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Harvard’s HBX: a misguided MOOC

There was a fantastic article in today’s New York Times called “Business School, Disrupted.”  The article discusses Harvard Business School’s strategy for online education.  Their solution: charge $1,500 for three online business school courses.

HBX image

HBS’ HBX concept (image credit: New York Times)

Called the Credentials of Readiness (with the clever acronym CORe), your $1,500 investment grants you access to online courses covering Accounting, Analytics, and Economics for Managers.  You will have nine weeks to complete the trio, at which point you will receive a paper credential with a grade of either high honors, honors, or pass.


HBX’s strategy is about the exact opposite of most MOOC’s.  When asked about their approach, the executive director of HBX, Jana Kierstead, commented, “We don’t want tourists.  Our goal is to be very credible to employers.”


In other words, HBX isn’t interested in those who are truly intellectually curious, and want to expand their skill sets by participating in a decentralized academic exercise.  They want to sell a piece of paper that employers will value.  Pity.


The article depicts a divided Harvard Business School, citing rock-star faculty members Clayton Christensen and Michael Porter with contrasting opinions of the online education debate.  The students themselves are also split; some think that HBS’s brand value and elite standing will prevent MOOCs from having an impact, whereas others think even the mighty HBS will be touched by the MOOC revolution.


Harvard Business School Dean Nohria believes their MBA program is not at risk.  Drawing on the analogy that has not replaced all retailers, he thinks that MOOCs will not replace such prestigious institutions as HBS.  He also mentions that MOOCs are more suited for lecture-based classrooms, not the case-based teaching method employed by HBS.


Dean Nohria is a very smart man, but I think his perspective is severely influenced by confirmation bias and a lack of personal experience with MOOCs.  If Dean Nohria had completed the MOOCs that I have during this Homemade MBA project, I think he would be much less confident in his assertions.  Then again, he has a slightly vested interest in his traditional bread-and-butter MBA program.


This great article concludes by pondering the longer-term future of MOOCs and the education system.  Which universities will be impacted first?  Will all universities as we know them always exist?  Will rock-star professors like Mr. Christensen and Mr. Porter become their own educational entities, and use their established reputations as management gurus to go it alone with MOOCs as a mouthpiece?


Like you, I don’t have the answers.  But if my Homemade MBA has taught me anything, it’s that MOOCs absolutely will reshape the educational landscape.  Free-access MOOCs might be a trend only for us early adopters, but decentralized, internet-based classrooms are here to stay.


    • stan on March 31, 2015 at 1:19 am
    • Reply

    Hi, I like you article, and I appreciate your thoughts from your homemade MBA program.

    First of all, I want to share with you that, I also had thoughts of making a Homemade Computer Science degree. I completely understand your standpoint as Homemade MBA can be incredibly strong with the Wharton foundations as a backup.

    However, I also see that Homemade MBA has two major weaknesses: 1. Network. I doubt that the curriculums are all that challenging. Plus if a Wharton MBA student can access the first MBA materials on Coursera, why shouldn’t he just pay half-price and work on the 2nd Year curriculum on-campus? The reason is network, and it is how online programs will inevitabily lack compared to on-campus programs.

    Second, it is legitimacy. I get it, Honor codes will be a requirement for online gigs. But at the same time, MBA is a degree on transcript, on diploma, and on resume as “highest level of education”. Homemade degrees couldn’t. While computer science homemade can work out–because if you can program codes you need not a degree, a MBA degree transcript is like a key to many jobs.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thank you for hearing me out.

    1. Thanks, Stan. And thank you for your very thoughtful comment.

      First, let me completely agree with your observations about the weaknesses of a Homemade MBA. I agree that the Network is probably the most valuable part of any brick and mortar MBA program, full stop. It’s the people you meet and friendships you make that will pave the way for a successful career more so than the coursework and technical business skills you learn. We’re definitely on the same page.

      Second, your “MBA is a credential” argument also holds water. I agree that the value of an MBA is partially derived from having the physical piece of paper with your name on it, authorized by a prestigious school of course. There is no credential in a do-it-yourself MBA.

      That said, the real benefit of a self-study MBA is the techical business knowledge – the coursework component of a real MBA. Having completed my Homemade MBA plan of study (though I’m always on the lookout for a good new business MOOC…), I can say with some degree of confidence that the business school material is indeed out there for free. Having taken these Coursera courses, I can honestly say that now I “know what an MBA knows.” This was my goal for this project, and I feel that I accomplished that. Is it worth something to employers? Maybe. Probably not as a credential, but the knowledge will certainly help my day-to-day performance. Time will tell.

      Finally, I am very intrigued by your idea for a DIY Computer Science degree. I think you are spot on – no one cares where you learned how to code if you can code. In that way coding/CS is like learning a foreign language; it doesn’t matter if you went to Harvard U or Homemade U, if you’re fluent you’re fluent. I would love to see a “curriculum” for your project, and explore the idea further. I think you’re on to a very good idea. Please keep in touch and let me know how it goes.

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