Sue Crowley, the senior director of program services at Harvard Business School Online, presented this image during an online presentation on Oct. 29, 2020, to illustrate the attitudes that educators should not be inspiring in their students as they design online courses. (Getty Images)

Planning remote university courses? Harvard Business School Online has some tips

Institutions of higher learning were forced to rush their courses online this year, in some cases jamming curriculums that had been honed over decades in the classroom into a remote-learning format. Recognizing a demand for guidance on how to run online courses that are effective and engaging for students, Sue Crowley, the senior director of program services at Harvard Business School Online, on Thursday walked an Educause conference audience through the best practices gleaned by her university from six years of practice.


1. Put students first

Crowley said one of the most important steps in online-course design is to put students at the center of every decision. She pointed to boring classroom lectures in which “students are checking their phones, dozing off, checking out,” and “talking-head” online lectures that produce similar effects, as examples of what universities and their professors should be avoiding.

“Start with learners — they need to come first as you imagine everything,” she said.


2. Make learning active

Harvard Business School Online, which offers 13 courses and has eight new ones under development, Crowley said, presents activities every three to five minutes to drive student engagement during classes. She said these include polls, Family Feud-style questions, “shared reflections,” or “cold calls,” in which students are unexpectedly put on the spot to answer

“Faculty are intimately involved in the creation of the courses,” Crowley said. “They narrate and facilitate each course through short and engaging videos, … but we knew that alone wouldn’t be enough to keep students engaged and learning. We had to engage our students in other ways. All this variation and interaction keeps it interesting.”


3. Make learning social

Networking and student-to-student interaction are key components of the in-person learning experience, Crowley said, and Harvard wanted to retain those social interactions for its online offerings. This can be done, she said, by limiting access to new lessons so no student gets too far ahead of the others. Similarly, online discussion threads are tied to specific topics to keep conversations focused.


4. Design systems and processes with scalability in mind

Harvard Business School Online has taught 100,000 students in the past six years, magnitudes more than the college reaches with its in-person offerings. To reach students at this scale, Crowley said, educators must “radically” simplify their processes.

As an example, she pointed to the university’s 17-step application process, which was whittled down to just a few steps. The university uses a Salesforce-based system to manage the process, she said, and uses the services of a company called Vantage to machine-grade entry essays in large batches — most applicants can be accepted or rejected within minutes. A service called Descartes Visual Compliance helps the university screen for banned individuals or countries.

Crowley said program designers should try to eliminate 90% of the steps in their processes when converting them to serve students online.


5. Experiment and iterate

During the pandemic especially, universities need to adapt their offline content to online formats quickly, which means that neither the processes backing the courses nor the content itself will be perfect initially. The key, Crowley said, is to be agile.

Her school uses Hubspot, which Crowley said is still “a pretty manual process,” to send stay engaged with its students over email, with “low-activity” students receiving special content designed to encourage greater participation. But she said they’re on the lookout for ways to further streamline that process and to introduce more analytics and mobile-based communications.

By experimenting with a delay between the time people apply to get into HBSO and the time they’re notified whether they were accepted, Crowley said, it was discovered that enrollment rates were higher among the group whose notices were delayed. So they adopted the delay for everyone, she said.

“When you go quickly, you’re going to need to adjust and pivot. Build your systems to allow for it and lean into it,” she said. “It’s the only way to stay competitive.”