Harvard Business School adopted a hybrid learning model for its MBA program during the Covid-19 pandemic. Students had the option of picking from a range of online only or hybrid classes. While the former was delivered through Zoom, the latter was delivered in the traditional classrooms at a one-quarter capacity with the remaining class joining in via zoom. This is an example of how an organization adapted and excelled to protect and continue delivering uninterrupted service during the global pandemic.
Harvard Business School launched an online learning platform in 2014 and adopted it into the pre-requisite learning for MBA students as well. Apart from this exception, the MBA program remained entirely in-person with no online components whatsoever. The school did have a recording studio for its executive education program, which it used occasionally. The last time the school had to pivot so much was in the 1940s, in the backdrop of world war II.
When the pandemic hit and cases began rising, the school responded by cancelling programs that were planned for the summer, that involved travel, and that had large gatherings of students. For example, the Field Immersion Experience for Leadership Development or FIELD program was the first to be cancelled in late February. Then what felt like almost overnight, classes were cancelled and moved to zoom, indefinitely.
It is the work that went behind the transformation that makes HBS a winner in times of the pandemic. It was quickly able to react and then adapt and tailor its strategy to continue delivering value. The school did this in three phases:
Phase 1: Virtual Day
The IT department began upgrading infrastructure immediately which included agreeing on and rolling out Zoom as the preferred platform. While the foundation was being built with Zoom, the professors and support staff underwent extensive training on how to conduct and navigate classes on zoom. Students were briefed regularly, asked to download the zoom client, and ensure they have a good internet connection. Towards the end of March, the school resumed classes in a 100% online format.
Phase 2: Summer break
There was a significant amount of trial and error involved and the school constantly sought feedback and continuously tweaked the learning model. For example, the grading policy was changed to reflect challenges of learning using this new approach. Class norms were changed to reflect the new classroom. The school took the summer to dive deeper and experiment with various innovate ways to deliver the MBA program. Staff and students alike participated in different types of class formats and brainstormed together on how to continue delivering components that were most valued – from in person debate and dialogue to the attention that in person classes demanded.
The school created new value by offering more classes spread across the day, developing new courses, tailoring the first year MBA experience for online or hybrid approach, offering flexible deferral policies etc. It also continued to capture value by engaging students on various social platforms like Slack and WhatsApp. The school used digital dashboards to convey the latest updates and status of progress.
Phase 3: Hybrid
After extensive testing, the school was able to announce the hybrid classroom model. Here using Zoom as the digital backbone, classrooms were setup to accommodate one-quarter of the class while the remaining class logged in on zoom. The physical classrooms were fitted with large screens to see those on Zoom. Staff had to be trained to provide technical and non-technical support to professors and the professors themselves had to learn how to optimize teaching in a virtual environment.
While this transformation and adaptation to a global pandemic has been successful, it has also given the school an opportunity to future proof for any similar events in the future. By continuing to innovate they have embarked on a mission to use digital technology and innovation to help prepare for the worst while continuing to deliver value. The learnings that can be drawn from this experience will position the school to think about breaking from the mold and perhaps making some of these changes permanent even post Covid-19.
This post only focused on the academic transition that took place and does not touch upon the several other areas that needed to transform and adapt behind the scenes. For example, regular testing across all students, staff, and faculty was also enabled through digital solutions. Digital transformation and technology were the backbone on which this change took place and without it, perhaps the HBS class of 2021 would have been entirely virtual.