Enstitute wants to remake higher education, right now

We are all aware of the hacker dropout archetype — Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs — brainiacs that changed the world without a sheepskin. But is a college education now becoming optional? Are there ways to become involved in business that don’t involve reading Shakespeare or dissecting frogs?

Other cultures — notably Germany — have invested in the development of apprenticeship programs, creating a path for young people to transition from secondary education directly into the business context, especially in manufacturing companies, but also in other parts of the business world. The United States has not traditionally had official programs underwritten by federal or local governments to fill that role, and instead, the nom has been for young people to either attend college or to apply for lower-skilled jobs right out of high school, and receiving on-the-job training that might lead to becoming a skilled worker, and transitioning in some cases into the professional ranks. But that latter path is increasingly rare, as less work in the US is manual and low-skilled at the outset.

At the same time, the costs of college in the US has skyrocketed, growing 40% between 2000 and 2012. College students can easily leave school owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans. What are the alternatives?

One enterprising young woman, Sarah Hansen, wanted to start a business instead of going to college, so she auctioned off 10% of her salary for ten years instead, raising $125,000. She sent email to 1000 investors on Angel.co, and secured the bet with equity in the business she’s starting. Pretty smart. But it might not be scalable for the millions of young people out there who would like to working, instead of spending four years and hundreds of thousands on college.

Forget the idea that businesses should reform themselves to create 21st century apprenticeship programs: that would make too much sense. Luckily, some young people have come up with an alternative, called Enstitute. Shaila Ittycheria and Kane Sarhan founded Enstitute, as a two year eductional program based on ‘learning by doing’. The student work full-time in a New York based tech start-up (and next year, media, advertising, and non-profit companies, too), and also cram in eight hours a week of more conventional college-style education in reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. But the core feature of the program is working as an apprentice for a specific ‘master’, and not as yet-another-intern getting bagels and coffee for the weekly status meeting:

Hanah Seligson, The Apprentices of a Digital Age

Students train under a master, in the way that many trade professions have operated for centuries. “It’s a level of experience that an intern never sees,” Ms. Ittycheria says.

For participating companies, the program offers cheap, talented labor for a much longer period than a typical internship. But the fellows are betting that their minimal wages will turn into full-time jobs once they complete the program — perhaps even at the very company where they apprenticed.

Nine of the fellows have attended at least one year of college, and three are college graduates. Most say they do not plan to return to school. But what will the apprentices miss if they forgo the four-year period of intellectual exploration and cultural knowledge that college is meant to provide? Defenders of higher education argue that college students gain important knowledge as well as critical-thinking skills that are crucial to a meaningful life and career.

The Enstitute’s founders contend that their program does teach critical thinking, but in different ways. “They are not debating Chaucer; they are debating product features,” says Mr. Sarhan, who graduated from Pace University. “But it’s the same idea of how do I write down and communicate an argument.”

Enstitute does offer a semiformal curriculum, requiring eight hours a week on topics like finance, branding, computer programming and graphic design, as well as English, sociology, and history, the content of which comes largely from online courses. The fellows also receive writing assignments every six weeks; outside academics and experts edit and review the work for writing style and grammar. Many fellows choose a less technical track for their course work and study subjects like Japanese culture or the poetry of Keats.

Based on their living arrangements, it would be easy to mistake the fellows for traditional college students. They share a large loft space at 11 Stone Street, near the southern tip of Manhattan. There are two to four beds to a room and three shared bathrooms, and the fellows share cleaning duties.

Most socializing takes place in a sparsely decorated common space, and around a large banquet-type table. Dinners are usually prepared and eaten communally. Twice a week, established entrepreneurs come to dinner, give an informal talk and take questions.

Perhaps the only giveaway that this isn’t a college dorm is that by Friday night, the apprentices are often too tired to go out. Full-time work is exhausting.

Many of the fellows say they work upward of 40 hours a week. There is no overtime; the compensation package is a stipend, usually around $800 a month, with housing and food fully subsidized by Enstitute — a benefit being extended only to the program’s first class. Starting this September, the new batch of fellows will have to pay $1,500 in annual tuition, and their room and board will not be covered. Stipends, however, will be around $1,600 a month — and they will be paid overtime.

My bet is that this idea will be massively successful, and can scale to thousands of student per year. The economics work, the needs of all involved are obvious, and a generation of young people can be become gainfully integrated into the work force.

It is worth mentioning that the US has ingloriously become the worst country among industrialized, advanced economies for non-employed young people, which rose to 26.6% in 2011.

Thank goodness we don’t have to wait for our completely blocked federal government to start an effort like this. No, our young people are going to do this themselves. They aspire to raise $1,000,000 so they can drastically expand the program. The company was formed as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, so contributions are tax-deductible, if you are interested in supporting it.

This is the future of work, stepping over the logjam of our government, sidestepping the questionable and overpriced four years at college, and getting young people into the workplace.

Certainly I believe that MDs need medical school, and that there is still a place for universities and colleges. But for those that want to work in many industries and in many sorts of jobs, the cost/benefit ratio of that time and money invested at Podunk U. just doesn’t make sense. And the opportunity to work closely for two years with a true expert designer, developer, researcher, or marketer might be the best start for a career.

Workers using social media are more productive

A recent study by Joe Nandhakumar and colleagues at the Warwick Business School has perhaps overturned some of the sunday supplement nattering about social networks being nothing by a distraction. Looking at companies in the UK, Finland, and Germany, the researchers found that having a diverse set of communication tools meant they could be more flexible about when and where they accomplish their work. Professor Nandhakumar said, ‘We found that the ubiquitous digital connectivity altered workers’ sense of ‘presence’ and helped rather than hindered the effective completion of collective tasks. This study also indicates that such digital connectivity afforded workers much greater latitude and control over their timing and location of their work.’

The paper is entitle Exploring social network interactions in enterprise systems: the role of virtual co-presence, and will be published in Information Systems Journal.

‘Evidence from our research suggests that knowledge workers who were able to successfully deal with the timing and sequence of their ‘presence’ and responses in a digitally mediated workplace were better able to organise the flow of work through digital media. Companies and organisations should make sure their workers can control the flow of information, turning it on and off when needed.’

Another proof point suggesting that getting value from social tools requires a growing level of autonomy for the people involved in the communications, and that given that autonomy people will take the steps that make them personally more productive.

Business people aren’t stupid: they reason they want to  use tools like Twitter and LinkedIn is that it helps them get their work done. They aren’t goofing off, or gossiping.

Hootsuite Assignments as Chrome extension

I installed the Hootsuite Assignments extension for Chrome (requires upgrading to Pro account), just to get a sense of what that capability might add for teams sharing through Hootsuite.
Here’s the way that the assignments capability appears when looking at my Twitter stream:
The plug-in allows me to assign a response to a tweet to a specific  team (‘customer support’ or ‘marketing’ for example), or a specific team member.
This look pretty much the same in Facebook, it appears, but not any other of the social networks that Hootsuite supports:
hootsuite facebook
I’m not an active Hootsuite user, but if I were I would certainly add this chrome plug-in permanently.
Personally, I do task myself to follow up on tweets in Asana, which uses a slightly less user-friendly, entire page URL grab, so I am forced to click into the tweet to get it to open on its own page.
asana tweet
I wish Asana would make their plugin smarter about Twitter, and save me that headache, like Hootsuite has done.