Meeting the Architect of HEC’s First-ever 100% Online Degree

Marc Vanhuele , Professor of Marketing - July 4th, 2017
Meeting the Architect of HEC’s First-ever 100% Online Degree ©LeftProductions

It was back in March 2016 that HEC Paris Dean Peter Todd asked Professor Marc Vanhuele to devote himself to constructing the business school’s first-ever 100% online degree program. This associate Dean in charge of Digital appeared to be a perfect choice: throughout his 20-year-plus career at HEC, he has been integrating the latest in digital technology with his classroom teaching and marketing research. The co-author of “Consumer Behaviour: Applications in Marketing” shares his experience with us.

Marc Vanhuele ©HEC Paris

Marc Vanhuele (PhD UCLA) is Professor of Marketing. His research focuses on how customers treat price information and how marketing managers can improve their decision making (...)

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The Genesis of the Master’s Degree

Marc Vanhuele (MV): Looking back, I must say that we managed to design and launch this degree very quickly: it took under a year from the idea to its lift-off on March 29 2017. You have to understand the sheer size of the project - it involved around 25 faculty members in all. Add to this, the intensive collaborations with Julien Levy’s Digital Center and the Digital Learning department headed by Vanessa Klein, and you have an idea of the breadth of work this entails. 

This was a very new experience for us all, making it a transformative project for HEC. It brings about a new way of teaching, of delivering and of selling programs. As a result, the professors have become experts in digital education. At the same time, the teams need to learn to work together on unexplored territory. Just to sign up for the programs we offer, for example, we needed to design landing pages on the internet and make them interact with our system. 

All this demanded a new form of communication and vocabulary, exploring novel ways to speak to the market. We had to pioneer programs for participants to pay for the degree, we had to forge new selection processes. So, there were a lot of adjustments needed from a large team of people.

What initially drew you to this role building this Master’s in Innovation and Entrepreneurship?

MV: The digitalization of education has always fascinated me. I’ve been at HEC Paris for 23 years now and, from the start, I’ve introduced it into my classrooms. Ever since my first computer, a Commodore 64, I’ve always worked with this kind of technology. I was the first to use the multi-media case on CD Roms, which was a major innovation at the time. I was one of the first to involve the internet in my courses, to use blogs and news groups and so on. Once upon a time not so long ago, you had to program this yourself using HTLM, it was a very different world. I have tried out just about every technological innovation in my classroom, experimenting with new types of interaction and learning. Currently, I’m using polling. It means students have to make decisions via their smartphones, each one has to take position, I don’t have to designate one person, they all have to participate. Polling has the advantage of you asking open questions. We also have clickers with four buttons suggesting four responses.

But I’m no geek: the technology has to serve a purpose, I don’t want to glorify technology for technology’s own sake.

Has this degree meant a major rethinking of HEC’s marketing strategy?

MV: Indeed. We were looking at how HEC could best create this new space instead of trying to see where it could fit in the existing organization. We were working with Coursera, and so it was designed outside of the current organization and then brought into HEC. The US-based company is hosting the contents and is the platform which allows interaction both with and amongst the learners. Coursera also has more contact with potential learners. From a marketing perspective this is new for us. We’ve had to forget our usual ways of thinking in order to be successful in the face of stiff competition.

There are five months to go before the first Certificate Program of this degree begins. Could you tell us how advanced you are?

MV: Two of our courses are fully completed. There are several others at an advanced stage. So, by September, participants will begin the Certificate program and one of its 12 courses, comprising three specializations. Vanessa Klein and her team provide the digital tools and usage in pedagogy and will be producing flat-out until July 2018. She has had a major role in designing the architecture of the program. Once the board validated it in September 2016, program manager Iona Apostol helped bring it to life. I’ve been working very closely with both of her and Vanessa. My main role has been to take the lead for strategic decisions, overcoming obstacles and negotiating with partners like Coursera and the HEC board.

The online experience of this Master’s is transforming the classroom experience for everyone. Peter Todd compared it from a move up from theater to cinema. How do you react?

MV: I find that a very appropriate analogy. With this degree, professors can reshoot or rephrase everything. There isn’t the immediate pressure of a classroom public which is pretty constant. Furthermore, a theater is open to a limited number of people, only so many seats are available. Whereas movies can be shown to an unlimited number of learners, as many as copies are made. There is the question of scalability at the delivery side. That, in turn, puts pressure on your back-office, since scalability has to be balanced with the selectivity that has become HEC’s trademark. On top of this, if you don’t have a precise idea of the number of participants involved you don’t know how many people you need to hire to handle admissions. Which puts a degree of stress on the admission teams.You know, sometimes it’s like flying an airplane whilst building it! We’ve launched it, but much of this plane is still being built…

Can we have a comparative idea of the approaches from the world’s other major business schools (from Harvard to Singapore, via Bocconi, Wharton, etc)?

