How Online Coding Schools Are Helping To Reimagine Adult Education In Tech

When Michael Kaiser-Nyman started the coding school Epicodus in 2012, he was simply solving a problem — he had difficulty finding people with computer programming skills for a software company he had founded.

“It was nonsensical. Why did I have so much trouble hiring programmers? Why aren’t people teaching people how to code? Once I got the software company on stable footing, I turned to the education problem,” Kaiser-Nyman says.

Epicodus, which trains adults from technical and non-technical backgrounds for careers as web developers, was his answer.

Epicodus takes students from 0 to software developer in twenty-seven weeks. Training consists of 800 hours of in-person learning, 80 hours of job preparation and 150 hours of on-the-job learning through an internship. The school has two locations, Portland and Seattle.

53.4 percent of Epicodus students have verified, full-time in-field employment within six months of graduating. Web developer and junior software engineer are the most common titles. Employers range from large companies such as Living Social and Nike to small startups.

Still standing after five years, Epicodus could be considered a brick-and-mortar success story. Other in-person coding schools, however, haven’t fared as well.

The coding schools Dev Bootcamp and The Iron Yard are two such facilities that closed their doors in 2017, unable to sustain a profitable business model.

As the dust settles and questions loom about some of the challenges in-person coding programs face, another model has emerged that also aims to train students to enter the tech workforce as web developers, software engineers and data scientists.

This model doesn’t walk the runway, but has nonetheless earned its facetime. This model is the online coding bootcamp, and is helping to reimagine adult education in tech.

Here is a look at the benefits and challenges of both in-person and online programs, how online programs use tech to implement social learning, and reasons why online coding programs are a viable path for training and employment in tech.

The Benefits and Challenges of Brick-and-Mortar and Online Coding Programs

An in-person support base is one of the benefits of brick-and-mortar coding programs. Instructors are available in real-time to assist students, and peers can work with one another, building soft skills such as teamwork.

“Coding is abstract. Being able to understand what’s going on with code requires mental gymnastics. It’s challenging no matter how you’re learning, and in-person is conducive to that. You work with other people, different students who are struggling too,” Kaiser-Nyman says.

In fact, past research highlights the importance of designing online courses to purposefully include student-instructor interaction, as a lack of social interaction can be felt more acutely in the online setting, versus face-to-face.

This research has been noted in a study from Kent State University, and an article presented in the journal Internet and Higher Education.

An in-person coding program may carry an added social benefit, but it also carries an added cost as well, the cost of the physical space, says Shawn Drost, co-founder of Hack Reactor, a San Francisco-based coding school which offers both in-person and online bootcamp programs.

Challenges of having an in-person facility include anticipating the number of students, the amount of space needed and how much space to lease.

“These are difficult questions for any small business,” Kaiser-Nyman says.

Online coding programs are faced with the challenge of students accepting a non-traditional learning model. “It takes being open-minded,” says Darrell Silver, co-founder and CEO of Thinkful, an online coding bootcamp headquartered in Brooklyn.

Silver founded the primarily online Thinkful in 2012 to provide training for adults to transition into tech careers. Course tracks are geared toward careers in software engineering and data science.

Though the online program belies a traditional classroom setting, it still offers flexibility particularly for working adults who desire a low-risk method to transition into a new career. Online programs such as those of Thinkful, Flatiron School and Hack Reactor may also offer part-time options, allowing an individual to pursue training based on their availability.

“If you can’t afford to quit your job or don’t want to take on the extra risk of not knowing if you will succeed with the outcome, learning in a flexible way is the best option,” says Silver.

The Human Element of Online Learning

A number of online coding programs use technology to connect students with peers, instructors and mentors, offering the social element that an in-person learning experience engenders organically.

Flatiron School’s online bootcamp is one such program, launched in 2015 as an addition to their brick-and-mortar bootcamp.

“When we approached building online education, we didn’t want to just record and mimic our in-person experience. The thing that makes education impactful is connecting people around content,” says Rebekah Rombom, general manager of online programs for Flatiron School.

Flatiron School facilitates this connection with instructors who are available on-demand through live chat, a membership with the co-working space WeWork, and educational coaches to keep students on track with full-time, part-time or self-paced programming.

