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Inspiring Imagination and Innovation: Coding Bootcamps in the Postsecondary Environment

The EvoLLLution | Inspiring Imagination and Innovation: Coding Bootcamps in the Postsecondary Environment
Far from being a threat, bootcamps have been highly effective in helping higher education leaders understand that there are alternative and valid ways for students to get their education.

Innovation and imagination are equally important for higher education leaders today. The traditional models are slowly being recognized as outdated and students are demanding more: more variety, more service, more relevance, more opportunity. Enter coding bootcamps, which have promised students pathways into a lucrative hiring market by learning skills in an immersion-style format. While some in higher education look at these offerings as somehow separate, other leaders see them as an example of the breadth of demand in the market. In this interview, Jean Floten reflects on the value coding bootcamps bring to the table and shares her thoughts on whether higher education leaders should consider coding bootcamps, and other alternative education providers, a threat.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why have coding bootcamps become so popular in recent years?

Jean Floten (JF): Fast-paced and accelerated, coding bootcamps provide students a jump-start into the high-demand and growing field of software development. Students learn to write code, build professional-grade applications, and become job-ready in a fraction of the time it generally takes with traditional programs. Many students see such camps as a fast track to high-paying coding jobs.

Coding bootcamps have become very popular in recent years. According to the July 2016 edition of Course Report, in the four years since their inception, coding bootcamps are now in more than 69 cities throughout the US and Canada and predicted to graduate a whopping 18,000 students and gross $200 million in tuition revenue this year.

Generally, coding bootcamps have the following characteristics:

  • They run an average of about 10 weeks and cost about $10K.
  • Their format is “total immersion “which accelerates learning.
  • They teach the popular frameworks, tools and coding languages that are most in demand and directly relevant to current market needs.
  • Students develop web-based applications and graduate with a work portfolio that is helpful with their job search.
  • Affiliated with the employment community, most bootcamps offer internships and/or job placement services.
  • Course Report’s research indicates that 89 percent of students leaving bootcamps “report being employed in programming jobs within 120 days of graduation.”
  • According to LifeHacker, the average salary of a bootcamp graduate is somewhere between $85,000 and $95,000.

Coding camps attract a variety of learners—from beginners looking for a fast-track to employment in high-demand, tech jobs, to entrepreneurs needing coding expertise to bring a product to market, to incumbent tech workers wanting to learn new skills. In effect, they offer quick job preparation in a high-demand field that pays high wages, which makes them an attractive option for students.

Evo: To your mind, what are some of the key differentiators that are helping coding bootcamps stand out against other labor market-directed programs?

JF: The primary choices for learning to write code include degree and certificate programs or self-teaching. Choosing the right one means that students need to understand what they want to accomplish, how these options differ from each other, and which ones will help them meet their goals.

The most challenging of the choices is self-teaching due to what the literature has called “unconscious incompetence,” which is when the individual is doing something wrong and doesn’t know it. One of the instructor-guided pathways would be preferable.

Whether to pursue a degree or take the faster track with a bootcamp is the choice most students need to make. Alexandria Williams’ excellent blog, Coding Bootcamp versus College covers the criteria for making a “right” decision. Her primary differentiators are cost, ROI, time commitment, curriculum, career outlook and alternatives—many of which were covered above.

The learner needs to be very clear about what she or he wishes to accomplish, both in the short and long terms.

Coding camps develop skills that are immediately translatable in the workplace. They may be great pathway to become a professional coder. Because they are focused on teaching what is current in coding language, formats and tools, knowledge gained may have a short shelf life as products change.

However, on the other end of the spectrum, degree programs build foundational knowledge and algorithmic understanding that may be scaled and adapted as technologies change. The focus is on how things work which fosters critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to adapt in the field. Coding camps, in contrast, focus on learning a set of current tools.

While there are certainly points of difference between camps and more traditional education, both are excellent pathways and not mutually exclusive. The key question for students is what knowledge is needed to achieve desired outcomes. The answer may lead them to more than one pathway during the course of their career.

As Williams concludes in her article comparing coding bootcamps to college, “Career decisions are never final and regardless of whether you choose a coding bootcamp or a computer science degree, it’s never too late to go back and learn one or the other.”