MV: All big business universities are to some extent involved in Digital education. But most of these institutions are still grappling with the notions of where to take it and to what extent they should digitalize. Some, like Wharton and IE in Spain, see digital education as a way to reach new people whom they then bring into residential programs. Some have launched online programs but you still have to come onto campus to complete them. Stanford University has filmed its lectures and put them online. So it’s using the internet but its program has not been specifically designed to work with online learners.
I should add that we are exploring the possibility of international collaborations. You have to know that designing online courses demands a lot of work from faculty members. It’s more demanding than forging a residential course. So there is a limited production capacity. It makes sense to create international partnerships to get round this production hurdle.

What does this MSc symbolize for HEC Paris?

MV: Symbolically the degree is a very important milestone for HEC Paris. It’s reflected in the budget we’re investing and the press attention we’ve so far received. We have to show we are innovating and HEC understands what digital education is all about. Students nowadays are digital natives and have very different expectations to previous generations that academic institutions catered for so far.

Our MSc has introduced several innovations, it’s a benchmark for us. We have seasoned entrepreneurs who are hired as mentors, something which, like our selection process, defines HEC Paris since it creates strong bonds between the academy and the industry. Along with our alumni, we associated these mentors to the making of our programs. They advised us on what qualities they were looking for in graduates of this distance-learning degree. This was an important metric in creating the program and ensuring its quality.

Now that the online Master’s has taken off, what will be your role?

MV: I will continue to be a facilitator. I have no formal authority over the digital team. As a facilitator, I now work with (HEC’s Chief Digital Officer) Robin Ajdari. I will work as the academic liaison from the academic perspective. I will also keep the board, the stakeholders and the faculty updated with progress reports. I have done this from the start, with business plans guaranteeing the quality of the program, its selectivity, and so on. I will continue to oversee the degree and then report to this strategic committee.

I will also work closely with (HEC Academic Director and professor of strategy and entrepreneurship) Tom Astebro. As an expert in entrepreneurship and decision-making, Tom is vital since, in management, there are very few 100% online programs. They demand soft skills like convincing other people, learning from each other, taking difficult management decisions. Tom will pilot this sector, setting up two parts comprised of eight courses. In each course, groups will work together on the same project, even if they happen to be on the other side of the globe from each other.

Another aspect of my work will be to build bridges between the researchers working on digital data here. Often, because of our classical structure at HEC, they don’t know about each other’s work. I hope to bring them together in developing the research action of the digital center. I can also help them get in touch with companies to provide data and information to feed into their research.

On top of this, I help to explore the role that digital has in the classroom. How can we let the digital influence the classroom experience? There are a lot of tools out there touching one or more dimensions and we have to make choices, try things out. In this way, we have to come up with some HEC way of doing things corresponding to our identity and distinguishing ourselves from the rest. For this, we might need to draft in pedagogical experts to see where we can mesh in classic and digital teaching.

How are you hoping to keep the digital human, with students communicating with fellow-students?

MV: Digital allows everyone to find new ways of interacting with other people. We’ve seen this with social media where people are in touch with friends all the time, even at a distance. It even enriches human contact. We have to find its place as a pedagogical tool, a facilitator. For this, all faculty members must become involved in the creative process of the courses (s)he is forging. The next stage is going to be Artificial Intelligence, AI, where students won’t be able to tell the difference between human and AI feedback. It’s already being used in very well-defined fields likes writing pieces of code. In management, it’s much more complicated. But perhaps in ten years’ time, we could attain this.

We must be in line with the ways young people are consuming nowadays. There was a recent experiment whereby consumers leased blue jeans from a shop and returned them after use. It’s important to experiment such new economic models of generating value. The Kahn Academy for Mathematics reflects this evolution in education: instead of purchasing a course, students share it. However, this could mean the disappearance of a lot of smaller players.

This puts into question what educational institutions are doing and the value our education has. It also means only strong brands survive. HEC Paris must aim to make our brand as strong as possible on a worldwide scale. 

And the online MSc degree contributes to this. But not any MSc! We have chosen a topic where we are most legitimate and strong. We have a long and respected history in innovation and entrepreneurship, and these two topics resonate with a lot of people these days. The youth want to create something of their own! HEC has a historic legitimacy in this field, its Entrepreneurship Center is over 30 years old. So it was natural to tap into our strength in such a groundbreaking project.