Harvard Business School Goes Online

At a squat, nondescript building on the edge of campus, Harvard Business School has quietly built a 32-person staff for its new online learning initiative HBX

At a squat, nondescript building on the edge of campus, Harvard Business School has quietly built a 32-person staff for its new online learning initiative HBX

The Harvard Business School today (March 21) boldly made its first move into the digital education 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 to 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 core MBA program.

CORe is the first of what will 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 HBX 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 (see HBX: How Disruptive To Management Education?)

Launching in late spring of 2014 is a portfolio of classes 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/clinical fellows. HBS won’t give any of this away for free, though it has yet to determine how it will price these classes.


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 also have 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 credibility to the idea of getting an online MBA degree. 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 largely sat 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. So much of the conversation was around flipping the classroom, but we have been flipping the classroom for 100 years. That is what the case method is.”

The HBS group made a 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 of 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 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.”

  • JohnAByrne

    Every month, we publish a list of the essential MOOC courses being offered that month and there are always some of these Wharton courses on the list. Check our latest one for early October out:


  • JohnAByrne

    What Wharton does is entirely different than the HBS program. Wharton is providing a Foundational Series of MBA-level courses–not courses designed for liberal arts undergrads to increase business literacy. The benefit of the Wharton courses is that they are all in the form of MOOCs and are free. You don’t have to apply to take these courses and they do provide a sizable chunk of the core MBA curriculum. The school offers them for free to extend its brand around the world and to learn more about the delivery of academic learning online.

    But the experience is significantly different for a number of reasons: 1) The HBS program is for a different demographic and is selective, 2) The HBS courses are put together into a coherent whole, 3) HBS’ proprietary technology allows the school to teach via the case method, which is what the school is known for, and 4) Every student is graded and the grades are maintained on a transcript that can be sent to schools and/or employers.

  • Absolutely Right! Mr. Rajendra but we should not have to ignore some other organizations who are doing this business for many years. Also i was doing a course of Gaming at coursera but failed to complete the course due to some other issues.

  • Jackie

    Can you provide a link to Wharton’s program?

  • Jan

    As a HBS alum, I think this program will be useful for aspiring MBAs and others who want to acquire business acumen via the experience of a class discussion led by HBS faculty, but I see the real value of the move online for alumni and executives who want to keep updating their knowledge yet don’t have the bandwidth to return to a campus setting.

  • rajendra

    HBS and MIT are together on Online Initiative. Online schooling business and teaching model demand collaboration. Solo efforts may not succeed though HBS has lot of money at the moment. Best online faculty will not be stuck to a school and great faculty members will tend to be freelancers. Content, faculty and students will rule the roost on digital platform, not the brick and mortar structures. Clayton has insights as hes is the disruption guru and leading authority.MIT launched online MBA at the cost of 133k+15k USD. Amazing.

  • rajendra

    Harvard Business School Goes Online
    It was inevitable. It was not an option. Teaching methods, learning methods and business of education will undergo massive change.

  • Matt

    This is to Cynical Mike as well as Bob,

    I got the impression that they aren’t offering these courses just for someone to be able to put them on their resume as an “end point.” They are the same foundational courses of an MBA program. It seems clear to me that they are gearing up to eventually use this delivery format for new MBA students.

  • Cynical Mike

    Doesn’t Wharton already do this? And don’t they do it for free? And isn’t Wharton’s program four courses instead of three?

    So you get four weeks with Michael “Five Forces” Porter. How does that enrich me in a way that a Management 101 doesn’t? How does it enrich my firm or my team? What’s different, new, or advantageous? Does it shorten the admissions line at HBS proper, or am I paying for the privilege to boast that I dropped a couple car payments on something with the almighty “VERITAS” affixed to it?

    I’m experiencing quite a bit of “gimmick fatigue” thanks to P&Q’s reportage.

  • Bob

    This is a complete money grab. They’ll gladly take $1,500 x 2,000 (?) students x ~5 times pa = $15m … yet only give out a ‘certificate of completion’. Will employers really see any value in this? Will the model be that much more enriching or engaging than the best MOOCs out there? This is an excuse to make more $$ without eroding brand value of HBS (rather just creating a new, lesser quality brand of HBX)

  • Matt

    It is good that they are doing this. I wonder how many people will try to post on here now saying even a Harvard education is “second rate” when delivered online. I know this is just a couple of classes, but I would bet anything this is just a first step.

    And I don’t know who this other guy is but he’s stolen my name. 🙂

  • JohnAByrne


    I think “bold” is not a stretch here. HBS has 32 full-time people employed in this effort. The school built its own proprietary platform to deliver online education. It sees the digital delivery of higher education as a significant revenue-producing part of its future.

    Rather than offer something free on an existing MOOC platform, HBS has chosen to go its own way, pouring millions of dollars of investment into it. This is significantly different than the approach followed by its rivals. Bold may be an understatement.

  • Matt

    Bold entry? Why is P&Q always trying to inflate whatever HBS does? In my opinion HBS is (once more) trying to catch up with Wharton.

  • jon

    I’ve taken a number of MOOCs and personally feel the ones that are offered by recording the classroom lectures are more natural and enjoyable than the multimedia enhanced ones.