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One of the world’s most prestigious business schools is going digital. After much anticipation, Harvard Business School is launching its first online learning initiative.

Harvard’s move is being touted as a watershed moment for the century old institution, which has been behind the curve in the digital revolution. Other schools, like University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, have already moved some of their content online. Harvard Business School Professor Bharat Anand says his team has wanted to be more deliberate.

“One of the first questions we asked was what can we do that’s a little bit different, a little unique,” Anand said.

HBX is Harvard’s online business school effort. Video lectures that try to capture the energy of a real classroom are one of the program’s unique elements.

Slickly produced and graphically enhanced, the videos are as polished as full length movies.

One video features a lesson about Amazon. It’s stylistic, clever and eye catching — it could pass as a Gap ad. But don’t let the snazziness fool you, the content is still strictly business school material: basic fundamentals like understanding cost and strategy. Add to that an interactivity that’s, shall we say, vigorous.

Anand describes one method of interaction – a feature that allows students to be called on just like in class.

“You’re sitting at the screen, you’ve got through a bunch of content, suddenly an icon comes up that says, ‘You’ve been cold-called, you have 60 seconds to answer this question in 30 words or less,’” Anand explained. “And there’s a timer, and after you’ve submitted your answer that answer is shown to the rest of the cohort with your photo.”

HBX features interactive video lessons and the ability to converse and connect with other students.
HBX features interactive video lessons and the ability to converse and connect with other students.

The purpose, says Anand, is to try to bring the content to life — a basic tenant of Harvard business school teaching philosophy.

Like the business school itself, HBX is uniquely selective. Its first class will accept 1,000 students who are already enrolled in Massachusetts colleges and universities, explains executive director Jana Kierstead.

“We can get real-time feedback,” said Kierstead. “We can interact with these folks as they’re online taking the course. So that helps us a great deal as we’re launching and serving the students.”

The question is, at what cost? While many online courses are free and open to anyone, HBX will charge $1,500, hoping to target more serious students. And the school will offer need-based financial aid.

“One of the main goals is accessibility,” said Kierstead. “How do we think about getting this content in many, many people’s hands to empower them.”

Harvard will soon introduce HBX-LIVE, a virtual classroom that allows 60 participants, worldwide, to interact directly with one another from the studios at WGBH. It’s all part of a rapidly developing online strategy for an elite business school, whose alumni include Michael Bloomberg, George W. Bush and Facebook’s Sheryl Sanberg.

Mark Nemec is president and CEO of Eduventures, a higher education research firm.

“Just because you’re an elite institution, doesn’t mean your institution is always going to be in a position of growth,” Nemec said.

While HBX represents innovation in online learning, Nemec says it’s also business smart in a changing higher education landscape, in which employers care more about what you can do rather than where you earned your degree.

“What Harvard is figuring out is that it has to look to different channels to achieve some of the growth it might have taken for granted in the past,” Nemec said.

Harvard Business School’s HBX, which goes live in June, wants to be the world’s top provider of high-quality online business education. While this emerging technology is likely to have an impact on learning and teaching, the school does not expect its new on line offering to replace face-to-face instruction.

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