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Harvard's Virtual Classroom Highlights Digital Future Of Business Education

New online education platform offers sneak peek into business education’s digital future

Wed Sep 2 2015

The take-off of Harvard Business School’s online education platform last month is a sneak peek into business education’s digital future.

The launch of HBX Live — a virtual classroom designed to reproduce synchronous interaction in an online environment — marked a watershed moment in the evolution of elite universities into digital providers.

Business schools have come under pressure to adapt to a digital economy where managers question the value — and cost — of a full-time degree, and where nimble up-starts are offering top-flight management training online at a fraction of the cost of an MBA.

For bricks-and-mortar institutions like Harvard, technological innovation forcibly abounds.

Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School, says: “HBX Live will help us deliver on our promise of lifelong learning by giving us a new way to engage students and alumni — not just here in Boston, but around the globe.”

Harvard believes a heady investment in educational technology — including a TV studio at the premises of public broadcaster WGBH — will enable managers from around the world to engage in dynamic and highly interactive education — all from behind a liquid crystal display.

It is not the only school to map out a virtual world. University administrators increasingly see a future in which there is no distinction between classroom and web learning — a degree program may explicitly be a mixture of online and offline worlds.

Ash Soni, executive associate dean for academic programs at the Kelley School of Business, one of the first to offer an online MBA, says it’s about fitting students’ changing needs. For the global manager, flexibility is paramount.

“Like many businesses, we are continuously innovating and evolving and strive toward creating the ideal model,” he says. “However, as our environment changes, so does the model.”

Faced with the disruption of their business models, educational institutions are under threat from the providers of Moocs, or massive open online courses, hosted by companies such as Coursera, the Open University’s FutureLearn, and edX — a joint venture of Harvard and MIT universities.

Speaking to BusinessBecause from his London headquarters Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn, says when he joined the Open University from the BBC, he saw the chance to bring something fresh and different to online learning.

“Quite rapidly we saw enormous opportunities that came from that blending of a fresh digital media approach with that world-class expertise in online and business learning,” he says.

As these platforms have cultivated enormous user bases — Coursera alone boasts nearly 15 million online learners — many top business schools have sought to partner the disruptors. Not a week goes by without another school announcing a new Mooc. Already this month Duke University, UC San Diego, ESSEC Business School and Darden School of Business have refreshed their online content.

“The world has gotten used to the Internet’s ability to deliver experiences and knowledge just as effectively as the offline world — sometimes even more so,” says Raj Echambadi, associate dean of outreach and engagement with Urbana Champaign College of Business at University of Illinois.

The school recently launched a world-first online MBA that is made up of series of Moocs, although costing about one-third of a bricks-and-mortar version of the degree.

“Years ago, there was only one legitimate degree but that’s no longer the case,” Raj says.

For all the hype around the disruption to the education sector, business school insiders are loathe to admit the threat.

Anne Trumbore, director of Wharton Online, the digital initiative of Wharton School, says: “I don’t think anything is ever going to replace sitting in the classroom with an instructor physically present. There will always be a space for that and it will always be highly valued.”

If it seems like the business schools are the ones getting excited about “edtech”, students are seemingly just as enthusiastic about the prospect of learning without quitting their jobs and taking a hit to earnings.

One Harvard MBA graduate who took part in an initial HBX Live session, enthuses: “We have participants from a wide variety of global time zones listening and interacting as if they were physically, not just virtually, in the same room.”

But if well-aged business school programs like the Harvard MBA, established in 1908, are to keep pace with digital innovation there will surely need to be much more investment in new platforms like HBX Live.

“Without question,” says Susan Cates, executive director of the online MBA@UNC at Kenan–Flagler Business School, blended online and campus learning is an “essential adaption for business schools”.