Harvard Business School Goes Online

Youngme Moon, chair of Harvard Business School's MBA program

Youngme Moon, chair of Harvard Business School’s MBA program


“Just those two ah-has gave us so much clarity,” adds Moon. “A lot of the energy today is focused on browsers, people casually checking out a class. You get huge numbers of people signing up for MOOCs, but not staying around. That is not what we want to do. We want people to be pre-committed to learning, engaging and teaching each other.”

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. There is this very different segment of the population that would be interested in a business education. We looked at the content that we expect our MBAs to have before they show up on campus. It’s the fundamentals.”

Insists Anand: “This is not the MBA program. This is the language of business.”


The school tapped Jana Kierstead, executive director of the school’s MBA program, to head up its online learning initiative last June. She began building out a team that included a product manager and a director of academic content development to oversee content creation, including such interactive elements as mini-simulations and multiple-choice questions.

In typical Skunk Works’ fashion, the group moved into a nondescript brick building at 175 Harvard St., just past Harvard Stadium, about a five-minute walk from the business school campus. The building is the former home of the university’s transportation department and also contains acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Project, a non-profit that promotes learning through the arts. The only outward sign of HBX’s presence is a paper sign with the words: “Ed Portal Entrance.”

After working secretly for months, Kierstead’s group has come up with a highly intuitive learning platform that is inspired by such social networks as 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 a high degree of participation in online classrooms.


Moon compares the approach to learning a foreign language. “You are evaluated based on what you give as well as what you learn. The way to learn a language is you have to speak it and wrestle it to the ground. During the program, you have to engage. That’s the only way you will internalize it. It’s the difference between learning French from a textbook, or learning by speaking it with others.”

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, Amazon, Google, Disney, The New York Times 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. This is slick, high-production value video with a user-friendly interface and a set of easy-to-use tools for students to interact with each other as well as the content.

Anand, a strategy professor and two-time winner of HBS teaching awards, is leading the Economics for Managers course. Janice Hammond, who has taught pre-MBA boot camps to incoming poets at HBS, is teaching the course in Business Analytics. V.G. Narayanan, who chairs the accounting and management faculty unit at HBS, is teaching Financial Accounting.

When HBS faculty and administrators first began looking into the digital education space, they sampled current online degree and MOOC courses, HBS immediately came away with several insights. When students sign in to a distance learning portal, they often wonder if anyone else is connected to the network. “You sign on and you think, ‘Hello is anyone here?’ You can’t tell,” says Moon. “We wanted to create something that feels social, that allows for an emotional investment in the people you are learning with.”

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