Introducing Sue Li, Instructional and Curriculum Designer at CareerFoundry. Sue’s extensive background in K-12 education and project-based learning made her the perfect fit for the Berlin-based educational platform where she works on the design of the curriculum for CareerFoundry’s online courses in Web Development and UX Design. We talk to Sue about CareerFoundry's commitment to keeping students motivated throughout their courses, strengthening the feedback loop between students and mentors, and what it takes to achieve strong outcomes with CareerFoundry.
Tell us about your background and your experience in the education space.
My journey in education started with Teach for America, where I was a journalism teacher and taught project-based, digital production with my students; we took photos, created layouts, and produced the annual yearbook. I think that inspired me moving forward to continue with technology and education. It’s important for people to have these skills at a young age and have exposure to technology.
After Teach for America, I taught in China in a high school, also doing project-based learning with digital photography. After that I came to Berlin and got really interested in entrepreneurship, where I learned more about technology and the startup scene.
During my time in graduate school working towards my Masters in Education, I interned in the digital department of WGBH, a public broadcasting station, that produces PBS Kids, an interactive website for kids. We produced games, animations, and projects for kids and their parents to learn together. That’s how I got exposed to this space and this world of “informal learning.”
After graduating, I worked at the KIPP Foundation, a nonprofit management organization for the KIPP schools in the United States, designing online materials for trainings and webinars for the KIPP community. This really opened up the doors for the potential of online learning.
Because of your background, will CareerFoundry start to get involved with K–12 coding education as well?
We’ve recently launched a new initiative with Teacher Tube to actually bring coding to teachers to strengthen their own technical skills so that they can teach coding or some type of media or digital literacy to their students.
What is your position at CareerFoundry?
I’m an Instructional and Curriculum Designer. As an instructional designer, I think about the overall learning experience, the user experience design from the student perspective, and the actual learning platforms. In my role as a curriculum designer, I analyze and improve the lesson content, identify gaps in skill or knowledge, and help define standards for proficiency.
How do you improve the User Experience for CareerFoundry?
For example, at our last meeting we talked about what we want students to do and feel when they come to our dashboard. We’re trying to implement more project-based learning and making the connection between the individual exercises to the overall project a lot stronger. We’re designing ways to encourage students to come back and work on the projects. Another focus is our connection to the mentors so students always feel supported and designing a learning community.
What was particularly convincing to you about CareerFoundry and the bootcamp model?
At CareerFoundry, we have students from all over the world, from the U.S. and from Europe and that’s what I think is really cool about it. You can have learning communities in different places and everyone can connect. As long as you have internet access, you have all these resources.
We’re seeing that for students who attend universities that have begun using open education resources, the value of their education is not just in the content (which is now free) but in the active collaboration and with their peers and mentors. Universities such as the Stanford Medical School are experimenting with a flipped classroom model where students review their lesson content at home and come into class to work with one another.
I think the cool thing with technology is that you don’t need a classroom that’s in four walls anymore; education is everywhere. It’s one of these skills that can be employed anywhere. The barriers are coming down. The high-schooler that learns to code could have the same job as a 30-year old.
How is the curriculum for the Web Design and Web Development courses designed at CareerFoundry?
Something I’ve been working on to improve the learning experience is making sure that we backward-design the courses, starting with the outcomes we want students to achieve. We want to make sure there’s a strong scaffold for students as they go through the course so that the learning goes from just the exchange of information to actual creation.
As one piece of the backward-design process, we look at actual interview questions for Junior Front-End Developers and make sure that we’re hitting all of those points so we prepare students for interviews after they graduate. Because the whole purpose of the course is for them to build portfolio pieces that make them job ready.
How often does CareerFoundry change the curriculum?
All the time. If we find a great resource or a piece missing, we’ll put that immediately into the course. We try to update it as often as possible.
We’ve also formally revamped the whole course several times since we launched. I work with our back-end developer and front-end developer to do this. It’s a team effort. I collaborate with subject matter experts (SMEs) to define the learning goals and and work with developers to make sure that the content and the pieces fall into the right places.
Do CareerFoundry courses prepare students to get jobs afterwards?
Our platform is outcome-based. The skills you are learning are skills that any junior full-stack developer learns. We teach the modern plugins, Bootstrap, Ruby on Rails including some common gems. What we teach is not only the programming language but the framework for how the browser and the tools work.
Another thing that we’re trying to emphasize a lot is troubleshooting skills. Programmers spend a lot of time debugging so we’re trying to build that into the curriculum so students become more self-sufficient and able to solve more problems on their own.
How many hours per week should a student spend on CareerFoundry?
