Starting up EdStartup 101 #EdStartup

It is the time of MOOCs. Massively Online Open Courses – of various sorts – are officially the buzzword in the field at the moment. Most recently, a bunch of UK universities have signed up with Coursera, including the University of Edinburgh. The Principal of Edinburgh, Sir Tim O’Shea, is a very  accomplished senior manager, and knows his stuff in the ed tech field, so at this point one can’t write it off as misguided foolishness.

It is the time of the private sector, particularly in the UK. See my posts passim – and the most recent developments with Pearson entering the market, and potentially startling developments at London Met.

So what could be more timely than a MOOC about entrepreneurship in education?

I’ve signed up* to Entrepreneurship in Education – Ed Startup 101 for short, #EdStartup for Tweeting. The course is:

designed to acquaint educators, educational researchers, and others to the world of entrepreneurship and intrapeneurship, help you decide which one is right for you, and support you in the first steps of your journey.

The course is an old-school connectivist-style MOOC which ‘focuses more on building community and learning together socially than on watching video clips and answering multiple choice questions’. Which is my preference by a long chalk. In that spirit, here’s some positioning thoughts from me just ahead of the course start.

Summer Sidewalk Chalk Rainbow
Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

Private versus public

The course ‘About‘ page sets out what it sees as the problem with educational innovation: ‘in other fields the very same faculty members who make the new discoveries and generate the important new findings in computer science or engineering or physics also start the companies that embody these complex and even esoteric findings into well-designed product or services that normal people can use’, but education departments are ‘permeated with the idea that “business” is a dirty word and that the handling of any money beyond a teacher’s basic paycheck demands ritualistic hand washing’.

I recognise at least part of that description. Some of the debate about the role of the private sector in higher education can get highly emotive. On fundamental principle, I’m very much in favour of education open to all on the basis of ability to benefit, and regardless of means. So ideologically I’m primed to agree with those who look on the introduction of the private sector with at best suspicion and at worst outright horror.

But I don’t think it’s that simple.

Even if you take the position that you are fundamentally opposed to the private sector altogether (which I don’t – at least, not in the short/medium term), it’s worth studying how it succeeds, and how it fails. To take an offensive and Godwin-invoking analogy, one can learn about superior staff work in war by studying the activities of the Wehrmacht in WW2 without agreeing with Nazism. I don’t remotely think the private sector is (on the whole) anything like that bad, and does some things much better, on balance, than the public sector. I believe there is plenty of scope for mutual benefit.

I expect that participants on the course will be selected to be people who do see value in both domains – and not just value in the ‘I could make a quick buck here’ sense. David Wiley has a quick overview of the responses to the signup form, and it looks 28% HE faculty, 28% entrepreneurs, 28% other, which is promising.

For better or worse – possibly both – a lot of what makes for a good private sector project makes for a good public sector one: you have to provide something that people want, and you have to do it in such a way that you can carry on doing it (sustainability, in environmental, economic and social terms). I see efficiency as a means-to-and-end, rather an end in itself: ceteris paribus, getting stuff people want to them faster and using fewer resources is better because it means you can do more with the time and resources saved. In both domains, a good project will leave the people better off afterwards. One potential area of divergence, though, is whether you want repeat custom or not: for example, Apple Inc would very much like me to buy more shiny gadgets from them, but the UK’s National Health Service has no need or desire to give me a second round of polio vaccine.

Good companies care a lot about the customer experience. Good universities care a lot about the student experience. I don’t think that one can simply substitute ‘customer’ for ‘student’ – that way lies The Sinister Sausage Machine – but there is at least a strong parallel.

One of the most useful insights from economics (and psychology) is that people do tend to respond to material incentives – sometimes partially, sometimes idiosyncratically, sometimes counter-intuitively. A focus on this can be fruitful.

It’s not as simple as that, either.

First, causes

The sort of entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship I’m interested in is driven by a noble vision – an idea for doing something that will make things better. How you do it matters, but what you think you are trying to do is even more important. For one thing, unless you know what you’re trying to do, you won’t know if  you’re hurting that vision by the way you’re going about it.

I’ll illustrate this with a story. When I was a student, a good friend wrote an essay on the causes of the First Crusade in the 11th century.** She reviewed all the candidate material explanations and fairly comprehensively demolished each, and concluded that the most likely cause was that the participants actually did believe in the religious explanations they produced at the time.  The tutor gave it top marks, but at the end wrote “I can’t see any reason for it either”, which rather missed the point of the essay. Your blanket incredulity towards meta-narratives doesn’t preclude someone else honestly believing a grand theory and acting on that basis. When you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

So what people believe and aspire to is important as well as the material situation.

To make that a bit more practical: what you think and say matters as well as what you do.

What works?

I am, at bottom, a pragmatist and an empiricist: I am interested in what actually works in the real world. I have strongly-held opinions about what should happen, but I like to imagine I’m open-minded about how it should happen, so long as the how doesn’t do violence to the why.

Ten things you can do to improve interestingness and increase chances of getting into Explore

What am I bringing to the course?

  • A moderately-long experience in educational technology projects in the UK and EU, both directly and as a manager, from a variety of funding sources.
  • A reasonable grasp of how the public sector in HE in the UK works.
  • A sketchy grasp of how the nascent private sector in the UK works.
  • Some ideas about the theory of education and educational research.
  • Curiosity about other contexts.
  • A propensity to say (or at least think) ‘it’s a bit more complicated than that’.
  • My own inimical style of blogging.

What am I hoping to get?

  • Greater understanding of how to get projects going, particularly outside the Academy.
  • Better connections with people who know about this sort of stuff.
  • My projects and activities in the future will be more effective.

Starting up

One of the questions on signup was “At what level will you be participating?”, and one option was “I’m going to engage in all of the activities during the first week, then drop off the map and only check in occasionally for the rest of the course.”

Unhelpfully, I’m on leave (aka vacation) next week (27-31 Aug). So my strategy is going to be the reverse of this stereotype: I’m going to only check in occasionally for the first week, and then engage in all of the activities during the rest of the course. (The demands of my many other commitments willing, of course.)

* At least, I hope I’ve signed up. I haven’t had any contact yet, but I suspect posting this is a more meaningful way to confirm my participation than re-submitting the Google Form ‘just to be sure’.
** For the avoidance of doubt by ‘opened the door in his pyjamas’ pedants, it was the First Crusade that happened in the C11th; the essay-writing happened some nine centuries later.


This work by Doug Clow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

3 thoughts on “Starting up EdStartup 101 #EdStartup”

    1. Thanks for that – a really interesting exploration of marketplace metaphors in education, and very relevant to my thoughts around this. It touches on some of the points I was on about here https://dougclow.org/2011/05/13/the-sinister-sausage-machine/ but is more thorough.

      Lots of good points, but one that leapt out at me was how often metaphors about the education of children completely ignore them as agents – in the school context, the customer is always the parent, not the child. This links to the reasons I don’t like to work in compulsory education!

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