When Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business received a gift to start an unusual kind of Master of Business Administration program, it came with an equally unusual condition that led the school to videoconferencing.

The three-year old program that Concordia’s Goodman Institute

of Investment Management offers is a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) built on the curriculum for the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) examinations administered by the U.S.-based Association for Investment Management and Research (AIMR).

The CFA designation has gained popularity in the last four to five years, says Alan Hochstein, director of the Goodman Institute, but only about 40 per cent of those who write the exams pass them. The Goodman Institute set out to give its students an MBA and prepare them for the CFA exams. So far, Hochstein says, it has a 95-per-cent success rate on the first of the exams’ two levels.

But donor Ned Goodman wanted Concordia to run the program in Toronto. The Montreal-based university wanted to do it in its hometown, and the eventual compromise was to offer the program in both cities. That’s where videoconferencing came in.

Classes are split between the two cities, with some students in the same room with the professor while others sit in a videoconferencing studio some 550 kilometers away.

Toronto classrooms already had video equipment

To give all students personal contact with their teachers, the professors alternate cities. Montreal-based professors fly to Toronto every second week to teach there. Some instructors in the program are based in Toronto, and they travel to Montreal in alternate weeks.

Concordia uses its own videoconferencing facilities in Montreal. In Toronto, the school rents three rooms, two of which were already equipped with videoconferencing equipment. Concordia bought another system for the Toronto space, says Marilyn Steinkopf, senior site co-ordinator for the Goodman Institute, and split with the facility operator the cost of upgrading the other two systems to support dual streaming — a “”pretty advanced feature,”” Steinkopf says, that lets remote students simultaneously see the professor and a second screen that can display slides or other materials. Three classes run simultaneously.

The videoconference gear comes from Polycom Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif. Three Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines connect the sites, providing 384 kilobits per second (Kbps) of bandwidth.

Teaching profs how to use it is a challenge

The Montreal classrooms each have two large monitors at the front and two at the back, Hochstein explains. In each room, one front monitor shows the display from the professor’s computer or document camera — a high-tech substitute for a blackboard — or the image of the local site being transmitted to Toronto. The second shows the remote site. The monitors at the back display the same images, so the professor can see them while lecturing. The Toronto rooms use a boardroom layout, with tables laid out in a V and the professor — when present — sitting at the point of the V, so there are just two monitors visible to everyone.

“”We’ve experienced probably every possible problem,”” Steinkopf says. Most of the bugs are ironed out now, but there are occasional glitches, such as loss of audio or video. Causes can be as simple as loose cables, Steinkopf says. Concordia has a site co-ordinator at each end for every class to operate cameras and resolve problems.

Training professors is a challenge, Steinkopf says. Because of picture quality and the difficulty of following a moving person with a camera, professors teach sitting down. “”It seems so unnatural to be glued to a chair,”” says Arshad Ahmad, a Concordia associate professor who teaches portfolio management.

Ahmad adds that using different visual aids — such as PowerPoint slides, sketches and videos — requires dexterity at switching smoothly from one to another and careful preparation, such as having presentations ready to go rather than wasting class time loading files.

Despite the challenges, Arshad says the system does not make teaching impersonal. “”I think you can have equal interaction, if not more interaction. Technology can enable that for you if you know what you’re doing.””

“”You don’t really feel left out,”” says student Naoum Tabet. “”If the teacher is in a remote place, he’s on a huge TV screen. As soon as you raise your hand, the teacher sees you.””

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