Harvard Business School Makes a Push Into Online Education

Harvard Business School is developing its first online learning initiative, with the aim of becoming the world’s top provider of high-quality online business education.

The move has the potential to shake up the nascent online education market and give the elite business school a toehold in the world of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. It’s also a high-stakes gamble for Boston-based HBS, which has one of the world’s best-known, and carefully burnished, educational brands.

John Fernandes, chief executive officer of business school accreditation group Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, called Harvard’s move a “watershed” moment for the century-old business school, which will be adding a third delivery model to the MBA and executive education programs it now offers.

“This is a lot bigger than meets the eye,” he said. “They’re going to get high visibility with students all over the world. I don’t want to say it’s going to displace face-to-face education, but it’s going to be a big piece of the pie.”

Few details are available. Jana Kierstead, executive director of the Harvard MBA program, was named to head up the new initiative, said Brian Kenny, chief marketing officer for HBS.

Kierstead didn’t return calls seeking comment.

HarvardX Courses

The courses will probably be offered through EdX starting in the spring or summer of 2014, Kenny said. The university’s offering on EdX, known as HarvardX, currently has 17 courses, including five that have already taken place; none are business courses.

Kenny declined to discuss details of the HBX offering including courses to be offered, costs if any, and how the school plans to make money.

“We’re developing an online offering, but it’s too early to give details,” he said. “We’re working with HarvardX. HBS’s online offering is definitely something we’re in collaboration with the university on.”

Harvard is advertising for employees for the HBX initiative, including a product manager and director of academic content development. The director will oversee content creation including “interactive elements, multiple choice questions, content scripts and mini simulations,” according to the ad, and will be responsible for developing a “testing model” that incorporates the use of an external testing partner to measure student comprehension and engagement.

Harvard Credentials

While it’s too early to know, that suggests that HBS might be planning to offer some kind of credential that can be used to document a student’s successful completion of the course and grasp of the material. Kenny wouldn’t comment, though such testing is common in MOOCs. Students taking some of the courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School on the Coursera platform, for example, can earn a “verified certificate” indicating they have completed the course. Coursera uses photos, photo ID and typing pattern recognition software to confirm each student’s identification.

Harvard’s initiative will follow a major push into online business education by Wharton. Last month, Wharton added three new courses to its Coursera offering, making its entire first-year MBA curriculum available for free. A fourth course in operations management, offered since September, rounds out the first-year curriculum, and with five existing MBA electives gives students much of what on campus students now pay about $200,000 in tuition and expenses for.

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis Lavelle at llavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at lwolfson@bloomberg.net.

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