Harvard Business School Launches HBX

The first separate online-learning venture from one of the professional schools

Bharat Anand, faculty chair of HBX
Jana Kierstead, HBX executive director
A screen shot of Professor Janice H. Hammond teaching in the HBX CORe business analytics course

Harvard Business School (HBS) today announced HBX, its venture into online learning.  It differs in two significant ways from edX, the Harvard-MIT online learning partnership through which HarvardX has offered massive open online courses (MOOCs) from diverse schools for free to a worldwide audience:

  • HBX uses proprietary technology, not the edX platform.
  • HBX is pioneering fee-based courses, which hold the promise of significant new revenue streams.

The new HBS-originated business offerings debut with three elements:

  • CORe (the acronym for Credential of Readiness), a two-month suite of three fundamental courses aimed at a new audience—college liberal-arts students, non-business graduate students pursuing other professions (law, say, or engineering), and people early in their careers— for whom familiarity with basic business concepts may prove helpful in their work or subsequent career decisions.
  • Specialized executive courses, beginning with offerings on subjects such as entrepreneurship and innovation; disruptive innovation, growth and strategy; and the microeconomics of competitiveness.
  • HBX Live, a virtual classroom, built in partnership with public broadcaster WGBH, that enables direct, real-time interaction among 60 participants dispersed worldwide and with a faculty member, as if they were all located within a campus classroom; anticipated early users include HBS alumni and executive-education matriculants.

In the news announcement, HBS dean Nitin Nohria said, “HBX embodies the highly engaged, interactive learning that has been a hallmark of the school's M.B.A., doctoral, and executive education programs for more than a century. Moreover, HBX will provide a powerful channel for communicating ideas to and engaging with new and wider audiences, complementing the work we do through Harvard Business Publishing.”

That statement explains two elements of HBX.

First, HBS determined to create its own online platform in order to emulate its case-based, interactive classroom experience. The CORe offerings, for example, according to a March 20 communication from Nohria to the HBS community, are informed by careful thought about “how we can create an online counterpart to the signature on-campus HBS experience, including how students might be cold-called or benefit from the diversity and experiences of other students.” (The cold-calling will apparently be effected by pop-up prompts requirng a rapid response from online learners.)

Second, rather than simply using that technology to translate existing classes to an online format, HBS is aiming, in its initial offerings at least, to reach entirely new audiences: in Nohria’s words, “segments of the population we’ve never directly addressed before.” Those include CORe’s target market—the undergraduates and graduate students in other fields or employees early in their careers who might progress faster with basic business education.

Interestingly, they also include those executives in the second category, above, who may not be enrolled in campus-based executive education, but to whom marquee faculty members like Clayton M. Christensen, Clark professor of business administration, who is known for exploring disruptive innovation, and Lawrence University Professor Michael E. Porter, the scholar of corporate strategy and leader of the school’s U.S. competitiveness project, could be even more broadly appealing, promoting follow-on engagement with HBS. Innovation and entrepreneurship faculty leaders Joseph B. Lassiter, Heinz professor of management practice in environmental management, and William A. Sahlman, D'Arbeloff-M.B.A. Class of 1955 professor of business administration, might also be in the early lineup.

Finally, HBX Live, available on an invitation-only basis, provides an avenue for lifelong learning for the school’s alumni, who by some reports are less likely than non-alumni to enroll in executive-education courses. It also offers new opportunities to teach executive-education classes around the world. (Some of these are already taught in HBS facilities in Mumbai and Shanghai, on company premises in other countries, or in serial segments internationally and on the campus in Allston.)

Thus, HBS represents a fourth arrow in HBS's educational quiver, joining the campus-based M.B.A. and doctoral programs; executive education; and Harvard Business School Publishing (which operates Harvard Business Review, disseminates teaching cases, and releases books—and which is HBS's largest business by revenue, with income of $180 million in the fiscal year ended last June).

Founding Principles

According to Nohria’s community message, planning for HBX began in mid 2012, shortly after the announcement of edX. The work was guided by several principles:

  • HBX must expand the reach of Harvard Business School and our mission of educating leaders who make a difference in the world. We must think strategically about well-defined student segments where we see potential for significant impact.
  • HBX must provide faculty with a powerful platform for disseminating their ideas globally.
  • HBX must complement and enhance our on-campus offerings. Our residential programs are among the most treasured academic experiences in the world, and we should not dilute the integrity of those experiences—rather, we should try to strengthen them.
  • HBX must elevate our reputation for excellence and impact. We must pick our spots carefully, looking for places where we can create sustained, differentiated value for individuals and organizations. Our commitment is to do no less than transform.
  • HBX offerings must be highly differentiated from existing alternatives. Our challenge is to establish a standard for excellence in online business education and pedagogy, just as we have established the standard for excellence in our case method classrooms.
  • HBX must be built on a robust and forward-looking economic model. While HBX should make business education more accessible, including financially, it also must be economically sustainable to enable future investment and growth.

