Harvard Business School: the online version

Patrick Mullane2Three years ago, the stellar Harvard Business School (HBS) launched HBX, its online course program. Patrick Mullane, HBX Executive Director, discusses its success.

Digitalizing Harvard’s DNA

“HBX almost never got going,” smiles Patrick Mullane. “Ten years ago, the Harvard Business School (HBS) Dean said ‘Online courses? ‘Not on my watch!’…but as the world of online education changed rapidly over a two-year period, he back-tracked, but said that if HBS did do something online it would have to be differentiated.” To replicate the school’s DNA online and stay true to the Dean’s wish for differentiation, HBX relied on what has made Harvard successful: the case study method. For more than a century, that’s how HBS students have been introduced to real business situations, studied company responses to those situations, and learned from the successes and failures of managers before them. It’s a trademark that HBX had to preserve online.

For its online version, HBS decided to develop its own technology platform and develop its own content (in the form of courses) for that platform. “To my knowledge, we’re the only university that has taken this route,” says Patrick, as he describes two different approaches to online learning. In the first approach, “digitally pure” players develop the technology platform and invite universities and other organizations to offer their content on it, for a fee. In the second approach, organizations only develop content and then use one of the platform providers to deliver that content. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, creates courses but used one of two technology platforms – Coursera or Edx – to host them. In contrast, HBS decided to both create its own custom platform focused on the case method (investing millions of dollars over the past three years) and create the content that goes on that platform. Doing this is risky in some ways, but it ensures the quality of the participant experience in a way that other strategies would not. “But because of its strong brand and association with very high-quality education,” says Patrick, “Harvard Business School is in a unique position to adopt this strategy.” For Harvard, nothing is impossible.

That doesn’t mean, though, that challenges didn’t need to be overcome. “Teaching in a classroom and presenting a course online are two very different things,” said Patrick. The faculty had to adapt its methods to virtual teaching, and HBS had to develop entirely new models for delivering education online. For instance, the use of crowdsourcing responses made it possible to handle the hundreds of questions a typical cohort generates during a given program. This was particularly important for HBX’s flagship program, HBX CORe, which helps students master accounting, economics, and business analytics in approximately 150 hours.

Targeting the new global student

Although HBX mirrors the winning HBS formula, Patrick doesn’t see it cannibalizing the traditional MBA.  “Thanks to HBX, we’ve been able to reach a new audience.” In fact, 30% of online students are well along in their undergraduate programs in disciplines like history, art and literature, and engineering and want to add some business skills to their repertoire; approximately 30% have completed their undergraduate degree and are considering a master’s degree in business and the balance are lifelong learners who are taking courses for personal or professional reasons.

HBX is also geographically diverse—40% of its students are international. “Most of our non-U.S. students come from Western Europe, India, Canada, and Turkey … although the number of countries that have been represented in an HBX classroom is quite large beyond this small group.” To date, approximately 23,000 participants have taken an HBX program and are using their new skills to enhance their careers. “While the impact of the certificates and credentials we offer on career development is still difficult to assess, we’ve had very positive feedback from students as well as businesses,” says Patrick.

New HBS courses for 2018 include digital strategies, disruption and the future of capitalism. “We’re also launching a longer, nine-month program called the Harvard Business Analytics Program which helps managers come to understand better the role of big data in their own businesses.”

À la carte and blended learning:  the future of education?

In the years ahead, Patrick predicts polarization around big-name universities. “With tuition constantly on the rise, students are going to invest in the most well-known names, and small and medium-sized universities could disappear.” Another important trend is blended learning, a combination of online education and residency that offers students the flexibility they seek—whether to take classes on the other side of the world, or to work while they are in school.

The key to competing in this evolving sector is “offering students what they want, when they want it.” Patrick cites a U Penn professor to describe the shift in the education model:  With today’s “just in case” model, students spend three or four years at a university, and study a wide variety of subjects. With the “just in time” model, students take the courses they want, when they want them, to acquire the skills they need.” Patrick does not believe that the latter strategy always turns out to be the best in the long run. In the US, “you read that companies like Google don’t care if you have a university diploma, as long as you know the programming language they need. But what happens when that language changes? You could tell yourself that you can just learn the new language, but in reality, that could be more difficult if, for example, you have a family or children.”

Patrick sums up the future of the sector in one word: coexistence. That’s how traditional education, coding boot camps and micro diplomas will recast the university landscape for students with increasingly diverse aspirations.


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