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MBA faculty: bringing the final residency online

October 13, 2020
Ingrid Kajzermitchell Manoela Wagner
MBA faculty: bringing the final residency online

Earlier this year, we shared a behind-the-scenes story of our BCom faculty creatively shifting to a virtual residency in response to COVID-19. In June 2020, it was our MBA faculty, Dr. Amy Zidulka, Teri McEachern, and Terry Rachwalski’s turn to lead the way to design and deliver our MBA in Executive Management final second residency fully online. Their challenge was not only to create a residency that matched the life changing face-to-face experience students had come to expect but to take the overall residency experience to the next level. We had an opportunity to ask both Zidulka and McEachern about how they did it, and what they enjoyed most from this experience, and what advice they would give to other educators creating virtual residencies. 

What are your one or two favourite aspects of doing residency experiences online?

Amy: It still offered learners everything that makes our MBA second residency so valuable and unique. In our capstone residency (Res 2), learners address complex challenges for a real client under the mentorship of seasoned business practitioners. They must draw on all the business topics from their MBA and put them into practice. Res 2 also provides “master classes” in key areas. 

The cohorts that participated in the virtual residency in June achieved the same level of excellence as those alumni who came before them. Learners did not spend the bulk of their days listening to long lectures or writing in chat forums. Rather, they were interacting with each other, with guest faculty, with business practitioners, and with the clients whose challenges they were addressing. 

So many schools are struggling to get up to speed on the basics of online learning. Meanwhile, at RRU, we’ve been creating virtual experiences for over twenty years. This meant that when we had to shift the residency online, we had the experience and infrastructure to push the limits of what virtual collaboration might look like. 

What also stands out for me is the power of the cohort model. These learners had been working together for almost two years. They were really disappointed that they could not see each other in person. And yet, you could see how the strength of their relationships with each other allowed them to engage virtually.

Teri: One of my favourite aspects of doing the residency online is being able to deliver an educational experience that continues to challenge the student's understanding of managing a business (in times of significant change) in ‘real-time’, while simultaneously confirming their mastery of the theory and applications of models and frameworks to the benefit of a ‘real’ business, with real-world challenges. The solutions the teams discovered and recommendations they propose are truly innovative and inspiring. 

What were the key changes you had to make to bring the MBA residency online?

Amy: We were committed to maintaining the level of academic rigour and challenge. But we also knew that many learners were attending residency while juggling commitments like having kids at home. This meant we had to figure out a way to balance high expectations with flexibility. 

The cohort model mostly took care of this for us: Learners felt committed to their teammates and show up every day as much as anything so as not to let them down. We actually had full attendance at almost all times. On the other hand, learners are very supportive of each other, which means that everyone understood if someone had to step away to deal with an unavoidable commitment. 

We were all flexible with each other and just showed the normal level of human compassion that I think we are all being called upon to demonstrate as we navigate this challenging time. Also, we had to account for time zones. Those of us on the West Coast were starting our day early, whereas those in the east were finishing late.

Teri: We also adopted a ‘business studio’ approach to develop a deeper understanding of the client. This is an educational model that differs from a traditional class. Students don’t just learn material and complete assignments, but design new business solutions, under the mentorship of expert practitioners. It assumes that coming to new solutions is a creative and often-ambiguous process, which requires iteration and the sharing of ideas between student teams. This approach enabled students to diverge and converge appropriately on client issues.

What were some of the new approaches, or technological and digital resources that you were using to support students’ learning, and how did they enhance the online experience?

Amy: We introduced a new digital technology, Mural, which allowed learners to work and collaborate visually. The teams’ Mural boards were analogous to team breakout rooms. If you are working on a creative project, you can imagine that in a face-to-face setting, you might post key documents on the walls and refer to them as you go. Often having different concepts and insights visually represented can be integral in spurring innovation. Mural allowed our MBA learners to create these kinds of spaces in the virtual world.

Teri: The use of Mural also allows to capture the teams' thinking in real-time (e.g. retaining ideas that emerged during brainstorming sessions). Teams that optimized this resource had better outcomes and greater insights into the clients’ issues and were better able to explore possible areas of focus for course assignments.

How did MBA students respond to the online residency experience?

Amy: They produced excellent work! The feedback indicated that the learners thought this was a rich and meaningful experience. That said, they did very much miss seeing each other and made clear that face-to-face residency is indeed a special experience that can’t be fully replaced through virtual contact.  

Teri: Given the chaos and change brought by Covid-19, many students were disappointed not to conclude their MBA journey with their fellow students in-person. Once they had an opportunity to process their disappointment and reconnect - in the online world - they were prepared to move forward emotionally. This was a significant mental shift for many. Initially, the vast majority of students were tentative. However, by Day 3, once they’ve met the faculty and were able to connect with the client virtually, they propelled themselves into the work. 

What advice do you have for other educators looking to create residencies, or rich learning experiences online?

Teri: Be prepared. The planning phase is intense and required many hours of thoughtful discussions with faculty. Faculty must be on the same page to maintain credibility and gain the confidence of students. Be prepared to flex schedules and timings as needed and design daily communications to keep everyone on track. Stuff happens!

Second, review the assignments and design them for online collaboration. Online work requires greater specificity. Don’t torture students by giving vague statements about what you expect. If you expect a Porter’s Five Forces analysis - say so. Moreover, bring in outside experts to provide a short but rich learning experience. Students like to learn - facilitate this.

Last but not least, have a healthy sense of humour - as in real life things can go awry - plan for these and acknowledge them - people appreciate honesty. 

Amy: Create lots of social activities, but make them optional. We had events like a virtual wine tasting, a cooking class, and a “guess whose baby picture” night. We also offered a daily morning meditation period. Some events were organized by us, others by the learners themselves. 

Second, provide meaningful projects—like helping a live client—and then structure the curriculum in service of helping them achieve excellence in those projects. 

As the instructor, keep your own energy up. Be encouraging and compassionate—without compromising standards. 

Finally, consider the learners as your partners. Begin the conversation with the class as early as possible, before the class begins. For the upcoming residency in January 2021, we have been working with the class reps to survey how the students are doing and come to understand their concerns about the virtual residency. We have held one webinar with them and will likely hold more. We are working to adapt in response to what we’ve heard from them. 

Don’t shy away from discussing challenging issues that they raise. RRU learners are extremely committed to their education. They bring a wealth of experience from their professional lives. Draw on their wisdom in creating the residency.


The next MBA residency is taking place in January 2021 and the work is already underway to make this yet another unparalleled learning experience. If you are interested in learning more about the work of the instructional design team, reach out to Amy Zidulka. Learn more about Royal Roads MBA in Executive Management program.