That last point distinguishes HBX from HarvardX, which is funded, so far, by philanthropy and the deployment of University funds. (edX received infusions of capital from Harvard and MIT, and receives revenues from members schools and other users of its technology, but does not charge students who use its courses.)

The actual planning was led by Byers professor of business administration Bharat N. Anand, a member of HBS’s strategy unit, who serves as faculty chair of HBX, and Jana Kierstead, former director of career and professional development (HBS’s career-services organization) and staff director of the M.B.A. program, who serves as HBX executive director. Accordingly, Anand—who also serves on the HarvardX faculty committee—oversaw development of the HBX platform from a teaching perspective; Kierstead assembled a staff at 175 North Harvard Street, managing technology, business operations, and personnel. (The investment appears to be substantial, given the scope of the initial offerings, the virtual classroom facility at WGBH’s studios, and a staff that by one account numbers more than 30 people.)

The Initial Program

CORe will launch in June, with an initial cohort of 500 to 1,000 students drawn principally from rising juniors and seniors in Massachusetts colleges and universities; applications will be available on the HBX website in April. The program consists of three courses: business analytics, taught by Philips professor of manufacturing Janice H. Hammond (see screenshot, above); economics for managers, taught by Anand; and financial accounting, taught by Casserly professor of business administration V. G. Narayanan. Business executives appear in videos during the courses, much as they make in-person appearances in HBS classrooms during case discussions.

HBS has some familiarity with teaching this material in this way; entering M.B.A. students are expected to have mastered it before beginning their first-year, required courses on campus, and have been offered summer instruction (in person and in varying online formats) in prior years. Testing the program relatively nearby will allow the faculty to work out any problems in course delivery or student engagement; but the plan is clearly to make the program widely available, to the broad universe of students and new members of the workforce who could benefit from basic business intelligence.

In CORe, HBS aims to reach different learners entirely; to require their active participation in the class (assessment will depend on both mastery of material and participation in the course, as in an M.B.A. class on campus); and—both to defray costs and to motivate engagement—to charge $1,500 for the course sequence (need-based financial aid is available). The intent is to have students who enroll complete the courses and “graduate.” In a sense, this is the inverse of the MOOC model, where enrollment is free, but attrition is widespread: according to research on the first year of HarvardX and MITX courses, about one-third of registrants in the no-cost, no-obligation offerings never proceeded to sample any of the content, and so had no deeper “engagement” with the course than completing the online registration itself.

The HBS-focused executive courses, beginning in late spring, are an experiment in broadening dissemination of faculty members’ idea and research to a wider audience. Initial subjects and likely faculty members are listed above, but further offerings are promised. No announcement was made about whether the program would be fee-based. Updated 9:00 a.m.: An FAQ on the HBX website indicates that the courses are meant to be offered to multiple members of an organization, with pricing details available on request to HBS.

HBX Live debuts in the summer—presumably reflecting not only build-out of the studio and practicing with the technology before use, but also a seasonally suitable time to engage participants, and to reach out to alumni during the school’s capital campaign.

University Context

Although HBX and HarvardX are communicating and have overlapping faculty committee members (Anant, plus Narayanan, who serves on the HarvardX research committee)—and can be expected to share best practices—the technology platforms, as noted, are distinct. HBS faculty are using HarvardX to offer courses for general public consumption (as have professors from the Law School and the School of Public Health). HBX offerings are all either fee-based or are designed for controlled enrollment aiming at specific audiences.

There is no indication so far that HBX has partnered with other professional schools, some of which now offer case-based classes like HBS’s core M.B.A. methodology, and many of which have executive-education operations.

In the news announcement, Provost Alan Garber, who is a member of the HarvardX leadership group and co-chair of the edX board, said:

We applaud the arrival of HBX. This unique digital learning endeavor continues the Business School's long history of innovation and experimentation in management education, and is yet another example of how Harvard is setting the standard for the twenty-first century. The lessons we learn from HBX will be deeply interwoven with other efforts such as HarvardX and edX, informing best practices in blended and online teaching and offering world-class educational materials beyond our campus.

Read the news announcement here. The Boston Globe report focuses on the CORe offering. Poets & Quants, an online blog focused on business education, covers HBX here; it forecasts national roll-out of CORe this fall, and international availability in 2015, and describes it as a "pre-M.B.A." program; it also reports that HBS has "decided to pass on the MOOC bandwagon" of free course offerings. 



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