As higher education goes, a pop-up university is as fun as it gets, says Professor Neil Maiden, of City University London. He's just taught one of the first sessions at the headquarters of one of the buzziest companies in Tech City – an area renowned for its new media start-ups. A room full of early-stage entrepreneurs, "booted and suited types" and other young professionals joined him just off Brick Lane at the social video advertising company Unruly Media. During a two-hour session, Maiden taught a series of creative approaches to developing apps, complete with short exercises underpinned by academic theory. Still to come is a line-up of weekly classes aimed at entrepreneurs on a range of topics from digital story-telling to risk management.
"It's quite rare to have something this exciting – universities are normally slow moving beasts," says Maiden, a professor in systems engineering. "How we currently engage with Tech City is like the Wild West frontier. We are all feeling our way."
He ended his class with a couple of practical exercises either drawn from academic theory or adapted from the university's postgraduate course in innovation, creativity and leadership. Software developer Anne Jang liked the session so much she's signed up for more and will go on to research techniques she picked up on creative problem solving in the software design process. "It was pitched at just the right level," she says. "The exercises were practical and quick – and gave us techniques to analyse and come up with solutions during the design process."
It's easier to describe these free sessions by what they are not. They're not classes in specific skills, they're not simply lectures open to the public, as provided by many UK universities, and nor are they a substitute for degrees. They endeavour, according to Dr Caroline Wiertz, of Cass Business School, who came up with the idea, to bridge the gap between business and academia – on comfy sofas.
She and co-founder Sarah Wood, of Unruly Media, conceived the "pop-up" style sessions – which they've named "Unrulyversity" – and implemented them in just a few months. They already have a series of sessions mapped out for the rest of the academic year and a string of academics lining up to teach them. "It sounds cheesy, but I just think it's the right thing universities should be doing – it's a much-needed rigorous educational offering for small start-ups with few resources," says Wiertz, whose research focuses on how social media and word of mouth affects consumers. She believes institutions have a responsibility to support and educate entrepreneurs, and she's adamant the weekly courses will remain free of charge. She launched the programme with a seminar alongside Bruce Daisley, UK director of Twitter. "Anything that broadens the scope of learning is fantastic," he says. "Too often it is hard for outsiders to penetrate the fortresses of inside knowledge. These are people who were getting access for the first time."
Cass stands to gain by the project too. Wierzt's postgraduate students have already enjoyed internships within Unruly and Cass hopes to broker ongoing relationships with other Tech City start-ups. Typically her students target large organisations when they graduate, but Wiertz hopes this collaboration might divert a few to younger companies.
And this is a good way of reaching out to the entrepreneurs, developers and designers who will benefit, says Wiertz – they are more likely to walk through Unruly's doors than those of the university. "Most of these people aren't going to do a traditional Masters over two years – their businesses could have been and gone before then," says Maiden, who believes London universities are well-placed to support this burgeoning sector.
Nurturing entrepreneurs is a subject close to Wood's heart: there's already space for start-ups at Unruly's premises. "We want to make sure the next generation of entrepreneurs have access to knowledge and expertise to help them create a global business," she adds. She should know; her own business has grown from three employees in 2008 to 130 now. Wood, who is also a postgraduate lecturer, firmly believes academic research has a role in business. "Unrulyversity wants to bring that powerful combination to a new generation of digital entrepreneurs. As a business owner it's the most exciting learning opportunity you could imagine."
Some sessions sound more glamorous than others. Storytelling in the Digital Age, for instance, is getting everyone in the business of viral marketing and video sharing very excited. "It's such a steep learning curve, how to connect at speed and turn viewers into loyal customers," says Wood. And there's a buzz about a future joint class from a Penguin publishing director and a City University London publishing academic about turning books into online games and vice versa.
However, the less sought after evenings, such corporate governance and risk management, are every bit as important. "[It's] the stuff entrepreneurs don't really want to think about," says Wiertz. In fact, the value lies in attending the whole course, Wood argues, which gives an end-to-end education in issues around a digital start-up. Developers need to understand commercial and creative aspects and sales teams need to understand how long the design process takes. "The value of joining up the dots, the cross-disciplinary nature of the course, is integral to its value," says Wood.
And in an industry that moves, as Wood says, "at a crazy pace" will a pop-up university pop back down again when it's run its course? Wiertz sincerely hopes it will be here next year in some form, and knows this depends on a fresh, relevant programme and format. "Universities these days are extremely creative about how they teach. I think everybody is surprised at how applied and fun it is. Our goal is to do everything we can to help small start-ups with few resources succeed."
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