New Harvard Business School Online Dean Aims for Modular Courses and More Diversity

Debora Spar, Senior Associate Dean, HBS Online

Debora Spar, Senior Associate Dean of HBS Online since October 2019, recently discussed with Poets & Quants and EdSurge the next steps for the digital platform.

HBS Online launched as HBx in 2014 (rebranded as HBS Online in 2019), with the Credential of Readiness as its flagship program. This 10- to 17-week course taught by HBS professors offered interactive learning, problem-solving, and decision-making skills development and included courses in business analytics, global business, and other topics. As of December 2019, 70,000 students had completed an HBS Online program and the platform supports 5,000 to 8,000 students at any given time. “The beauty of the platform,” Spar says, “is that, in theory, it enables you to reach people who otherwise would never be able to come to Harvard Business School campus. And we’ve done that. But we need to do more of that.”

Despite HBS Online’s expanded reach and accessibility, the latest financial report for fiscal 2018 showed that online education remained in the red even though it had a 58% revenue jump. HBS reported a loss of $5 million on HBS Online, less than the $11 million lost the previous year, and Harvard is not predicting the online initiative (which has been losing money since its inception) will go into the black.

Spar says, “We’re not a profit-driven corporation. So we’ve had lots of conversations about reach and mission, and what are the best ways to accomplish those goals?” She notes, “We need people in different parts of the world, and I think we need to be able to start picking up steam now in terms of experimenting with different configurations: shorter courses and mix-and-match courses. Hot-off-the presses kind of courses, refresher courses, current events. We’re not quite at this point yet, but … when something critical has just happened and there’s sort of a triage moment, we need to be able to come together and get a burst of information about, say, God forbid, the next time a financial crisis happens.”

She adds that she is particularly excited about more modular formats. “The long form is great, but it’d be great to move as well to more of a menu of offerings where you can take a track’s learnings – you can take little bits of contents.”

For more information about HBS Online and its programs, visit their Web site.

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