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.