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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.

HBXMOOCS? NOT FOR THE HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL

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.

‘WE HAVE BEEN FLIPPING THE CLASSROOM FOR 100 YEARS’

“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.”

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