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Member News: C.C. Eship / NACCE Journal Winter/Spring 2010

3 Simple Ways to Add Online Features to Your Entrepreneurship Class

Tuesday, January 19, 2010   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Matthew Montoya
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By Tim Berry
President and Founder

Palo Alto Software

Call it a journey:I’ve been teaching entrepreneurship for 11 years now. I started in 1998 when the Internet was engulfing the whole topic in eyeballs fever. As a tech-and-gadget lover and a software entrepreneur, I’ve seen the tipping point and beyond on topics like email and blog posts and business plan software. Early on, I used to have to insist that my students figure out email. These days, I have students following me, and me them, on Facebook and Twitter.

Based on my experience in teaching entrepreneurship and my background as a techie, I’d like to recommend three ways to leverage the power of the Internet in your entrepreneurship class:

1. Incorporate blog posts into your curriculum

Take what’s available online these days on blogs, and compare that to teaching with textbooks. For example, visit http://myventurepad.com. That site consolidates a few dozen of the best business bloggers (disclosure: I’m one of them) in a way that’s easy to use. I’ve worked with a number of great textbooks through the years, but how can a textbook compete with the constantly renewing resource of good business bloggers? This is entrepreneurship. The landscape changes too quickly. Not to mention the fact that blogs are generally free, while textbooks cost your students $100 or more.

The two most obvious drawbacks are relatively easy to solve:

  • First, you can solve the problem of quality control–after all, who’s a blogger these days, and what credentials do they have–by reading posts yourself. Many established writers are blogging as part of their marketing. I suggest you use Google’s blog reader (free) and sign up for the list of small business and entrepreneurship bloggers at http://reader.google.com.
  • Second, things change so quickly. Blog posts get old. So join Twitter and follow the leaders. It’s free, you don’t have to proactively do anything but follow. And how to find the leaders? Well Business Week published a list of its top 20 entrepreneurs to follow in early September (disclosure, I’m on that list, as @timberry on Twitter). The Web site link is http://images.businessweek.com/ss/09/08/0821_twitter_for_entrepreneurs/1.htm

Also, I’ve gathered my own collection of entrepreneurship blog posts, broken into categories, which is free to you at http://course.bplans.com. That includes a lot of posts I’ve written (sorry, can’t help it) plus posts by the likes of Guy Kawasaki, Seth Godin, John Jantsch, and other thought leaders.

And, a final thought: Why not reward your students for finding blog posts relevant to weekly topics or class sessions? That’s a double win.

2. Organize assignments with PDFs

For me, the hardest part of teaching is collecting, managing, and grading assignments. Call that CMGA. My students do a business plan as the main deliverable of the course, and I divide key components of the plan into six assignments they have to turn in before the final plan. Most of those are components of the business plan.

After years of working with annoying CMGA problems I’ve finally settled on requiring all assignments be turned in via email as PDF attachments. That PDF is a standard electronic document format that can be attached to an email and then opened and read and printed and saved as a file on a computer. It doesn’t require any application software to open and read, just a PDF reader, of which there are many, and many of those are free. The brains behind PDF is Adobe, and Adobe distributes free PDF readers.

I also make the students responsible. I tell them during the first class that I require email literacy. My online syllabus (that’s the one at course.bplans.com) includes online instructions for Windows and Mac users, plus links to free downloadable software for the Windows users (Mac users have it built into their operating system, and I include instructions for that). They’re responsible for backing up, making correct PDF documents, and getting things properly attached. I remind them in the first class that this is about entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurs don’t have the luxury of submitting either something or a reason why not; they have to submit the something.

The result is that I have no lost assignments–my email saves them–and no more discussion about whether it was turned in, or when. And my grading process, although still annoying, is easier to organize and manage. I use a software tool, PDFAnnotator, to annotate documents, write comments and suggest corrections, keep them as PDF documents, and retain them on my computer, where I’m less likely to lose them than I would be if they were pieces of paper. PDFAnnotator isn’t free. It has competitors, but I’m not sure there is a free software package for this. Still, it was a one-time purchase that was worth it for me. And you have alternatives. You can still print the PDFs, mark them up, and hand them back to students as paper. In my case, I save the marked up PDF documents and send them back as email attachments.

3. Start a Blog and Join Twitter

Blogs are free and relatively easy to do. You can start your own blog for free at wordpress.com or blogger.com. Instructions are readily available online. And, once you have a blog, you can use it to leave comments for your students, collect additional material for them using online links. In essence, you have an online bulletin board for your course.

As an alternative to a blog, Twitter is also free. It allows you to send messages of no more than 140 characters to people who are also signed up and choose to receive your messages. Don’t use it for inane clutter about what you had for breakfast. Set up a class name in Twitter and ask your students to join Twitter and follow that class name, and then you can use it for quick instant updates, like links to blog posts or online videos relevant to course materials, or notes about class guests, and so on.

Conclusion

Get started. If you aren’t familiar with blogs or Twitter or Adobe Acrobat formats (PDF documents) now, you can be tomorrow. And you and your students will be better off.

And for more on this, links, blog posts, suggested assignments, notes on PDF format, my online class curriculum is free for professors, at course.bplans.com.

Tim Berry blogs at http://timberry.bplans.com.


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