Flatiron School has made a reputation for itself as one of the earliest and most transparent programming immersives. Despite that, the company decided not to expand its adult programs outside of New York for years — until now. Adam Enbar, co-founder and president of Flatiron School, took some time to share the company’s new online platform Learn, which comes with a job offer guarantee for all accepted students. Read on about the direction online learning is taking, the most important component of a successful immersive, and what sets Learn apart from its competitors.
What have you been up to the last few months?
For the past six months I’ve been working with our high school program, which has been phenomenal but logistically intense. Avi and I actually taught our first high school class in 2013 just for fun when we had no employees and it was just us. We ran a program for high school students for the summer in partnership with Skillcrush.
The next summer in 2014, we had 150 students and they loved it. So this past summer, we decided to grow it out a little bit and the demand was so crazy that we ended up going to 13 cities in 10 states, teaching hundreds of students. It is so fun, but it’s chaos. We trained 45 teachers and the stats on them were incredible. Half of them had no background in programming, half were women, half were minorities, over half of them from Title 1 schools (Title 1 schools are designated as underserved, 75% of children received free or reduced lunch).
Thinking about computer science in K-12, there’s no precedent, so everything is looked at with fresh eyes. It’s a really interesting and amazing opportunity but it has to be navigated carefully, because whatever gets implemented will have legacy and that can be very hard to change in a dramatic way later.
Are you thinking about online education as a way to expand without losing quality? Why not open new brick and mortar locations?
We’ve always wanted to expand access to our program — but not at the expense of quality.
If you look at the fellowship program that we do, it’s amazing. It’s 18 to 26-year olds, no college degree. Actually, the most recent class averaged $100 higher on their average salary. And they have jobs at places like Goldman and Sachs, MasterCard, Foursquare and Kickstarter! We just launched a new iteration of the program program with NYC called the Mobile Dev Corps that’s giving free tuition to our iOS program.
Brick and mortar is expensive. Rather than invest in new locations and collect more tuition, we’ve focused on investing in technology and curriculum that will serve our students.
Why did you create Learn-Verified?
At the Flatiron School immersive program, we don’t let students leave until they’re successful. We’re transparent about our outcomes. And when we think about expanding access, we want to enable more people to get these outcomes without the costs and infrastructure of a brick and mortar location.
I think online education has failed us in a major way. At Flatiron School, we want everything we do to have a real, measurable impact on somebody’s life. In the immersives, these programs get people jobs. Learn follows the same philosophy. If you want to dip your toe in the water and level up a little bit, Learn isn’t right for you. Learn is for people who want to change their lives.
What’s the process for getting accepted into Learn?
In order to apply, you have to go through 30 hours of free coursework. We want to know that you’re serious, that you can do the work, and that you enjoy it.
I don’t think there is a product online today that is successfully focused on career change. At Flatiron School, we want every single person to not just learn, but to qualify for a job. We have the same exact expectations of online students as we have of our immersive students.
Are the Learn and Flatiron School application processes the same?
The standards are the same, but the application is a little bit different because they’re doing work before the application, so we can actually see their code on GitHub.
Are there students enrolled in Learn-Verified right now?
Actually, I’m shocked because we only launched on Thursday and some people completed the qualifying track in 24 hours! Hundreds of people have already started the free course, but we’re being deliberate about admitting people into the Verified program. Community is incredibly important to us so we still want to get to know all the students personally.
For someone who is familiar with Thinkful or Codecademy or even Hack Reactor Remote, how does Learn compare to those online options?
I think they’re all incredibly different. Codecademy is great for beginners — it’s where most of our students started their journey. They’ve even hired from Flatiron School. Hack Reactor Remote is essentially an immersive; you’re just in a different room. Thinkful is great, but hasn’t been focused on outcomes.
Learn is designed to open access by allowing people to go through the program at their own pace, while maintaining our incredibly high bar for outcomes, and at a dramatically lower cost than the immersive program.
I think different styles of education serve a different purpose. All of these things need to exist in a spectrum.
What makes Learn different from some of the other online education platforms?
We’ve spent three years teaching people and understanding what it is that makes people successful. We’ve been using the Learn platform for the last year internally. There are three things that we think are missing from online education today that are necessary for outcomes, and we’ve built those things into the platform.
