UK Entrepreneurship MOOCs?


(Disclaimer: this is not so much a blog-post rather the open sharing of a discussion paper I produced following a “skills for growth” task-group meeting in Scotland. Shared in the spirit of #CollectiveImpact)

MIT and Stanford produce startups at an “absolutely prolific” rate, according to Bill Aulet in the introduction to his new book “Disciplined Entrepreneurship”. In the case of MIT, as of 2006 there were over 25,000 companies founded by MIT alumni, employing 3 million people and with aggregate annual revenues of approximately $2 trillion dollars. For context, this ‘ecosystem’ equates to the 11th largest economy in the world. An additional 900 companies are being started every year. Aulet goes on to probe why this is the case. Is it that MIT students are smarter? No, students from the four other “top five” global universities: Harvard (2), Cambridge (3), UCL (4) and Imperial College London (5) are just as smart. Is it access to leading-edge technologies? No, only 20-30 of each year’s new 900 companies are based on MIT owned Intellectual Property. Aulet argues that the real reason for this success is a combination of spirit and skills.

The “Positive Feedback Loop at MIT for Spirit & Skills” (Appendix A below) which creates successful entrepreneurial ecosystems starts with “Visible successes and role models in the community” and then revolves around structured learning.

I have witnessed the MIT “Positive Feedback Loop” in terms of entrepreneurship education programme design, management and delivery having worked with leaders from the MIT Entrepreneurship Center over 12 years in various roles at: British Telecom’s Disruptive Innovation Lab (embedded in the MIT Media Lab) 2001-2002; the Cambridge-MIT Institute 2002-2007; Informatics Ventures 2007-2011; and the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation 2011-2013. The case studies are not necessarily created and delivered using the well defined “Harvard Case Method”. My thoughts on this method captured here having been part of the first cohort of European entrepreneurship educators to participate in Professor Howard Stevenson’s “European Entrepreneurship Colloquium on Participant-Centred Learning”  (17th – 27th July 2005).

The HBS case study on “Spotfire: Managing a Multinational Start-Up” is a great example. Often used by Faculty from the MIT Entrepreneurship Center when delivering workshops in Scotland, the “Spotfire” case inspired workshop participants, because they could relate personally to “Chris and Rock”, the co-founders. “Spotfire started as an idea in a project in a university lab.  They had no business plan, no business people, and no customers.” – an excellent starting point for Scottish innovation-based and academic entrepreneurs to explore this commercialisation success story. Nascent entrepreneurs compared, contrasted and discussed their business in the context of Spotfire and the founders. This created common reference points and a common language across workshops and participants. It accelerated learning.

Moving away from the “Harvard Case Method”, other case study formats and methods of delivery are used by MIT Entrepreneurship Center Faculty; such as “Brontes Technologies” used by Aulet in Financing for Growth workshops; “Akamai” used by Morse in Global Sales Strategies workshops; “SensAble Technologies” used by Aulet in the MIT Entrepreneurship Development Program (MIT EDP). All these are MIT companies reinforcing the “Visible successes and role models in the community”; and are delivered in various modes, such as “thought leadership papers”, as structured classes and as face-to-face exercises. Sometimes with entrepreneurs from the case study subjects getting involved in the teaching process.


This spirit and skills and the positive feedback loop approach to entrepreneurship education is well established at the University of Cambridge Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL), with a rich source of content from “local heroes and heroines” delivered via initiatives such as Enterprise Tuesday. Indeed “Spreading the spirit of enterprise” is at the heart of the CfEL’s teaching philosophy.

In Edinburgh, Informatics Ventures delivers iV Tuesday (inspired through consultation with the University of Cambridge CfEL) and CEO Masterclasses, building on a format established as part of the Edinburgh-Stanford Link in 2005 and evolved through Informatics Ventures. The Edinburgh Entrepreneurship Club and the Strathclyde 100 being two other great examples from a long list of other Scottish initiatives and organisations to choose from.

Scotland clearly has pockets of best-practice with regards to skills for growth, mirroring MIT’s Positive Feedback Loop. What I would argue we don’t have is scale and co-ordination.

It is suggested here that a decent contribution to scale and co-ordination could be delivered through a structured “E-Corner” style collection of video case studies and an “Entrepreneurship Skills for Growth MOOC” developed through a partnership of Scottish and UK entrepreneurship centres; and expanded globally through the MIT REAP network.

Online versus Offline Learning

Over my 12 years experience of business-university collaboration and entrepreneurship education, I’ve never been a fan of online learning, despite having moved in to this line of work from a division of BT who were at the leading-edge of Internet and Web development. The reason for this opinion was subscribing to the views that entrepreneurship is a contact sport, you learn by doing, the emphasis is on practice with a little theory, and that networking is mission critical to the learning journey and of business growth.

