With Inaugural Success, HBX Eyes Expansion

UPDATED: Novemeber 4, 2014, at 1:30 p.m.

The Business School’s HBX digital learning initiative is expanding to both international and corporate clients, following the success of its inaugural online business-oriented courses that saw an 85 percent completion rate, school leaders said.

HBX, which was formally announced in March, is a virtual education platform derivative of the case-study teaching method used in classrooms at the Business School. Among other features, the platform emphasizes peer collaboration and social interactivity alongside videos and other learning materials to adapt the discussion-oriented pedagogy employed in the school's physical classrooms to an online environment.

Students from across Massachusetts, in addition to a handful of young professionals and non-business graduate students, enrolled in CORe, or Credential of Readiness, a set of three accounting, economics of management, and analytics courses that comprised the initial offering of the HBX initiative over the summer. Between 20 and 30 percent of the enrollees were undergraduates at Harvard College, and the tuition for the courses, financial aid notwithstanding, was $1,500.

According to Bharat N. Anand, HBX faculty chair, the strong focus on student interaction and engagement through the platform, as well as the motivation arising from students having to pay tuition, largely drove the high completion rate. HBX’s rate starkly contrasts with that of many online courses, which often fall in the low single digits.

"Frankly, given that the intent behind this platform was to engage, we would've been disappointed with anything less than 75 percent, just going in," Anand said. "We were hoping that the engagement coming from the interactivity, the quality, and the social learning would stimulate people to finish the course."

The results of CORe student evaluations were comparable to those of the in-class evaluations given to MBA students at the Business School, he said. Students who enrolled in the program largely agreed with Anand's assessment of its success, and several students said that the online course was successful in capturing the peer interaction found in a physical classroom environment.  

"This really felt that you were in an HBS classroom, but it was online," said Layla Siraj '16, a Crimson Arts editor, who recalled how she finished the first units for all three of the CORe courses within the first day of their release, despite being given two weeks to complete them.

Sietse K. Goffard '15, an economics concentrator and vice president of the Undergraduate Council, enrolled in CORe after Anand presented the program at a Council meeting last spring.

"I was especially interested in taking this because this program offered skills that Harvard College doesn't necessarily offer, like accounting," Goffard said, adding that he was more inclined to pursue business school after completing the program. "I never thought that such a high degree of interactivity was something that could be accomplished with something of this size. The high degree of interactiveness on the platform really stood out."

The first round of HBX's offerings was largely kept small in size and local in geographic scope, said Anand, in order to test the robustness and scalability of the platform's infrastructure. Several students noted that the server would often slow before the deadline for certain assignments, and that those deadlines were often extended as a result.

With those issues now largely resolved, however, Anand said that HBX has been preparing to rapidly expand. Just as the first round of course offerings ended in October, another round was commenced targeting companies that have enrolled their employees. He said that, in the near future, the initiative would also be broadened to a more international audience, and that it might even be integrated into the MBA and Executive Education branches of the school.

"There are many possibilities for how we can incorporate the HBX platform into our residential teaching, both for MBA and executive programs," he said. “We will explore various possibilities in the coming months.”

Yet, despite the marked success of the inaugural offering, the success of HBX was not guaranteed. As Business School Dean Nitin Nohria told an audience of students from the inaugural HBX cohort who assembled at the Business School on Sunday, even five years ago he refuted that online offerings would ever be a part of the Business School's arsenal.  

"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," he 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."

—Staff writer Alexander H. Patel can be reached at alex.patel@thecrimson.com. Follow him on twitter @a2xp3l

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:

CLARIFICATION: November 4, 2014

An earlier version of this article stated that HBX's inaugural course sequence, Credential of Readiness, offered a class in management.  To clarify, the course covered the economics of management.

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