What Harvard Business School Learned From Its First Online Program

HBXThe student guinea pigs who recently completed Harvard Business School’s first online business program seem pretty ecstatic.

“Thank you for an earth-shattering summer,” wrote one participant. “It’s been intense beyond belief, but I have learned an incredible amount.”

“This is the best proxy for any classroom experience that I have seen so far,” another student chimed in.

“It was truly an eye-opening experience,” yet another agreed.

With the beta iteration of the CORe (Credential of Readiness) program now complete, Harvard Business School administrators and faculty are doing their post-review and they like what they’ve discovered and learned. In this first go around, Harvard put a new proprietary digital platform to work with a $1,500 offering of three fundamental business courses for undergraduates and recent graduates of liberal arts programs.


The trio of online courses—Business Analytics, Economics for Managers, and Financial Accounting—launched June 11th and ended in August two months later, requiring about ten hours a week of work from students. Students then had a month to do the on-site exams, and a “closing ceremony” for graduates was held yesterday (Nov. 2) on the Harvard Business School campus.

At the ceremony, Dean Nitin Nohria told students in the inaugural HBX cohort that only five years ago he never thought that online offerings would be offered by Harvard Business School. “Five years ago, I literally stood there and declared that we would never do it, that we have this case method that is a unique, extraordinary form of learning,” he said. “I couldn’t possibly imagine how an online world could capture the magic of Harvard Business School. So it is especially humbling to stand here today in front of a group of pioneers who in so many ways have proven me wrong.”

Dean Nohria is not the only one smiling. The final results have faculty very pleased. Some 85% of the 600 students who enrolled in the program completed it, even though participants were prevented from moving forward unless they completed a module within a two-week timeframe. No less crucial, the program received a strong endorsement from those who finished the three courses meant to teach humanities undergrads and recent graduates the language of business.

Asked to grade how engaging the course materials were on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest grade, 80% of the students awarded a grade of four or five. On course quality, the approval number hit 86%, while the quality of the course instructors—all endowed professors who teach in Harvard’s full-time MBA program—won a four or five grade from 90% of the participants.


The biggest gripe?  It took students longer than expected to complete the work. Many were in highly demanding summer internships that require them to work 60 or more hours a week. “Even students who wanted to withdraw in the first week told we they hadn’t realized that on top of their summer internships they would have time to do this,” says Bharat N. Anand, faculty chair of HBX. “It actually was taking 10 to 11 hours a week, but some thought they could do it in less.” Initially, HBS said the coursework would total seven to ten hours a week. And sometimes, so many students logged in at the same time that the platform couldn’t efficiently handle the loads.

The program—based on videos and case studies—demanded a steady commitment from students. “Having this regular cadence of learning is something that we create in our classrooms,” explains Anand. “You have to prepare for a case every day. You can’t cram for an exam. So the deadlines are a forcing function to do things in the last minute.” At one point, the faculty team decided to offer incentives to students who completed their assignments early. “We said if you finish 36 hours before the deadline, we’ll give you a free t-shirt or a free review of your resume from the HBS Career Services office. It increased the rate of early completion by 15%.”

But what most surprised the core HBS team was the level of engagement by the students. “The engagement scores by students are stunning,” says Jana Kierstead, executive director of HBX, the name for the school’s in-house online learning group. “They are very, very high, especially for the first time around for a pure online course.”


The first surprise centered around who actually enrolled in the new program. “We positioned it as a program for Humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors,” explains Anand, who also taught one of the three courses. “We ended up getting roughly a third from the Humanities, a third STEM and another third from from economics, social science, and business undergraduates. That was the rough breakdown.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, 20% of those who enrolled in the program were graduate students, including students from medical and law schools, and even a PhD in natural science. Almost 20% of the students were international, and 40% were women.  When we opened up the website in March, we were thinking of only rising juniors and seniors, but we also opened it up to rising sophomores because that is the time when students are trying to get themselves in line for internships.”

When HBS built its digital platform, the school decided that the first thing students would see when they logged in was a map with create a social element pulsating dots, each dot representing another student currently on the platform. The idea was to mimic such social media sites as Facebook. Click on any of the dots and a photo of a student pops up on the screen, along with his or her name and bio. Click on the photo and up comes a list of professional and personal passions and interests, from an individual’s dream job to their favorite rock band and inspirational role model. Students are asked how they are feeling at the moment, from “confused” or “happy” to “inspired,” their moods visible to fellow classmates.


Anand noted that when on the very first day the platform opened, 300 people uploaded profile pictures and the site recorded 13,000 profile views—in 24 hours. “Everyone wanted to see who else was there,” he says, “and they wanted to know who they were talking to. At the end of the first day, there was a student— from Harvard College — who completed the first module in all three courses. “She reached out to us and said, ‘I just want you to know that I have been on the platform for several hours and part of the reason is I can’t tear myself away from it.’”

Then, adds Anand, “we started seeing engagement, posts on Facebook and Twitter. We had an official Facebook group to allow students to engage with each other naturally outside the platform. That happened in week two when someone posted about a stock split at Apple and what it meant. Students began sending us emails on how the real world cases had really drawn them in. This is a very different way to learn these topics.”

Comments or questions about this article? Email us.