HBS Offers First Online Course

The first fully online course at Harvard Business School (HBS) wrapped up last semester, departing from the school’s traditional case method and marking HBS’s most significant jump into the world of online teaching.

“How to Lead—How to Live,” taught by D. Quinn Mills, Weatherhead professor of business administration, was offered online to 20 HBS students and two students from other Harvard graduate schools.

“All of us in the university should be working on using the advance in technology to supplement our teaching,” said Mills. “I think this would enable students to interact with the university from a distance, [and] to interact in different ways.”

In addition to readings and assignments, students in the class were also required to post to the course’s online discussion board and respond to the posts of other students. Mills based the second-year course on his textbook on leadership.

Although the students never met Mills in-person for the course, Mills said that the class was not distance education.

“I would communicate with the students through e-mails and I would also post on the course itself—announcements [and] comments about the exercises people were doing.”

Jefferson Flanders ’77, president of MindEdge, the publishing company which issues Mills’ textbook and developed the software used in the class, said that the course was designed “more for the Facebook generation than for the textbook generation.”

The company has also developed online software for courses at other institutions of higher education, according to Flanders, including Boston University, which announced at the end of January that it will be offering an instructor-led, online preparation program for the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) exam.

“I think online is helpful in that it allows that sort of self-evaluation that... you certainly will not get in a classroom environment,” said Flanders.

Flanders said that the changes being considered for next fall’s course include more “hybrid” teaching that adds some face-to-face sessions to the class and a virtual office hours feature.

HBS student Ibrahim A. Majeed, one of the students in the course, said he found that the class was a “refreshing” break from the case study method used in his other classes.

Travis D. Adkins, another HBS student in the class, said that the online discussions encouraged a more thoughtful exchange than what could be produced in a classroom setting.

“[The course] forced me to truly think about all of my biases, perceptions and preconceptions on leadership and where I am in that development and what others think,” Adkins said. “You never get that much thought sharing in a classroom environment.”

Though the course will be taught again next fall, Mills said that it was not without its flaws.

“I overloaded it in terms of content and work,” said Mills, who cut assignments by half when students complained about the heavy workload and the course’s emphasis on written work.

“We don’t do a lot of writing anymore” at HBS, he said.

—Staff writer Madeline W. Lissner may be reached at mlissner@fas.harvard.edu.