Reinventing Virtual Cooperative Learning With AI


At Athabasca University, leaning into the future and all it has to offer is the name of the game.

A pioneer in enhanced online learning experiences, the school embraces diverse, first-of-its-kind course offerings designed to give Bachelor of Commerce (BComm) seekers the competitive edge they need to thrive in today’s business world.

In 2020, Athabasca University’s Faculty of Business will be paving the way once again with a new initiative: a virtual cooperative learning experience powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

Workplace Readiness

Because the Athabasca University BComm program takes place entirely online within an individualized study format, this presents an interesting challenge: How can students develop soft skills and learn to collaborate as they would in a modern office setting?

“We looked at what we can do to better prepare BComm students for the workplace—given their online individualized study format, AI is an important part of the solution when thinking of a virtual cooperative learning experience,” says Dr. Deborah Hurst, the Dean at AU’s Faculty of Business. “Our virtual learning experience will provide them with stronger practical knowledge and with it unique opportunities to apply the technical and theoretical skills learned in the online classroom while also developing the ability to work with others in a corporate setting.”

Scenario-Based Lesson Plans

The idea of a virtual cooperative learning experience came to life when Dr. Hurst attended a presentation by Ametros Learning who use IBM Watson’s AI. Watson’s AI is based on natural language acquisition, which allows the software to simulate how a human colleague, customer, or business partner would respond in any given situation.

This case-based learning invites cohorts to take total control over their learning environment.

They put their knowledge into practice by solving challenges, while navigating issues that require ethical decision-making, just like they’d do as a business manager in a real workplace.

“I had this ‘eureka’ moment,” says Dr. Hurst. “We can incorporate Ametros Learning’s work using artificial intelligence power within our individualized study program to facilitate actual workplace experiential learning.”

What about group-based assignments in the classroom, you might ask. AI-powered cooperative learning offers several unique advantages over traditional group settings, including:

  • Leadership Development: In face-to-face settings, one person typically takes the lead while the rest of the group assumes responsibility over one or two roles. In an AI-based plan, however, every student has the opportunity to lead and is expected to try out new roles and ideas within the context of the simulated exercise. Its intent is to challenge students to take on and practice leadership roles.
  • Independent Decision-Making: People behave differently when they make decisions independently compared to being in a group setting. This AI-powered cooperative learning experience gives students opportunities to put their ideas to the test without outside influences. It builds confidence and encourages experimentation. 
  • Personalized Feedback: One of the most compelling incentives for getting a BComm is to gain practical and disciplinary knowledge as well as receive one-on-one guidance from an expert. When students complete AI-powered assigned work, an instructor evaluates their individual contributions. This leads to more personal and precise feedback for each and every student.
  • Targeted Challenges: In the real world, an unlimited number of conditions can affect a person’s decision-making. In a virtual setting, an administrator can control most circumstances. This level of simulation allows the program to give students real-world challenges they’ll face in the workplace. This prepares students for more than just one or two scenarios and teaches them to fully understand the impact of their actions.

Realistic World-Building

Machine learning is only as successful as the data you use to “teach” the software how to respond to user behaviors.

To ensure the AI-powered cooperative learning experience is as realistic as possible, the school consulted employers about their experiences.

By harnessing these insights, Athabasca University in partnership with Ametros Learning have designed a program that reflects the challenges students are likely to encounter in the real world.

The school also relies on their faculty to ensure the accuracy of their online BComm program. Faculty members at AU-FB have backgrounds rich in research, teaching, and hands-on industry experience with which to guide students.

What Students Can Expect From the Athabasca University Faculty of Business’s AI-Powered Coop Program

At the onset of the AI-powered virtual cooperative learning experience, students engage in an initial skills assessment to establish a baseline understanding of their abilities. The program then simulates a work environment that mirrors the real world with various AI characters, which includes subordinates, customers, business partners, peers, and supervisors. Fictional AI characters engage with the student in scenarios that encourage risk-taking, solving complex problems, collaboration, persuasion, and thinking critically.

Much like in physical working environments, students are presented with the possibility of failure and consequences to their actions. After running through each exercise, the program provides data that highlights a student’s progress, as well as which areas still need improvement. These key measurements empower students to be proactive about improving their work.

AU’s current plans for the AI-powered virtual cooperative learning experience involve a narrative-driven scenario in which a student assumes a position in management. In this initial simulated situation, they work for a medium-sized technology company in financial services, but the types of industry workplaces and problems will vary as the virtual cooperative learning experiences move forward.

How the Program Is Changing Cooperative Learning

Many obstacles can stand in the way of advancing your career. But an immersive online BComm program offers unparalleled access to cutting-edge developments in the business world.

“Our core university mission revolves around accessibility,” says Dr. Hurst. “Anyone can try a course.  However, they must complete the assignments to be successful in the course. We don’t know any other university yet offering an accessible, virtual cooperative program in this way.”

The university’s unique approach gives students the opportunity to develop professionally without making concessions in their career. It’s also carefully designed to allow students to set their own schedule and location.

Find out how to negotiate a job offer with a few simple tips. 


About the Author

Athabasca University is a recognized leader in international distance and online education. We offered the world’s first fully interactive online MBA program in 1994, and our MBA for executives ranks among the world’s best. We continue to build on our tradition of excellence in graduate management education, launching Canada’s first online DBA in 2009. For more information, please contact us.