How difficult is it to build the elusive idea of community into an online learning platform? We sat down with Flatiron School’s Head of Product, Mat Balez to find out how technology can actually fuel community and make learning more effective. Skip ahead to read about Mat’s thoughts on how online students can leave their mark on the Flatiron community, stand out amongst bootcamp grads, and experience the “power of connection.”
As the Head of Product working on an online coding bootcamp, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about community and interaction with other students/teachers?
If you think back to the most influential moments in your education, they almost always involve people. We make our first network of friends in school or through a significant growth experience; we remember the teachers who pushed us to go beyond our limits and the projects we worked on with our fellow classmates.
Flatiron School was one of the first coding bootcamps to open its doors back in 2012 and we’ve made it our top priority to build a supportive, inspirational, and diverse community of students. We often tell applicants: “We don’t admit a student, we admit a class.”
But what does that mean for your online program? Do you only admit students who show that they’ll be great collaborators? How do you build that community of online learners?
What we’ve always looked for in our students is passion; we want people who are passionate about learning in general and learning to code specifically. Ideal applicants don’t see programming as simply a means to an end (that is, learn a bit of code, get a cool tech job, and then stop learning). Rather, they recognize it as a craft that requires lifelong learning and they want to support fellow developers along the way on their coding journey.
Can “teaching style” exist online?
Absolutely. But it’s important to recognize that the Internet is fundamentally different as a medium for delivering education than a traditional classroom—and it’s important to be sensitive to those differences as you build an online program.
Over the past four years, the industry has seen many online bootcamps emerge—including Flatiron’s own online campus, Learn.co. Some schools mimic the experience of the classroom, offering video lectures (essentially putting a camera into a traditional classroom). Others set up daily or weekly mentor meetings. With Learn.co we’ve strived to build community into the heart of our platform.
We believe for learning to be effective, it needs to be social and hands-on. That could mean interacting one on one with an instructor over video chat or joining a student-hosted study group, as well as using real-world tools like GitHub and our own IDE (integrated development environment). Ultimately, we want to make sure students are prepared to start working as a developer on day-one of their job after Flatiron School and that they know how to continue learning. Because as a programmer, you never stop growing and honing your skills.
How do you balance the flexibility of online learning with the interaction that you get from learning in person?
As the Head of Product, my team and I set out to build a product that would account for the experience of learning in a way we’ve never seen done before online, combining all of the learnings from our successful in-person program with the powerful network effect of the Internet. We wanted to design a program that would serve any student who has ever thought online education “isn’t for me” or that they “learn better in person.”
Tell us more about Flatiron School’s online instructors and how students interact with them?
Just because someone is an amazing programmer, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be a great teacher. Our online instructors have been selected for their ability to do both—code and teach code. Students can use our Ask a Question feature to reach out to expert faculty (in addition to a community of helpful peers!) to get real-time chat support and one-on-one video support and screen sharing if needed. Most questions are answered in under a minute. For additional support, instructors will often conduct live lectures on pivotal topics.
Additionally, instructors host weekly “Thoughtful Thursdays” sessions, during which students come together in a virtual room synchronously to talk about what they're feeling, from imposter syndrome and balancing school to other life priorities that may be on their minds. Often these sessions are just the boost students need to keep pushing through toward their goal of finishing the program and becoming a professional developer.
As the Head of Product, you must have put a lot of thought into the Learn platform and the communication/collaboration tools that your students are using. Which tools did you choose (or build!) and why?
Learning to code is really hard and it’s even harder if you feel isolated and alone. That’s why we’ve weaved direct messaging into the experience, making it easy for you to reach out to other students you come across on the platform. To help you understand which fellow students are nearby, both in the curriculum or geographically, we created the concept of “Learn Neighbors”. Soon, you’ll also be able to “friend” them as you do on other social media sites and build a network of peers with whom you can stay in close contact. Friends can support and encourage each other, talk through tough concepts, and work on labs together. You can even initiate a Study Group (or join one organized by an instructor)—the platform easily lets people create a private virtual room automatically, with support for video chat and screen sharing. One of our students, Sarah, gives a great overview of what the experience is like to learn to code online at Flatiron School.
A large part of building community in an in-person bootcamp is the feedback loop between students and instructors. How can online students contribute to the evolution of Flatiron School?
We encourage all of our Learn students to share your insight and leave your mark on the community. All of our content is open-sourced on GitHub so anyone in our community can make suggestions to improve it–which means it gets better over time and is as up-to-date as possible (something that’s never been possible with classroom textbooks!). Our students have already made over 5,000 contributions to our curriculum, benefiting the whole user community.
What’s one tip for online learners who want to stand out from the pack?
Keeping a technical blog can be a great way to articulate what you’ve learned and set yourself apart among other job applicants. All of our students are required to maintain technical blogs and they’re able to see how their peers are solving challenges. To facilitate this process, we’ve built a blogging feature right into our online platform, and top posts are shared with the community via our “Learn magazine” which you can peruse just like you would on Medium.
What’s more, a blog can be a powerful portfolio piece and our students can now create a custom domain name—which helps them look extra polished to tech recruiters.
Anything else you’d like to add about the process of building community into Flatiron School’s online campus?
Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students researching coding bootcamps. Her research has been cited in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, and more. She loves breakfast tacos and spending time getting to know bootcamp alumni and founders all over the world. Check out Liz & Course Report on Twitter, Quora, and YouTube!
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