Christensen, Porter, and Online Learning

Framing online learning at HBS.

June 3, 2014

How many people sent you a link to this weekend’s NYT article Business School Disrupted?

The genius of Jerry Useem’s reporting is that he situates Harvard Business School's online learning strategy within a larger business strategy debate between two giants in the field.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of business strategy knows about Clay Christensen and Michael Porter. (Both of whom are at HBS).

Christensen is best known for his theory of disruptive innovation, an idea that haunts the halls of traditional academic institutions everywhere.

Michael Porter is just as much of a rock star, an academic whose theories on competitive advantage of influenced thinking in industries from healthcare to national economic development.

The question for HBS in getting into online education is:  Should it follow a Christensen path and set up a distinct team to disrupt itself before someone else can, or would it be wiser to follow Porter’s thinking and design its online educational offering to play to the school’s key strengths and to support its core mission?

The NYT concludes that HBS went with Porter, arguing that the HBX "is not cheap, simple, or open.”.

I’m not so sure that the Times got it right.  

HBX is no MOOC, but it is also bears very little resemblance to the traditional Harvard MBA.  

Tuition alone will set you back $58,875 each year if you are lucky enough to be admitted to an HBS class, compared to the $1,500 that HBX charges for the three-course CORe sequence.

A more Porter like approach would seem to be moving some of the HBS courses to a blended format, eventually allowing students to move through the curriculum while spending slightly less time in Boston.  

For instance, a plan to move a certain portion of the HBS MBA courses online could enable students to spend some of the two years (beyond summers) working overseas or completing internships.

A Porter like approach would maintain the premium learning experience, built on team collaboration, case based learning with intensive faculty interaction, while successfully translating this method to a lower-residency online format.

Would it be possible for HBS to truly stay to its core competency while moving into the online learning realm?  

Sure.  I’ve witnessed (and played a small part in) the creation of a premium quality low-residency / online program, the Master of Health Care Delivery Science (MHCDS) program, which has been going strong since 2011.   

Many of you probably spend your time working on online or blended programs that are fully aligned to the core strengths of your school.

My guess is that if you are involved in online education at your school that you have worked hard to build on the strengths of your institution, while leveraging online learning to improve core functions such as faculty development and infrastructure for residential based blended learning.

We know how to create premium online learning experiences.  

We know how to learn from the creation of these online / low-residency programs to improve our traditional programs.   

HBX might make an interesting case study, but its utility as an example for the rest of us may be limited. 

MOOCs and HBX are only a tiny tiny subset of what is really going on with online learning.

The exciting news is how online education can improve the most traditional types of learning.

Approaches in which the instructor and the student gets to know each other, and can build a close and collaborative learning relationships.

Most of us who work in online learning are not looking to disrupt our institutions or to go to scale.  

We believe that the best teaching and learning, be it residential or online, occurs at human scale. 

What would a Porter or Christensen approach to online learning look like on your campus?


Back to Top