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Kristy Skwaruk chose to do her MBA online to fit her busy schedule as a working mom with two boys. The degree helped her earn a promotion.AMBER BRACKEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Back in September, Kristy Skwaruk travelled from her hometown of Edmonton to downtown Vancouver to celebrate an accomplishment years in the making: earning her MBA.

Graduates from across Canada flew in, and mingled over drinks and dinner with the university chief executive who’d come in to personally hand out diplomas. Ms. Skwaruk remembers feeling a wave of support when everyone cheered as she collected hers.

“When I crossed the stage, I was in tears as it hit me that I had finally achieved something I had been trying to do for 10 years,” says Ms. Skwaruk, vice-president of people, regulatory affairs and operations for Dynaleo Inc., a food and beverage manufacturer.

It’s a scene similar to those playing out at university campuses every year, but for Ms. Skwaruk and the other graduates, there was something unusual: It was the first time they’d ever seen each other face-to-face. And, Jo Thomas, CEO of the Australian Institute of Business (AIB) – their school – had flown in from the other side of the planet to attend.

“We deliberately kept the night focused on being a celebration rather than a formal convocation ceremony, and as a result it was filled with energy and joy,” says Ms. Thomas, who went on to meet hundreds of students and graduates in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary, AIB’s key markets since its launch in the country in 2014.

While traditional MBA programs were forced to move online during the pandemic, AIB is but one of many universities that were already working in that space. No pivot required. With online MBA programs, universities and students can be located anywhere in the world as long as there’s good WiFi and a drive to succeed.

Ms. Skwaruk says she looked into many schools before choosing AIB, which has 720 Canadian students in 2022, because the global school was accredited in Canada and offered flexibility. A busy, working mom of two boys, the travelling for weeks at a time often required to earn traditional MBA just wouldn’t cut it.

Alexander Landry, a military engineer officer with the Canadian Forces, who now lives in the Middle East, was looking for flexibility, too, when he decided to earn an MBA online through the University of Fredericton. The school promises a 100-per-cent online program designed to “advance your education and career while maintaining a work-life balance.”

After graduating from the Royal Military College of Canada with a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering in 2016, Mr. Landry decided to go for the online MBA after hearing it would help lead to promotions and career advancement.

He doubled up his courses and earned his degree in May, 2020, but it wasn’t always easy. During 2018, he was deployed to Ukraine for eight months – but still kept on top of his classes, even those that were synchronous.

“It was definitely long days,” he says, describing how he’d walk the 200 metres from his office at the camp, pull out his laptop and attend class while sitting on his cot in a tiny room with four other officers nearby. “I’d plug in my headphones and take a live class with people in Canada and a professor in Florida!”

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Landry was valedictorian when he graduated.

One of the benefits of any MBA is the ability to network and form professional and personal bonds with other students. That’s one of the reasons the University of Fredericton has developed a cohort system for its online MBA with six intake times a year, with students beginning the program in smaller groups, says Michael Hobeck, dean of academics for the university.

“We offer the best of both worlds – the flexibility to work when you have the time, but students also get the added benefit of having synchronous scheduled classes once a week, where they get to interact with the professor, the other students, and learn from each other,” he says.

There are discussion boards, too, and because most students are in Canada, synchronous classes are usually held in the evening, making it easier for everyone to attend.

Even Ivy League universities provide online-only offerings now. Take Harvard Business School Online: While there’s no online-only MBA option at this time, students around the world – including Canadians, who make up 5 per cent of enrolments – can take a three-course business essentials program online, which includes business analytics, economics for managers and financial accounting. HBS Online also offers a variety of courses in strategy, leadership, negotiation and sustainable investing.

Executive director Patrick Mullane doesn’t think traditional, in-person MBA programs are going away, but online courses and diplomas have a place, too, since they serve a different purpose: They can get you where you want to go, professionally, quickly and they pay off – literally.

He refers to a recent university report showing that 42 per cent of respondents said taking HBS Online courses likely helped them earn a higher salary, the average increase being US$17,000. Thirty-six per cent made a career change, while 31 per cent earned a promotion.

Mr. Mullane, who has an MBA from Harvard himself, says the traditional model works for professionals who want to pivot to a new career and are able to take a couple of years to do that.

“It provides a natural moat between the old and new you,” he explains. “But not everybody wants to do that. Taking a Harvard online course, or an online MBA from another institution, can be a great way to stay engaged in a job you’re currently in.”

That was definitely the case for Ms. Skwaruk, who plans to attend a barbecue with other AIB MBA grads next summer in Calgary. Before embarking on her degree, she was working primarily in human resources. She has since received two raises and is now a leader in operations.

“I’ve taken a huge career jump because of this,” she says.

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