Harvard’s CORe Takes Case Method To Masses

CORe takes a cohort-based, case-driven digital platform beyond the confirms of Harvard Business School (Photo Credit: Jeffrey Wai)

CORe takes a cohort-based, case-driven digital platform beyond the confines of Harvard Business School (Photo Credit: Jeffrey Wai)

How do you duplicate the magic of the MBA classroom online? How do you nurture valuable networks and supportive communities when students are separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles? How do you attract talented professionals whose experience and insights enrich a virtual learning experience? Most of all, how do you create a platform that couples teaching excellence with rigor and accountability? All from a computer screen?

Answering those questions are central to any online course or program. They are even more compelling for Harvard Business School, whose curriculum is predicated on case learning, which starts with synthesizing and questioning, but thrives on real-time dialogue and debate. Could HBS’ mojo be unbottled online? Six years ago, Dean Nitin Nohria’s initial response was an unequivocal, “Not in my lifetime.”

However, online capabilities have since evolved, says Patrick Mullane, an HBS alum (’99) who is the executive director of HBX, the school’s online initiative, after a career as an Air Force captain and a manufacturing CEO. With these changes, Dean Nohria decided to invest heavily in the online space – with a caveat. “He thought that if we’re going to be part of it,” says Mullane, “it needed to meet our pedagogical standards. It needed to be interactive, social, and case-based.”

Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX

Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX


By those measures, HBX has been a smashing success. This digital learning platform begins with CORe, which stands for the Credential of Readiness. Consisting of three courses – Business Analytics, Economics for Managers, and Financial Accounting – the program is targeted to recent graduates and seasoned professionals who may not be fluent in business fundamentals or what HBX calls “the language of business.” In just three years, 10,500 students have enrolled in CORe, with the program boasting an 85% to 90% completion rate (defined as students who sit for the final exam).

One of those students was Krishna Rajendran, a member of HBS’ Class of 2018, who graduated in the top 5% of his CORe class. He became interested in CORe while earning his Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) degree in Logistics and Supply Chain Management at MIT. For Rajendran, the program was an opportunity to get a taste of graduate business school in general and Harvard Business School in particular. At the same time, his enthusiasm was tempered by his past experience with online courses. Rajendran admits that he’d often grow disengaged due to long-winded lectures and a lack of community.

He found quite the opposite with CORe. Rajendran was particularly complimentary of content delivery. For complex topics, he says, the instructor would break them down into smaller pieces and then build them back up, using cases to illustrate their relevance and how they worked in the real world. He has since retained this understanding at HBS, even though he hadn’t engaged with the material in over a year. “It was taught in such a beautiful way that was so crystal clear,” he adds.


Krishina Rajendran, CORe graduate and MBA candidate at the Harvard Business School.

Krishina Rajendran, CORe graduate and MBA candidate at the Harvard Business School.

Not that the trio of courses were a breeze. True to HBS’ case-driven pedagogy, CORe features the dreaded cold call. After a 1-2 minute lecture, a question (cold call) will pop up out of nowhere for selected students who are given two minutes to respond. In addition, students can read their peers’ responses and reply to them, so the discussion cascades into something bigger just as it does in an on-campus class. “You’re constantly on your toes” Rajendran explains. “You have to listen to what the instructor has to say, because if you get called, you have to share your opinion.”

CORe further simulates the HBS experience, according to Rajendran, through peer-to-peer learning. Students are active partners in each other’s learning, creating a strong sense of community that he’d never experienced in any other online environment. “You’d pose a question and in the next 10 minutes, you’d have five people chiming in trying to help you out, he says. “You get that constant feedback and quick replies and answers. It really helps to reinforce the concepts.”

Does successfully completing CORe help applicants get into HBS? Rajendran demurs, calling it merely “another data point.” However, he adds that his performance in the program showed adcoms that he could handle the courses at HBS. Whether students were set on business school or not, he would recommend CORe either way. “The modules they teach in accounting, economics, and business analytics are key to any business school you want to do. If you come to B-school, it gives you an advantage. You learn so much faster and you can just go to a deeper level. If you don’t decide to come to business school, the concepts are so fundamental to anything you want to do in the world.”

  • DACochran

    I agree with 98% of what you said, up until the last sentence. “In no way does CORe diminish the HBS brand”. I took CORe in 2015 to prepare for business school and the percentage of my cohort who claimed they were “studying at Harvard” or “can’t believe they’re at Harvard Business School” was at least 25-30%.

    You are 100% correct that people who know dismiss this as nonsense and it’s absolutely not a reason to shy away from HBS (I would have given a finger to be able to redo my interview and hopefully have gotten in) but it absolutely affects the brand of HBS. Many of the people who loudly proclaimed this were the ones who didn’t end up completing the program because it was a lot of work.

    CORe is an amazing experience, the only downside was the posers. It was very annoying though, to the extent that I noted it multiple times to my SO and others.

  • Cornell 15′

    Agreed, outside of a dressing up your linked in profile, not much will come from exaggerating in what capacity you’ve interacted with a school. I have seen many people use Harvard extension in that way (on way to tell for undergrad classes is Harvard College vs Harvard University). I have also seen people use eCornell in that way. It is annoying, but you have to trust that informed recruiters know enough to tell the difference.

  • Nathan

    Hello HBS&Wharton, I think you are right. Unlike my fellow students at the Extension School, I won’t argue that the ALMM is equivalent to the MBA from the Business School. Most of the prestigious companies in consulting and banking require an MBA, not a Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies in Management. In fact, I believe that pursuing an ALB and ALM makes sense if you choose, well, a liberal arts field.

    The thing is, we still get much more resources and opportunities at HES. I found my professors from the other schools very good, too.

    And quite frankly, many of us would prefer giving money to Harvard rather than a for-profit institution. If my tuition (which goes to FAS) can help Harvard College and GSAS students who need it, then I’m fine with it.

  • There’s no doubt that among uninformed people–and there are quite a few uninformed and misinformed people out there–there could be some confusion. But you could argue the same for one of Wharton’s MOOC specializations. So I don’t think HBS CORe is much different from that.

  • HBS&Wharton

    Thanks for your prompt response, John. Not sure if you might have an article about this already, but don’t programs like ‘Master of Liberal Arts in Management’ at Extension School give a wrong impression to people unfamiliar with the differences between the real MBA and Masters in Management? Not every employer is an expert in various programs that are offered at Harvard and the general assumption of Harvard is that only the top people go there. However, now more and more people do have a chance to claim that they have a degree without putting too much effort to get into the school. I know that this should not be a problem for the businesses that are aware of the differences of HBS and HES degrees, however there are thousands of other companies in the US and internationally who will be impressed to see Harvard without knowing the real quality of the person.

  • Wharton is among a handful of the best business schools in the world. There are plenty of reasons to go there over HBS but this isn’t one of them. People who exaggerate this credential on their resumes are doing themselves harm. This is a really good program of business basics, but it is the bare fundamental knowledge of what an MBA offers. If anything, for many prospective MBA students, this is a great program to take to get a taste of what to expect but also to level the playing field with other MBA students who already know the business basics. In no way, does CORe diminish the HBS brand.

  • HBS&Wharton

    Does it make sense to choose Wharton over HBS? I feel like a lot of people now brag around that they studied business at Harvard, when in reality they got their certificates from the Extension School. As time passes, seems like there would be a lot more ‘graduates’ claiming they went Harvard, which is technically true but not the Harvard everyone else thinks of. Am I overreacting or misunderstanding something in saying that these programs will take away some of the prestige from the HBS MBA?