The first thing that makes Learn different is using real tools. What do you get when you finish an online course today? A badge or a certificate after completing multiple choice questions. In order to complete Learn assignments, you have to use your terminal, GitHub, and a text editor. An employer that’s looking at a Learn student’s profile doesn’t see badges, they see code, various projects, and the student’s approach to an assignment.
The second thing is open source curriculum. In order for education to be effective at scale, it has to be open. We’re getting dozens of edits a day to our curriculum, so it’s constantly improving based on feedback from the community — whether it’s adding new material, changing parts completely, or even fixing typos.
Finally, there’s community. The Learn platform is built with community at its core. People don’t learn from videos, lectures, or textbooks. They learn from each other. Learn empowers people to come together in real time.
When we think about the hundreds of coding bootcamps today, is it the curriculum that sets bootcamps apart from each other?
No. The curriculum is not the driving factor. Walk into Barnes & Noble, go to the programming section, and there are 50 different curriculum options to choose from. It’s the people. Learning doesn’t happen from content. Learning happens when you connect people around content.
We thought a lot about the structure of Learn before launching. We looked at several different models — should we match students with a mentor once a week? Have group lectures? Nothing seemed right because students had the same complaint: “I had an awesome session with my mentor on Wednesday, but now I have a question and it's Friday. I have to wait until next Wednesday.” If you have a question that drives you nuts for two hours, why should you wait a week?
The entire community on Learn is built to answer questions in real time. A question is tied to a specific lab, so only students that have completed it will see this question, as well as instructors. When you ask a question, you can set up a screen share on this specific topic and up to 10 people can join.
Can you pair with other students?
Yes, you can all screen share. I can see an activity feed of who’s doing what. We also have a Slack channel that ends up being a lot more social. The point is, it’s designed to make you feel that you’re not alone.
I think one of the challenges with online platforms is that they have to make it easy. They don’t want you to get stuck. Unfortunately because of that, it’s never going to get you to the level where you can get a job.
We don’t make it easy. What we do is make it easier to get through the hard stuff. We can’t make the curriculum easy, but we can make the experience of going through that and going through that struggle feel better by offering a supportive community.
So to me those are the three things that are missing from all online education today; community, real tools and open curriculum. Those are very deeply built into the Learn product. We’ve been using Learn to run our immersives here, we’ve used it to run programs at Google and at some colleges and it’s worked. We’ve had people doing this for a year in Beta who have gotten jobs already.
Are students divided into cohorts or are they all self-guided?
We’re playing with that idea, but the reality is that if you start next Monday with 40 people, a week later you might be twice as far ahead as someone else. We’re trying to be more deliberate about connecting people that are going through it at the same pace, have the same goals, and maybe even are in the same locations. That way they can form relationships and go through the program together.
What type of student is Learn for?
We have a lot of students who were considering bootcamps, but they were worried about financing. Our goal is to make this as accessible as possible. I think $1,000 per month is a huge leap forward relative to somebody who’s going to do this full-time, it changes the costs dramatically. And we’ll give students a full refund if they’re not successful!
It’s still really expensive though for most people. We put a huge amount of infrastructure behind it — instructors, placement services and coaching.
Our goal is that over time as we build that community, we can rely on students to help each other more on community, and work with employers to aid the placement processes to bring the costs down (we even have some employers consider putting Learn Verifications in their jobs listings).
Do you think that having a cost associated with Learn will help with attrition?
In online education, we see articles that say thousands of people have completed a program and hundred get jobs. That’s not something to celebrate, that’s like a 10% success rate. To me, that’s a problem. If people choose to try it and don’t like it and drop out, fine — if it’s free.
But if you’re going to pitch a course as jobs-oriented, and students devote their time (which is precious) and only 10% get a job, that’s crap. The bar is so low, it’s so sad.
I think it’s a different world once you accept people’s money. You have to be explicit on delivering on what you’re promising. We are promising a career change, and that comes with a huge amount of focus and investment to make the process successful.
When do you expect your first graduates?
We have people who have finished it in the beta and have gotten jobs already. But of the paid, verified program, we’re not sure when the first students will graduate. We will do another Flatiron Jobs Report this year.