However, my views have evolved and I now firmly believe there is a crucial role for online learning; as long as it is combined with face-to-face work-based and action-based learning. i.e. “Blended Learning”. This change of view is partly driven by the major disruption we are seeing in the education sector with the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and distance learning degrees. Clayton Christensen described (three years ago) how technology will change the way the world learns and disrupt the education sector, in his book “Disrupting Class”.

Despite having long-established pockets of excellence with regards online learning, such as John Lee’s “YouTute” initiative, the University of Edinburgh has been late to the online learning revolution and have lagged behind other institutions. For example, Heriot Watt are global pioneers in the delivery of distance learning MBA’s and The Robert Gordon University were implementing an E-Campus when I was a student there in 1996. But the University of Edinburgh are catching up and are investing significant resource in both the development and delivery of full distance learning post-graduate degrees and experimenting with MOOCs. As the first UK university to join Coursera, in January 2013 the University of Edinburgh launched 6 initial courses on the Mountain View based virtual learning environment ( These were short 5-7 week courses and had an initial enrolment of 309,000 students. There are dozens more University of Edinburgh MOOCs being planned and rolled out. The University of Edinburgh are investing significant millions £s to seed and accelerate the development of distance learning post-graduate degrees; with an aim of having an equal number of distance learning students to on-campus students by 2020.

An Online Entrepreneurship Curriculum for the UK

Embracing the concept of “Collective Impact”, it is suggested that a shared resource could be created with “case studies” on UK companies addressing the six themes of “Disciplined Entrepreneurship” (Bill Aulet’s new book). See Appendix B below. For example, the following companies would be good case studies:

Disciplined Entrepreneurship Six Themes of the 24 Steps Scottish Case Study
Who is your customer? Clyde Blowers how Clyde Blowers was reorganised to focus on core markets.
What can you do for your customer? SkyScanner “Customer pain”. Frustrated by the difficulties of finding cheap flights, the SkyScanner founders created one of Scotland’s fastest growing companies.
How does your customer acquire your product/service? Fanduel their global strategy for customer acquisition.
How do you make money off your product/service? iomart Group Profitability and 100 per cent up-time.
How do you design and build your product/service? Amor Group high-performance culture and trust.
How do you scale your business? Wolfson Microelectronics scaling from lab to the marketplace.

Others to consider from The Deloitte Technology Fast 50 (2012): M Squared Lasers Ltd, Touch Bionics Inc., Reactec Ltd and Pinnacle Technology Group Plc. Broadening this out to the UK, we have a vast and inspiring list of companies to use as case studies from ARM in Cambridge, Bath based Picochip (acquired by Mindspeed Technologies Inc.) or SPI Lasers spun-out from the University of Southampton.

Of course there are many other frameworks that could be used, Aulet’s “Disciplined Entrepreneurship” is just a suggestion as a “ready rolled” framework. Equally good teaching frameworks could be adopted from a single entrepreneurship centre in the UK, or a national framework coordinated by an organisation like EEUK.

Video case studies on each of these companies could be created, potentially with the work being distributed to a number of entrepreneurship centres and business schools across the UK. The objective being to create an online resource much like Stanford’s E-Corner (, but structured and with UK case studies – an important factor in creating a “Positive Feedback Loop”. Video case studies and a more structured online course delivered as a MOOC could help “glue together” a national entrepreneurship curriculum for the UK. This would by no means replace all the wide variety of workshops, courses, networking events and other teaching taking place. But it would help a massive number of people in the UK access this content and come to classes, workshops and other educational forms warmed up with an improved level of insight and understanding.

Scotland’s 2020 Climate Group could be interested in being part of this “collective impact” as they have “Finding new Heroes” as one of their “13 for 2013 Priorities”:

Finding new Heroes: Climate change requires market driven solutions that make economic sense. Entrepreneurs, with the classic definition, are perfectly placed to recognise and pursue such opportunities. This project explores entrepreneurs as the new heroes tackling climate change.

Striking a balance: global ambition

UK case studies are important, to give our entrepreneurs confidence, inspiration and aspiration; from those who have built global innovation-based enterprises. However, it is extremely unhealthy to ignore lessons from outside of the UK; our nascent entrepreneurs need to understand lessons from where their competitors and customers are. This is where the MIT REAP community could play a role. If other countries were to create their own video case studies and distance learning content, a global resource could be created and entrepreneurs could dip in to case studies on different topics from different countries.

Appendix A: Positive Feedback Loop at MIT for Spirit & Skills


Appendix B: Six Themes of the 24 Steps


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One comment on “UK Entrepreneurship MOOCs?
  1. Michael Fowle says:

    Thanks for an excellent post Andrew. Over the last few years Scotland seems to have kickstarted its own small entrepreneurial revolution (with your help). We have the ideas and lots of successful cases to inspire the next wave. I agree that the challenge now is one of scale. Businesses seem to get to a certain size and then either reach an equilibrium or move closer to larger markets. In some cases that’s only to be expected, but with Internet businesses you can always be close to the customer.

    We need some ambitious VCs, one or two businesses to break the £1b barrier and some experienced CEOs to bring their successes back into that positive feedback loop.

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