Thinkful supplements its online-only bootcamp with in-person meetups, allowing students to plug into their local communities to meet tech professionals and hiring partners. Thinkful partners with local tech organizations to produce meetups in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego, Portland and Washington, D.C.

We combine the online learning and the meetups into a coherent program, says Silver. You get the training you need, and the network you need to start a new career.

Hack Reactor’s online bootcamps also emphasize social interaction through live question and answer sessions with instructors, and paired programming exercises through video hangout, where students work together on assigned projects.

These examples illustrate how online coding programs can design programs that combine the social element with course content specific to the online platform.

Data, and the Tech Story It Tells

For those whose earnings hover close to the United States median of $31,334, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, an online coding program could create a viable path to a higher-paying tech job.

Thinkful full-time graduates report a salary increase of more than $19,000, according to its database. The school’s online program has a job placement rate of 85.7 percent with a median annual base salary of $70,000. And the results of Hack Reactor’s and Flatiron School’s online programs are comparable to those of their in-person programs.

“I personally don’t read too much into the fact,” says Shawn Drost, founder of Hack Reactor. “What I got a lot of meaning from is that we did just put the same program design online, and that it does work.”

Both the Hack Reactor remote online program and onsite program in Austin, for example, have similar job placement rates, at nearly 73 percent. Both programs also share the same courses which include computer science fundamentals, full-stack JavaScript and app design and development; interaction with peers and instructors specific to each format; and the same career services.

Additionally, Flatiron School has similar course content in both the online software engineering and brick-and-mortar software engineering programs, with a job placement rate of 94 percent and 97 percent respectively.

An online program may also provide an incentive to make paying tuition more feasible. Flatiron School, for example, offers a money-back guarantee for its online and in-person career-change programs, if students follow the Career Services Commitment and don’t secure a job within six months of graduating. The Career Services Commitment is a set of guidelines developed by Flatiron School to assist students in finding employment.

Thinkful offers the same guarantee for its full-time programs, while also providing the option for an income share agreement, also for full-time students.

In this agreement, a student pays tuition only after securing employment with a salary of at least $40,000. The graduate will pay 15 percent of their income for the first three years of employment.

Online coding programs also generally cost less than brick-and-mortar programs, according to research from the bootcamp directory Course Report. Yet variance still exists. For example, the tuition fee for Hack Reactor’s online and brick and mortar programs is about twice that of Epicodus’ in-person program. Hack Reactor’s full-time online and in-person programs each cost $17,980, and Epicodus’ full-time bootcamp costs $8,500.

These programs, online and brick-and-mortar, have the ability to serve as a conduit for career transition for those traditionally underrepresented in tech — women and minorities. Hack Reactor offers scholarships open to all students of their in-person or remote programs, with additional scholarships that specifically target women, underrepresented minorities and LGBTQ students.

In addition, Thinkful partners with companies looking to increase the number of skilled employees from underrepresented groups in tech. “We provide a scholarship for marketing and lower the tuition for students the company is trying to reach. Students also get the guarantee of a job interview or internship for jobs trying to find more diverse candidates,” says Silver.

Career services are offered by a number of online programs to assist graduates in their job search. Flatiron School provides career coaching and access to employer partners such as Cognizant and BlackRock. These partners recruit talent from the school’s online and brick-and-mortar program. Thinkful students also have access to one-on-one mentors who can answer questions and align a student’s curriculum to fit professional goals.

Online coding schools fill a niche in the coding bootcamp industry, while also establishing their own standard. Online programs provide training to those who may lack access to an in-person program, and can also provide flexibility to individuals with full-time jobs who want to make a career transition without foregoing income for an extended period of time to attend a bootcamp.

For those whose lives mirror these scenarios, online coding programs can be another pathway to a career in tech.

“Companies aren’t particularly interested in how great software engineers learned their craft. It’s simply, ‘Can this person do the job? Can this person add value to the team? Can this person learn very fast, and pick up new languages and frameworks as we iterate?’ If yes, we’ve found that companies are consistently excited to hire that person,” says Rombom.

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