Tips to Use Online Courses for Social Entrepreneurs

Flickr/CC/Esparta Palma

By Santiago Martínez

When the Greeks wrote that the gods punished Prometheus for giving human beings fire, I am sure they were talking about the Internet. It is knowledge in its crudest form and has the potential to change society from the inside out. The insurmountable amount of information that exists can be just as fascinating as it is scary.

The online course sector for example, with websites such as Coursera or edX, has grown at an exponential rate. It can overwhelm even the most organized of pupils. You can take a crash course on influencing people (if you ask me, kind of sociopathic) to the historical fiction of plagues, witches and war (seriously I am not kidding, look it up).

Wikimedia Commons/public domain/edX
Wikimedia Commons/public domain/edX

Wikimedia commons/public domain/Coursea


Social entrepreneurs can take advantage of this gold mine of information, but they can get lost just like the rest of us. So how does a social entrepreneur dissect all this madness and find something useful? And what does she/he have to do to get the most out of it? We have some advice for you, lost citizen.

Stay organized

This is KEY. Organization is the difference between having a great, insightful and rich learning experience and a painful, stressful, guilt-ridden and useless waste of time. Organization has to come from the beginning.

Plan ahead. Exactly which time during the week can you dedicate exclusively for the course? Treat it as if it were a real class and if you didn’t assist your teacher would yell at you in front of 200 students. You cannot miss the class. Obviously you might have to change schedule sometimes, since you cannot predict what life can throw at you to mess with your agenda, but be smart about adjustments.

Also, do your assignments. No one likes homework, but it helps the teacher ingrain information in your brain more effectively.  

Apps such as iProcrastination, Evernote, Google Calendar will do fine. Or if not, you can use this thing called agenda, writing with an actual pen.

Don’t go for just “cool” courses

Yes, I want to take “Religion and Hip Hop Culture” as well, but I am certain that it will not help me open a social business that deals with immigrant societies. While that is an extreme example, to stay focused on your topic is just as important as it is hard. You will see seas of interesting courses, but resist temptation until you find something really useful.

Useful courses such as “Social Entrepreneurship” taught by University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), or “Essentials for Entrepreneurship: Thinking & Action” are good places to start looking.


There are two moments that you should research. First, before enrolling in the course. Look up the teacher, what they have done, and if they have written articles. If they have, and if you can access them, read them. This is just to give you a sense on the person that is giving you knowledge and you can make a better decision. Teachers with practical experience sometimes can add valuable insight to courses, so keep an eye on them.

The second time you should research is during the course itself. Try to look for concepts that you learn in class and see if they apply to anything local, from your country or town. This is especially important because courses can be quite conceptual and bringing them down to a relatable level will be useful to understand your own reality.  

For example, if you saw that the teachers of UPenn’s “Social Entrepreneurship” course was taught by some Ian Macmillan, James D. Thompson and Peter Frumkin, you would not care very much. But if you knew that Macmillan and Thompson authored a successful social entrepreneurship book and Frumkin was specialised in philanthropy, it would be a different kind of vision.           

Don’t go for too much

Pace yourself; don’t be a glutton. If you want to enroll in 10 courses, go ahead; just remember you have a life outside of those courses (school, work, personal life, etc.) which means that you will not learn as effectively if you get into so many learning experiences at once. Remember, the most important thing is to apply your knowledge in the social enterprise, so you need time for actually running the enterprise. Be patient and go for the most important ones you want to learn.


Find courses for finance

As social entrepreneurs we tend to go for courses such as “Development Economics: Poverty Reduction Strategies” or “Water Scarcity”, because those are the social woes that hurt the world we want address. However, basic finance is crucial, not only to start your own enterprise, but for life. Basic financing skills can bring you ahead from the curve from many socially driven enterprises. Coursera courses like “Introduction to Finance”, or “Introduction to Financial Accounting” are great options to start with.

Business management skills are key (obviously)

Leadership, business strategy, innovation and marketing are all skills that business managers should have. Social enterprises are still businesses with the primary purpose of improving society. As a business, they still require basic skills that any social entrepreneur should have. There are great business courses out there that can help you out. Remember to land the theoretical framework of the courses to more practical applications with any challenges you face on the real world, so take what is needed.  

The courses “Marketing for Non-Marketers”  and Entrepreneurship 101: Who is my Costumer? are great courses to get started.

*BONUS: Look in the mirror and repeatedly shout to yourself that you can do it, even if the neighbours hate you for it.

Or just a post-it in your mirror will do.

Keep Calm and Carry On