What Harvard Business School Has Learned From The Coronavirus Crisis

The Harvard Business School campus is unusually empty now as classes shifted online

If there was a way of teaching ill-suited for remote instruction, it would have to be the case study. After all, a successful case teacher orchestrates a fast-paced discussion in a classroom filled with as many as 90 MBA students. The success of a case study class depends on a professor’s ability to read faces and body language and to often call on students in rapid-fire succession to shares their perspectives and experience. It is a high energy exercise, intense and dynamic, with a richness and a momentum that is impossible to fully duplicate online.

At the business school long known as the bastion of case study teaching, then, how has this transition worked? Harvard Business School shut down its physical classrooms in Aldrich and went entirely online on March 23rd, now known on campus as V-Day for the day that everything went virtual. At a largely empty campus, some 54 MBA classes transitioned online, with just a few glitches but many disappointed students. By mid-afternoon of V-Day, nearly 1,000 Zoom meetings had occurred, including 67 with 30 or more participants along with 680 meetings with fewer than five participants.

The transition, planned over a two-week period during spring break, was proclaimed a success. Only two classes experienced issues getting started, a handful discovered problems with Zoom’s breakout room feature, and faculty struggled through a few challenges with file sharing.  According to HBS, more than 20 IT staff members triaged support issues, including approximately 30 tickets due to online teaching.


Yet, as one Harvard MBA student told Poets&Quants after a few days of attending Zoom classes on his laptop, “I have never appreciated case study teaching more than I do now that we can’t be in a classroom. The campus is eerily quiet and not much is going on.” Adds another student: “The shift to online classes has been bittersweet for us. HBS has cut down all the three class days to now two classes to help people cope better with the online environment. The class participation and feeler of the HBS case method is slightly diminished by not being in person. Familiarity and rapport within a class is crucial to drive great classroom discussion- which is the linchpin of the case method. Since we spent time in a classroom as a class, our Zoom sessions have been better than expected. I can’t say the same for classes which start in the online world itself.”

Many students went home, of course, with roughly 350 of the more than 1,800 MBA students remaining in Harvard Business School’s residence halls. On V-Day, Harvard Business School recorded 860 unique ID card swipes on the business school campus after it had locked down every building and required an HBS ID card for access.  Please be sure you carry your HBS ID with you at all times., well below the more than 5,000 people regularly swiping on a typical class day.

Like many business schools, resource-rich Harvard finds itself with a greatly diminished endowment, which had totaled more than $4 billion before the market crashed. The school’s highly lucrative in-person executive education business, which brought in $222 million in fiscal 2019 and is highly dependent on international participants, has been shut down since March 15th and is unlikely to open for some time. Even HBS’ equally lucrative Harvard Business Publishing arm, which had record revenue of $262 million last year selling case studies and other materials, has suffered. The school also anticipates a drop in philanthropic support and a likely increase in the need for financial aid to students.

If there is one small consolation, it may well be that Harvard’s MBA students have not yet organized, as the MBAs at such rival schools as Stanford, Wharton, and UCLA, to demand tuition refunds for their diminished experience online. At Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, eight of every ten MBA students  of the MBA population have signed a petition asking for an 80% discount on their spring tuition bills due to the shift to online courses (see The Student Revolt Over MBA Tuition For Online Classes).


How long it will take HBS to resume normal operations is uncertain as it is at every university. Harvard University President Larry Bacow, who with his wife is recovering from a mild bout of coronavirus, has said that “no decision looms larger, nor consumes more waking hours, than what to anticipate for academic operations next August. My fear is that at the point at which we have to make the choice, there will still be a tremendous amount of uncertainty” in the world.

It was Bacow who made the decision, announced on March 10th, to transition from in-person to online classes beginning on March 23, the day classes were set to begin after a spring break. As spring recess approached, the prospect that students would disperse to locations worldwide, potentially becoming exposed to the virus, and then come back together to their close campus living quarters, forced the issue: “We had to act before spring break,” he said in an interview with The Harvard Gazette. “The decision to do it wasn’t very hard. I have a whole campus full of cruise ships. They’re called dormitories.

“I quickly realized that the cost of being wrong was asymmetrical. “What I mean by that is that if we acted prematurely, as some thought we were, then we would inconvenience many, and we would probably squander a lot of resources. But if we waited too long to respond, that cost was likely going to be measured in human life.”


The last time Harvard Business School had to pivot its operations so significantly was in the 1940s, against the backdrop of World War II. At that time, the school’s campus was turned over to military training. This time, HBS chose not to completely shut down its campus but it would ban the use of classrooms and other spaces while classes shifted online. Two days after Bacow’s announcement, HBS saw a spike in excused absences that rose to more than 100 by early afternoon. Still, on the Friday before the spring break, faculty teaching the core required curriculum hosted 10 concurrent sessions for MBA students to test the platform-based on Canvas, Kaltura, and Zoom–the school would use for online instruction and gather feedback.

Five days before V-Day on March 18th, HBS Dean Nitin Nohria and Executive Dean for Administration Angela Crispi acknowledged in a daily coronavirus update they began in late January what they called “the stresses and strains” everyone was feeling.  “Faculty are nervous about what it will be like to teach online, some for the first time,” the pair wrote. “Staff are worried about the ways their roles are shifting—which now can mean too much, or too little, work.  Students remain concerned that the HBS experience they have come to know and love will be different.  We hear you.  Uncertainty is hard, and we feel it too.” Nohria, who had planned to step down as dean at the end of this academic year, would agree to stay on until year-end due to the crisis.

Just ahead of the March 23rd switchover when the MBA experience at Harvard would change, Nohria asked students for their patience and flexibility. “As thoroughly as we have prepared,” he wrote in an email, “not everything will work as planned.  When this happens, allow yourself and others to recover and adapt.  We will have a steep learning curve, and your patience and forbearance will help us move along it faster.” Nohria also asked students to be forgiving. “During these stressful times, there may be occasions when individuals (yourself included) are not their best selves.  Don’t dwell on these moments.  Be sensitive to the concerns and anxieties of others.  Remember that we’re all working toward the same objectives.”


Srikant Datar, Senior Associate Dean for University Affairs and a Harvard Business School professor

To pull off the transition at HBS, the school swiftly assembled a task force of 35 people, mainly core faculty and staff and a program to train more than 125 faculty who had never taught online. The school decided it was crucial to create an entirely new position–online learning facilitators–who could assist faculty in managing their classes. That meant training more than 125 scribes and other support staff from throughout the school who would partner with faculty members to help troubleshoot issues and glitches and monitor chat conversations among students.

“We are very blessed that we have a phenomenally competent set of people who are willing to run to the fire,” said Srikant Datar, senior associate dean, in an HBS podcast. He describes the fire drill to move everything virtual as “exhausting and exhilarating” at the same time. From the start, notes Datar, the task force was determined to try and preserve the transformative experience of case study learning online. The group ultimately seized upon three guiding principles.

  1. Professors will never be able to cover as much material online as they can in a physical class. Datar says faculty were told to generally cover 75% of the material they would have taught in a classroom.
  2. Try to get as much data on what students think into the class discussion. “We encouraged faculty to do polls before the class so you can draw them out much more quickly than what we would normally do in the physical classroom,” says Datar. “We recommend that faculty use polls and breakout rooms in class to keep the energy up. In Zoom, it is an interesting feature that can be done easily. In a class of 90, you can send them out into 15 breakout group of six students each, and then you can call them back into the class and share what the smaller groups did.
  3. HBS also asked faculty to create Powerpoint slides for their online classes due to the absence of whiteboards so students can more easily follow the discussion.

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