Case teaching online:
Harvard Business School’s first year

By Emma Simmons

HBX In June 2014, Harvard Business School entered the digital learning platform market with HBX CORe, an online programme using cases to teach the fundamentals of business to selected college students and recent company recruits. We revisit this pedagogical experiment that we first wrote about a year ago at the time of its launch.


In its course prospectus, Harvard Business School describes the pioneering online HBX Credential of Readiness (CORe) as “a primer on the fundamental skills of business through three courses: Business Analytics, Economics for Managers, and Financial Accounting.” Targeted at participants, many of whom have no prior business knowledge, it is “designed to introduce ... the language of business with the assumption that many of the concepts may be unfamiliar.” It continues: “You won’t learn theory as an abstract concept in CORe, rather you will be exposed to tools and techniques that you can apply to real-world problem solving.”

In an ever more ubiquitous online educational world, none of this may seem particularly remarkable. However, one of the things that was different about HBX CORe from the outset was its vision of the learning experience: the pedagogy of cases would be at its heart in the online space, just as in the Harvard Business School classroom. In addition, the programme would be subject to a demanding self-quality check, by culminating in “an in-person final exam to assess mastery of the material and indicate a readiness to apply the concepts in the business world.” Different levels of engagement are taken into account, and participants can distinguish themselves through demonstrating mastery of content and participation in the learning experience resulting in a spectrum of final grades on completion of the course.

Digital first

Bharat AnandAccording to Bharat N Anand, faculty chair for the HBX initiative, the important thing about the initial conception of HBX CORe was that it did not aim simply to replicate traditional Harvard Business School case classes online; he and his colleagues decided first to “forget” these. “CORe represents a digital reimagining of Harvard Business School faculty’s thinking, philosophy of learning, and approach to business education.” The concept of ‘digital first,’ observed in sectors such as media and entertainment, stood at the root of the project: understanding and using the unique potentials of the online medium as the starting point. Participants would develop the required mastery of the material “in a highly engaging and interactive way that is inspired by Harvard Business School’s case-based method of teaching ...... every concept, analytical tool, and framework has been embedded in a series of actual case studies that we have developed just for CORe,” Anand said. “We’ve never really had to reinvent all three attributes - a new group of learners, a new ‘classroom’ infrastructure, and a new medium – for a program before. And that’s why we approached the launch of HBX with great excitement, but also great humility,” wrote Anand.

Rethinking in a digital first way emerged through a wide spectrum of previous experience in the HBX project’s pioneering faculty. According to his CORe biography, V.G. Narayanan spent many years thinking about how he would approach the opportunity of developing an online course; “watching his kids learning at the computer” inspired him to rethink the possibilities, which fed directly into the creation of the HBX CORe Financial Accounting course. A third close faculty collaborator on the original HBX CORe, Janice H Hammond, had a long-standing interest in online learning and experience in developing online courses and simulations.

Re-imagining the case class

HBXAnand talks of the “passion” of his colleagues “to re-imagine participant-based learning online” and to build an entirely new platform in order to “create a great learning experience.” Developing cases especially for the HBX CORe programme entailed not just a reconsideration of how the content might be shaped to take full advantage of the digital possibilities, but also a reconsidered approach to teaching them. In particular, the fact that not all participants would be online at any one time threw up the challenge of asynchronous teaching. Anand describes “borrowing from the teaching approach that we know best.” He continues, “This was the inspiration for the three principles that anchored HBX CORe: storytelling, interactive learning, and social learning.” The classroom was “recreated” allowing participants to be introduced to one another and see who else was online. Peers are able to share material, help one another and even respond to online cold calls.

According to Ross Pearo, Director HBX Marketing and CORe Product, in what he terms “a variation” of the case method, “HBX CORe necessitated a fusing together by the faculty of the technology and the pedagogy in an even more deliberate preparation than for the live classroom.” The faculty had to consider time delay in student participation when they planned and managed their own interventions, and they faced other inherent challenges of asynchronicity in Internet delivery. But nevertheless, so far, their reactions seem to be of a highly charged and exciting teaching experience.

In his recent blog posting, looking back over the last year, Anand also highlights the invaluable necessity for such a mammoth new venture of both a committed team and the support of the school at the highest level. Nitin NohriaIn fact, Dean Nitin Nohria has reported his initial reservations around offering online programmes, not least because he feared for the fate of the case class. He recently revisited his “belief in the transformative power of the case method ... profound and unshakeable,” and documents how his views on the HBX project gradually changed through collaboration with colleagues and the realisation of a new vision for the opportunity and potential of case pedagogy online. He praises his colleagues for finding “ways to replicate the intimacy and interactivity of the case study method in an online environment.” 

