Virtual co-op to harness generative AI in teaching students about sustainable business
Athabasca University course made possible by funding from RBC Foundation
Athabasca University (AU) business students will gain real-world knowledge and skills through a completely virtual co-op experience that harnesses the power of generative artificial intelligence.
AU is expanding its ground-breaking AI-powered virtual co-op, ADMN 405, with a new simulation that teaches students about sustainable business practices. Sustainability covers the three pillars of economic development, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability, explained Dr. Lisa Watson, dean of AU’s Faculty of Business.
“Sustainability has become a foundation for businesses and it’s a topic that our students have been asking for,” Watson said. “It made sense to give our students this opportunity and to add one more layer in terms of what AI has been able to provide in providing meaningful experiences to students.”
“Sustainability has become a foundation for businesses and it’s a topic that our students have been asking for. It made sense to give our students this opportunity and to add one more layer in terms of what AI has been able to provide in providing meaningful experiences to students.”– Lisa Watson, dean, Faculty of Business
RBC Foundation supports learning innovation
The new simulation was made possible thanks in part to a $150,000 donation from the RBC Foundation—the fourth time the organization has supported AU’s AI-powered co-op.
“We are grateful to the RBC Foundation for their ongoing support of groundbreaking innovation in the Faculty of Business. Without them, none of this would have happened,” Watson said.
“We’re so pleased to continue to support this important work that’s helping to create Canada’s next generation of business leaders, and to help arm them with a mix of disciplinary and professional skill strength to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing world,” said Jeff Boyd, RBC regional president, Alberta and territories.
“The virtual co-op offering for students aligns so well to our Future Launch Program that helps empower Canadian youth for the jobs of tomorrow.”
Powerful impact of AI-powered learning
AU became the world’s first university to embrace AI in a fully virtual business co-op when in 2020 it partnered with Ametros Learning and launched ADMN 405.
The virtual nature of the course means students can gain real-world skills without having to leave their home community. This novel approach supports the university’s commitment to removing barriers to learning, said Richard Dixon, the academic coordinator who co-founded the course with former dean and current business professor Dr. Deborah Hurst.
“The virtual co-op provides a far richer experience than most co-op jobs because it creates a safe working environment where we can give students more complex challenges than they would be given in a traditional workplace,” Dixon said. “Those types of barriers don’t exist with our virtual co-op. We are open to everyone.”
Generative AI to enhance course
Business sustainability is the fourth simulation developed for ADMN 405. The three other options include working in a chartered bank, in a Canadian construction company, or being part of a large consulting company’s digital transformation unit.
Dixon said ideas are still in the works for the narrative behind the business sustainability simulation, but the new offering will reflect rapid advances to generative AI in the last few years.
The course uses an innovative AI learning platform developed by Ametros Learning that simulates real-life work experiences. Students interact with AI characters playing the roles of work colleagues and management.
AI can improve assessment, combat plagiarism
Dixon said advances in AI will not only improve the student experience, it will help with assessing students’ knowledge and skills. It can also be a tool in preventing plagiarism, which has been a topic of concern across the education sector since last year’s launch of generative AI tool ChatGPT.
“The big thing that’s going to happen with this one is we’re going to have the ability to basically do real-time assessment,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to plagiarize. It’s like a graduate student defending their thesis or a medical doctor or nurse being tested in medical procedures. You either know it or you don’t.”
Cathy Pillar, CEO of Ametros Learning, says she’s excited to again work with AU and embrace new technologies that advance the AI foundation on which ADMN 405 was built. Ultimately, it’s about giving students an opportunity to apply their knowledge in new and powerful ways.
“As an education company, we’re constantly evolving and using new technology and finding new ways to introduce that into new solutions,” Pillar said. “Generative AI is a more powerful tool because it’s very authentic. You can have a more lifelike interaction and the assessment is going to be far more accurate.”
Experience continues to benefit graduates
Laverne Wells (Bachelor of Management ’21) of Blood Tribe First Nation in Alberta was in her 50s when she returned to school. She was intimidated initially by the idea of a virtual co-op but soon learned it helped her apply knowledge and theory immediately.
“When you’re going to school, they only teach you the theory aspect of any profession,” Wells said. “They don’t teach you like the real hands on and what’s expected in real-life situations. That’s why I really enjoyed it because I learned a lot about myself.”
Khiya McElwain (Bachelor of Commerce ’22) says the virtual co-op was a transformational experience that continues to positively impact her career and outlook at home and at work in the Toronto area.
After several decades in the TV and media industry, McElwain said she thought she was a strong communicator. The virtual co-op changed her thinking while giving a grounding in strategy.
“I took this virtual co-op and it told me one of my main issues was not communicating clearly with others. I was blindsided by that. It was like peeling off a Band-Aid,” said McElwain, now an accountant with EY. “Every time I write an email now I have to re-read it through the lens of that virtual co-op.”
Dixon said the business sustainability simulation will be beta-tested next spring, and then get rolled out as an option for ADMN 405 in September 2024.