Evo: What are some of the competitive advantages that competency-based education providers have over bootcamps?

JF: Competency-based learning is a method of delivering education and, in truth, any curriculum may be transformed into a competency-based format. It requires defining what a student needs to know and be able to do, providing content, and then assessment testing to validate that the student is proficient at the required level. The learner progresses only when they’ve demonstrated mastery.

So how is this different than traditional grading? Consider the student who receives a C. Is the student average in all the areas that were taught or brilliant in some and a not good in others? If a building contractor got As in everything but failed Foundations and graduated with a B average, would you hire that person? Sometimes letter grades are not very descriptive of what the student has accomplished. An A or an F might be, but everything in between isn’t.

With competency-based learning, students don’t advance in their studies until they have demonstrated they have learned what is required at an appropriate level. At WGU, the C student and the contractor would not have progressed until they had mastered all of the content in their course or program.

Like university or college programs, bootcamps may be competency-based or traditional. Competency-based learning is a method of curriculum organization, content delivery and its assessment.

Coding bootcamps are experientially based. Students apply the knowledge they have gained. “Capstone projects” are web-based applications they have developed, the quality and functionality of which may be measured. Students demonstrate competency by applying the knowledge and skills gained. Students aren’t only moving through content and passing written tests, they are also demonstrating they can use the knowledge. This is competency-based education.

If one looks at the competency-based learning model used by WGU, students learn competencies defined by industry experts. They are presented content in these areas to learn and, as well, are required to apply general education skills, such as critical thinking, communication and reasoning. They are assessed and progress from one competency to the next when they have demonstrated mastery at the level required. Once WGU students have completed programming or software development degrees, they have learned how to program and developed foundational skills that enable them to continue to learn and adapt to changes within the workplace.

Evo: Should competency-based education providers be seeing these bootcamps as competitors (or even as a threat)?

JF: There is a huge supply and demand gap for individuals who are able to develop web-based applications and perform other coding functions. Industry has requested more qualified candidates from colleges and universities for many years, which have not been able to meet the demand. All available educational pathways are needed to help fill the gap between supply and demand. Programs like coding bootcamps bring a new alternative pathway that is providing a crucial service to employers as well as to students who are securing jobs.

Coding bootcamps focus on what is current and develop people who can code effectively for immediate use or employment. Students who complete a degree program, on the average, have more career options and a better income trajectory. Bootcamps assist in the short term by providing accelerated pathways to jobs; degrees help long term for advancement.

Bootcamps are beneficial in ways other than helping students to prepare for a job quickly and providing industry the skilled people they need. One of these is has been their role in helping higher education to clarify the taxonomy of coding jobs and level of education required. Programs that teach coding are not all alike. There is a wide array of job positions that use code. Although people use terms like coders, programmers, and developers interchangeably, they aren’t. Each defines different work and requires different preparation. Since the programs are different and serve different markets, it is incumbent for all providers—degree-granting institutions and bootcamp operators alike—to assist students to make wise choices. This means greater precision in use of terms and descriptions of the academic preparation that is required for each job type. Understanding what preparation is required becomes important for students as they evaluate their best options.

Speaking as a person who works for a university that was termed by Clayton Christiansen as “a disruptive innovator in higher education,” I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that innovations like the accelerated bootcamp serve another critical role. Namely, they help us in higher education evaluate our assumptions about how education should be delivered. Creativity, some believe, is bringing fresh eyes to what we normally take for granted. Bootcamps have helped higher education do just that. Several leading universities are now offering specialty bootcamps for credit that may be applied toward a degree program. This invention is the very best option out there. It enables the student to get immediate employment skills and, at the same time, activates their pathway to a degree.

Studies have repeatedly shown that a person’s lifelong earning capacity increases with a degree, so this is an important option for the student. Credit programs like these will have great appeal to students who will no longer need to make a hard choice between bootcamp or degree; they can do both without duplication of time, energy or investment.

Coding bootcamps are an exciting innovation and creative solution to address a critical employment need. They have spawned further innovation and improvements in higher education, helping many refashion their own enterprises.

As American writer and political commentator Water Lippmann once commented, “When all think alike, then no one is thinking.”

New thinking is what propels improvement. Coding bootcamps have initiated such thinking.

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