Harvard’s new online offering could be the future of business school

No fancy robe required.
No fancy robe required.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Harvard Business School is taking a different path in online education. Rather than offering free courses to the masses or creating a full online degree, it’s rolling out a $1,500, two-month program targeted at college students and recent graduates. Though its new platform is inspired by social networks and gaming platforms, the core of the curriculum will be the 100-year-old, case study teaching method, which HBS is known for.

If the program—CORe (Credential of Readiness)—works, it could give Harvard access to a huge market beyond traditional MBA candidates. Its three courses: Business Analytics, Economics for Managers, and Financial Accounting are designed to give those with no business background a basic set of business tools. The CORe begins in June and by the fall, HBS plans to add more courses and instruction in other languages.

The fee and structure of the courses should keep students more engaged than many who sign up for MOOCs and wind up dropping out. Student participation is required and helps determine grades. Wharton offers a substantial part of its first-year, core curriculum for free through Coursera, a popular MOOC platform. There, students who complete the coursework can pay extra to get a verified certificate, but many take the course for no credit.

HBS will measure participation by automated efforts and by humans. That will include students’ interactions with each other, according to HBS chief marketing officer Brian Kenny.

Faculty will use a team to review student input and give feedback directly. Tests, transcripts, and the element of participation could add enough rigor to the program that employers will find the credential valuable. The fee justifies Harvard’s technology investments, and the attention and input of its faculty. In time, it could be a substantial money maker.

The target market is large and underserved. In the US, about 1.3 million students earn undergraduate degrees every year (pdf). But a soft job market has seen a proliferation of underemployed college graduates. This is an early alternative for those who want to be more appealing for entry level jobs without devoting their entire undergraduate experience to business education.

The biggest potential issue for CORe and future online offerings is scale. If professors are involved in judging performance, it will limit the number of students that can enroll. And, reducing the role of professors any further could diminish some of the perceived value of the courses. That combination might limit the size of Harvard’s offerings as a whole, especially compared to the reach that MOOCs offer. But it’s less about reach and more about making sure the school doesn’t get left behind as online options become popular.

According to HBS professor Clay Christensen, one of business school’s biggest weaknesses is cost. Tuition is high, and a full MBA requires students to forgo two years of earnings as well. It was only a matter of time before competitive, lower cost options emerged. Following Christensen’s famous advice about disruption, Harvard decided to create one itself.