Growth of Coding Schools

David Hoffmeister, wrote a relatively objective piece on the proliferation of coding schools. The driving question of the article is how should higher education institutes react to these new and growing coding bootcamp academies? Having been designed curriculum and instructional for traditional high education models and now helping direct the curriculum and instructional model of Mobile Makers Academy, I can only have one answer: celebrate them.

Education isn’t The Highlander – there can be more than one [model]. Deep, meaningful learning doesn’t occur only in a classroom – it’s happening everywhere, across a life-time. A new mother doesn’t retreat to a classroom to figure out how to soothe her crying baby: she relies on learning from other mothers (mentors), support groups (peer learning), online blogs (self-directed learning), and her doctor (expert practioners). I encourage all higher education institutes to reflect: are you so ready to say, definitively, that people can learn only in your model? Are you really ready to look a plumber, who went through the local union’s apprentice program – which typically lasts 4 – 5 years with formal training – that her time spent doesn’t count as learning?

This isn’t about a new and radical form of education emerging, it’s about society embracing diversity of learning – in this case, training. The growth of these academies means that there are more and different opportunities for people to grow as humans and become productive citizens. If you’re against that, then I urge you to reflect upon what you believe education is.

Here’s a few myths of these academies debunked:

People aren’t getting a quality education

The educational model is apprenticeship-based, often rooted in constructivist and collaborative learning – which mimics the life-long learning that occurs within the field of software development. Gina Trapani, a programmer, says that “Good coders are a special breed of persistent problem-solvers who are addicted to the small victories that come along a long path of trial and error.” Thus, when students leave these academies, they are not only competent in the skills but also they have the know-how to be successful as a life-long learner in their field.

The model is structured around students practicing the trade, mastering the tools, and learning the theory as they go. This works in the field of software engineering because right now, it’s a vocation. The model is perfect for the need of that trade.

People aren’t getting a thorough, well-rounded education (aka the liberal arts and cultural literacy that comes with a four year degree)

We all want our citizens to be well-rounded, thoughtful humans. But I will ask: does this only happen in a four year degree? If you believe it does, what does this say about the role of art museums and cultural centers? If “culture” is only taught in a classroom, then why do such museums and cultural centers exist? I really encourage all of us in education to think about reconstructing our assumptions and see the integration of learning in the day-to-day as a victory of our field and as a way to explore new ways to teach “liberal arts”.

This model of education is a fad

This model has proven itself in the United States since the mid 1600’s. So…

The companies teach only those who can demonstrate a propensity to coding

Yes. That’s the whole point: find people who can learn the skills, who want to learn the skills, and then teach them those skills. With the demand for developers so high, the options – as a marketplace – are either to train current populations in these skill sets or to outsource. The academies focus on identifying those who want to become developers and who can become developers to build out the workforce that’s needed.

So, returning to the question: how should higher education institutes react these new and growing coding bootcamp academies? The workforce needs workers and traditional education isn’t providing them. So, the field hacked the system by adopting a tried-and-true method to the new needs of today. We should celebrate the fact that the field of education is growing to meet the needs of this society. We – as educators – can’t grow without diversity of models and changing demands. Without them, we would stagnate. So I say, cheers. Welcome to the field.

Moral of the Story: Education is a life-long, life-deep, and life-wide affair that we have with ourselves. We cannot possibly assume that all critical forms of education can fit in the box of a classroom, bootcamp, workshop, or book. We must embrace and embody the mindset that learning is ever-present, and comes in many forms.

Blending Industry & Education

Back in the Industrial Revolution, workers were hired into a shop, learned the technical skill sets needed on the job, and worked – all at the same time. Many scholars are calling the time we’re in the Information Age, and the need for skilled workers to do things like write and edit code is akin to the sudden need the Industrial Revolution had for skilled workers. Although we’ve gotten better about working conditions, child labor laws, and other such things, we haven’t seemed to figure out that maybe we’re back to the need of apprenticeship in our culture.
James E. Zull, a Professor of Biology, Biochemistry, and Cognitive Science at Cast Western Reserve University, points out that we have an unneeded wall between education and the workplace. He argues that in order to really teach the needed skills of the world, students need to be exposed to specialists while in the field:

[Students] need models…If this were so, schools would be viewed as ‘boundary-free.’ They would be less of a place and more a range of opportunities. The entire community should be available for discovering what experts actually do, what they care about, and how they work and learn. Apprenticeships and co-op activities might be the norm rather than the exception.  ~ From brain to mind; Using neuroscience to guide change in education. (2011). pp 43-44.

Not every skill can be learned on the job and there is definitely a place for college-based education, but there is a loud cry for people to execute work that doesn’t require a 4 year degree. For example, the number of software developers  needed in the field is expected to grow 22% between now and 2022, which is about 14% faster than the average job growth (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013), and more and more companies are hiring based on the programming experience over the weight of the degree. It’s why so many new avenues to learning code have cropped up. Just see Code Academy, Dev Boot camp, and Mobile Makers. People have figured out how to gain the training needed outside the price tag of a 4 year degree.

The information industry is hungry for workers, and I think apprenticeships are necessary in some of these fields. However, I think three things need to happen in order for us, as a society, to meet this demand:

  1. A separation between tactical skills and strategic competencies needs to be established in the educational structure. Many colleges and universities are struggling because they often teach theory and high-level strategy skill sets for an industry that may really need builders. If everyone’s a manager, who’s actually building the product?
  2. Additionally, we need to let go of the belief that a full-time 4 year degree education is the necessary step after high school. Why do the theory and managerial skills have to come directly after high school? Why can’t someone work in a field and then go back to gain the theory and managerial skills when s/he is ready to move into that role? The better approach would to get our young citizens working, and integrate education into the right times of their careers. If we preach life-long learners, we need to accept that education occurs at injected points throughout life, not lumped together into isolated years after high school.
  3. Students need to be willing to start as executors, and we need to celebrate those values. Many people dream of leadership roles, but that doesn’t mean everyone should start as a manager.  There is much to be celebrated as one who executes the work and builds the product; we as a society should celebrate those values again. Not everyone can or wants to be a leader, and that’s okay.

For industries that need workers and executors, a suggested path would be:

  • Student graduates high school and becomes an apprentice.
  • Apprentice simultaneously learns and works on the job. Direct, tactical skills to build or execute. Grows to become strong worker and moves up the ranks.
  • When worker is ready – or when company deems it – worker integrates theory and strategic competency education (usually via part-time degree program) to either increase skill set, get promotion, or is just generally ready/curious.

Regardless, the separation between education and industry needs to be re-evaluated – as there are many fields in which the 4 year full-time degree programs are not providing the industry with the needed workers. We need a new path to get students what they need and the industry the workers.