I Am Still Learning

Recently, the editors of an entrepreneurship education publication invited me to write an essay on what I have learned teaching entrepreneurship.  As a senior (Ughh – how did that happen?) professor in my field, I guess there is some hope that over the past 25 years of teaching nascent entrepreneurs, I have developed and tested a few techniques that others might find useful in their own classes.  While it is an honor to receive this invitation, as I considered the content for the piece, I was reminded of a coffee mug I purchased a few years ago on a visit to the National Gallery of Art museum store.  I seldom buy items in museum stores, and never buy coffee mugs, but this one spoke to me.  It had a simple quote – “I am still learning” attributed to Michelangelo.  What I love about this short sentence is that it sums up most of what I believe about education in general and entrepreneurship education specifically.

My parents believed deeply in the power of education.  My father began college, on a basketball scholarship, but went into the military and never completed his degree.  My mother started college, stopped and got married, began a family, started and sold a small business and then, went back and completed her baccalaureate degree in fine arts.  They both believed that education was the pathway to a better life through the increased opportunity that a degree provided.  But, they also taught us, and as my mother’s willingness to go back to school after retirement from a successful business demonstrated, an education is not just about getting a good job.  An education provides the foundation for lifelong learning. 

Today, educators are grappling with the significant disruption that the Covid-19 pandemic is causing in our industry.  This week, my colleagues and I received an email from our Provost where he shared information about the university scenario planning processes. In this message,  he reminded us that “while our courses and other aspects of our academic work—labs, studios, recitals, performances, etc.—are key parts of these scenarios, the university is something like a small city, and the planning discussions must include issues concerning facilities, maintenance, residence life, security, finance and much more.”  Students and parents are also planning.  Most students have been sent home and are adjusting to living back with family members. Some are wondering whether they feel safe leaving home again and going back to campus life.  High school seniors are now considering whether they want to go to college or take a gap year before they start.  And the affordability question is becoming even more serious as some parents must use their children’s college savings to survive.   The question of how long this will last and what the long-term impact will be not only for the student but also the faculty and the institution is looming large.  Long term, how will the pandemic change the face of higher education? 

As I consider this, I turn once again to my educational training which taught me that when I am faced with a question I need to ask more questions.  And the starting point for me is to ask what am I learning from my students and my colleagues right now?

First, initial evidence is demonstrating that students value being part of a college community.  Their behaviors may vary from anger at the loss of face to face time with peers and professors to proactive engagement in every online experience offered.  But the reactions are more a result of each student’s level of resilience.  The bottom line is that our students value a high touch, in person, learning environment where they can engage in face to face discourse and learning. 

Second, I am also learning that while we continue to value face to face interaction, online learning is likely to continue to become a growing part of the delivery of higher education on every campus.  When the University of Tampa (UT) moved fully online, like other colleges and universities, it was an abrupt transition.  Faculty and students left for spring break and were told not to return and to immediately move to teaching all classes online.  This was not just a change for our university community, it was a paradigm shift.  UT has long built its reputation on being a residential campus where students leave homes and families that are, on average, more than 1,000 miles away.  It is a place to not only learn but also to grow up and develop independence.  Moreover, faculty who choose to teach at UT are also there because they love the close interactions with students that this type of university affords.   Yet, during the past month or so, faculty have been heroic in their efforts to provide a meaningful educational experience for their students.  Most students have stepped up to remain engaged.  In fact, we are all learning that some aspects of online learning are superior and thus will likely remain even after we are able to return to more traditional learning. 

So, what does this mean for entrepreneurship education?  Over the years, one of the things I have learned as an entrepreneurship educator is that entrepreneurship is a practice. I often tell my students that entrepreneurship is like yoga.  You should not expect to perfect it, but to be successful you must show up every day and practice and learn.  I have also learned that traditional teaching styles of lecturing and tests are not as effective as experiential learning techniques.  For this reason, I have dedicated a significant portion of my academic career to building co-curricular experiences such as opportunities to collaborate with peers, to be coached and mentored by others who have traveled the entrepreneurial path, to reflect, to apprenticeship, shadow and intern with entrepreneurs.  For those students who have a burning desire to start a company while they are in school, I believe entrepreneurship education programs should offer them the chance to “practice” what they are learning.  And, give them the chance to fail and to learn from that failure.  In the end, entrepreneurship is about lifelong learning and experiential learning provides an opportunity to practice the experience of entrepreneurship all while being tutored by others.

How then do we offer an experiential education remotely?  The most obvious solution in the past was to create a physical space to encourage innovation.  When we look back at the great centers of innovation, starting as early as the Renaissance in Florence, Italy (which, fatefully, is in one of the countries hardest hit areas with the pandemic thus far) we can see this formula for innovation.  Frans Johansson describes this in his book and on his Enfactor podcast.  Ideas occur where people, disciplines, industries and cultures collide. Silicon Valley, Harvard Square and many other epicenters of innovation are similar examples of the importance of this cross- discipline intersection.  University campuses have long been centers of innovation for this reason.  In 2015, at the University of Tampa, we built a beautiful center for collaboration and entrepreneurship and for the past 5 years it has been a place where people and ideas come together.  What happens now?  Certainly, ideas are not bound by a physical place.  And, hopefully we will soon be back in the space.  But, the question remains.  What will the new normal for universities be and how will we shape entrepreneurship education to continue to provide our learners with the foundation they need to be lifelong learners. 

As we begin to move forward, we may try to reduce anxiety by returning to the familiar. But I believe education as we knew it, cannot be recovered. It must be reinvented. Everything is on the table now. There has never been a better opportunity during my career as an educator to create positive, productive and lasting change.   Today I am thankful for the educational foundation that gave me the tools and the passion for lifelong learning.  In fact, everyone who has had the benefit of an education should probably thank a teacher today.  The ability to learn will make the difference in every way for us all over the next few years. 

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