Among the numerous emails we got after we reviewed Harvard’s HBX CORe, one was from the official HBX team saying they loved the blog post. The email also pointed out a few aspects – about the format & structure of the program – that we hadn’t captured accurately.
Since the earlier article was based on secondary research, we thought it would be helpful to have an insider’s perspective on the innovative online certificate course from Harvard Business School that challenges many notions associated with traditional online certification programs.
Sameer Kamat (founder, MBA Crystal Ball) interviewed Patrick Mullane (Executive Director, HBX) to get insights into the program philosophy, origins, program structure & delivery, fees, final exam and more.
MBA Crystal Ball: Can you share a little about yourself?
Patrick Mullane: I am the Executive Director of HBX. I joined the HBX team in November of 2015. As an alumnus of the school, I was excited to join the team here and help the school further its mission of educating leaders who make a difference in the world.
MCB: Harvard has traditionally shied away from online courses. Was brand dilution a concern? What triggered the change in strategy?
Patrick: When we began developing HBX, our mission was to extend the reach of Harvard Business School’s on-campus offerings: high-quality business education reimagined for the digital age. We sought to use technology to enhance our ability to educate leaders who make a difference in the world (the Harvard Business School’s mission).
Rather than a change of strategy, it was merely adapting to rapid technological changes taking place all over the globe. We wanted to take Harvard Business School’s famed case study method, and make it accessible to more people in more places.
We believed that, in the end, if we did online education well it would enhance the brand by bringing world-class business education to those that otherwise would not have had access.
MCB: Tell us a little more about the HBX initiative and the various components (e.g. CORe, Live) within the umbrella concept.
Patrick: HBX is comprised of two learning platforms – the online learning platform, where CORe and Disruptive Strategy are offered, and the HBX Live studio.
HBX CORe is our primer on the fundamentals of business, designed to teach students essential business skills and knowledge through three subjects: Business Analytics, Economics for Managers and Financial Accounting. Harvard Business School faculty determined these to be the most essential topics you need to master in order to be fluent in the language of business.
Our first standalone course offering was Disruptive Strategy with Clayton Christensen, an engaging and interactive online learning experience which offers students the opportunity to dive deep into practical strategic theories and frameworks from one of Harvard Business School’s greatest minds.
Disruptive Strategy focuses on encouraging innovation and establishing a framework for making strategic business decisions. Additional courses are in development, and we will be announcing them later in 2016.
Finally, HBX Live is a video-anchored, virtual classroom that breaks down geographical borders. It is more of a platform than a product, and it is where future HBX products and programs will live.
MCB: What are the issues with the typical online courses on management topics? How does Harvard’s online course HBX address these issues?
Patrick: A large majority of online courses in the business and management field are offered by universities through MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) such as Coursera and EdX.
These platforms provide excellent functionality that allow many universities to leverage the work of dedicated technology teams without having to incur the costs of developing the underlying technology themselves.
The trade-off is that universities have to “plug into” the infrastructure these MOOCs have developed, giving up some control over how content may be delivered and how students might interact with that content.
At HBX, we made the decision to control the user experience from beginning to end because we wanted to build the platform around the case method of study. If you want to use the case method, you can’t just “plug into” a platform that wasn’t built with that in mind.
So while it’s certainly possible to learn vital skills and strategies on both MOOC platforms and HBX’s, we believe that people learn best through the case method which means they don’t only learn from the professor, but they learn from each other.
To that end, we have built rich peer interaction tools and activities into our platform that participants say sets HBX apart from other programs they have been involved in.
MCB: What were the big challenges that the concept and designing team faced while creating the online program? What makes this paid product more attractive than free online courses (including MOOCs)?
Patrick: What sets HBX CORe apart from other online courses is the innovative social learning platform and the quality of the content, which was developed entirely by Harvard Business School faculty.
HBX takes Harvard Business School’s well-known and highly-regarded case study method of teaching and reimagines it for an online community. HBX CORe is also self-paced, in real-time – meaning students are given the flexibility to learn on their own schedule, similar to a MOOC, but HBX programs are deadline-driven and community-based. Active participation is required throughout the course.
When you log onto the platform, the first thing you see is who else is out there; a global map with pulsating bubbles shows you who’s active anywhere in the world. These are real profiles, so the students get to know each other.
This was an important design element that we needed in order to facilitate the peer-to-peer interaction and social learning environment of a Harvard Business School classroom. After the student answers a question, the reflection will be shared with their peers. They can engage in one-to-one messaging.
It was important to us to create a sustainable business model that would allow HBX to continue to innovate and offer best-in-class business education.
Research has also shown that when a student invests in their education, they are far more likely to put in the time and effort needed to be successful. As a result of this structure, the average completion rate for HBX is between 85% and 90%. Free MOOC courses typically have completion rates in the single digits.
MCB: Can you share some statistics that highlight the scale and impact?
Patrick: We recently launched our 10th cohort of HBX CORe and more than 8,000 participants since have gone through the program since its launch in mid-2014. These participants represent over 100 countries, with approximately two-thirds of the students from the United States.
Students come from every imaginable education background – from higher education administrators to engineers to lawyers. We have also had over 1,500 Disruptive Strategy participants to date.
MCB: It was originally designed as a pre-MBA course for students before they start their business school journey. What prompted the team to change the positioning so soon?
Patrick: We learned quickly that there were many people signing up for HBX CORe that were not on the expected pre-MBA track. These individuals were looking to gain fundamental business skills in order to be more effective in their jobs, but were not necessarily looking for the commitment of a full-time MBA program.
MCB: The HBX CORe FAQ page lists college undergraduates and graduate students in non-business fields among the ideal candidate profiles. How relevant would the course be for entrepreneurs or those who are managing family businesses?
Patrick: HBX CORe is extremely relevant for entrepreneurs. CORe is appropriate for virtually all fields of study, and that includes business and entrepreneurship majors, in addition to recent college graduates or those who have been working in professional fields for years and are looking to start their own business.
The case study method allows participants to take a deeper dive into real-world issues facing business owners and executives – and how to solve them. Through HBX CORe students also learn to communicate in the language of business, the language used by investors and other stakeholders.
One thing that we are realizing many people never consider is how basic business skills are so essential for virtually everyone. If you are a minister in a church, you have to worry about revenue in the form of church-member giving and costs in the form of expenses. If you work in a non-profit that provides aide to children in the third world you must understand similar issues.
The language of business is not just the domain of the banker and consultant. It is a universal language.
MCB: How is the program structured? How much does it cost? How much commitment would you expect from an HBX student?
Patrick: CORe is offered in as short as 8 weeks or over as long as 18 weeks and costs $1,800. The course material is the same, but we offer the different lengths of program so that students can choose the course length that works best for their schedule.
Students take Business Analytics, Economics for Managers and Financial Accounting and must pass a comprehensive final exam in order to earn the Credential of Readiness from Harvard Business School and HBX. CORe requires an average of 150 total hours of study.
MCB: What are the top questions that candidates need to ask to know whether the HBX course would be right for them?
Patrick: Candidates should ask themselves if they are ready to commit to CORe before applying. We are not looking for observers – in fact, it is a central part of the program that students must be willing to participant and engage.
This increases their own learnings and benefits others that are enrolled in the program as well. Previous exposure to Economics, Accounting, and Analytics is not required.
MCB: How have you adapted the case study based teaching methodology (the primary tool in HBX CORe) to the online model? How does a geographically diverse student base get the feeling that they are in the same classroom?
Patrick: When determining how we could effectively bring the case study method online, we focused on three principles: real-world problem solving, active engagement, and social learning.
As mentioned earlier, when you log into the platform, the first thing you see is who else is out there. You are welcomed by a global map with pulsating bubbles showing you who is online anywhere in the world. These are real profiles, so the students get to know each other. They share reflections, they answer each other’s questions, they engage in one-to-one messaging.
With the case method, we don’t start with the theory. We actually start with the problem. That contextualizes what you have to grapple with as a student. From there, we inductively drive the theory.
In the classroom, everyone is on the edge of their seats. Everyone could be called to participate at any time. The HBX platform is built to support this type of active learning in a digital space.
Participants are constantly doing something on the platform – watching a short video, answering a reflection, engaging in peer help, responding to a cold call, doing an interactive exercise, etc.
MCB: A key stumbling block for many students (including those juggling full-time jobs) is the time & effort needed for the course, the fear of falling behind and not being able to meet deadlines. How much flexibility does the program offer to working folks?
