This week, Harvard Business School launched an innovative new online education program to the public that it thinks is so far ahead of free online courses that it's worthy of a $1,500 price tag.
The 11-week pre-MBA program called CORe accepts about 500 students and is taught in the school's signature case-study method. The first official session started on Feb. 25, and applications are open for spring and summer sessions.
CORe is the flagship offering from HBS's new digital platform, HBX, which aims to become a full-fledged branch of the school rather than a place to dump video recordings of classroom lectures.
CORe is made up of three courses — economics for managers, business analytics, and financial accounting — and primarily targets young professionals with liberal arts backgrounds who aspire to rise to management or are considering getting an MBA.
Students who pass the program receive a certificate that carries the weight of one from HBS's executive education program.
HBX chair Bharat Anand tells Business Insider that most online course offerings are still in their infancy, where long video lectures posted alongside multiple choice questions is the norm.
Conversely, HBX CORe is built on a proprietary platform that uses the case-study technique that distinguishes HBS. "This has some very interesting and exciting potential for education," Anand says.
It started as a way to find an online tool to address the "non trivial" 20% to 30% of students accepted to HBS's MBA program who lacked the necessary background in "the language of business": accounting, economics, and data analysis. These students always had access to a two-week primer before matriculating in the fall, but Anand says the short time was insufficient for achieving a thorough understanding, and traveling to HBS's campus before the school year officially starts could be an inconvenience for many students.
So Anand and his team decided to create a thorough, 10-week course (an extra week has since been added) based on the three elements of the case-study method: engaging in real-world problem solving, beginning with actual problems managers face rather than theory; active learning, in which a student is not given the chance to doze off as a lecturer drones on; and social learning, which allows students to learn from each other.
They developed a program that went through case studies using three- to five-minute videos. They are immediately followed by questions that mimic the "cold call" method, where all HBS students in a classroom are subject to be called on at any moment and 50% of the grade is based on their participation. Students could create profiles that included their photographs and allow them to ask and answer each other's questions in discussion boards.
The three courses are offered simultaneously in "modules." Students receive final grades: pass, honors, or high honors. A student who does not do the required work fails and does not receive a certificate.
While a certificate of completion gained from a class on Coursera probably wouldn't impress a hiring manager much, HBS says this certificate carries as much weight as the executive certificates the school gives to non-MBA students each year.
The HBX CORe program was first intended to be a full pre-MBA experience for incoming HBS students.
"Very quickly," Anand explains, "we said, 'Look, if we're going to do this, we don't need to be restrictive. We can offer it to students at other schools or people just starting their careers."
HBX CORe had a limited launch last June, open only to students from Massachusetts undergraduate or graduate colleges other than HBS, as well as relatives of HBS alumni in the state. About 600 students were accepted.
The team followed up the first round with another session composed of 400 to 500 students from six to seven global companies ranging in size and industry. While Anand declined to disclose the companies that participated, he says employers enrolled a mix of new hires, engineers that were eligible for promotion to management, and senior managers who could benefit from a better grasp on the technical side of business strategy.
Anand says that he and the team were pleased with the results. "One of the things that was incredibly reassuring was that students with no business background were doing really well in the program," he says. Two thirds of the student body had degrees that were not in economics or the social sciences.
Eighty-five percent of students completed the first limited session, and 80% of students completed the second.
In both rounds, engagement rates were "close to what you would get in a classroom," Anand says, and a full 90% of student questions were answered accurately and completely by other students in the discussion boards, which he sees as proof of HBX's ability to engage students.
Before opening up the most recent CORe session to the public (restricted to college students and grads who've been out of school for less than 10 years), the HBX team made some necessary tweaks.
They learned that 17 deadlines across the three courses spread out over five checkpoints was too much for many students, and the cramming or missed deadlines that resulted weren't desirable. The deadlines are now spread over 10 checkpoints. They also made enhancements to the platform to encourage more interaction among students.
They decided that they should limit a particular cohort, which they call each student body, to 300-600 people, while still allowing for multiple cohorts coexisting in a single round, which could include a pool of a few thousand.
The HBX team wants to transform online education the same way the case-study method transformed business education.
Anand hopes HBX will become a profitable, full-fledged branch of HBS that offers campus-caliber education at the pre- and post-MBA level. HBX has already forayed into the latter with a class on disruptive strategy from famed professor Clay Christensen. HBX Live, a virtual classroom model, is also in development and slated to launch in the next few months.
"We created this program with high aspirations," Anand says.
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