HBX Live

Meanwhile, HBX has also been developing a synchronous digital learning platform – HBX Live – to complement the asynchronous online learning platform upon which HBX CORe is largely delivered. HBX Live enables learners worldwide – the majority of whom could never have attended on campus - to participate in online case classes, as close as possible in feel to live classes.

With the August 2015 launch of the HBX Live “classroom,” a tailored television studio has been created, requiring behind the scenes production specialists including mobile camera operators, to be able to track the movement of the teacher, just as in a live class. During the session, up to 60 active participants ‘see each other’ and can click a laptop button as a proxy to signal that “their hands are raised” and that they are ready to speak, while an additional up to 1,000 participants can potentially observe on a short time delay. Youngme MoonThe background response of other participants to contributions, such as laughter, ‘ah ha’ moments or endorsement, can also be broadcast. A ‘chat bar’ constantly displays additional participant contributions, pictures and names in real time, while participants are also able to select and consult additional relevant materials. “Everything in the HBX Live Studio was designed to recreate the magic of the Harvard Business School case method classroom,” said Professor Youngme Moon, the School’s Senior Associate Dean for Strategy and Innovation. “We then layered on some additional features to bolster the learning model even further. The result is a deeply immersive and engaging experience that allows participants from around the globe to interact in a highly kinetic way.”

Pioneering participants

HBX CORe participantsWriting recently in Poets & Quants, John A Byrne reported on a recent case session on the HBX Live platform. He mentioned participant Kristen Maynard, who, remarkably, told how she felt more visible than in a live class: “It’s not possible to hide in the back row.” He also mentions Dave Schroeder, who felt so gripped by the experience of the online class, that he “couldn’t take my eyes off the screen .... It felt like everyone was in the same room.” There are reports of participants linking up after programme completion in study groups and arranging physical meet-ups around the globe, all of which has exceeded the hopes and expectations of the original faculty.

However, it remains debateable whether seeing a head and shoulders image of your classmates and their constantly appearing and disappearing printed screen comments, is really a substitute for a live class. John Byrne says: “The downside? When you’re only in front of a computer, you can’t really look around the class and observe your classmates. ‘We don’t get to see the body language,’ says one (HBX CORe participant). ‘The headset was uncomfortable,’ adds another in his chat bar,” revealing that some of the ergonomic aspects of today’s technology hardware still have ground to make up while excellence of content steams ahead.

Back on campus

What Anand has called the first “roller-coaster” year of six HBX CORe cohorts, has involved to date more than 5,000, highly diverse participants from more than 450 universities in 72 countries who have constantly provided the faulty with valuable feedback to enable constant innovation to continue. And, experiences over the last year would seem to illustrate the inherent flexibility and potential of case pedagogy. With a participant group and faculty fully conversant and comfortable with the possibilities of new media, case learning outcomes can still be as powerful: course completion rates average 85% and, engagement scores closely resemble those for residential courses. 

HBS mba classThe initial year’s online teaching experiences are also feeding back into the ‘live’ classroom at Harvard Business School. Dean Nohria reports in his blog that it is “beginning to affect our thinking about the best way to teach live classes utilizing the case study method.” He reports how the technologies and methods pioneered by HBX are being explored to “allow pieces of what we now do in our case discussions to take place online before class, opening up time for a richer classroom experience.” And, for the first time, summer 2015 saw more than 300 participants learning accounting through HBX before they began their classic MBA campus programme.

The future

One year after the online teaching experiment with HBX CORe began, the course is now offered to a much wider spectrum of learners worldwide, with the technology allowing for multiple cohorts of 300-400, pre-selected to ensure maximum diversity, to run simultaneously. And HBX Live offers the potential of offering programmes and course components to ever wider groups of participants, including more senior managers, executives and alumni groups for whom presence on campus may not be practical. Dean Nohria “can’t – and won’t – predict what HBX might look like in the future.” That said, he now believes that “HBX could easily be one of the most important initiatives we undertake at Harvard Business School.” Commentator John Byrne has asserted that: “Harvard Business School has truly invented the future classroom ...... and ...... unmistakably taken the lead in digital learning among all business schools, if not universities.”

Bharat at the HBX Live boardThe last word here goes to Bharat Anand: “We hope that our efforts at HBX will ultimately transform the educational experience of everyone who comes to our campus to learn. We also hope that our efforts can touch and impact new learners around the world who might never set foot on our campus. More than anything, we hope that the educational experiences we are delivering through HBX impacts learners not just through the content being offered there, but by serving as a springboard for new ideas, creative solutions, and better things – a springboard that enables our learners to make a difference in the world.” The aspirations Harvard Business School sought to address when the case method was developed more than 100 years ago would appear to be just as strong in their new online reincarnation.

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