Tech start-up of the week: eBusiness Matters

26 Aug 2012

Brian Duffy (seated, centre) surrounded by his students

As head of e-learning at Ballsbridge College, Brian Duffy is very active in the area of online education and has turned his skills to teaching small business owners how to build and manage their own websites through the virtual learning environment, eBusiness Matters.

Years spent as a freelance web developer made Duffy aware that people needed more than just a website – they needed training on how to manage their website effectively and position it at the centre of all their digital marketing efforts.

As well as helping over 100 people build and manage their own website since 2011, Duffy has also taught college graduates how to work as freelance web developers. On one such course, he made an exception for 17-year-old Dale O’Shea, who, along with Dylan Varian, went on to establish Dharma Software, the first start-up to come from the CoderDojo movement.

Now, what started as a popular 10-week evening course in Ballsbridge College has developed into a fully online course, and Duffy hopes that some of the exceptional young graduates (and young entrepreneurs) from the web development course will be involved as teaching assistants.

Social e-learning

As an expert on the subject, Duffy knew what was needed to make a fully online course work. “One of the problems with e-learning before was that students were kind of isolated, disconnected,” he says. “Interaction with other students wasn’t really happening, and as a result there were drop-off rates and there was poor performance.”

To avoid these problems, eBusiness Matters operates like a virtual classroom, borrowing conventions from Facebook and Twitter so that many users instantly find familiarity and can easily get involved. “It brings out the sense that you’re in a class, and it brings out the collaborative and competitive nature of students that’s an important part of learning,” says Duffy.

“We also broadcast a live class each week,” he adds. “Students watch live on YouTube and can ask questions using instant messages.”

By building social elements into e-learning, Duffy believes eBusiness Matters has taken e-learning closer than it ever was before to the real classroom experience.

No experience required

The students in Duffy’s course come with no knowledge of digital media and leave, after three hours a week for ten weeks, with the ability to build and manage their own website.

“They start off at zero,” he says. “The first lesson is basics, how to use a web browser. There’s no coding involved, no difficulty involved.” And, because it’s e-learning, students can work when it suits them.

Designed primarily for SME owners and marketing personnel, participants are taken step-by-step through the practical exercises associated with building and running a full-scale commercial website. This involves training students in a whole range of digital skills, and technologies covered include Google Analytics, Google search, social media (including LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter), emailing software, CRM software and other web technologies used in running and managing a business online, such as PayPal, Skype and Dropbox.

The main service students learn to use, though, is WordPress, the heart and soul of the web. “This is cutting-edge software that is being used by some of the world’s biggest companies,” explains Duffy. “It powers the internet.”

A one-man job

The course has evolved a lot over time, thanks to significant effort from Duffy. “It’s been a lot of hard work putting all the material together,” he says, explaining how he puts together all of the content for the website, including over 7,000 minutes of video tutorials for almost every task involved in building a website.

“Taking this massive body of knowledge and then organising it in such a way that’s logical, that somebody can follow it from start to finish, and that is fun and is easy to use – that was the challenge,” he says.

Duffy will continue to have his work cut out for him this September when he is expecting about 100 students to start the next round of the course – the largest amount of participants so far.

Future plans

There are five colleges currently involved with eBusiness Matters, and Duffy runs everything independently. So far, he’s very happy with how the course has been accepted in Ireland, but now he is looking further afield. “I don’t think it’ll be hard for us to get more colleges to resell the course in Ireland, so we’ll be looking to get colleges overseas, but starting in Northern Ireland,” he says.

“Our relationship with VEC colleges is fantastic as they bring in the students,” he adds. “We also make money for these colleges – and we do it by filling a class without taking up a classroom.”

Right now, Duffy is focused on perfecting the course and reselling it to more colleges, and so all future plans consist of growing into a chain of courses with follow-on options for students that want more out of it.

Just getting started

Entrepreneurs are often advised to build up a good team to get started, but Duffy is happy to go it alone. “I’m doing it all by myself and so far I’ve enjoyed the challenge of being all things – of being the chief bottle-washer, and the developer, and the designer, and the teacher, and the content developer, and the salesman,” he says.

But Duffy knows his journey is not over. In fact, he’s just getting started. “This September, we’re going to find out a lot more,” he says. “We know that it can scale up and that it can handle lots of students at once, but the proof will be in the pudding in September; we’re going to find out for real.”

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic