New Dean of Harvard Business School Online Aims for Modular Courses, More Diversity

Jan 27, 2020

Last year Harvard Business School’s online operation got a new name. Now it has a new leader as well.

A few months ago, Debora Spar took the helm at Harvard Business School Online, after a rocky year-long stint as the president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. Spar has plenty of experience in higher education, having served as president of Barnard College and as a professor at the brick-and-mortar Harvard Business School.

So what are her plans for this upstart wing of the august school? And how much disruption does she see coming to higher education? We connected with Spar this month to find out. The conversation follows below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Did you experiment with online courses while you were leading Barnard College?

Debora Spar: Barnard is small. It’s idiosyncratic. It’s all women, undergraduates. So we set up this committee that I called the COOL committee—the Committee Of Online Learning. And I put together a little seed fund and a faculty committee and I said, “Put out a request for proposals and let people come up with whatever ideas they want.” We asked, “How do you take a small women’s liberal arts college in Manhattan and how should we go online?” Then we gave money out to the best proposals.

My favorite ones all took advantage of being in the physical environment of New York. So let’s not try and be all things to all people, but what do we have in New York that makes us distinctive?

And so faculty members would work in collaboration with some of the museums, like the Frick, the Studio Museum of Harlem. The kids would come in, photograph the objects, digitize them and write sort of virtual display cases, so to speak. There was another one that was an interactive dance project that one of our dance faculty came up with, where you could go around campus on your phone and you could put your phone up against the physical spot on campus and you could see a dance that was choreographed specifically for that space.

Do you think we’re still going to see major disruption in higher education because of online education?

I wrote a book in 2001 called “Ruling the Waves,” which was looking at the internet in historical perspective. And my argument was that while the internet was revolutionary and radical, we have had prior revolutions in communications. And I went back among other things and looked at the history of radio, and it’s fascinating. You look at what people were saying when radio first emerged in the 1910’s and 20’s. There was the belief that universities would go away because, why would you possibly need to go to university if you could hear the lectures on radio? So I think that’s a very telling story.

I think undergraduate education is being disrupted for lots and lots of reasons. The internet is probably not the most important one. Probably the most important is the demographic shifts we’re living through right now. There’s just not as many 18 year olds. I think the next great one is going to be that the Chinese students are going to stop coming. So that’s going to hurt a lot of colleges in this country.

So I think online is part of the changing landscape, but it’s only part of it. At least the way I see it. A place like Harvard Business School or even Barnard College moves online not because it’s pulling up the ramparts, but because this is an amazing set of technologies and enables you to do what you do across a broader population.

Harvard Business School has this great pedagogy and we teach 900 kids a year. So with online technologies we can take what we do, admittedly in a different format, and take the pedagogy that we think is so special and we can get it to thousands of people a year.

Do you have any sense yet of what you’re excited about doing differently with HBS Online?

Not too much differently, to be honest. I mean I think they’ve really built something beautiful, and I have no interest in disrupting it. [In a way] this has been a startup. There’s been a lot of experimentation. The basic model has been proven … Lots of people are interested in this.

So now we have this sort of essential startup phase two. So how do we continue to grow? How do we pick up the pace of growth without killing the organization? We’re kind of at full capacity right now, but there’s tons more stuff we want to do. How do we prioritize what we do when, and how do we continue to experiment?

I’m particularly excited about more modular formats. The long-form is great, but it’d be great to move as well to more of a menu of offerings where you can take a track’s learnings—you can take little bits of content.

We’re talking about some things we might be able to do that are sort of “hot off the presses,” so that when there’s a major event out there in the world, we can put content together super quick and get it out there to our audience.

And we need more women onboard. We have a huge number of international participants, [but how do we] get to parts of the world where it’s going to be much harder for folks to get the residential MBA experience? How do we make sure that we’re actually reaching those folks with accessible content?

And do you see offering lower-cost options being a part of getting that diversity?

I think that will be part of it. But I also think that one of the reasons the content we produce is so good is that it’s just expensive to produce. It’s less expensive than a residential program, but it’s hours and hours of time, and hours and hours of production, and hours and hours of filming. So I think we’ll always try to keep the price points as reasonable as possible. That’s one of the great advantages of this format of education. But there’s an inherent cost baked into that.

What do you see as the biggest challenge to achieving these goals?

The challenge is to stay focused—figuring out where we can really add the most value. We don’t need to compete with everybody in all fields. That’s not what we’re about.

We’re not a profit-driven corporation. So we’ve had a lot of conversations about reach and mission, and what are the best ways to accomplish those goals? And how do we avoid getting dragged down by the 52 other things that might be fun to do?


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