01 Jun 2014

The Digital Deck

With HBX launch, a new approach to online learning
Re: Nitin Nohria; Janice Hammond; V.G. Narayanan; Clayton Christensen; Michael Porter; William Sahlman; Joseph Lassiter; Bharat Anand
by Julia Hanna


SCREEN TIME: The HBX Live experience—shown here in early testing—can include as many as 60 participants at a time  (Photo by Webb Chappell)

As a professor in the Strategy Unit, Bharat Anand has studied how media companies move a traditional product into the online space. Some have managed that transition well, he says, and others have not. In the early days, Anand observes, several newspapers simply posted their content as a PDF of the printed paper, rather than reimagining an entirely new online experience for readers.

As faculty chair of HBX, the School's new online learning platform, Anand says the intent from the start was to avoid following in the footsteps of those early newspaper efforts by merely posting video of a classroom lecture. Instead, HBX will provide a unique, "digital-first" experience created with the online learner in mind. Anand is overseeing the launch of three distinct products this June, each grounded in the HBS mission and learning approach in an effort to broaden the School's reach.

"The principles guiding HBX's offerings were established early on," notes Dean Nitin Nohria. "HBX should offer a differentiated product. It should complement rather than compete with current programs and Harvard Business Publishing offerings. It should elevate the School's reputation for excellence and impact. Lastly, to be self-sustaining, HBX requires a robust economic model."

"Our approach and offerings through HBX are directly influenced by the School's distinctive case-based learning model, which is rooted in the principle of active learning coupled with a focus on real-world problem-solving," says Anand. "The online platform and course offerings that we've created reflect these principles. The goals are ambitious, and we are committed. But we're also in new territory here, so we'll need to bring a heavy dose of humility to our efforts."

The HBX Offerings


CORe (Credential of Readiness) is the first launch of HBX, and is targeted at a group that HBS has historically not served: undergraduate students, non-business graduate students, and professionals in the pre-MBA stage of their working careers who would benefit from a grounding in business fundamentals. CORe is a primer in the language of business and comprises three 30-hour courses: Business Analytics (created by Jan Hammond), Financial Accounting (by V.G. Narayanan), and Economics for Managers (by Anand). For its inaugural program this June, CORe will target students enrolled in full-time, degree-granting programs in Massachusetts. CORe is expected to broaden its application pool to other national and international students in subsequent waves.

But how to recreate that adrenaline-fueled, edge-of-the-seat energy that is a hallmark of HBS classrooms when the "classroom" is made up of students sitting at their computers, miles apart? To find a new sort of energy, HBS built a unique technology platform to support classic HBS learning tools, notes HBX's executive director Jana Kierstead. In the case of a cold call, for example, a student is given a question and a set amount of time to type a response; once the cold call is complete, peers are asked to rate and comment on the response. Also included is an interactive polling function, a "flash group" tool to facilitate online discussion, and a "3 strikes" tool where students respond to a question with a word or phrase. If the student answers with a word or phrase that matches a known response, the student gets a "hit"; if not, a "strike." After three strikes, all possible answers are revealed. Grades are based on a combination of engagement in the course and mastery of content; assuming a passing grade in all three courses, students can then take a final exam at a testing center to receive the HBX CORe certificate.

HBX Courses

A second piece of HBX will comprise specialized courses, with an initial lineup of faculty members and courses that includes Clay Christensen's Disruptive Strategy, Michael Porter's Microeconomics of Competitiveness, and—eventually—an Introduction to Innovation and Entrepreneurship led by Bill Sahlman and Joe Lassiter. These products will also leverage the HBX online learning platform with the added potential for incorporating in-person classroom sessions.

HBX Live

This piece comprises a virtual classroom with a fully staffed studio that allows participants to interact in real time with one another and with a faculty member, much as they would in a physical classroom. Up to 60 participants per session download software that provides a perspective view of the classroom on the computer screen, including digital blackboards. When a participant speaks, his or her face appears onscreen; a discussion leader and in-studio production team orchestrate the give-and-take that is so central to the traditional HBS classroom. HBX Live will create new opportunities for alumni interactions, and Kierstead notes that HBX Live can be adapted to a range of content and uses. "Some alumni have told us that they're interested in a forum for real-world challenges like US health care and water scarcity, or life-stage issues like estate planning and returning to work," she says. "It's a very exciting, flexible platform."


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