School’s out!

Online education and support hubs for aspiring entrepreneurs are disrupting the traditional system of higher education, creating opportunities for those prepared to follow unconventional alternatives to university.

Conventional education isn’t equipping us with the skills we need to compete in a 21st-century jobs market. That’s the view of some serious thinkers in the fields of teaching and business, like the passionate education reformist Sir Ken Robinson, who gave a wildly successful TED talk in 2006 in which he argued that creativity was being crushed by traditional schooling. Or PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who writes in Zero to One: “For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?”

Thiel is so committed to the idea of promoting alternatives to higher education that in 2011 he set up the Thiel Fellowship, which provides a US$100,000 grant to talented youngsters under the age of 22 who skip or drop out of university. They are introduced to an elite group of investors and other world-changing fellows and alumni, given talks, provided with the space and encouragement to build a team but, mostly, they are left unencumbered to get on with their own projects.

“College makes sense for some, but it’s certainly not the only way to become successful,” says Jack Abraham, the Thiel Fellowship’s Executive Director.

“Today, young people are being asked to take on astronomical levels of debt with no guarantee that they’ll be able to pay it back, based on a collective belief that this is the only legitimate path. We wanted to challenge this idea, to show that driven and talented individuals can succeed and build new things by taking control of their own future.”

While there is still undeniable prestige involved in graduating from Oxbridge or an Ivy League university, failing to get a degree is a different kind of honour, with successful college dropouts including Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

“Colleges mean well,” Abraham says, “but mainly they teach about what already exists today, not about how to think about things in new ways or build better technology for the future. There is a reason why so many of the most impressive breakthroughs we take for granted came from brilliantly curious minds working outside the boundaries of established thought.”

In the five years since the Thiel Fellowship launched, alumni have gone on to create India’s largest aggregator of budget hotels, design an Apple Design Award-winning automation app and create an online lending platform whose investors include Google Ventures and Google’s Chairman, Eric Schmidt.

For these trailblazers who find the lecture hall unstimulating, a new type of higher education is emerging in the form of startup incubators, accelerators and initiatives such as École 42 in Paris, a free three- to-five-year training school for software engineers that has a higher proportion of unsuccessful applicants than Harvard, with 70,000 going for 890 places in 2013.

Students don’t even need a high-school diploma to qualify for École 42, and are for the most part left to get on with challenges – such as coding a ray tracer or a video game – independently from their teachers. Its directors say that prestigious universities are interested in integrating the school’s approach, which aims to create self-motivated, well-rounded and hard-working coders, and they are considering syndicating the model.

However, there is still space for traditional education to run alongside more innovative programmes, says Roland Daher, Head of a UAE-based “pre-accelerator” called Dubai 100. 

“Investors prefer to invest in entrepreneurs who have built previous startups, whether they failed or succeeded, rather than fresh MBAs,” he says. “Startups, especially early-stage, don’t want to hire MBAs because they can’t afford them and they don’t come with the skills and profiles they need. But for people who want long-term career growth in a big corporation, an MBA might be more relevant. However, blue-chip companies are increasingly seeking out personnel who can demonstrate entrepreneurial talent.”  

Formal degree courses are an increasingly expensive option, and they are now in competition with a new model of education that takes place in the digital sphere. MOOCs (massive, open online courses) are educational modules that are taught via the internet, are often free, involve elements such as video lectures, discussion boards and quizzes, and open up higher education to a global population of all ages and socioeconomic brackets. Many are only a few weeks long and don’t offer any certificate that would impress an employer, but a few are in direct competition with traditional higher education institutions, such as the online-only University of the People, headquartered in California, which offers undergraduate degrees in business administration and computer science.

Simon Nelson, the CEO of a major new British platform called FutureLearn, which offers free online courses, thinks that MOOCs and universities should be seen as collaborators, rather than competitors. There are 50 universities that offer short courses through FutureLearn, as well as organisations such as the British Council, the British Library and the British Museum. Nelson maintains that “they are showcasing areas in which they are world-class to a global audience, and some are directly recruiting students”.

More than 2.6 million people have signed up to FutureLearn, studying topics as varied as Magna Carta and the Internet of Things. In May 2015, almost half a million people signed up to a single English-language course, with big user numbers in the UAE, Saudi and Oman, and three per cent of the 20,000 or so students who signed up to a recent class called Ebola in Context were based in Sierra Leone.

A doctor at a Médecins Sans Frontières clinic in the West African country emailed the company to tell them he’d used the course to teach around 40 healthcare workers, and asked if they could have certificates to prove they had completed it.

This type of success story is encouraging, but Simon Nelson cautions against getting “dazzled by the excitement of individual MOOCs, but missing the bigger picture, which is the broader trend of the arrival of digital in higher education. MOOCs are just one part of that transformation.”

The business school INSEAD, which has one of the world’s biggest MBA programmes, is pioneering a new approach to that digital transformation. While it doesn’t yet offer digital degrees or MOOC courses – preferring to teach students at its campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi – it has recently launched a digital executive development programme, partnering with firms such as Microsoft and Accenture to provide carefully tailored training for their employees.

“It’s a very, very powerful model,” says Bruno Berthon, Accenture Strategy’s Managing Director for Digital Strategy. “We have 8,000 people here, so we want to make sure that we are able to train them fast.”

Among the advantages of the format, which he describes as a “custom-designed mini-MBA”, are the fact that it can be easily updated, it creates a common understanding of strategy and “because it’s much more affordable [than in-person training], it allows you to go faster, go deeper or repeat it more.”

The INSEAD course also has a completion rate of more than 80 per cent, far outperforming the average for MOOCs.

This new wave of innovation in digital education may be anxiety-inducing for universities that are struggling to adapt, but it also creates enormous opportunities, especially for autodidacts who are willing to keep learning and evolving throughout their professional lives. “The future belongs to entrepreneurial individuals,” says Roland Daher. “Whether they are in a startup or in a large corporation, they will have a much greater edge over ‘conventional’ peers.”

Universities are still great environments for exploring, meeting people and learning face-to-face, and degrees still carry weight with a lot of employers, but the fact that there are greater educational options for those who can’t go can only be a good thing for the general population, the economy and employers looking for skilled workers.

“There are some industries or subject areas that are so fast-moving and dynamic and don’t necessarily have a history of being taught in universities, where actually entirely new models will develop,” Simon Nelson says.

“It’s a huge and vibrant market, but I think we’ve only just begun to see the changes that are going to happen.”