During a year spent learning about MOOCs and listening to the people who make them, I noticed a continued curiosity over what those Harvard Business School (HBS) guys were cooking up with regard to their anticipated foray into large-scale online education.
The assumption seemed to be that if anyone could figure out a way to make money off the new online learning revolution, it would be the “B-School.”
They’ve got that power brand, after all, and the fact that business is currently the largest undergraduate major in the country (for better or for worse) means there is a big market for business courses generally. And given the rule of thumb I’ve mentioned previously that says people will spend money for education that can help them earn or save money (even if they’ll spend lots and lots of time on free courses that might just improve their minds), there was likely to be less of an outcry if HBS MOOCs (or MOOC-like things) entered the market with a price tag attached.
If you look over major MOOC providers, you can discern distinct business plans – even if all three started with the .COM assumption that one could start a business by giving away something of value for free and then figure out how to monetize the large audiences you attract later.
Udacity’s “Pivot,” for example, demonstrated that they were following a start-up strategy that has become catechism in the Silicon Valley’s startup culture, one that involves constant experimentation in order to find a viable business model and then “stepping on the gas” once you’ve figured out the magic formula that will translate further investment into sales growth.
Coursera has begun the process of trying to “monetize eyeballs” through their Signature Track offering, a paid-certification option that was recently enhanced with their Specialization program. And while they are no doubt continuing to try to find business-to-business opportunities (like content-licensing deals that have yet to pay off in any significant way), Signature Track currently represents the only business-to-consumer MOOC program generating seven figures in revenue.
Because of the de-centralized nature of the edX consortium, different parts of that organization are experimenting with different revenue-generating schemes: from Harvard’s for-credit offerings via the Extension School, to MIT’s paid X Series courses that run alongside free courses offered via MITx, to the open-source services deals edX itself is striking with organizations outside of formal academia.
But I think it’s safe to say that none of these business model experiments was well formed in people’s minds before Udacity, Coursera and edX were founded. In contrast, it looks as though Harvard Business School spent as much time trying to figure out what a paying market would look like (and what they might pay) as they did deciding what content to deliver online and what tools should be used to deliver it.
There seem to be some very MOOC-y things about HBS’s (actually HBX’s) opening option: a two-month program including courses on three subjects (Business Analytics, Economics for Managers, and Financial Accounting). And, as far as I can tell, there do not seem to be any restrictions on who can participate in what they are calling their CORe program (which stands for Certificate of Readiness). And while such a certificate may end up looking like the MOOC PDF certificates I currently have stacked up on my couch, the assumption is that a Certificate of Readiness (vs. just plain old free MOOC certificates) offered by Harvard Business School (vs. some other institution) earned by studying business topics (vs. Kierkegaard) will justify the program’s $1500 price tag.
Thinking back to my own business career, I recall spending almost that amount studying just Financial Accounting via an extension school program, so this online HBS package seems like a pretty good deal. And while all of the arguments I’ve made regarding why open online courses will not put traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities out of business still apply, HBSX CORe (and whatever comes next) seems like a nice option for those who (like me) studied things like liberal arts while in college but ended up pursuing a business career afterwards.
But even if HBS business planners have discovered a “sweet spot” in the online education market, a major challenge for them involves bringing a teaching methodology that’s become synonymous with the HBS brand – the case method – from classroom to screen. Lecturing on business cases shouldn’t pose a problem, but given how much the school relies on students working together to hash out solutions to practical business problems, I can see some of the challenges MOOCs have in creating stable, productive communities impacting Harvard Business School’s experiment.
Now the organization has precedent to fall back on, such as the project-based entrepreneurship open online courses produced by Stanford and delivered via the Novoed platform, or Harvard’s own experiment with the limited enrollment CopyrightX MOOC. And the HBSx announcement hints that new technologies (such as an HBX Live! real-time video classroom) might play a role in bringing case study online.
Most importantly, the final note on their announcement highlights the fact that, like the overall MOOC project HBX grew out of, this new program is a work in progress, i.e., an experiment where program creators and participants will be working together to expand on what works, identify and eliminate what doesn’t, and move forward on a pathway that might ultimately demonstrate how other players in the open learning space can generate the revenue they will ultimately need to survive.