Written By Lauren Stewart
New wave technology school, BrainStation launched a new full-time Remote Web Development Course in 2017 as part of a goal to empower one million people with digital skills by 2025. BrainStation Educator and professional software developer Jamie is involved in building the curriculum and figuring out how to make the online experience as successful as the on-campus experience. We asked Jamie how BrainStation helps students stay engaged and motivated, what the online learning portal looks like, and how online students find jobs when they graduate.
What’s your background and what inspired you to teach at BrainStation?
Programming is a passion of mine, and I'm lucky enough that it's also a job. I spend most of the year working as a consultant, actually writing code, so I'm very up to date with the industry. I have been teaching some form of computer science for a number of years now. Most of my time in digital education has been centered around people who are new to the topic – I started out as a TA in university working with fairly junior students.
BrainStation was a great opportunity for me to take a couple weeks out of the year to go into the classroom, and help train people to be the best that they can be. Teaching is a nice break, and as a working professional, it helps students when I can give anecdotes about what my day as a developer normally looks like. BrainStation is really flexible with me teaching part-time and full-time courses as my schedule allows.
I'm a huge advocate for digital literacy and I’m constantly talking about how important it is. I love being in class, getting to know the students, and I love the programs I teach. I've had a huge part in the development of curriculum so I look forward to coming in to BrainStation each day for both the full-time course and the part-time course. It's been a really good experience all around.
Did you know about the bootcamp model before you came across BrainStation?
The first coding bootcamp launched when I was in my first year of university. It seemed really cool at the time, but I didn’t feel the concept was developed enough for me to leave school and do it. I was originally studying Biomedical Engineering and then ended up loving programming so much that I switched. By the time bootcamps became super common, I was done with university so I missed the boat on that one. BrainStation was definitely my first experience with a coding bootcamp.
Why did BrainStation decide to launch an online full-time course? When did it launch?
BrainStation launched the Remote Web Development Course in October 2017. The biggest motivation was that we're at a point where technology has developed and allowed us to create a true online classroom environment in a fairly seamless way. A few years ago, technology was so terrible that you couldn't have sat people in a room for eight hours a day, working remotely, and make this work. The BrainStation team spent a lot of time thinking about it over the last couple years, and we're now comfortable with making the online move.
BrainStation has a goal of empowering one million people by 2025. There’s a huge limitation for that with an in person course. We're limited by our geographical area and the physical resources in the space. Building campuses in New York, Toronto, San Jose and Vancouver was not an easy thing to do.
What are the benefits to bringing the curriculum online? How is the BrainStation online course going so far?
The remote web development course has been really effective because we're now able to open BrainStation doors to people we normally wouldn't have been able to – those coming from very far away, or other countries etc. It makes that one million goal so much more attainable, while at the same time asserting our place in the market by being capable of teaching anybody, anywhere. We’ve put everything we have into this program and are now delivering cutting-edge content to students from Houston, Green Bay, Virginia Beach, Ottawa and Montreal.
BrainStation's goal of empowering one million professionals requires us to constantly develop more options and opportunities in order to meet it. We have to keep pushing for more. The online course is going very well so far and it's been a couple months without a hitch. We're really happy.
Describe the online web development curriculum. Is it the same as in-person BrainStation courses?
The online curriculum is the same as in person, but it's been adapted for the online environment. For instance, there are some things we needed to change in delivery, but not in the curriculum. The way that content is delivered to online students varies, as certain assignments are easier to facilitate in person. For example, whiteboarding is something that can be a challenge online. So we've got different methods to teach certain topics.
Should students take a prep course before the BrainStation online full-time course?
Yeah. There are lots of asynchronous learning opportunities out there for free. Those are good if you're not sure if this is the field for you, because you've got a pretty short period of time to make that determination after acceptance into a full-time program. If you know that it's for you and you’re interested in the actual content, I don't think it's necessary to take a prep course besides the BrainStation prep course. You can join this program with no previous experience.
How does BrainStation ensure students stay engaged in the online course?
When the instructor is not instructing, we had to consider student engagement. We use video conference software and the students are online all day from the time they sign on until the time we shut the meeting down at the end of the day. Instructors will often stay on the camera, even during work time. We're present the entire time – we're always there.
BrainStation also uses Slack to communicate, so the students are able to speak with each other and instructors. So far I've been surprised at how easy it's actually been to maintain that kind of engagement. We've got a lot of awesome students and I think that's a huge part of it – people are very encouraged and engaged and it's our job to keep that up. All of our educators are very high energy, so it's super easy to translate that through the digital medium. The online learning experience is different, but it's definitely something we've been able to accurately replicate in comparison to the in-person course.
What is the structure of the full-time remote course? How flexible is it?
The online course is just like a normal classroom. The curriculum is synchronous and the same for every student, and everybody is in class at the same time, learning together. Our current cohort runs from 10am to 6pm Eastern Standard Time, and we are looking into offering the cohort in other time zones. The online course has a lot of time for breakout sessions and review so that if people start to fall behind in a certain topic it's really easy to work with them one-on-one as an educator and bring them up to speed.
It’s important for us to keep everybody there all day, online, using these tools to more accurately represent the in-person experience. It’s a challenge for educators to keep everybody on the same page. BrainStation has three educators for the current cohort; our goal from the beginning has been to replicate an in-person environment as much as possible, which involves making sure people are present during the course.
We also have one-on-ones, when students can schedule individual meetings with educators. We run these at the end of every week or every two weeks depending on the cohort.