People do come in the course with different goals and different time commitments. If someone is coming in with the expectation that they’ll spend a couple hours a week on CareerFoundry, their outcomes are going to be different than someone who’s able to come in and dedicate themselves for 20 - 30 hours, which we recommend. It’s not possible for everyone but we recommend a time frame: 3-6 months for about 20-30 hours. What you get out of the course depends on what you put into it.
Can somebody learn things that are not in the curriculum with their mentor?
Absolutely. Actually, that’s something that we encourage. We have a lot of resources; links to other sites and blogs in our course. That’s because we believe that this is part of the practice of being a web developer. When you’re a web developer, you’re going to Google bugs you don’t understand; you’re going to look on Github.
Part of being a web developer also includes involvement in the development community and being able to look at outside resources and even contribute to them. The value we add is not just the platform but also the mentors. We have a structure that we try to guide the students through but there are other great resources out there and we encourage students to look at them.
How do you evaluate your graduates?
As a best practice in project-based learning, we use rubrics to evaluate students’ portfolio projects and have broken down rubrics to address each task within the larger project. Our rubric assessments are composed of formative and summative evaluation.
Formative evaluation is designed to help students and mentors review and revise their work. We have these rubrics for each exercise to help guide the student through the whole unit. At the end of every unit there’s an Achievement, which is like a badge they can unlock if they demonstrate proficiency on the larger project component. The summative evaluation is the final project itself.
The three levels on the rubric are In Progress, Proficient, and Professional. In Progress means the student has attempted the exercise but might be missing some knowledge or skills. Proficiency means they got the learning goals of the lesson. The professional level means that they understand the skills, the concepts of that lesson, plus they’ve put time and effort and thought about style, design, best practices, content, typos, etc.
That type of understanding of where you are in your progress may help differentiate the student that wants to do freelance and the student that graduates and wants a full-time job. We try to differentiate for all those different types of learners and their course and professional goals. We’re still in the process of refining these rubrics and how to incorporate these into the user experience.
I don’t think you should get a grade because this isn’t like traditional school. That’s something that I have grappled with - do we give points or grades? If you’re doing a formative evaluation throughout the program, there shouldn’t be any surprises when you get to the end.
What challenges have you noticed about working in the online education space (as opposed to in-person)?
I think it’s really difficult to get feedback sometimes from mentors and from our students because they’re physically far away in different time zones. We have a great mentor advisor here, Blake; he’s great at working with the mentors from different countries, and Annie, our student advisor works directly giving support and advice to students as and when they need it.
We read all the emails from students and all the comments, so whenever something comes up we try to improve it or address it immediately. I think that is one challenge; not being able to get immediate feedback as we would like from the students and mentors.
Another challenge with online learning is potentially a lack of motivation. These are difficult skills and students have to commit to it for 3-6 months. It’s different at an in-person bootcamp where you go to a physical space every day. We try to address it as much as possible with our mentors.
How do you keep students motivated throughout an online course?
One way to do that is to support the mentors more and that’s the next step in the process: creating more resources for the mentors, making sure mentors are really clear about what the students need to know in every lesson. I think the more the mentor is supported, the easier it is for them to review student work and identify gaps in their understanding, the better experience it’s going to be for the students. It creates accountability and predictability.
We’re also working on the feedback loops between students and mentors.
It’s great that there is focus on supporting mentors!
Mentors are experts in their fields, but they also need to know how to explain concepts to someone. A lot of times the programming language that mentors learned at first was not HTML, CSS or Ruby on Rails; maybe it was PHP, maybe it was C or Java, so they’re coming into this language already with a lot of programming concepts versus someone that’s coming in and looking at Ruby on Rails for the first time.
So what we’re trying to do is establish some of the core concepts for programming in general; what are methods, objects, variables etc.
Another way to think about it is that knowledge is like a tree. The core concepts or fundamental understanding of a discipline is the "trunk.” The specific, discrete skills, knowledge, and vocabulary are like the "leaves."
Are you doing the web development course yourself right now?
Yeah, I had to learn it as quickly as possible and then try to really reflect on my own learning experience and think of the gaps in what I learned and how I could learn more. I look at a lot of different resources: books, documentation, blogs, Code Academy, Code School, Treehouse and other curricula then put together bits and pieces to try to understand what I should be learning and try to figure out what is it that I need to know to know a subject really well.
Is there anything that you want to add about CareerFoundry?
One thing that I should mention is that CareerFoundry is a great working environment - it’s a team-based structure. I work with an amazing front-end developer, and an amazing back-end developer. There’s a culture here where we work together and collaborate- I think everyone is on the same page and our mission is to improve the product and the student experience.
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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