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The virtual co-op offered by Athabasca University’s Faculty of Business uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help learners acquire skills in emotional intelligence, adaptive leadership and strategic thinking to help them succeed in the workplaces of the future.iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Imagine a work co-operative placement as an undergraduate student where you are on a management track rather than an employee-in-training on the lowest rungs of the company. Then, imagine making significant decisions that fail colossally and not having your career derailed.

The dean of Athabasca University’s Faculty of Business (AU-FB), Dr. Deborah Hurst, did imagine this scenario and experienced a “eureka moment” that led her to make it happen.

Based in Athabasca, Alberta, AU is a leading online university that pioneered technology use in education. For example, AU launched the world’s first online Master of Business Administration (MBA) program 25 years ago.

“With our students distributed across Canada – and increasingly, around the world – we were trying to figure out how to better engage them with one another as an opportunity to develop skills,” says Dr. Hurst.

“We also wanted to address employers’ concerns about a lack of work readiness among many graduates with four-year degrees. They have strong theoretical knowledge in their disciplines but are weaker when it comes to critical ‘soft’ skills like leadership, communications and problem-solving.”

Traditional co-op learning strives to help learners gain these skills through relevant full-time work experience – clearly not a solution for an online university.

“I was watching a presentation by Ametros Learning, which uses IBM Watson artificial intelligence (AI) natural language tools. It all clicked, and I thought, here’s a way we can design a simulated risk-free work environment that can reach everybody, everywhere, at any time.”

The faculty formed a partnership with Ametros to create its ground-breaking, AI-powered virtual co-op for senior-level Bachelor of Commerce students.

Real-world scenarios

The creators recognized that the virtual workplace needed to reflect real work projects and problems. Faculty members from AU-FB, who have deep industry experience, designed the co-op to include a choice of companies that students can “apply” to – such as a technology company in financial services – and then go on a journey based on actual business challenges.

The learner’s “colleagues” are AI-powered characters, and when the learner communicates with them via instant messaging within the platform or email, they respond based on the situation – for example, a specific decision being advocated. As the interactions and decisions accumulate, the student sees positive and negative impacts – just like in the real world.

I was watching a presentation by Ametros Learning, which uses IBM Watson artificial intelligence (AI) natural language tools. It all clicked, and I thought, here’s a way we can design a simulated risk-free work environment that can reach everybody, everywhere, at any time.

Dr. Deborah Hurst
Dean, Faculty of Business, Athabasca University

“One of our characters is a boss named Charles, and he is very difficult to deal with,” says Richard Dixon, the professor leading the course. “We have scenarios in which the learner is encouraged to go around Charles’s back to get him fired. The idea is to provide experience on how to appropriately deal with a difficult supervisor.”

As with all scenarios, when it’s completed, the learner receives multiple levels of feedback – from the AI software itself, discussions with other students, critique from the professor teaching the course, and self-assessment.

Along with the students, the AI itself is learning. “For example, each time we’ve delivered the course, now in its third iteration, we find that Charles has become more cantankerous,” Dixon says.

The professor adds that the positive feedback on the virtual co-op has been unprecedented. “Students are amazed by what they’ve learned. They often say they thought they were great problem-solvers or communicators, and the course was a massive wake-up call about how much better they could get.”

The AU-FB is adding new scenarios to reflect issues increasingly important in today’s workplace, such as decisions to support equity, diversity and inclusion. And the faculty is exploring future applications of the virtual co-op into more programs at AU and in partnership with professional associations delivering courses for accreditation and professional development.

“The potential is so exciting,” says Dr. Hurst. “The virtual co-op is helping AU to more deeply prepare learners for their careers with intense immersive learning in areas such as emotional intelligence, adaptive leadership and strategic thinking – skills that will only become more important in the workplaces of the future.”


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