In fall 2010, Harvard Business School’s newly-elected dean hosted a faculty meeting to discuss strategy. One of the big questions was when Harvard, one of the world’s oldest and most respected educators, would enter the burgeoning online education market. His reply: “Not in my lifetime.”
It would appear that Nitin Nohria has had a change of heart, as in 2015 Harvard launched a digital learning platform in the hope of fundamentally transforming online education. HBX was billed by some to be a snapshot of the future of business education, which is increasingly becoming digitized.
“Other schools and online providers were putting up content online and getting significant registrations, which spurred some thinking from us,” says Patrick Mullane, the executive director of HBX.
While many early online platforms were merely a place to repurpose recorded lectures, Harvard’s HBX has become a fully-fledged part of the historic business school. It has grown rapidly, offering 11 courses, from negotiation mastery to entrepreneurship essentials, enrolling more than 30,000 students in three years. There are plans to launch another strategy course and one on alternative investments such as hedge funds and real estate, according to Patrick.
The flagship offering is CORe—an 11-week digital course made up of economics, business analytics, and financial accounting modules. It targets young professionals with liberal arts backgrounds who hope to enter the ranks of management or get one of Harvard’s pricey MBA degrees, in addition to “life-long learners” who have already completed a graduate qualification.
HBX is different from competitors in the market place—including the providers of MOOCs such as edX and Coursera—in part because of the technology it uses. A “virtual classroom” of 60-odd screens known as 'HBX Live' makes the learning experience much more interactive than earlier forms of digital education, which was sometimes regarded as second-rate.
The bulk of students, however, use the 'Course' platform which is asynchronous—students do not have to study at the same time, providing convenience for the many working professionals who use HBX.
Students who complete the course are awarded a certificate that carries some weight with corporations, with students using it to enhance their CVs or LinkedIn profiles. “Many people see this as a way to burnish their CV and make themselves more employable,” Patrick says.
HBX does not release employment data, but cites a study as evidence of the value of its platform to employers. A global IT consulting firm that enrolled 200 employees in CORe found, after tracking the participants against a control peer group for 21 months, they were much more likely to be classified as high-performers, take on new responsibility and work on international assignments.
Priced at under $2,000 and theoretically accessible to anyone with an internet connection, CORe is also one way to make a Harvard education available to a wider population—the acceptance rate for its MBA is under 10%.
There is growing demand for the HBX CORe product and the platform has served overall some 33-34,000 students. Comparatively only around 900 people enter Harvard’s MBA cohort each year. “It’s fair to say CORe is much more accessible from an admissions and geographical standpoint,” says Patrick.
“It has broadened our reach significantly. It seems silly that the only way you could experience HBS is through an MBA. HBX opens up HBS to the masses and for people who just don’t have the means or time to attend campus.”
CORe has become a funnel for Harvard’s more expensive campus degree programs. “We do see an increasing number of people who apply and are accepted into the MBA program who took HBX anticipating they would one day apply to an MBA,” says Patrick. “There’s quite a few schools seeing HBX CORe as favourable — it shows motivation. People often tout HBX CORe when they apply to [another] school.”
Some have speculated that the growth of online learning could spell the end for traditional, campus-based learning. Patrick dismisses that notion. “People often talk about how online will destroy the bricks and mortar world. I’m confident that won’t happen. There’s space for both [online and campus learning] in the world. The holy grail is the combination of online and in-residence. We’re still in the early days. It will be fascinating to see how it plays out.”
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