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For years now, online and distance education have loomed as vaguely menacing threats off in the distance for traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities.  It seemed as though the two were inevitably destined to clash.

Leave it to HBS to figure out a way to make the competition/coordination dynamic both smart and profitable.

HBX CORe was introduced last year and has since gone through three cohorts.  Far from being just another mini-MBA or online learning program, CORe was innovating from the start; consider HBX live, which promises to allow up to sixty students all around the world to 'sit in class' together and communicate via the cameras on their PCs.  Pretty heady stuff, but if anyone can pull it off, Harvard can.

Although there was already some buzz around HBX CORe, adcoms were understandably cautious about anointing it as a substitute for (or even a supplement to) traditional business school education, and many students we spoke to were wary about the cost/value.  Who can blame them?  When your two biggest selling points for a product are; 1. It costs money (compared to a MOOC) and 2. It's proprietary (not open source), you might have a tough time getting buyers interested.

Fortunately for Harvard, their prestige and reputation for intelligent positioning is well earned.  In a series of recent announcements, HBX partnered with Amherst, Carleton, Grinnell, Hamilton, Wellesley and Williams.  This allows the program to funnel smart, high-achieving students into the system and also allows it to take advantage of financial aid and tuition remission, an important selling point for indebted undergraduates.  

In the short term, this should increase the quality of incoming cohorts and increase selectivity, which is essential if Harvard wants to establish a prestige brand for its new offering and prevent it being seen as a simple cash-in.  

In the long term, things get even more interesting.  The new HBX partnerships could be the beginning of a symbiotic relationship between traditional universities and online and distance education.  Imagine you're Johnny Freshman and you got shut out of a required course for your major, or you're interested in something your school doesn't have strong offerings in -- for a small fee, you can get CREDIT for distance learning courses at top universities.  This could be the beginning of true education customization.

Of course, this is early days yet, and a lot of things could still go wrong -- but Harvard's initiative here is bold and smart, and will probably pay dividends very quickly in the rapidly evolving world of online education.