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How Harvard Created One of the Best Online Learning Platforms

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Are you looking into online learning platforms for your educational institution, but still on the fence about it?

Take the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business for example. In what’s been called ‘one of the most ambitious efforts in online education,’ the seventh-ranked business school in the U.S. made waves when it announced it would offer a completely online MBA degree for the fall semester of 2019.

That’s why we talked with one of the top-ranked business schools on the planet to see how they distinctively approach online learning.

We interviewed Patrick Mullane, the executive director of Harvard Business School Online to share Harvard’s scholarly secrets to creating one of the most unique online learning platforms in the world.

In this piece, Patrick walks you through:

  • Why Harvard Business School decided to take online learning seriously
  • The six unique components to the HBS Online Learning Platform
  • How they approach emerging tech like VR, AI, etc.
  • How online learning can enhance a school’s brand

Why Harvard Opted For Online Learning

It was in the fall of 2010 that the Dean of Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria, was asked ‘will Harvard Business School enter the arena of online education?’

He answered unequivocally, ‘not in my lifetime.’

Understandably, Nitin, like many other faculty at prestigious institutions around the world, saw online education as a ‘disruptive innovation’ which ‘threatened campus-based, face-to-face educational programs.’

But Harvard Business School’s defensive position changed, as they began to understand online learning’s role in complementing and supplementing existing educational methods at their century-old center for learning.

“If we really believed in our mission, which is to educate leaders and make a difference in the world…then there were people who could benefit from what we have to offer [online],” Patrick says from the Harvard Business School’s illustrious campus.

“There was a decision made shortly after, that we should consider what we do online. But if we’re going to do it, let’s stay true to who we are.”

At Harvard Business School, ‘staying true’ means keeping to their ‘case-method’ of teaching, a form of business education invented by Harvard in the early 20th century.

“It’s teaching by storytelling,” Patrick says. “Where we ask students to put themselves in the shoes of a manager. We share that manager’s story with them, the problems the manager is facing and ask them how they would address the problem or question.”

Taking their case-method approach online is just one of six unique components to how Harvard Business School has created one of the best online learning experiences to date.

Harvard Business School Online’s 6 Secrets to Learning Success

Anchored by their tailored case-method approach, Harvard Business School made sure that if they were going to teach online, that they would stay true to their values.

The same should be heavily considered by other educational institutions as they ponder online learning platforms.

Below are the other ingredients to HBS Online’s secret sauce:

1. Custom Online Learning Platform

If HBS Online was going to be able to deliver a stellar ‘learning through storytelling model’ in an online format, it was going to have to be built from scratch.

“At the time it was believed there really wasn’t a good technology platform that would allow us to deliver case-based learning, so we developed our own platform from the ground up,” Patrick says.

“So, it’s pretty unique in this [online learning] world. We use it only for our own content right now.”

Patrick says the unfortunate reality is that a huge majority of higher learning institutions are using some version of off-the-shelf cloud-based software, which doesn’t allow for a unique brand experience. Many students have let him know that other institutions’ online programs feel identical because they’re on the same online learning platforms.

In the HBS Online learning platform, content is revealed to the student in a sequence, and they can’t skip ahead.

They’re engaging in a new activity every three to five minutes. Whether that’s a short video featuring Harvard Business School faculty or industry leaders, applying new concepts through interactive graphs and exercises or completing a poll.

Every time an online course is developed, so is a custom learning interactive. In total, the HBS Online learning platform has a library of 80 custom interactives they can use to make online learning more impactful.

“That helped us make a really seamless experience for users, which is what we hear from them when we ask them to compare their experience with us to other online platforms,” he says.

Related: Why the Best LMS Design Includes Courses with Professional Voice Over

2. Learning Through Storytelling

The biggest one [secret to their success] is how we teach. It’s very unique and I’ve yet to see anybody really do that well online or even attempt to do it,” Patrick says.

He says they ensure ‘storytelling’ doesn’t mean having an hour of video learning content droning on.

The HBS Online learning platform offers over a dozen courses and all of them make sure the students are pulled into the middle of the story.

As an example, for HBS Online’s flagship product CORe (which offers Business Analytics, Economics for Managers, and Financial Accounting), they show a video interview of senior executives at Penguin Random House publishing discussing their reaction to Amazon’s announcement of the Kindle and the imminent release of $9.99 New York Times Best Sellers on the e-reader.

On the online learning platform, students watch the three-minute video, then they’re presented with a poll: ‘Do you think this turn of events in the publishing industry is good or bad for traditional publishers?’

After they answer, the online learning platform prompts another page asking: ‘You’re a traditional publisher and you can distribute your books electronically, what sort of costs do you think might go away?’ They are presented with a list of costs they’ll keep and costs that will go away, which learners drag and drop into columns.

“By doing things like that we step a learner through a discovery process,” he says. “We take the students through the story, so that they internalize the lesson. I don’t know a single person who experiences it and doesn’t say, ‘it’s the best way to learn.’”

Related: Writing an Educational Script: Tips from an Emmy Award-Winning Scriptwriter

3. Online Learning Cohorts

It may surprise you, but HBS Online doesn’t offer on-demand courses for learners.

The reason behind that calculated, counter-cultural decision was in order to better foster a thriving online community from around the world.

Their courses have several start dates, but learners can’t sign up, pay and learn right away. They have to apply to be in a specific cohort and need to be going through the same content at roughly the same pace.

“I think they feel surprisingly connected to who they’re doing the course with. We found that seems to matter quite a bit,” Patrick says.

A recent survey of past participants showed that 94% think HBS Online’s courses were more impactful than other online learning platforms. Patrick believes their cohort approach played a large role in those figures.