Patrick: Students are able to set their own daily or weekly schedules and adjust it as necessary, but do need to complete the modules within a predetermined timeframe so the cohort can progress at a similar rate.
HBX provides a number of tools to make time management easier, including a detailed calendar and module progression timeline. We have found that when people are able to stick to a set schedule of study time, they perform better on quizzes are more likely to pass the program.
MCB: What are the main sections and questions in the HBX CORe application?
Patrick: The HBX CORe application is designed to measure the applicant’s motivation and aptitude. The application takes approximately 20 minutes to complete and consists of a few basic skills questions which assess the applicant’s reasoning and ability to perform basic math, as well as a short essay.
MCB: There’s quite a bit of interest (and speculation) on the HBX CORe acceptance rate. Why isn’t there any official word on it yet?
Patrick: We focus on being selective in our admissions, not exclusive. As mentioned before, our application screens for motivation and aptitude. This allows us to admit, and therefore reach, as many qualified future business leaders across the globe as we can. The acceptance rate varies with each cohort.
MCB: The fee is quite steep for applicants from countries like India. Are there any need-based or country specific scholarships available?
Patrick: We do not offer any country specific scholarships at this time. For those that qualify, need-based scholarships are available.
MCB: Walk us through a typical online session. What is the student expected to do before-hand, what happens in the class, how is she expected to participate, what are the (offline) follow-up activities after each session (e.g. assignments)?
Patrick: One of the main differentiators of the HBX platform is active engagement. Almost every lesson starts with a very short one to three minute video of an executive or manager talking about the problem he/she is facing in their organization.
It’s not a faculty member starting by explaining some concept. You are then asked to solve that problem. We have what we call the three-minute rule. Roughly every three minutes, you got to be doing something on the platform. The implication is no video can be longer than three minutes.
After three minutes, you’re asked a question. It could be a poll or a reflection question about what you’ve read or heard. You fill in your answers. Immediately after, you see what others have answered.
This turns out to be a really important point. The answers are being updated in real-time. You can see the distribution of answers, but you can also see why any other individual has answered, which means that you’re not anonymous.
Each course has a schedule of weekly deadlines and each module ends with a quiz. There is not a required time that all participants must be logged on, but participation is a critical element of the program, so students are encouraged to ask each other questions, share interesting articles or observations, and participate in peer help.
After the coursework has been completed, students must sit for an in-person final exam at a local Pearson VUE testing center.
Private Facebook groups are also created for every individual cohort, so students can connect with their peers via a channel that they’re comfortable using.
MCB: What’s the exam duration? How is it structured? Are the questions objective (multiple-choice) or subjective in nature?
Patrick: The HBX CORe final examination is offered to participants after successful completion of the course. This three hour, multiple choice, closed book, computer-based assessment has been created by HBS faculty and is administered by Pearson VUE.
MCB: How is the performance graded?
Patrick: CORe grades are provided at both the individual course level (i.e. Business Analytics, Economics for Managers, and Financial Accounting) and the program level. Students who complete and pass all three courses will receive a passing grade for CORe and earn the Credential of Readiness from HBX and Harvard Business School.
MCB: Is your team working with employers to improve the market perception? Or do you think the Harvard brand + program quality combination would be strong enough to manage it independently?
Patrick: To date, we have not worked directly with employers to influence market perception. We believe the value will take hold through the performance of those who have taken the course.
We have plenty of anecdotal evidence that those who have taken an HBX course have found it invaluable in advancing their careers, but this information is currently self-reported.
MCB: Is the team working on new, interesting strategies to make the program better or is the focus more on scaling up at this stage?
Patrick: Our current focus is on the development of new courses and virtual programming that will be offered via HBX Live. We are also focused on continuing to scale HBX CORe and Disruptive Strategy and will be increasing the number of cohorts over the coming year.
MCB: What can we expect in the months and years to come?
Patrick: HBX will continue to innovate and grow our programs so we can further Harvard Business School’s mission of educating leaders who make a difference in the world.
MBA Crystal Ball: Thanks a ton for your time, Patrick, and for the insightful responses. And good luck with all the new, innovative ideas.
Patrick Mullane: Thank you for the opportunity, Sameer.