A couple of days ago, Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria stood before the inaugural class of online business students and made an interesting admission. He said that only a few years ago, he never would have thought that Harvard would actually offer an online program.
"Five years ago, I literally stood there and declared that we would never do it, that we have this case method that is a unique, extraordinary form of learning," Nohria said. "I couldn't possibly imagine how an online world could capture the magic of Harvard Business School. So it is especially humbling to stand here today in front of a group of pioneers who in so many ways have proven me wrong."
Nohria was not talking about a free MOOC course or, for that matter, an online program that would confer the school's highly prestigious MBA degree on graduates. But he was conceding that the first version of a business basics program largely for undergraduates who are humanities and STEM majors has been an unqualified success.
That's a big deal for anyone interested in the future of online education. For the dean of the world's most prestigious business school to admit that it's possible to deliver a highly satisfying educational experience to students over the Internet is something that would have been unthinkable in the days when for-profit players like the University of Phoenix offered the only online degrees.
In Harvard's case, some 600 students enrolled in the $1,500 CORe (Credential of Readiness) program — a trio of fundamental business courses on Business Analytics, Economics for Managers, and Financial Accounting. It launched June 11th and ended two months later in August, requiring about ten hours a week of remote work from students. Participants had a month to do the on-site exams, and then were invited to a "closing ceremony" on Sunday held on the Harvard Business School campus at which Nohria made his comments.
The final results of the program's beta version have not only pleased Nohria but also the faculty. Some 85% of the 600 students who enrolled in the program completed it, even though participants were prevented from moving forward unless they completed each module within a two-week timeframe. No less crucial, the program received a strong endorsement from those who finished the three courses meant to teach humanities undergrads and recent graduates the language of business.
Online courses still require a significant time commitment.
Asked to grade how engaging the course materials were on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest grade, 80% of the students awarded a grade of four or five. On course quality, the approval number hit 86%, while the quality of the course instructors — all endowed professors who teach in Harvard's full-time MBA program — won a four or five grade from 90% of the participants.
The biggest gripe? It took students longer than expected to complete the work. Many were in highly demanding summer internships that require them to work 60 or more hours a week. "Even students who wanted to withdraw in the first week told we they hadn't realized that on top of their summer internships they would have time to do this," says Bharat N. Anand, faculty chair of HBX, the acronym the school has given to its online initiative. "It actually was taking 10 to 11 hours a week, but some thought they could do it in less." Initially, HBS said the coursework would total seven to ten hours a week.
The program — based on videos and case studies — demanded a steady commitment from students. "Having this regular cadence of learning is something that we create in our classrooms," explains Anand. "You have to prepare for a case every day. You can't cram for an exam. So the deadlines are a forcing function to do things in the last minute." At one point, the faculty team decided to offer incentives to students who completed their assignments early. "We said if you finish 36 hours before the deadline, we'll give you a free t-shirt or a free review of your resume from the HBS Career Services office. It increased the rate of early completion by 15%."
But what most surprised the core HBS team was the level of engagement by the students. "The engagement scores by students are stunning," says Jana Kierstead, executive director of HBX, the name for the school's in-house online learning group. "They are very, very high, especially for the first time around for a pure online course."
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