Digital is now hitting all parts of the economy, including education. Five years ago, it was almost like a tsunami had hit institutions. You had companies like Cousera, Udacity, edX and so on who were basically creating platforms offering free courses from the best universities. This was very exciting. On the one hand, this could democratise education. On the other hand, if you were building strategy in an organisation and defining our role in this space, that was an entirely different set of questions. I was pulled in to lead the effort at Harvard to help craft our digital strategy along with few others from our faculty.
We were basically creating a start-up at Harvard Business School, says Bharat Anand, the Henry R. Byers professor of business administration in the strategy unit at Harvard Business School, and the faculty chair of the HBX initiative. The early versions of the courses that went online had this form of someone lecturing in the classroom. We captured it through video and streamed it online. It was the easiest way to create a course and reach out to thousands of people. You just add a few questions and it becomes a course. While this was fantastic in terms of getting reach, it was not so great in terms of getting engagement.
This was just about taking the traditional product and thinking of the Internet as a distribution channel and posting things online. This was like the PDF of a newspaper. We know how that story played out. It’s not really digital. It’s not really taking advantage of the digital technologies, to rethink what this product should look like. There is a term that people now use of being digital first. We said we have to be digital first. The reason is if we took the lecture or case based discussion from the classroom and streamed it online, we were treating the online audience as a second best as we were just borrowing the class-room for them.
The way this was playing up was that if 1,00,000 people signed-up for the courses, one per cent were completing it. That means there was not the kind of engagement that we would have desired. “If you think the class room lecture is boring, watching it on a screen for 60 minutes is even worse,” says Anand.
In phase one, a lot of media companies were just thinking of the Internet as a distribution channel, which is not the way to go digital.
The second was how do we go digital first. At Harvard’s classroom there are three core principles, the first is people don’t learn from theory – they don’t start from theory and then think about applications. You start with the applications or the case. From there you are deriving the principles of theory. That’s something we said we would do in digital. The medium already allowed us to do somethings better. Harvard Business School cases were typically 15 pages long and predominantly text. When we went digital, we could do video cases.
The other principle was interactivity in our classrooms. We made that also a part of the digital product. We had a rule called the three-minute rule where we said, no video will be longer than three minutes. After every three minutes, the student has to be active through a poll question or interactive exercise. Digital allows interactivity in a way that’s much more than the classroom.
The third aspect is more subtle. In classrooms students also learn from each other. In the digital medium, we decided to take social learning and amplify that. It became one of the anchors of what we did. The first screen had no content and was just a global map with bubbles on where people for the course were coming from. Users could click on the bubble and see the profile pictures of who was taking this course online and they could connect with them. The principle was that if students were not connected they could not debate with each other. It turned out to be very powerful as on the first day, when 300 students logged in for a course, there were 13000 profile views. They were just checking each other out.
The second question was that who is the learner or customer and what is the problem that we were out to solve? It was not just enough to put the content. As it turned out for our students, when they came in for a two-year programme they had a great time. But about 30 per cent of the batch did not have the necessary business background before they came in to the programme. Historically, we had a one-week residential programme for those type of students like a boot camp. So we said let’s take the online medium and make the programme 9-11 weeks and teach those three courses for our students before they come to the campus. When we set out to solve that problem we realised that if we can offer it to our students, there is no reason why we cannot offer it to the world. Then we said, most companies hire undergraduates and do not train them. If we created this programme we could target the undergraduate hires to take this. Then we said let us go to undergraduates directly. If they were not doing major economics or business and were instead taking up art, history or physics, they do not have the necessary background in business. We said we could offer it to them. They could take it during the summers when they were undergraduates and it would make them more confident to supplement the skills they already had. This was the approach.
As we were creating this, we were incurring some costs. Our premise was that this had to be sustainable as a standalone organisation. That’s what led us to move towards a paid model. But we were also aware that even that model might not be affordable to some. So we supplemented it with financial aid. Hence we covered cost and made it accessible.
We launched 2.5 years ago. We have had around 14,000 students go through our programme. If you think about it, that’s ten times the size of our MBA class. Talk about access. The second thing is completion rates are about 85 per cent from one per cent earlier. To be fair, the moment you charge completion rates increase because of commitment.
In digital, the very common tension is between reach and engagement. We get intoxicated by reach but forget that these are not just eyeballs and we need to think about each learner. Most of the learners say that this is one of the most satisfying learning experiences that they have had in their lives.
The other thing that surprised us was who’s taking these courses. Remember, we said that the course is for undergraduates. When we opened up people said can we extend the eligibility to those with a work experience of 3-5 years. We said ten years after graduation would be a good place to put the guard. A third of the applications was from people even older. When we looked at who these applicants were, one chunk of people were those who had taken this course in the past and came back for a refresher. The other group was of people who have worked for 15-20 years but have been slotted in functional roles. People from sales or IT wanted to break out as they had never been given the opportunity at general managerial roles. Or there were the creative types who did not know about balance sheets or product development. These are the people who were signing up.
The third group was senior managers and leaders in all kinds of industries. Professional services like physicians, lawyers, educators, real estate developers or airline pilots are people who do not necessarily know the language of business. These are people who would have never figured in our marketing plans.
The last part is the talent. When we started the course we restricted it to just students in Massachusetts colleges and universities so that we could get the stuff right in the pilot. As these are some of the best colleges in the world, you can imagine that those students did really well. When we opened up globally six months later, we got about 900 students from around the world from different backgrounds. They did as well if not better than the first batch. Now we are thinking about where talent resides in the world. This is the power of digital. You can tap into and provide digital education to people who are talented, able, hungry and may not have the access.
(This is the second part of a special series with Bharat Anand, the Henry R. Byers professor of business administration in the strategy unit at Harvard Business School, and the faculty chair of the HBX initiative)