Harvard Business School launched HBX, its new online education initiative, in June 2014. At the time the trend was for online courses to create a “lean back” experience where students would primarily watch streamed video lectures featuring experts. While these gave students an opportunity to see star professors they were lectures nonetheless. The experience was passive ad the school wanted to change that.

When they designed their online platform they focused on three things:

A focus on real-world business problems. Video cases would be used to show real managers in real situations that connect back to theoretical concepts.

Encourage active learning. The program went for a ‘lean forward’ mode rather than a more passive strategy used by others.They aimed for student to spend no more than 3-5 minutes on the platform before having to interact with the material.

Foster collaborative learning. The platform would take a team approach, requiring students to interact with each other.

Just over one year since launching HBX, here’s what the school learned:

Collaboration doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The school helped participants “meet” virtually by requiring every student to first submit a personal picture and complete a public profile before they could participate. The plan worked – students on average view the profiles of 40 other participants before starting.

Align Incentives. Just getting people together doesn’t make collaboration happen. It must be triggered. To do this, the school tied participation and online collaboration to course grades.

Build the right team. Allowing just anyone to take the course wasn’t enough. Harvard made all participants apply and applicants were screen on a variety of academic and personality factors to find a good mix of candidates that would engage with the program and each other.

Set norms and stick to them The school recognized that a good plan might die off if it was not consistent. Great care was taken to make sure all courses stuck to the aforementioned goals and there wasn’t inconsistency between courses or professors teaching them.

Online collaboration can overcome biases and behaviors that arise in face-to-face environments. The team was surprised that by being online there tended to be less social stratification or the formation of ‘cliques’, which often happens at the elite school. Social interactions were more results driven and less socially driven.

The findings from Harvard square with those we recently profiled from a software provider to schools such as Harvard. Online education has to be interactive and adhere to many of the same standards as classroom based programs in order to work. If this is done there are some advantages to online courses which seem poised to grow as the world gets more connected and more social online.

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