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Why I Agree With Clay Christensen: Harvard Missed a Chance at Disruptive Innovation in Online Education

Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen is perhaps best known for coining the term “disruptive innovation,” but recently, he’s expressed concern that his own employer missed a chance at such innovation.

The debate centers on HBX, Harvard Business School’s venture into online education, and it includes another major player on the HBS scene- Professor Michael Porter. HBX, unveiled in March, charges $1,500 tuition for three intensive online courses in business fundamentals, aimed at recent liberal arts graduates.

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Professor Porter supports HBX’s paid-for model because it allows Harvard to retain its competitive advantage and avoid cannibalizing its current MBA program.

Professor Christensen, on the other hand, believes that HBX is not disruptive enough and sets Harvard up to be outstripped by more daring competitors. Poets & Quants sided with Professor Porter, asking why on earth HBS would give away its best asset (great teaching) for free.

I, however, agree with Professor Christensen- and I can think of many reasons (several thousand, in fact) why HBS should “give away” learning. For me, the big word that comes to mind is ACCESS.

A recent study by the Wharton School, published in the Harvard Business Review, shows that Wharton’s free massive open online courses (MOOCs) are reaching audiences that are currently grossly underserved by U.S. B-Schools.

Of the more than 875,000 students enrolled in Wharton’s MOOCs, 78% were from outside of the U.S. and 45% from developing countries. Of the enrollees living in the U.S., 35% were foreign-born and 19% were underrepresented minorities.

In comparison, 45% of Wharton’s on-campus MBA students are foreign, and, more broadly, only 11 percent of on-campus students from the top nine American B-Schools are underrepresented minorities.

Wharton is sharing knowledge with entirely new audiences numbering in the thousands, and HBS had the opportunity to do the same. However, they chose to create a much more cost-prohibitive model, and in my opinion, they robbed thousands of students worldwide of an incredible chance at learning and growth.

That $1,500 price tag is keeping out the very population that could most benefit from the globalization of HBS content- and each one of those thousands of potential students is one very valid reason for “giving away” content.

In supporting Professor Porter’s argument of incremental change, Poets & Quants remarks, “Just ask any media company about giving away their content for free and training a generation of users not to pay for information.” Certainly, the media industry is struggling to find ways to monetize online readership and sustain a profit.

However, it’s an apples to oranges comparison. In making some of their teaching available for free, Harvard would not be giving away all of its assets, or even its best one. In my opinion, HBS’s alumni network and classroom interactions will attract paying students regardless of what free options are available.

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And if that’s the case, why not share just a bit of your professors’ rich and varied knowledge for free? Why not give a poor student in India, or Sudan, or Florida, or anywhere the chance to improve their lives with some of that knowledge? Just imagine what the consequences might be.

So many struggling small business owners could benefit from great teachers like Professor Porter or Professor Christensen. So many business schools in emerging markets could benefit from HBS’s leadership in this space.

So many communities could benefit from even a marginal increase in education. It seems a shame to miss even one of these opportunities for positive disruption, as Professor Christensen might say. I will be interested to see how HBX does, and I hope that Harvard will still consider expanding its free offerings to help underserved groups around the world reach their full potential.

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