As a Harvard Business School professor for 20 years, V.G. Narayanan has significant experience using the School's pioneering case method to teach business concepts—introducing a real-world management problem, and then using the Socratic method to help students put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist.
"When you discover truths by answering a series of questions, you are not just learning, but also learning how to learn," says Narayanan, Thomas D. Casserly, Jr. Professor of Business Administration and chair of the Accounting and Management Unit. "Ten years later, students can draw on the analytical skills they've developed to reason through an unfamiliar problem. In addition to the cases, we often assign readings to go with the cases. We use these readings to teach theory that the students can then apply in their case analysis. However, I do not think we have innovated as much on how we deliver the theory in these readings. In particular, I worry that my students will forget these readings very quickly as the readings, unlike cases, are not very experiential or interactive."
Watching his 10-year-old son work out math problems through a summer online course, however, Narayanan realized that the younger generation approaches problems very differently. Instead of listening to a lecture, reading a chapter, or even watching a half-hour lesson on fractions or solving equations, the young student would jump in almost immediately to answering questions. "If he got it wrong, then he would try and figure it out," he says. "You learn from making mistakes; it's a very exploratory style of learning." Narayanan became intrigued with the differences in learning styles online and wondered if it could be applied to courses at HBS to teach theory.
"The more efficient style of learning may be in the form of assigned readings, but the experimental and experiential style of learning is probably more natural. It's very interactive, very engaging, and very customized. It's a complete change in paradigm."
Shortly after this epiphany, Narayanan approached HBS Dean Nitin Nohria about using a similar technique to teach accounting concepts.
Mastery Of Business Fundamentals
Under the umbrella of HBX, Harvard Business School's online learning initiative, and working with Professors Bharat Anand and Jan Hammond and an administrative team, Narayanan is developing one of three modules that will comprise a new online learning program for college students and non-business graduate students. "Each year, we admit 900 students to HBS's MBA program," says Narayanan. "But the audience for business is exponentially larger: there are 9,000 other students who would benefit immensely from understanding basic business concepts."
The new Credential of Readiness (CORe) program launches this summer; in addition to financial accounting, the program includes courses on economics for managers and business analytics. At the end of the program, students will take an exam administered at any one of 4,000 testing centers worldwide to receive a certificate from HBS attesting to their mastery of the content.
Unlike most MOOCs, which follow a traditional course format of lectures and tests, CORe aims to be the first truly interactive online course that leverages the unique capabilities of the online format to pioneer a learning style just as revolutionary to online courses as the case method has been in the classroom. "At first blush, you say you can't take the interactive nature of the case method online," says Narayanan.
Narayanan and his colleagues approached that challenge head-on by creating 20 multimedia cases specifically designed for use online. Each employs a two- to three-minute video clip to introduce the situation, and then engages students with interactive elements such as multiple-choice questions and interactive drag-and-drop challenges that introduce key concepts and test learning. As students progress through the material, questions are interspersed with short video lectures and more interactive teaching elements.
"The beauty of this is that every student watches the video and answers the questions. In the traditional classroom, you are in the hot seat sometimes, but spend a lot of time listening to other students. Here, you are in the hot seat all the time."
While the traditional way of learning is synchronous—that is, everyone is learning at the same time—that concept quickly becomes unwieldy when you think of a videoconference format with a thousand participants. "Synchronous learning doesn't scale very well," says Narayanan. "The advantage of an asynchronized model is it allows for some level of customization."
“One student could be in Tokyo, another in Santiago, and another could be in Johannesburg"
Students can take the course at their own pace and in their own time, spending more time on more difficult concepts. At the same time, CORe utilizes 70 distinct ways of engaging students to mimic and even exceed the fullness of learning in the classroom. For example, students might randomly be subjected to a "cold call" question where they have two minutes to answer. Other students, then, are called upon to comment on the first student's answer.
At the same time, students can draw upon the skills and experience of their classmates by posting requests for help with concepts they don't understand. Their peers are given credit for reaching out to answer the call. The course will further bonding between students through required group projects that will match students all over the world together to solve more difficult accounting problems.
"One student could be in Tokyo, another in Santiago, and another could be in Johannesburg," says Narayanan, "We might give them some financials from an unidentified industry and have them figure out together what industry they are looking at." The diversity of international experience in such cases could be a boon to students in solving such problems.
With such experiments, Narayanan and his colleagues are embracing the dynamic quality of the course in their design—using their own iterative learning to develop and improve the course over time. While today the software is able to respond to wrong answers with a second layer of customized follow-up questions, he hopes eventually it will include three or four layers of customized questions and even remember mistakes students make and re-test them on those concepts weeks later.
"You can do that to some extent in the classroom, but you can't do that for 90 students," says Naranyanan, "whereas the computer never forgets. This is a huge opportunity for online education to do something better than we can do in a traditional setting."
Experienced Teachers Required
While some may see such innovations as threatening the role of the teacher in the classroom, Narayanan says the opposite in fact is true. It requires an experienced professor to design such an intricate course and anticipate not only right answers but also common mistakes students make. "I never would have been able to design this course in my first year," he says.
In addition, by preparing incoming MBAs with basic concepts and theory, it will allow professors to teach to an assumed level of competency in the classroom, saving time for more advanced concepts. "It will raise the level of what we do in the classroom and create more value-addition," he says. "We can focus more on critical thinking, judgment, debate, and presentation skills."
In the end, Narayanan hopes that those completing CORe will feel like they have had an educational experience that is both completely different and complementary to the classroom-whether they decide to go on to a traditional MBA program or not. "I would hope for them to say 'This is not like anything I've ever done before,'" he says. "I would love for them to say, 'This has been tailor-made for me.'"
Application deadline for the initial CORe program is May 29. CORe will launch on June 11, initially with a limited cohort of students drawn primarily from the greater Massachusetts region of colleges and universities.
Later this year HBX will introduce a series of specialized courses for executives on topics such as entrepreneurship and innovation; disruptive innovation, growth, and strategy; and the microeconomics of competitiveness.
Finally, HBX this summer will introduce HBX Live, a virtual classroom allowing participants worldwide to interact directly with one another and faculty. Its early focus will include lifelong learning opportunities for HBS alumni and enhancing the School's modular Executive Education programs.