Education

Code danger: Crackdown of California hacker bootcamps is no good for students

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This is a guest post by education research fellow Michelle R. Weise 

I’ve always wished I knew I how to code. Thankfully, today, the opportunities to learn how abound through various online providers — many of them, free. For even more motivated learners, there are vibrant learning pathways called coding bootcamps. The premise is simple: students pay anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 and learn Ruby on Rails, HTML 5 and CSS, JavaScript, Agile Development, and other languages in an intense 9 or 12-week period. Afterwards, they’re ready to apply for developer positions at major technology companies.

In the state of California, however, something sinister is brewing. Christina Farr in a recent VentureBeat article and follow-up revealed that the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education is threatening to close down Dev Bootcamp, Hackbright Academy, Hack Reactor, App Academy, Zipfian Academy, and other bootcamps for non-compliance (BPPE is the regulator that oversees academic and vocational postsecondary programs in the state).

Now, admittedly, these bootcamps are not cheap. Hack Reactor, for example, charges $17,000 for the program, but graduates of the program — 99 percent of them — are offered jobs at companies like Adobe and Google where the average salary is over six figures, easily covering the not-so-inexpensive cost of tuition. Of course, the question is worth asking what students do with the tuition payments if they drop out of the program, and this is certainly BPPE’s concern when it comes to consumer safety and fraud prevention.

Part of the fuss about compliance, however, also revolves around BPPE’s strictures that demand a static curriculum and instructors with at least three years of teaching experience. When it comes to coding bootcamps, however, these learning providers are helping people skill up for an evolving labor market in the tech industry and therefore, the curriculum may not necessarily remain the same from week to week. In fact, what makes these programs attractive to both students and employers is that they are nimble and adaptive to rapid changes in technology.

Moreover, these bootcamps make it a point to recruit real industry leaders to teach their students. What is prized in one context — direct industry experience — does not necessarily align with the way in which more traditional programs value teaching experience and credentials.

The timing of this regulatory enforcement is particularly ironic, as formal comments in the education sector have been submitted in reaction to President Obama’s proposed college rating system. All sides rejecting the idea of identifying performance metrics and quantifying student outcomes. No big surprise, but because institutional quality is rarely tied to specific student-learning outcomes, we continue to rely on regulators and agencies like the BPPE or national and regional accreditors to oversee our postsecondary system of education.

Yet, here we have an agency, presumably an arbiter of institutional quality, trying to shut down learning providers with truly impressive success rates and tangible learning outcomes such as job attainment. Indeed, regardless of the fact that these bootcamps have only been around for a few years, it is doubtful that traditional institutions or ones in compliance with BPPE could boast similarly high placement rates for their graduates in jobs directly related to their fields of study.

The battle between regulators and innovators is not at all new. Disruptive innovations tend to reside in this uneasy space and find their footholds by circumventing existing regulations. This is because regulations most often sustain the status quo, and in the case of higher education, licensure boards or accrediting agencies are incentivized to uphold incumbent institutions rather than usher in new models that could threaten more entrenched and established colleges and universities.

Disruptive innovations are not inherently good or bad, but in this particular case, it is regrettable that our outdated mechanisms of quality control will likely abrogate a dynamic and cost-effective workforce solution. Such stalemates between regulators and private or for-profit enterprises are bad for the people who matter the most: the students. Coding bootcamps offer viable and proven pathways to employment. For all of our talk about unemployment and jobs, BPPE is cracking down on innovative solutions that empower citizens in the community to have a fighting chance at high-skills, high-wage opportunities in our state.

head 2Dr. Michelle R. Weise is a Senior Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute studying the theory of disruptive innovation and its unique ability to clarify the changing academic terrain in higher education. Her work focuses on competency-based learning, student-learning outcomes, workforce solutions, and public-private partnerships.

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