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New Education Model

Posted by Marty Haught on Sunday, March 18, 2012

Paul Graham recently wrote about frightening ambitious startup ideas. After reading this I was struck by #3 Replacing Universities. I’ve long wondered how the cost of 4-6 years at a university studying computer science compares to the benefit. I’m pretty sure there’s a better way to teach people to program for considerably less. So given the topic my mind went to work envisioning what would be ideal and here’s what I came up with.

First, you’d want to tune the education so that you really teach things that matter. Second, I would want most of the instructors to be industry veterans that know what it’s like to be out there. Though I would still see place for academics I think most of the program should be pragmatic and prepare students for the likely challenges they’ll face. I would also focus on doing quarter system. This is where you just sign up for a 3 month block of classes. You could just do a single quarter or 2 years worth. I’m not certain about degrees initially although I suspect you’d want to offer that. I’d personally avoid that in the beginning but it would make sense to look at that further down the road. You could tailor the program and classes to include core subjects as well as many interesting electives that relate in some way to their field — such as AI, graph theory, security and distributed systems just to name a few. I would start off focusing on web programming and design, but there’s no reason management, accounting, sales, marketing and other core business topics shouldn’t also be taught. Think of it as eventually teaching all aspects of what technology businesses would need.

Imagine how cool it would be if some position at a tech company only need 6 months of focused training followed by 6 months of field work. All of this could be accomplished at this school. Thus companies could send potential hires to the school and a year later they’d have their employee ready to go.

You’d want to make the education affordable and reasonable. With a smaller institution the overhead costs would be lower and thus you could easily come under what universities charge. However, I think you can go even further by making the institution multi-facted. I would pair a consulting business and incubator with the school. I see the interplay between these three as significant.

The consulting side would give the company a solid line of revenue. It would offset some of the overhead the school would incur. Second, it would give instructors direct access to what’s happening out there now. I would see the chance for instructors to rotate into consulting to sharpen skills and keep them current while others rotate into classroom duties. Furthermore, students could have sessions with the consulting arm as they go through their classes. Imagine your lab time not always being pointless exercises but work on real projects with experienced devs.

The incubator side would give the company some long range capital in the form of equity for access to the incubator program. The consulting arm could assist entrepreneurs when needed as well as let the incubator teams sharpen their skills if needed. It already fits with the education model that the entrepreneurs would have some classes just like the students. Their program would have less classroom time and more networking and launching their product.

The other piece that could be wonderful is the community aspect of all these groups mingling together in one place. I would expect they’d all feed off one another in some way and make the entire institution stronger. I would also want this open to the community at large so that local tech meetups, code retreats and other tech-related events could be held there. There could even be open classes or workshops that anyone could attend.

I also see this sort of venture functioning as a think tank on what works best in all for three sides — an organization that is constantly learning and adapting. There would also be a natural fit between the business sector and the institution to work on joint ventures for emerging technologies.

There are already things happening that are changing the way folks can get into programming. Code Academy and Hungry Academy are two that I’m aware of. We’re even getting something similar in Colorado called DaVinci Coders. These types of outfits already put into play some of the elements that I want to see. However, they don’t go as far as I’m thinking. I’d like to see something that could be that short, if that’s all you need, but could also have a deeper program that would allow students to stay longer, say 2+ years.

The cool thing about this idea is that you could start it small, just like any other startup, and scale it up. So maybe it resembles a 3 month program in the beginning but would expand over the years to something that would rival the depth of a traditional CS department.

Though I don’t have plans to start this sort of program any time soon, I am attracted to the idea. Maybe others are as well?

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