Yes, it’s a goddamn product

I’ve been working on a strategic project for the last while that’s tasked with overhauling the business degree suite. Which has led me with my education and creative arts background and all the business nous of a sock to try and learn some things about business, including entrepreneurship.

Warning: possibly painful meta upcoming

I’ve been reading Sarasvathy after this particular paper was mentioned in a seminar on entrepreneurial thinking I was in yesterday. The glaring thing that strikes me here is that the way we as a sector think about course design is broken because we still can’t get over the indignation of thinking about higher education as a business and degrees and courses as products. Collective pearls are clutched about the selling out of intellectual purity and rose-tinted elbow patches erode from our collective souls.

Sorry kids. It is a business and it is a goddamn product.

Course design is almost exclusively undertaken with causal reasoning – choose from these existing predefined means (units) and combine them in various ways to offer predefined goals (degree programs/courses). All of which are variations on virtually identical themes. Very occasionally creativity sneaks in and some new means are generated, but the underlying goals and existing means are largely unchanged (yes I know because reasons).

Enter entrepreneurial thinking. What if we got over ourselves and admitted we are designing a product for a market, and started designing courses as such? What if we applied effectual reasoning to curriculum design? We could begin with redefining our sets of means – our people, our educational experiences, our relationships. And then use them to create what? Who the hell knows. That’s the whole point. The idea that you can go into an educational space and say ‘we need to build something different but we don’t know what it is’ and focus on a process of action and iteration and learning in order to find out what it is you need to create is a rather fascinating (read for most: terrifying) kettle of fish. Sarasvathy’s chef metaphor appeals to me, both for my love of terrible metaphors and the fact I’ve already been articulating things in terms of distilling what we do down to its ingredients (experiences/people) before we start thinking about creating recipes and writing menus. An alternate terrible metaphor I’ve been flogging in this domain is the need to work out what is in our lego set and experiment with build designs rather than starting with a preconceived build (more on terrible lego metaphors probably upcoming in future, get excited).

It’s a murky way forwards, sure, but designing learning via entrepreneurial thinking has got to be less of a death by irony than the way we’ve been doing things, particularly when the learning you’re designing is in entrepreneurial education. It creates a whole bunch of other questions, of course, such as hoo boy how do we deal with uncertainty and failure and can we actually engage in affordable loss principles without causing student services to melt down, but you can’t change a thing without changing a thing, so…

Sarasvathy is better at concluding paragraphs than I am, so here you go:

Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial, as
differentiated from managerial or strategic,
because they think effectually; they believe in a
yet-to-be-made future that can substantially be
shaped by human action; and they realize that to
the extent that this human action can control the
future, they need not expend energies trying to
predict it. In fact, to the extent that the future is
shaped by human action, it is not much use
trying to predict it – it is much more useful to
understand and work with the people who are
engaged in the decisions and actions that bring it
into existence.


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