In his recent article on, branding guru, Marty Neumeier lays out how Harvard is attempting to handle the threat of online disruption. He plainly asks “what’s keeping new distance-learning companies such as Coursera and edX from repositioning Harvard as an overpriced dinosaur (Neumeier, M., 2014)?” This is a question that needs to be asked by EVERY overpriced college program in the country.

Neumeier highlights two opposing strategies to solve this problem and then defines a third option that would help to promote true innovation and not be limited by the past. Harvard appears to be moving forward with a program called HBX, an online course to prepare students to speak ‘the language of business’. The guiding principles formulated by the dean include the following items:

  • HBX should be economically self-sustaining
  • It should not substitute for the MBA program
  • It should replicate the school’s discussion-based learning model


Neumeier quite aptly points out that these principles are faulty, as they are based upon untested assumptions, unquestioned beliefs and ‘creaky mental models’. He suggests a design-minded leader would have asked a series of ‘bigger’ questions to help shape Harvard’s new program. Questions such as:

  •  What is the future of universities in the light of advancing technology?
  • What does the future of education look like?
  • Should subjects determine learning, or should learning determine subjects?
  • In the future, what will it mean to ‘go’ to school?

Theory Points to HOW Technology Enhances Learning

This discussion would also benefit from looking at research and theory surrounding computers and learning. Harvard assumes that the BEST way to help students learn the language of business is to replicate its current off-line model. By taking into account what researchers have learned about creating optimal online learning environments and examining HOW computers can BEST enhance learning, Harvard has the opportunity to help move education forward.

The Survey Says…

There are several differing cognitive theories that impact online education. McLoughlin and Oliver’s article published in the British Journal of Educational Technology, ‘Maximising the language and learning link in computer learning environments’, makes a solid case for applying a Socio-cultural perspective to help maximize learning in technology supported environments. They point to research supporting the conclusion that social interaction and peer presence are important predictors to task related interaction and higher order learning (McLoughlin, C. & Oliver, R., 1998).

There is also compelling evidence of the benefits of collaborative learning environments which include verbal interaction and communicative task-related talk (McLoughlin, C. & Oliver, R., 1998). Research has been conducted on how to best make online learning collaborative and improve student satisfaction. One study conducted on distance learners from the Open University of the Netherlands outlined course characteristics that influenced aspects of collaborative learning.

The study concluded that tasks which require collaboration on a group product or project enhances student subject knowledge and helps to develop group skills such as orienting, planning and monitoring.  There was also some evidence to conclude that the use of small groups is recommended above larger groups.  Other practical implications included allowing students to reflect on their group activities in order to improve group cohesion and performance, as well as providing specific guidelines to help regulate the group.

More Questions Need to be Asked

Before Harvard moves forward with their online learning program, they would benefit from studying current research surrounding learning in computer mediated environments and perhaps do some research of their own. Instead of FIRST focusing on how to make the program profitable and NOT cannibalize other revenue streams, they should be focusing on how to make the program VALUABLE to the student. Their current dilemma is defined by the fact that an expensive, ivy league education isn’t as valuable as it once was AND doesn’t offer students the convenience they have grown to expect from a digital world.


Dewiyanti, S., Brand-Gruwel, S., Jochems, W., & Broers, N. J. (2007). Students’ experiences with collaborative learning in asynchronous computer-supported collaborative learning environments. Computers in Human Behavior, 23(1), 496-514.

McLoughlin, C., & Oliver, R. (1998). Maximising the language and learning link in computer learning environments. British Journal of Educational Technology, 29(2), 125-136.

Neumeier, M. (2014). Michael Porter and Clayton Christensen Are Both Wrong About Finding the Future of Business Education. (