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Harvard resists popular online education model, opts for more expensive program

Published: Thursday, June 5 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) make education cheaper and more accessible, but some say they have potential to undermine the current profit model.

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Even after losing its 378-year No. 1 status to Stanford, Harvard still hesitates to create a strong, open online presence.

Harvard’s freshly minted nickname “the Stanford of the east” is believed to be, in part, a result of Stanford’s commitment to innovation, expansion and community outreach and Harvard’s hesitancy to join the ranks of online educators.

It’s Harvard Business School that is most resistant to establish online courses, claiming that they would undermine the institution’s good name, selective nature and commitment to academic rigor.

Universities all over the world are facing an “adapt or die” scare. Most universities are responding to the Internet’s influence on academia by implementing online courses to stay relevant in a changing education culture.

“If any institution is equipped to handle questions of strategy, it is Harvard Business School, whose professors have coined so much of the strategic lexicon used in classrooms and boardrooms,” Jerry Useem wrote for The New York Times, “It’s hard to discuss the topic without recourse to their concepts: Competitive advantage. Disruptive innovation. The value chain.”

Then why is Harvard Business School so hesitant to confront the “disruptive innovation” of online schools, specifically the recent popularity of Massive Open Online Courses?

There has been a strong disagreement between what the business side of the school wants to do and what the professors of business think is best. When its dean, Nitin Nohria, suggested the development of a MOOC-modeled online degree, the faculty snubbed the idea as bad business.

Two strongly opposed opinions of what the school’s next step would be came from two of its most celebrated professors. Michael Porter dubbed the father of modern business strategy and Clayton Christensen who became famous for his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”

Porter said it was time to create an online program, but it should stand apart from those of Stanford and Wharton School of Business. The courses should not be open and they should not be free.

Christensen said that the school should implement a program, but not to feed too many resources into it, taking a this-too-shall-pass attitude: “Do it cheap, do it easy and get it out there,” he told The Times.

Many of the faculty rejected an online presence altogether, saying that an online program would erode the existing brick-and-mortar program. Their claim was that online classes would inevitably be easier than the in-person courses, and that would undermine the prestige of a Harvard Business School diploma. Many said that part of what makes Harvard Business School great is the networking, one-on-one attention and rigor of the courses.

Harvard ultimately went with Porter’s proposal. Its online program to roll out on June 11 will neither be cheap, simple or easy. In fact, the virtual program will be completely separate from its on-campus counterpart.

“Instead of attacking the school’s traditional M.B.A. and executive education programs — which produced revenue of $108 million and $146 million in 2013 — it aims to create an entirely new segment of business education: the pre-M.B.A.,” Useem wrote.

EMAIL: nshepard@deseretnews.com TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard

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