Harvard Business School
Harvard Business School's Baker Library Photograph by Kelvin Ma—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Harvard B-school opens the flood gates with online courses

Feb 10, 2015

(Poets&Quants) -- After a pair of highly successful pilot runs, Harvard Business School is now opening its online program in business basics to students worldwide. The school is also inviting admitted MBA students to enroll in the program as a pre-MBA boot camp experience, particularly for non-traditional admits or those who need more basic quantitative work before showing up on campus.

All told, slightly more than 1,100 students have now taken the primer on the fundamentals of business called CORe (Credential of Readiness) program. In the first beta starting last June, the trio of courses—Business Analytics, Economics for Managers, and Financial Accounting—were open to only undergraduate students attending colleges in Massachusetts and alumni. Some 600 students took the $1,500 two-month program. Harvard then tested the suite of courses on 500 managers at nine different companies in a B-to-B experiment.

For the first time, HBS is now opening up the program—based on case studies and videos—to applicants worldwide, including adult learners who have been out of school up to 10 years, and students admitted to the school's full-time, on-campus MBA program this fall.

Initially, the program was designed largely for non-business undergraduates who needed the business basics to give them a leg up on the job market when they graduated from college. These latest changes could put the program in competition with more expensive Executive MBA programs, which demand a greater time commitment from managers with 10 or more years of work experience. EMBA programs cover a lot more ground, but Harvard's imprimatur on this program of business basics could make it appealing to managers who otherwise would attend second-tier EMBA programs. CORe more directly competes with summer business programs for undergraduate students from schools like UC-Berkeley and Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business.

In its beta test, Harvard discovered that the program attracted a much broader group of students than it expected. “We positioned it as a program for Humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors,” explains Bharat N. Anand, faculty chair of HBX, the name of Harvard Business School's online initiative. “We ended up getting roughly a third from the humanities, a third STEM, and another third from from economics, social science, and business undergraduates. That was the rough breakdown.”

In a surprise, 20% of those who enrolled in CORe were graduate students, including students from medical and law schools, and even one PhD in natural science. Almost 20% of the students were international and 40% were women. "When we opened up the website, we were thinking of only rising juniors and seniors, but we also opened it up to rising sophomores because that is the time when students are trying to get themselves in line for internships,” adds Anand.

Asked to grade how engaging the course materials were on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest grade, 80% of the first batch of students awarded a grade of four or five. On course quality, the approval figure hit 86%, while the quality of the course instructors—all endowed professors who teach in Harvard’s full-time MBA program—won a four or five grade from 90% of the participants. "The results are very encouraging," says Anand. "We are still in the early stages of this journey, but it is really exciting. We have high engagement from participants. We have an established revenue model and, most important, the program reflects who we are."

HBS says it will now accept applicants from anywhere in the world as old as the mid-to-late 30s to apply for start dates in February, April, and June. The deadline for applications for the April 15 intake is March 25, while the deadline for the cohort that begins on June 3 will be May 13.

"We are gradually increasing the eligibility," says Anand. "There are a lot of career switchers who want to understand business better, even entrepreneurs who have run their own companies but now want to run their firms more systematically. The number of applications we received from people who are 13 or 15 years out of college was fascinating."

Anand says the cohort starting Feb. 25 will likely number 500 to 1,000 participants and will include a relatively small group of Harvard admits who will come to campus in September for their first year in the MBA program. Like many other business schools, HBS typically held a one-week program called Analytics to get incoming students up to speed on accounting and data. Harvard has decided to give those students who feel they need a jumpstart the option of taking CORe or coming to campus for the residential Analytics program in July or August. He expects roughly 20% of the next incoming class at HBS, some 150 to 200 students out of slightly more than 900, to take CORe this year.

"This is really getting our students to do the program so they are ready to take advantage of the full experience on campus," believes Anand. "The genesis of CORe was asking how can we create a wow experience online so they can get up to speed with the basics of data, accounting, and economics before they come on campus."

HBS expects a significantly higher summer enrollment in June, when the price of the program rises by $300 to $1,800. Anand says he expects to have as many as 3,000 learners signed up, more than three times the intake at Harvard's full-time MBA program. CORe students would be divided into cohorts of 300 to 500. The school will also increase the amount of financial aid available for students. "We are trying to scale up in a measured fashion," explains Anand. "You want enough thickness on peer group conversations so that when someone poses a question it gets answered quickly and that requires a large cohort. But at the same time you don’t want a cohort that is so large it becomes impersonal."

Unlike many other online business courses, CORe participants are graded in each course based on quizzes, a final exam, and their level of participation. The program is largely taught through case studies of issues and challenges at such organizations as Amazon, PepsiCo, The New York Times, and the American Red Cross. But there also are lessons from managers at small, local companies, including the Bikram Yoga studio near campus. Harvard awards a certificate of completion to each graduate and says it will maintain transcripts of the grades. Top performers receive an Honors or High Honors designation, similar to what Harvard MBAs get when they graduate from the school.

So, what has Harvard learned after sending two cohorts through the program? The second B-to-B cohort had an 80% completion rate and engagement rates off the chart, much like the pioneer cohort. The completion rate fell by five percentage points, largely because the second cohort was comprised entirely of full-time managers and employees who often found it difficult to complete all the work. Learners find that it takes about 10 hours a week over the two-month program to get all the work done. Participants also are prevented from moving forward unless they complete a module within a two-week timeframe, a deadline that makes it hard to catch up when students fall behind.

Anand says that they initially tweaked the program to strike a balance between taking advantage of the asynchronous nature of online learning while preserving some synchronous activity so that students can help their classmates at certain points. "In the first cohort, we had five gates—or deadlines for the completion of work—across all three courses," he says. "In the fall, we moved to a slightly different structure. If you have all three deadlines on one day, it becomes very hard to catch up. So we put in many more deadlines, 17 in all, in the fall. The moment you go to 17, students have to keep up continuously but you also want to preserve some flexibity for them. So we are now moving back to something in the middle, about 10 deadlines with some overlap for when material is released to allow some students to move faster.

"With 17 deadlines, if you miss one or two it becomes really, really hard. So with the next cohort we are creating a slack week in between the program so you can catch up. We're extending the program from 10 to 11 weeks. Things happen in people's lives. The completion rates are high, but we would love to see them higher."

Despite the decline in the completion rate among full-time employees, engagement remained extremely high. Harvard attempted to determine how many students came on the platform because they wanted to be there. "The pioneers said that for every two hours they spent learning on the platform, they were spending an extra hour engaging with their peers," says Anand. "This is striking because that is entirely voluntary work. Many students said you could get through the material in 10 hours a week, but a good number chose to spend 15 hours a week because they were enjoying it so much."

Do online students learn more or less than students in a traditional classroom? Anand says the school is in the process of studying this and plans to release a report shortly. He shares one anecdote from a student who took his exam a month after finishing CORe last summer. "He sat down to prepare three days before and he told me that for the first time in his educational career he didn’t need to revisit the material," recalls Anand. "He retained everything. He said it was part of the educational experience. It was engaging throughout. He wasn’t a passive learner."

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