HBS Faces Constraints, Successes in New Undergraduate Course Offerings

As Harvard Business School prepares to launch its first online learning platform, known as HBX, later this spring, the initial success of the Business School faculty’s growing involvement in undergraduate education reflects the opportunities and limits of expanding the case method pedagogy to a broader audience.

While very few College students historically have cross-registered in MBA courses at the Business School, undergraduates are offered several College courses taught by Business School faculty members, including United States in the World 36: “Innovation and Entrepreneurship: American Experience in Comparative Perspective” and the class “Introduction to Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” which is offered jointly as Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology 135 and Engineering Sciences 238, among others.

In the fall, 350 students interested in taking United States in the World 36 entered a lottery for only 95 slots, according to the course’s professor. Several hundred students from various schools across the University also attended the opening meeting of “Introduction to Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” which offered 50 slots to undergraduates, according to the course’s website.

Notably, these courses differ from typical undergraduate courses in their use of the case method teaching style, which was deemed the Business School's "primary method of instruction" in 1924, according to the school's website. The pedagogy aims to place the student in a decision-making position through the analysis of real-world cases in small group discussions, followed by questioning guidance from the teacher in a forum-style class.

While the case method historically has been used with MBA students, who typically have several years of business experience before enrollment, College undergraduates have been quick to adapt to the teaching style, said David L. Ager, a senior fellow at the Business School who co-taught United States in the World 36 in the fall. Ager is also a former director of undergraduate studies of the Sociology Department.

“My experience is that College undergraduates have incredibly rich real-life, real-world experiences to share,” he said. “I think that within three weeks [into the course], students had become comfortable with this new pedagogy. They were quite comfortable speaking out.”

Joseph V. Marino ’14, a student currently taking “Introduction to Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” added that the section-like nature of the class—and the risk of being cold-called by the professor—forces him to always be prepared for class. That pressure, he said, has only augmented his learning experience.

“I don’t think that I would get as much out of the class if it wasn’t case-study method style,” he said. “If the class just had a midterm, final, or a paper, it would be easier to brush it off to the side and to not immerse yourself in it.”

Despite the popularity of the new case-based courses, several resource constraints could potentially limit the rate at which new courses using the case method could be added.

Michael P. Burke, Registrar of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote in an email that a lack of suitable classrooms for case-method classes could limit the number of College courses taught in this style. At the Business School, courses are generally held in large forum-style classrooms suited to accommodate approximately 90 students.

Ager added that the College may need to allocate curricula and faculty-training resources in order to sustain growth in course offerings.

“If this were to grow, we would need to train more people in being able to teach using this particular approach,” he said. “For this to really expand and grow, people would have to become interested in this approach to teaching…. There would need to be curricular resources there, as well.”

Nevertheless, Ager said, the expansion of the case method to undergraduate courses falls in line with the continued experimentation with the case method, especially in light of the Business School’s plan to expand its virtual education platform with the launch of HBX.

“Introduction to Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” for example, requires students to engage with interactive videos after reading each case study, Marino said.

“It’s almost as if you’re learning the material before you come to class,” he said. “The class is just to shore up the finer details of what you may not have understood online.”

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

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