Harvard Business School’s More Moderate Online Learning Foray

Unlike Harvard University's edX, HBX will cost money and limit enrollment.

Last week, Harvard Business School launched a new online education platform, HBX, where it made some major tweaks to the online education model championed by Harvard University at large and others with their massive open online courses (or MOOCs).

Unlike Harvard University’s edX, enrollment in HBX will be limited, and it will cost money. According to Harvard, HBX will begin by offering a core curriculum of three business fundamentals classes to undergrads enrolled at another institution, non-business graduate students, and professionals early in their careers. HBX brings some of the benefits of online education, but it’s more of an extension of the Harvard Business brand to a new audience than a revolutionary new model of business education.

That suggests HBS looked to the huge enrollments (and dropout rates) for massive online courses, many of which their peers like Wharton offer, and decided to move in a direction that creates a bit more barrier to entry and thus, hopefully, more investment in completing the course.

Also a concern with MOOCs is how they can represent a more intimate, interactive learning atmosphere like one you might find in a university classroom. There, too, HBX seems to deviate by keeping enrollment down and participation up. HBX didn’t use the edX platform but built their own so they could emulate the case-based, interactive experience from their classrooms. There’s even a way for students to be “cold-called” with a pop-up box where a random student has a limited amount of time to type an answer to a question. Grades will depend, in part, on participation.

Of course, with these major departures from the MOOCs, HBX looks very different from the online revolution that so many fear and/or welcome. Massive online education is supposed to democratize knowledge by making the nation’s best universities freely available to anyone. HBS—the business-oriented institution that it is—seems to avoid the potential to grievously “disrupt” the higher education world. HBX’s lower tuition price and online platform give it some of the more populist aspects that many hoped online education might. No need to pay $200,000 and fly to Massachusetts to take away at least some of the wisdom (and brand benefit) of the Harvard name. But the venture is less scalable. It isn’t free. It’s aimed at those who are already investing in the traditional higher education world, i.e. undergraduate students at existing institutions. And its course certificates probably won’t count for much lest students also have those undergrad credentials. In essence, HBX seems from the outset not like a replacement for the existing higher education world, but an addendum to it. In that, it might offer some kind of middle ground.