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Kayas Cultural College in Little Red River Cree Nation, north of Edmonton.

Kayas Cultural College

Six years ago, Kyle Trumpour and his wife moved to Little Red River Cree Nation, a small Indigenous community about 800 kilometres north of Edmonton. The idea was to stay for a year and save money from their teaching jobs, but the pair fell in love with the community and decided to extend their stay.

But as Mr. Trumpour moved into an administrative role at Kayas Cultural College, he realized that his daily tasks were almost exclusively management-oriented – from acting as the housing manager to bringing the latest technology into the classrooms.

It was at this point that Mr. Trumpour decided to pursue his master of business administration (MBA). But his remote location dictated that his schooling be done online, so the 32-year-old turned to Athabasca University's MBA program.

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"Definitely the primary reason was the location, where we were in a very remote, isolated community," says Mr. Trumpour, but it wasn't the only reason. "We had started careers and a traditional classroom experience wasn't going to work for us, but a distance-learning environment allowed for a little bit more flexibility."

More of today's business students are turning to online courses, and business schools around the world are embracing the idea – from Harvard to HEC Paris. With this increased demand from business professionals to access e-learning, course developers, professors, and postsecondary institutions in Canada are streamlining the process to both attract and keep pace with online learners.

Online studies can be divided into two categories: synchronous and asynchronous. Sychronous online learning usually involves real-time chats or video linkups, meaning the student is accessing the course material and resources at the same time as his or her cohorts. Asynchronous e-learning means the student can access the course material any time and learn on his or her own schedule, and this is what appeals to many business students like Mr. Trumpour.

"With Athabasca's program, they market it as asynchronous, meaning that everyone can participate in it on their own schedule at any time, whether that's at midnight or 7 in the morning," he explains. "And this is critical when you're working at your day job at the same time you're pursuing your MBA."

Indeed, the flexibility of online business courses is what makes them so appealing and why the demand is growing, says Heidi Erisman, executive director of the Canadian Virtual University consortium.

"I think the flexibility is a big driver, especially at the masters level. Usually people who are doing MBAs are in their 30s and they've completed their first postsecondary [program] and have started other milestones that include families and mortgages, but there is also the need to grow professionally," says Ms. Erisman, who also completed her MBA studies online. "People are [often] mature students and they don't have the luxury of attending university full-time, so online [education] is very accommodating."

To date, the Canadian Virtual University Consortium is made up of 11 universities across the country and has nearly 250,000 students registered in online degrees, double the number since the group's inception in 2000. Business courses are the most widely accessed.

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"Online business certificates, short programs, undergraduate and masters degrees dominate the online course and program offerings, and they are in high demand," says Ms. Erisman. "Increasingly, employers are linking professional and academic development with advancement, and for those interested in moving up the career ladder, they choose online and distance learning to grow."

Alongside this growing demand from the business learner for e-courses, the concept of a specific online pedagogy, or method of teaching, has emerged. Experts recognize the need for online courses to differ from their on-campus counterparts in order to reach and teach the often asynchronous audience.

"The curriculums are usually designed with the awareness that people are going to be working on their projects and assignments at odd times," adds Ms. Erisman.

Charles Bélanger, a professor of management at Laurentian University in Sudbury, says when he develops a business course for the online audience it requires a team effort.

"On-campus you're pretty much the CEO of your course," he explains. "But each time I develop a module I will be in consultation with [the university's] specialists in online course development, and together we will see if this fits or this doesn't fit or elements could be improved. In other words, it's a team effort between the instructional development specialist and the professor."

Dr. Bélanger explains that business education has a natural place online, as many of the courses lend themselves to the digital model, which involves breaking up the course work into modules with learning outcomes that specify what skills the student will obtain by completing each module.

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Now a grant manager with Indigenous Relations, Government of Alberta, Mr. Trumpour says it was this model that allowed him to apply his new skills to his work environment in Little Red River right away.

"There was just so much that I was able to apply immediately to my organization," he says. "It speaks to the power of online learning, to be able to access that level of education in a remote community.

"Over all, the pros definitely outweigh the cons. Being able to manage a flexible work-life environment on your own time and being able to continue your life goals, like having a son, like I did, while working in a remote community … all of those positives definitely outweigh the negatives of not being in a traditional classroom."

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