A Crash Course in Success: Stanford’s Venture Lab

Rick Carlile's picture
 

A couple years ago I was excited to discover that Stanford’s Graduate School of Business was uploading a vast number of its lectures and presentations to YouTube for all to enjoy – what a terrifically valuable and uplifting resource! Anyone choosing to regularly peruse the GSB’s video playlist over morning coffee and croissants instead of soaking up grim disaster and mayhem from the mainstream media would not only achieve an admirable grasp of high-level business concepts, but would also be likely to benefit from lower blood pressure and a sunnier disposition.

So it was with great pleasure that I learned more recently that Stanford had opened up not only its material but its entire educational process to all, by way of its recently-founded Venture Lab offshoot.

By running “Massive Open Online Courses” in tandem with traditional classroom-based learning, the Venture Lab platform allows individuals and groups around the world to run a parallel track to on-campus students; absorbing lectures, planning, building teams, creating projects.

Stanford's Venture Lab: collaborate with teams around the world

This fall, three Aegora co-founders, including myself, took part in the Technology Entrepreneurship class run by Professor Chuck Eesley. We were extremely lucky in that the course’s focus - on progression from basic concepts to validated hypotheses and a functional prototype – was timed roughly in step with our own level of progress in creating Aegora. I’m happy to report that we found the course immensely worthwhile; its structured process not only provided form for our experiments, but highlighted results from which actionable conclusions could be drawn. As could be expected, the lectures and presentations were of sterling quality and utility. I for one felt no poorer for experiencing them via the Internet rather than sitting in the lecture hall.

What really sets the Venture Lab experience apart is a feature that, I suspect, was created by necessity in order to overcome a significant impediment to the university’s ability to offer such courses (which are free, by the way). The Stanford brand is not unknown outside the lofty confines of Silicon Valley or academia, to commit the understatement of the year, and consequently online students sign up in their thousands to the Venture Lab courses. The first offering of Technology Entrepreneurship attracted some 37,000 students; I am not sure how many attended our session but expect it exceeded that already astonishing number.

Stanford University

Thus, it is quite impossible for the people running the courses to involve themselves significantly either in inter-student dynamics, or in assessment and grading. Consequently, the mechanics of the Venture Lab system have been elegantly designed in a way that minimizes per-user overhead by demanding that the student engages directly with other users throughout the world from day one, in order to form teams, brainstorm ideas, and so forth. This engenders a unique atmosphere of driven activity and open communication amongst strangers that one would not find in most distance-learning environments – in fact, would rarely find on most campuses.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the peer review process. There are five or six assessments throughout this short course, and one’s team is likely to receive perhaps eight or nine peer reviews for each. For us, this was a marvelous experience. Given that Aegora is being created in order to serve the needs of predominantly young, intelligent, entrepreneurial first-adopters from around the world, the feedback we received from our fellow-students on the course was much more validating than a grade from a lecturer would have been, since these peer reviewers were highly representative of our target demographic. A rare moment of modesty prohibits me from quoting those peer reviews here (plus, they were provided in confidence) but let us just say that their overwhelming support, understanding and encouragement were greatly appreciated and went a long way to convincing us that we are on the right track with Aegora!

More fundamentally, the manner in which thousands of globally-distributed, diverse individuals formed organic, flexible teams in order to collaborate and create value in this academic setting has a clear and direct parallel with the lean, agile business structures that we seek to enable Aegora’s users to create. It is heartening to see the wonderful results of such collaboration, and speaks well for our future.

The Venture Lab platform is currently hosting a handful of courses, details of which can be found at venture-lab.org, and I expect to see more being added in the near future. I would urge anyone with even a passing interest in their subjects to take the plunge and sign up; not only are the courses of great value, but Venture Lab’s founders have created a blueprint for large-scale democratization of education that is well-worth experiencing in its own right.