I was delighted to receive a certificate from HarvardX last month, after completing one of their online courses in computing, of all things.

To those at the IT department of the firm I trained at, Winckworth Sherwood, this may come as something of a shock.

I have never been to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I did not pay huge fees. I did not have to attend lectures in someone else’s timetable.

CS50L is an example of a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) and one of several acronyms currently taking the world by storm.

They aren’t new, of course. The biggest providers, Coursera and EdX, were founded in 2012.

Only five years prior to that, when I studied at Cambridge, England, my college wouldn’t let me leave the city without permission, and TVs were banned from our rooms.

That was old fashioned even then, but such an attitude would be Byzantine now.

Because universities all around the world – especially, it should be said, the old and famous ones – are making the most of technology to spread their wares.

Lectures and written materials, like the television programmes my college tried (and obviously failed) to ban, are infinitely scaleable, particularly when in English.

By some measures they have been astonishingly successful: Coursera is a public company with more than 77 million learners and annual revenue of $260m.

Horses for online courses

But MOOCs come in for some criticism. A 20% completion rate is held as evidence that students don’t take them seriously, or that the courses aren’t very good.

With some online courses free or very affordable, little is lost by abandoning a course half-way through.

But a 20% completion rate is actually pretty good for web-based platforms, given the time commitment required.

I have completed one course (CS50L) because it was excellent – the lectures were interesting, challenging and rigorous. The tests were tricky, relevant and worth doing.

I have abandoned one course (HEC on Entrepreneurship) because I didn’t see the value in it.

But abandoning a course that isn’t right for you is a good thing. I know many people who stuck with their traditional university degree course long after they realised they didn’t like or need it, out of a mixture of stubbornness, social pressure, and sunk cost fallacy.

Education should be hard. Learning should be active. You have to be curious to find the right course, and you have to be committed to want to finish.

The Adviserly ethos

In assembling the Adviserly network I have the privilege of meeting amazing professionals who have founded successful businesses all over the world.

They share passion and commitment. They are curious and they see things through.

The businesses, migrants and expats that we are seeking as clients are also driven by a sense of something larger than themselves and have an eye for the main chance.

Building a legal or accounting practice, or a small business, or moving to a new country, takes curiosity and courage.

It is this willingness to learn – or more than that, a yearning to explore – that I want to define the Adviserly ethos.

Sometimes we will see things through to the end, but just as importantly, we have to abandon ideas when they don’t work. The key entrepreneurial skill, I am learning, is to know the difference.

MOOCs are great for curious, driven people who want to keep on learning. Adviserly is for those people too.

Even though all advisers on our network are vetted and highly qualified, we are fundamentally a community of students, learning about our clients’ businesses, our sectors and the people and technology within them.

Now, what online course should I sign up to next?

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Robert Flint

Robert Flint is the founder of Adviserly and former corporate parter at a UK law firm.

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