort to get prestigious and international accreditation for the Faculty of Business at Athabasca University. The Faculty of Business is one of Canada’s largest online MBA programs.Supplied

Today, the Faculty of Business remains one of Canada’s largest online MBA programs and the school continues to innovate. In 2020, it created a first-of-its-kind virtual co-operative work experience powered by artificial intelligence. Available for students nearing the end of their Bachelor of Commerce program, the work experience course enables learners to come in from any location, or time zone to work on real work projects and problems with their classmates in an artificial intelligence-powered environment with simulated bosses, partners and employees. “Not only are they applying theoretical knowledge to business practices, they’re interacting with both real and artificial intelligence people, and developing soft skills,” Dr. Hurst says.

In another first for Canada, the Faculty of Business created an online-only Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) in 2009, with a focus on practical business and managerial issues. “It’s about contributing knowledge to practice and learning from practice in pursuit of new knowledge,” Dr. Hurst says. “This is a university that wants to make the connection between theory and practice, and improve workplaces and well-being going forward.”

Bryan Pett is one DBA student who can attest to that. Pett graduated from the MBA program in 2008 and, after a decade working at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, he decided to pursue his DBA. Pett predominantly studied the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the psychological capital of managers and leaders and organizations, which is a concept of leadership theory that stresses hope, optimism, resilience and self-efficacy to improve employee engagement. He is currently working on his dissertation.

“During the DBA, the single biggest improvement for me is being able to think critically in a much more effective way than I did prior to the program,” Pett says. “Improving critical thinking skills is extraordinarily important when decisions are being made that have huge impacts. And there’s not enough critical thinking going on in the world most of the time.”

He praises the school’s academic coaches for being extremely knowledgeable and having practical expertise to draw on. “They are academics, but they also have a lot of real-world experience and that’s very helpful,” Pett says. “They really understand how business works and they focus on what’s applicable in the real world.”

To learn more about the Faculty of Business at Athabasca University, visit

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Athabasca University Faculty of Business. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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