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.”
COMPLETION RATE UP TO 90%
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.
STUDENTS GET TWO MINUTES TO ANSWER A COLD CALL
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.”