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Daniela Stefovska completed a traditional business education when she left a banking job on Wall Street to complete an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Then she decided to extend her business education, first with part-time courses and latterly with a purely online teaching app, called SmartUp, aimed at aspiring entrepreneurs.
Given her time again, Ms Stefovska would avoid the business school route.
“Now that I know I want to be involved in start-ups, if you asked me if I should go to business school I would say no,” she says. “My advice would be just start something and don’t waste your time.”
Her comments are good news for Frank Meehan, co-founder and chief executive of SmartUp, which has turned business lessons into games, attracting more than 65,000 registered users since it launched last June.
As users go through the SmartUp app they are awarded points for their decision making which then puts them on to a global ranking leader board.
New content from an experienced founder or investor is pushed to the app each day.
When users reach 1,000 points, they can enter a draw with a prize of one-to-one live mentoring online with members of Founders Forum, the entrepreneurship club.
Mr Meehan, a former board member of music streaming service Spotify, sees an opportunity in postgraduate business education.
This goes beyond the platforms for massive open online courses, or Moocs, which are repackaging existing business school course material in the form of downloadable videos or Skype-like interactive lectures.
Companies such as SmartUp hope to provide an alternative to this style of teaching by providing a format more akin to social networking.
Mr Meehan explains the app focuses on the need for investors, start-ups and corporations to find out and showcase what people actually know.
The model of providing certificates for completing online courses, adopted by the large Mooc platforms such as Coursera and EdX, is flawed according to Mr Meehan. “That is why the big online edtech players have such huge dropout rates on their courses,” he says. Research published in 2013 suggested average completion rates on Coursera were as low as 4 per cent.
“In SmartUp, we mentor people who reach the top of the leader boards, and people are keen to connect to others on the leader boards that they see are experienced in certain topics. That is, a person with a tech background can see another with strength in marketing.”
Networking is a key part of the business school experience that can be replicated online. Silicon Valley start-ups, such as Quora, the online question-and-answer service, have become ways for entrepreneurs to meet and learn from each other.
Karma is a smartphone app created by Israeli venture capital firm Aleph to give entrepreneurs access to other founders, allowing them to ask for help, give advice and share knowledge.
Avigail Levine, who is responsible for marketing and community relations at Aleph, says the intention with Karma was not to create a new edtech start-up or tell people to bypass MBA programmes. But she admits that it can help those seeking to learn business skills. “Part of our vision is networking to build scalable companies,” she says.
Private equity firms sense an opportunity for new entrants to take a slice of the business education market.
James Wise, a partner at London-based Balderton Capital, a venture capital fund, points to start-ups such as the Shaw Academy, based in Dublin, which claims to be the world’s largest live online educator.
“A lot of it is providing what the business schools don’t offer,” Mr Wise says. “They are supplementing content rather than competing with them.”
Ophelia Brown is general partner at LocalGlobe, a VC firm that has backed several of the UK’s most successful technology start-ups, having completed an MBA at Insead in France.
Although she sees opportunities for technology businesses to provide innovative forms of teaching online, she does not believe that they will replace campus-based study. “I went to Insead because it was an international school where people came from all over the world to study,” she says.
“Business school can be prohibitively expensive for some and it is time consuming, but I don’t think anyone can claim that technology will replace the value of attending their courses.”