Harvard Business School Launching Online Learning Initiative

By Louis Lavelle and Erin Zlomek October 09, 2013

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Harvard Business School is quietly developing its first online learning initiative, which it hopes will make HBS the world’s top provider of high quality online business education.

The move has the potential to shake up the nascent online education market and give the elite business school a toehold  in the world of MOOCs, or massive open online courses.  It’s a high-stakes gamble for HBS, which has one of the world’s best-known—and carefully burnished—educational brands.

John Fernandes, the chief executive of the business school accreditation group Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, called Harvard’s move a “watershed” moment for the century-old business school, which will be adding a third delivery model to the MBA and executive education programs it now offers.

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“This is a lot bigger than meets the eye,” Fernandes says. “They’re going to get high visibility with students all over the world. I don’t want to say it’s going to displace face-to-face education, but it’s going to be a big piece of the pie.”

Few details are available, but the effort, known as HBX, has been underway at least since June, when Jana Kierstead, executive director of the Harvard MBA program, was named to head the new initiative, according to her profile atLinkedIn (LNKD).

Kierstead did not return calls seeking comment, but her profile describes HBX as “a new team dedicated to delivering high quality business education through innovative online products.”

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The courses will likely be offered through edX, the MOOC provider, starting in spring or summer 2014, says Brian Kenny, chief marketing officer for HBS. The university’s offering on edX, known as HarvardX, currently has 17 courses, including five that have already taken place. None are business courses.

Kenny declined to discuss details of the HBX offering—including courses that are planned, any costs entailed, and how the school plans to make money. “We’re developing an online offering, but it’s too early to give details,” he said. “We’re working with HarvardX. HBS’s online offering is definitely something we’re in collaboration with the university on.”

Harvard is advertising for employees to serve the HBX initiative, including aproduct manager and director of academic content development. The director will oversee content creation, including “interactive elements, multiple choice questions, content scripts, and mini simulations,” according to the ad, and will be responsible for developing a “testing model” that incorporates the use of an external testing partner to measure student comprehension and engagement.

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While it’s far too early to know, this suggests that HBS might be planning to offer some kind of credential that could be used to document a student’s successful completion of the course and grasp of the material. Kenny would not comment, but such testing is common in MOOCs.  Students taking some of the courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School on Coursera, for example, can earn a “verified certificate” indicating that they have completed the course. Coursera uses photos, photo ID, and typing pattern recognition software to confirm each student’s identity.

According to Kierstead’s LinkedIn profile, HBX aims to establish “a standard of excellence” in online business education by taking advantage of the business school’s “vast intellectual property, academic pedagogy and faculty talent.”

Harvard’s initiative follows a major push into online business education by Wharton. Last month, Wharton added three courses to its Coursera offering, making its entire first-year MBA curriculum available free. A fourth course in operations management, offered since September, rounds out the first-year curriculum; with five existing MBA electives, it provides much of what on-campus students now pay about $200,000 in tuition and expenses to obtain.

Lavelle is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Zlomek is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New York.