Apprenticeships: An old yet new approach to entrepreneurship education

Post-secondary institutions across Ontario are embracing entrepreneurship education at an unprecedented rate, according to a recent report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Beyond the notion of starting new businesses, entrepreneurship education benefits students in many diverse ways, including the development of critical skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. These are skills that are increasingly in demand by both public and private sectors. The University of Ottawa Entrepreneurship Hub is adopting its own unique approach to entrepreneurship education through a learning-by-doing model that has a long and successful history in the trades: apprenticeships.

The apprenticeship model of entrepreneurship education is described in more detail in the following interview between Luc Lalande, the executive director of the University of Ottawa EHub, and students Jocelyn Courneya, Miriam Saslove and Melina Kokkinos from the Faculty of Arts. All of these students are experiencing apprenticeships as part of a student-led venture named the “Digital Storytellers Guild” (DST Guild).

DST GUILD: Apprenticeships have a long history of success in occupations — often referred to as the trades — characterized by technical proficiency of tools. Why did you believe it had potential application to entrepreneurship education?

LALANDE: When I first joined the University of Ottawa in June 2014, I spent considerable time talking to students about the meaning of entrepreneurship. It became clear to me then that many young people on campus identified entrepreneurship as something that primarily interested business students. Following this train of thought, entrepreneurship education was synonymous with taking a business course if not an outright business degree. My challenge, therefore, was to find a way to engage students in a way that fostered an entrepreneurial mindset and behaviours without students having to, first, feel they needed to take a business course or degree and, second, start a business. In order to reach more students beyond the business school, I needed to change the “language” that is typically adopted in describing entrepreneurship education. The famous quote from management guru Peter Drucker sums it up best: “Entrepreneurship is neither a science nor an art. It is a practice.”

Another deep influence in adopting the apprenticeship model of “learning-by-doing” was my involvement with the global maker movement and more specifically maker education. I was intrigued by the constructivist learning paradigm pioneered by Seymour Papert, one of founding faculty members of the MIT Media Lab. The core tenet of his constructionist theory of learning is that people build knowledge most effectively when they are actively engaged in constructing things in the world. I imagined that Papert’s model could be applied to entrepreneurship education by way of apprenticeships. Practice-based entrepreneurship, I thought, would be the next best thing to actually starting up your own venture.

I’ve got a question for you.

As undergraduate students in the public relations and communications program in the Faculty of Arts, you are among my first “subjects” experimenting with this apprenticeship model of entrepreneurship education. What has been your experience so far?

DST GUILD: Outside of student associations, internships, and volunteering, it is very hard to find “hands-on” experience in communications as a university student. Becoming a part of digital storytellers allows for guidance and mentorship within the fields that interest you, while at the same time giving you the ability to manage your own projects and be creative. This program allows you to take risks, build your portfolio and take responsibility unlike other student learning experiences.

And here is a question for you, Luc.

With so much emphasis on campus-based incubators and accelerators, do you think the idea of “apprenticeships in entrepreneurship” will catch on?

LALANDE: I do. Especially for those full-time students who are simply not ready to launch their own ventures but nonetheless wish to learn to think and behave more entrepreneurially. Apprenticeships while in school are a terrific way for students to gain valuable skills and experience before they graduate. And getting paid for it at the same time!