Start-up founders once scoffed at the traditional business school degree but schools' investment in new digital technologies is helping entrepreneurs launch and scale their ventures.
The rise of distance learning has put courses onto the web that are designed for those who want to run their own companies, and has paved the way for business owners to gain a business education.
Courses once received a lukewarm welcome from entrepreneurs but top business schools, from Stanford to Copenhagen and digital upstarts like edX and Udacity, are gaining favour with founders.
Gerard Grech, chief executive officer at Tech City UK, the government-funded group promoting the sector, says: “Campus life and entrepreneurship are not mutually exclusive.”
By putting content online, even traditional educational institutions are seeing growth. UCLA Anderson, MIT and Haas School of Business, which has a campus in Silicon Valley, all offer online programs which are designed for entrepreneurs.
Start-up founders often suffer from a lack of time and financial resources – putting traditional degrees like MBAs out of reach.
But digital tools enable the replication of classroom learning online. “Technology adoption – especially the internet – is the key,” says Dr Shailendra Vyakarnam, Director of the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship at the UK’s Cranfield School of Management.
Stanford’s Ignite series of courses has generated much hype. Tech allows the US business school to beam high-definition lectures from California and San Francisco to entrepreneurs in London, India and beyond.
Digital start-ups have emerged to compete with top business schools for entrepreneurs’ attention.
Coursera has been one of the nosiest challengers. “Blended learning models and online courses cater to the increasing number of people who want to take courses or degree programs, but are not able to because they work full-time, cannot afford it or do not have physical access,” says Julia Stiglitz, Coursera’s head of business development.
At Tech City Gerard says there is a “revolutionary shift” in attitude, shown in the way organizations are approaching online learning, and accessing opportunities in the fast-moving tech industry.
Since launching last year, more than 12,000 users have signed up to the Digital Business Academy – a venture between Tech City, Cambridge Judge Business School and others. Competition rates are in some cases as high as 26% – nearly four times the industry average.
“We are seeing a real appetite for access to tangible digital business skills across the UK,” says Richard Dennys, head of the program.
Dr Joanna Mills Mills, deputy director of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at Cambridge Judge, agrees that flexibility is key for entrepreneurs. "We use technology," she says, in an interview with BusinessBecause.
Cambridge's flagship start-up course, the Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship, is part-time and delivered largely online. "A dedicated virtual learning environment is the heart of the program," says Joanna.
Moocs – massive open online courses – have captured the awareness and imagination of millions but while promising, they are still early-stage. “We are yet to see the reality of what people learn and do with that form of online learning,” says Cranfield’s Dr Shailendra.
Some schools have been slow to adapt to digital. Stewart Thornhill, executive director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at Michigan’s Ross School, acknowledges the potential of tech, but says an online program for entrepreneurs is still a work in progress at Ross: “We are getting there.”
There is some resistance from professors who fear that technology threatens the very nature of business education.
Jeff Skinner, executive director of the Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London Business School, is like many of his counterparts sceptical about online teaching methods. Classroom learning is a “contact sport”, he says. “It would be difficult to replicate the experience [online].”
But he does not rule out a move to digital in future: “It’s clearly a very important force.”
Investment in digital technologies is spurred by the growth of entrepreneurs, which are changing the makeup of workforces.
Business students have caught entrepreneurship fever. A survey of 15,000 prospective MBA students released this month by GMAC found the proportion of them who were aspiring entrepreneurs was 28% last year, up from 19% in 2010.
It’s never been so cheap to launch a company, says Margaux Pelen, executive director of the Entrepreneurship Center at French business school HEC Paris.
“It’s the combination of these low barriers to entry and the well-known backgrounds and stories of successful entrepreneurs that encourage a ‘why not me’ effect,” he says.