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Professor Offers On-Line Course to Harvard MBA Students; Second-Year Elective Examines Aspects of Leadership

Professor Offers On-Line Course to Harvard MBA Students; Second-Year Elective Examines Aspects of Leadership

Professor Offers On-Line Course to Harvard MBA Students; Second-Year Elective Examines Aspects of Leadership

February 1, 2006

D. Quinn Mills, the Albert J. Weatherhead Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), an expert in leadership and strategy, and a Harvard faculty member for three decades, wanted to try something completely different last semester.

“I’ve been interested in the application of technology to education for years,” he says. The result: A new half-credit (eight-week) elective on leadership offered entirely on-line to second-year HBS students-the only course of its kind in a curriculum famed for its face-to-face interaction between professors and students.

In this course, there was still plenty of interaction, Mills says, but it was all done by students at their laptops, as they worked on their assignments from home, the library, or any other site they chose. Based on Mills’s 2005 book, Leadership: How to Lead, How to Live (MindEdge Press), the elective considered the major themes and issues surrounding leadership via eight modules that focused on topics such as “Learning to be a Leader,” “Career Paths to Leadership,” “Leading Teams, Leading Change,” and “Leadership and Personal Fulfillment.” In addition, the course emphasized the importance of ethics and the need for work-life balance. It also provided students with opportunities for self-examination and self-assessment.

The latter was a particularly appealing part of the course description for Chris Laws (HBS ’06), who was not only attracted by the technology of the course but by the chance to think about leadership “on a more personal level.” “This course encouraged me to reflect on the qualities I bring to the table, and what that means from a leadership standpoint,” he explains. “In the process of doing that, I learned a lot about leadership in general – that there’s a lot more to it than charisma, for example. The foundations of a leadership role can also include your expertise, your authority and position, your record of success, your commitment, your values, and your empathy for others.”

The students in the course – twenty from HBS and two cross registrants from other Harvard graduate schools (one from the School of Education, the other from the School of Design) – faced a challenging workload. Each module began with a chapter from Mills’s book and often supplemental readings from other sources, including the Harvard Business Review and the business press. Next, students wrote answers to questions based on the topic of the module and posted them on discussion boards on the course’s dedicated Web site. They then had to submit their comments on the responses of two classmates. Typically, a written analysis of a mini-case study was part of the weekly regimen, with feedback provided by Professor Mills, who could monitor all this analytical activity from his own computer.

“In a typical HBS course, class participation is an essential part of the learning model,” Mills explains. “Fifty percent of the grade is based upon the quality of what students say in class. In this experimental course, the quality of the answers and comments they wrote each week was a key ingredient in how I evaluated them.”

“This course changed the way I thought about my potential as a leader,” says Laws. “It was an effective format for a class that was more ‘internal’ in nature – something that helped contribute to my personal development as well as my level of knowledge.”
Mills is happy with the way his experiment turned out. “Based on student evaluations, I’ll make some tweaks and offer it again next fall,” he says. “An HBS education unquestionably still revolves around the physical classroom, but I think a course like this offers an interesting alternative to a select number of students who want to define and pursue their path to personal fulfillment and leadership through a different kind of experience.”


Jim Aisner, HBS Communications, jaisner@hbs.edu, 617-495-6157; for more information on MindEdge Press, contact Brian Kelley, Vice President, bkelley@wp-staging2.mindedge.com, 781-250-1805, www.mindedge.com