Every April, Harvard Business School has an on-campus event for their online learners, who can then sit in on live cases, go through some workshops and listen to speakers. The day-and-a-half long event attracts around 600 people, who fly in to be with the people from their programs.

“If you went to one of these events that we had and you walked into a room, it feels no different than for me coming back for my 10-year MBA reunion. You see people who really feel connected to those they’ve met online and often in relatively short courses,” he says. “It’s really amazing the connections people make.”

Related: 4 Benefits of Being in Community for Creatives

4. Online Learning Tools

Thanks in large part to their custom online learning platform, HBS Online offers some great tools for students to interact and crowd-source answers among the class.

“The case method is very reliant on helping each other. A faculty member is just like a maestro orchestrating a conversation between students,” Patrick says.

“What we found is that crowd-sourcing questions and answers works amazingly. It’s very rare where we have to jump in and direct the flow of the conversation. The students do it just fine by themselves.”

5. Certificate Programs Only

HBS Online doesn’t offer any online degrees, only certificate programs.

This means they’re not competing with the in-person MBA program. Frankly, they’re exposing learners who could be great MBA candidates.

The three demographics they target are:

  • Undergraduates and early graduates who are looking for business acumen
  • Entrepreneurs who are starting a business but don’t know how to run one
  • Mid-level managers who get promoted and need business acumen

A majority of their students are based in the U.S., however, 40% of HBS Online’s learners are international. Their international base draws heavily from Canada, India, South America and Europe.

6. Tenured Faculty

HBS Online only use tenured faculty for their courses.

Other institutions have hired adjunct teachers to run a branded online, and while Patrick says that a lot of schools have done that effectively, it’s not how Harvard goes about their business.

“Almost universally, when they [students] are done with the course, they comment that they love the faculty members. When they come to campus, the faculty members become like rock stars to them,” he says. “As someone who went here, I was shocked at how consistently good the teaching was.”

Voice Over Tip: Hire professional voice over actors to produce your video intros and outros. Having a professional voice that reflects your brand can create a consistent feel across all your course material, no matter who the professor is, or what the topic may be.

Online Learning Emerging Technology

HBS Online takes a focused approach with implementing emerging technologies in their courses.

While Virtual Reality (VR) and certain uses of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are astonishing, any new implementations into the course material need to add to the learning experience.

“We try to be disciplined about not using technology for technology’s sake,” Patrick says. “If it helps advance the learning, then great. But if it’s just kind of a ‘gee-whiz’ kind of thing, then that can be more distracting for learning.”

Dr. Sarah Glova, a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology, agreed with Patrick and says students can easily get caught up in the new technology.

“That’s when we start to see courses that aren’t effective. Students aren’t focused on the learning objectives, they’re focused more on the technology,” she says.

“How is this tool helping to enhance the learning experience? What are the learning objectives here and is this tool helping it? It should never be ‘let’s use this tool because it’s cool or [another] industry is using it.’”

Custom Online Learning Innovations

It may not be as glamorous as VR or AI, but HBS Online has come up with a truly personal innovation to allow students to engage with a new leadership course in April.

The soft-skills leadership course will make students take a variety of custom personality and skills inventory assessments (think Myers-Briggs test) to learn about themselves and then receive customized learning based on the results.

The information is used throughout the online course, making the learning incredibly relevant and personal to the student.

‘Personalization and adaptive delivery’ was ranked as the hottest topic in Learning and Development’s Global Sentiment 2019 Survey. So, clearly, Harvard is on the cutting edge of online learning with this course.

“We think that’s an interesting innovation for an online course, that a lot of courses, to my knowledge, don’t do.”

Here’s a great compilation of post-secondary institutions offering online learning, and thus pushing the limits of what can be done with both in-person and online courses.

Voice Over for Online Learning Platforms

One component that can’t be forgotten when you’re constructing your online learning platform, is voice over.

Almost all video and course content will need a voice to complement the learning material, in order to make the content engaging to the learner.

For instance, you’ll want to hire professional voice over actors to produce your video intros and outros, because having a voice that reflects your brand can create a consistent feel across all your course material: no matter who the professor is, or what the topic may be.

Harvard Business School Online uses a combination of in-house experts and voice over narrators for their online learning videos, including voice over sourced through Voices.com.

Their Creative Director, Chris Linnane, says he appreciated the convenience of the platform and found a voice over talent with a “great voice.”

Another way of incorporating voice over to help grow your online learning offerings is through podcast advertising. Today’s podcast listener tends to be highly-interested in learning content, making this a great medium to reach potential new students. Hiring a voice over artist for podcast ads to run on several education-related podcasts may end up attracting a huge crowd.

Advertising your courses on your target audience’s favorite podcasts could be a great place to start.

Online vs. In-Person Degrees: Assessing their Value for Students and Schools

There have been questions over the past few years, asking if online learning dilutes a university’s brand and sense of prestige.

And rightfully so, as many students have paid top dollar to get into their school in-person and don’t want the value of their degree to get damaged in any way, shape or form.

“It makes sense, you’re spending a lot of money and time and you want to make sure the perceived worth of it [the degree], doesn’t get damaged,” Patrick says.

But that’s part of why HBS Online doesn’t offer an online degree.

“There are certainly people who worry about that. But there’s no evidence that is the case. In fact, I would argue that by doing it well, we’ve enhanced the brand of the university,” he explains.  

Does this change your mind about how schools can execute online learning without diluting their brand? What tips from HBS Online are you hoping to implement for your own institution? Ready to hire a voice actor to help you with your online learning project?

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