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Phillip Alexandre Du Plessix reflects at his “spirit spot” which was part of week long wilderness retreat course while he was a student at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, October 28, 2020. Todd Korol/The Globe and MailTodd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Since 2004, a week-long leadership retreat in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains has been a popular elective for business students at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business.

Wind and solar engineer Phillip du Plessix was so keen that he scheduled the summer outdoor retreat as his final course of Haskayne’s evening Master of Business Administration program that he began in 2018. “I had been looking forward to that experience for the whole 2½ years,” he says.

Then the coronavirus hit last March. Without face-to-face instruction, Haskayne and other business schools with out-of-classroom experiences, including foreign trips and consulting projects, had to pivot quickly to virtual delivery.

“It’s hard to convey the sheer madness of the moment, and the moment didn’t seem to end,” David Lertzman, director of the Haskayne Adventure Leadership retreat program, says of the challenge of converting a land-based course to online.

Despite no previous online teaching experience, he knew it would be “a disaster” to virtually replicate existing content infused with traditional Indigenous and Chinese practices. “We had to come up with something wholly new but still achieve the learning goals,” he says.

Working with his university’s experts in instructional design and education technology, Prof. Lertzman invested more than 100 hours to create the retreat over Zoom.

He prerecorded lectures, added instructional videos on Qigong (Chinese meditation, movement and breathing) and provided readings for students. A yoga instructor presented videos on exercise and meditation.

As before, each class was limited to 20 students organized in “learning clans.” In live Zoom sessions, Prof. Lertzman and invited guests, including a martial-arts expert, discussed how to overcome challenges, build resilience and other facets of leadership.

The daily live online sessions lasted up to five hours – long by conventional practice – but with frequent recesses and breakout rooms for small group discussions.

Local Indigenous elders, integral to the land-based program, were still key to the online sessions held in July. But the online format enabled Prof. Lertzman to expand his roster of guests.

One was Terry Aleck, who lives in British Columbia and was not part of previous retreats. A residential-school survivor, drummer, sweat-lodge leader and recovering alcoholic, Mr. Aleck spoke over Zoom on “how to find purpose in challenging circumstances,” one theme of the course.

“They wanted to hear from someone who had survived residential abuse,” says Mr. Aleck, who adds that his role “was to bridge the gap between First Nations and other races and show that we are in this together.”

The online conversations between the professor and his guests provided lessons in how to listen, Mr. du Plessix says. “Each of them would listen so deeply and intently, and respond with such consideration, it was clear they had this ability to respond thoughtfully in ways I found to be uncommon,” he says.

For the course, students practice daily self-reflection. Without access to forest or river locations of the typical retreat, students looked for their “spirit spot” close to home. Mr. du Plessix chose a nearby park where he could reflect on course material and keep a journal (required of all students).

Despite losing out on the traditional retreat, he “was very pleasantly surprised” by the richness of the online version. “It was, for me, still an incredibly immersive experience,” he says.

Like Haskayne, Memorial University’s business administration faculty also designed a virtual version of an out-of-classroom activity.

This year, students in the faculty’s MBA in social enterprise and entrepreneurship were supposed to manage a year-long consulting project with the Colony of Avalon, a national historic site and tourist shop in Ferryland, 60 kilometres south of St. John’s.

The pandemic ruled out in-person visits by students, so the faculty turned to Gillian Sheppard, an educational support co-ordinator assigned to the MBA program, for a solution.

With technology experts from Memorial’s centre for teaching and learning, she spent two days at the Colony of Avalon conducting video interviews with board members and staff and filming the archeological site. The result was a multimedia resource for students to draw on for various modules of their MBA.

“We couldn’t take the students in person, so we are going to bring it [the Colony] to them online,” Dr. Sheppard says.

The online format also enabled faculty to recruit nationally recognized speakers for Zoom sessions with students.

Dr. Sheppard says, “our eyes have been opened” to postpandemic possibilities. “We can’t fly someone in,” she says. “But we can arrange something in our high-tech classroom. ... It gets the job done.”

At the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, the pandemic spurred a new approach to delivering fitness and nutrition training already embedded in its national executive MBA (EMBA). The degree, delivered remotely at sites across the country, usually includes three in-person sessions in Kingston over the 16-month program.

During those sessions, prepandemic, the school’s “Fit to Lead” program offered optional hikes, kayak trips and coaching on nutrition and work-life balance issues.

“We know from research that if you look after yourself physically, mentally and nutritionally, you perform at a higher level inside and outside the classroom,” says Shane Lakins, a fitness consultant to the school.

Without the residential component, the school expanded “Fit to Lead” across the entire program. Instead of outdoor rock climbing, for example, students joined online workouts and sessions on how to get a good night’s sleep.

Prathna Ramesh, currently wrapping up her EMBA at Queen’s, took advantage of the fitness program before and after the pandemic.

“They made a big point that, yes, you will see short-term results but it is for the longer term,” says Ms. Ramesh, managing director of Maple Leaf Angels and Maple Leaf Capital Corp., which works with entrepreneurs and potential investors. “I immediately saw my energy level was improving and it was a nice way to connect with classmates outside of course work.”

One new virtual feature is a “10-day challenge” for students to spend 10 minutes a day on, for example, yoga or core-body strengthening.

Ms. Ramesh says she now has a new perspective on managing time.

“I can get off a work call that is not going the way I want, open up an app [through Fit to Lead] and do a three-minute meditation,” she says.

Meanwhile, some schools developed a virtual version of an overseas trip.

For its accelerated master of business administration degree, the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School reimagined what, pre-COVID, had been a mandatory seven-day study trip to South America.

Ivey assistant professor and trip organizer Lucas Monzani, arranged Zoom meetings with business leaders, including Canadian executives in Brazil and local counterparts in Peru and Chile. This year’s virtual trip, delivered this fall in multiple coursework activities and sessions, also includes new features to promote online collaboration.

Student teams learn basic Portuguese and Spanish for business meetings and demonstrate their prowess on a Zoom call.

For another assignment, each group of students prepares four different South American dishes and explains their cultural significance.

“This activity is not just about cooking,” Prof. Monzani says. “It is about teamwork, planning, finding scarce resources. ... We are hoping the students apply what they learn in different [academic] modules about organization behaviour and operations.”

Virtual learning has its limits, he concedes. “It will never replicate the actual experience, but at least we have invested in technology to give students a feel for it.”