Harvard B-school dips its toe into online education

March 21, 2014, 7:39 PM UTC
Harvard Business School

(Poets&Quants) — Harvard Business School on Friday made its first move into the digital educational realm with a $1,500 online program of three fundamental business courses for undergraduates and recent graduates of liberal arts programs. The school expects 500 to 1,000 students to enroll in the beta version of the program, which will launch this June for rising juniors and seniors and freshly minted college graduates who live in Massachusetts.

If all goes well, Harvard expects to make the CORe (Credential of Readiness) program available nationwide in the fall, with as many as 2,000 students, and to roll it out internationally early next year. Students who enroll in the pre-MBA program will take a trio of online classes — business analytics, economics for managers, and financial accounting — all taught by full-time, tenured, and endowed professors at Harvard Business School who have taught in the MBA program.

CORe is the first of what will inevitably be a portfolio of online courses and programs from the Harvard Business School, which has been quietly assembling an in-house online learning group dubbed HBS that now numbers 32 full-time staffers. In choosing to enter the digital education space with a paid offering, HBS has decided to pass on the MOOC bandwagon in which rival schools are providing both core and elective courses to hundreds of thousands of users for free.

The school will launch a set of classes in late spring 2014 taught by the school’s big guns: strategy guru Michael Porter, Mr. Disruption himself; Clay Christensen; and HBS’ top professors in entrepreneurship, Bill Sahlman and Joe Lassiter. They will respectively teach the microeconomics of competitiveness; disruptive innovation, growth, and strategy; and entrepreneurship and innovation. Christensen’s course will require four to five hours per week over four weeks, while the entrepreneurship course will initially be limited to Harvard undergrads, graduate students, and postdoctoral and clinical fellows.

In the past couple of years, many business schools have been experimenting with massive open online courses, justifying their investments as a learning opportunity in search of a business model. In January of last year, the University of Virginia launched its first MOOC on growing an entrepreneurial business. In September, Wharton became the first business school to bundle a collection of MOOCs together to deliver much of its core required classes in the MBA program. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business weighed in last October with a MOOC on the finance of retirement and pensions.

Online degree programs have also proliferated. Though Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business has been offering an online MBA since 1999, newer entrants such as Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School and the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina have brought additional credibility to the notion of getting an online MBA. More than 2,000 students have earned Kelley MBAs online, and the school’s Kelley Direct online program currently has an enrollment of 728 students.

Until now, Harvard Business School has been on the sidelines, not wanting to either cannibalize or cheapen its existing on-campus MBA program or its executive education offerings. But a small group of faculty and administrators quietly began informal discussions on what HBS should do with digital education some 15 months ago.

“In the earliest conversations,” says Youngme Moon, senior associate dean and chair of the MBA program at Harvard Business School, “we simply looked at what was out there. When TV was first invented, they put a camera in front of a stage and taped plays. It’s at the point where people are still putting cameras in classrooms to capture lectures.”

The HBS group made an early determination to embrace the technology, using it to more deeply engage students rather than delivering a static classroom experience. The school decided in January 2013 that it would have to develop its own proprietary software platform to accomplish those goals.

“We are piggybacking on media companies that have tried to make the digital transition,” says Bharat Anand, who was named faculty chair of HBX, Harvard’s online platform, last September. “We said there is no way you can replicate the magic that goes on in an HBS classroom. So we created a digital upgrade. We asked, ‘What is it that makes an HBS class special? There are two principles: 1) Action learning. We call it the case method but it is an active way to learn. People don’t just come in and listen. They participate. People are all in, all the time. You’re not a tourist at HBS. And 2) The case method does not start with simple ideas and build to complexity. We throw you into the deep end. We start with complexity and then dive down.”

The group then selected a market segment in which HBS does not currently have an offering. “We began to think about how we could make a real difference,” says Moon. “We have MBA and executive education, so the space we began to narrow in on is undergraduates who lack the basic language of business.”

What HBS has come up with is a highly intuitive learning platform that is inspired by social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn as well as online gaming portals. Rather than putting a camera in front of a lecturing professor, the school’s proprietary software platform mimics Harvard’s famous case study approach, replete with cold calls to individual students and grades based on participation in online classrooms.

The school has developed a new series of 15 live cases for the online program, with video snippets of protagonists who grapple with various business challenges at a wide range of well-known companies including Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN), Google (GOOG), Disney (DIS), The New York Times (NYT), and Harrah’s casinos as well as at smaller entrepreneurial outfits, including a Bikram yoga studio and a Boston ticket reseller. Professors pop up on video to guide a discussion or provide context and perspective.

Anand, a strategy professor who is a two-time winner of teaching awards at HBS, is teaching a class called economics for managers. Janice Hammond, who has taught pre-MBA boot camps to incoming poets (those without significant math backgrounds) at HBS, is teaching the course on business analytics. V.G. Narayanan, who chairs the accounting and management faculty unit at HBS, is teaching financial accounting.

When students log into the HBX platform, they will immediately see a map with pulsating dots, each dot representing another student currently on the platform. Click on any of the dots and a photo of a student pops up on the screen, along with his or her name and bio. Click on the photo and up comes a list of professional and personal passions and interests, from an individual’s dream job to their favorite band and role model. Students are asked how they are feeling at the moment, from “confused” or “happy” to “inspired,” their moods visible to fellow classmates.

Students can track their progress in each course against their peers. Each cohort will move through the program together, passing through a series of gates, during which assignments, cold calls, and projects must be completed. “You need to keep up with projects and deadlines or you get dropped out of the course,” says Anand.

While in the online classroom, a student can chat with classmates, jot down notes, and engage in the discussion. Similar to video game software, a student puts his or her name in a queue and is pinged when a critical mass of classmates appear. “When you get a team of six, a conversation occurs,” adds Anand.

The cases at the center of the program range from the impact of a paywall at The New York Times to estimating the likely demand for tickets to a sports event. “We wanted to deal with concepts that start with real-world examples,” says Moon.

And then, there is that dreaded cold call. “It’s one of the most powerful levers in the classroom,” says Anand. “It gets some people terrified to speak in front of their peers. But it’s also a way to share learning and gain confidence.”

A window will unexpectedly pop up on the screen with a question, along with a box requiring a student’s answer in a set period of time. The answer then becomes part of the ongoing discussion in the online class, visible to all the other students.

The CORe program lasts just two months, requiring between seven and ten hours a week from students. Courses can be taken at any time during the two-month period because none of the online sessions will be in real time. Grades for each course will be based on participation and tests, including a final examination. HBS will maintain a transcript of each student’s grades and award a certificate of completion to every student who graduates from the program.

HBS decided that the “first wave” of students would be limited to those living in Massachusetts so it can quickly respond to any problems and refine the product for “wave two.” The school will make available an online application for the program in early-to-mid April.

“We want this to be accessible but we want serious learners only. The sweet spot is rising juniors and seniors,” says Moon. HBS will make financial aid available on an as-needed basis. The $1,500 inaugural cost of the program will likely rise, though Harvard is not saying by how much. The school also declined to say how much it has already invested in HBX or how many online students it ultimately expects to have.

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