Show us what the BrainStation online learning platform looks like:
There is the Homepage, and a course progress section to show you how far you are through the course. You can see right now our current cohort is at week 8 of 10. If we have events scheduled, things like power hours, we can chat about that under the Next Event tab. In the Recently Viewed Content tab are certain assignments.
This is sort of a digital classroom. When the lecture opens in the morning, you can join in from here. Then we've got the daily schedule, where you can browse through curriculum for future weeks. We also have the course content and information that contains descriptions, the syllabus, and all that handy stuff all in one place.
The community tab is where students can see profiles for other students, colleagues or educators. Normally when we have one-on-ones scheduled, they'll show up here. For stuff like chat, students communicate with educators and each other through Slack. In the portal, if you have an issue, you can request help and that will go to one of the educators.
How often will you update the online platform?
We're constantly updating the online platform. Since this is the first online cohort, we'll receive lots of feedback to improve upon. Students can expect to see a change cohort to cohort. The same general features will be there, but we may change how they're implemented to make the student experience better.
The in-person course uses the same portal, so we have to ensure that it supports both mediums, but so far it's been awesome for us as educators. The platform has done everything we needed it to do and the students love it.
How does BrainStation deal with student goals, assessment, and feedback?
Our online process is identical to the in person process. Our student to educator ratio is quite low, so we will always maintain a close working relationship with students.
As a professional developer, it's easy for me to look at somebody's skill level to see if they're meeting completion goals, but what we really want to know is if their personal goals are being met. Everybody comes into the course with different objectives and that's why it's very difficult to evaluate students without properly understanding their individual goals.
For every student, we figure out why you are here, and what you’re looking to get out of the learning experience. Educators are very aware of student goals as we go through the course, and we make sure that each student gets feedback based on that.
What if a student is falling behind in the online course?
When students start to fall behind, there's lots of support from the educators and the rest of the BrainStation team. The entire team steps in to make sure that we have the resources available to get people back on board. There are very few cases where we've struggled to get somebody back on track. We've always been able to set up one-on-ones and breakout sessions to explain concepts. Having that one-on-one time, supporting the student, and knowing what their personal goals are, can help us meet any student expectations as they come in.
Is there an opportunity for online students to collaborate and work together on projects?
Yeah. Students can collaborate up to their preferences. When we're in the video conference, they can unmute and have a chat with each other. Even if the educators have gone to grab a coffee, it's up and running and students discuss their work. Students can all share and view each other screens; they can also take control of each other's screen so they can help each other. Students have the same privileges in the software at the educators.
The remote web development course includes a few group projects as well as some pair programming, which is where two people work very closely on one project. We normally try to do a larger project that features the whole class when we're learning things like Git, which is all about working together collaboratively. However, evaluated assignments at this point in time are submitted individually.
You've been teaching at BrainStation for a while now. Can you describe your personal teaching style?
Like I said, I've been teaching computer science for a while and it's sort of second nature by now. I always hold the belief that learning digital skills is different to acquiring other skills. Normally when you're learning you learn in a slow linear upward trend and it's a smooth curve of getting better and better. If you think of something like playing guitar or carpentry you just slowly get better at these things. Digital skills, especially in programming and software engineering, have these discrete jumps where something clicks and you get it. As an educator, my goal is to push everybody until it clicks.
I use a lot of analogies, sometimes hundreds of analogies for a certain topic, and I'll use explanations that are relevant to students’ personal interests and stuff they do outside of programming. I roll in all of these different ways of explaining one topic until I see it click for each individual.
In the online environment, we can see students when we're teaching so we see the “aha” moments where people just relax because they get it now. That's a really exciting part of teaching for me. One of the things that I'm always chasing as an educator is helping people break those barriers. Later on you'll increase in speed and general understanding, but at these beginning stages, there are these huge jumps in learning.
How has your experience working in the tech industry translated into your teaching style?
Having been a professional developer for a while, I'm very familiar with that feeling and having those “aha” moments. My personal style is based on that idea that we learn in incremental steps when we're learning digital skills, and that’s something that people aren't used to. They think that they can just practice and practice to make it better, but if there's an actual concept missing, that's got to click before you can really run with it. So for me, it's all about just making sure that the information is clicking.
In terms of the remote program, is there an ideal student that BrainStation is looking for?
Bootcamps are tough, really intense environments. We want to make sure that somebody is motivated before they start, and can remain motivated during the program. There's no background or programming experience required at all. There's a short prep course to test your aptitude for basic digital literacy skills.
To me, ideal BrainStation students are people who are excited about this digital transition of our world, get encouraged seeing problems being solved by technology, and want to be a part of it. If somebody comes in with an honest desire to learn to code, the program is designed in a way that it's going to carry you through.
When admitting people our job is to make sure that they have the drive and passion when they join. Because the bootcamp is so intense, if those motivating factors are lacking, students will struggle and get discouraged. Students who are really excited fly through the course. Everybody has roadblocks here and there but generally, it's a pretty smooth process.
Describe the remote program admissions process. Is it the same as the in-person course?
The remote program admissions process is the same as in-person. In both scenarios, potential students pay a deposit/application fee for the cohort of their choice. At that point, someone from our Student Success Team reaches out to schedule an admissions interview. The potential student has a prep course to go through before the interview date and upon completion of these steps, the Program Manager decides if it's the right fit. Over time, the caliber of students at BrainStation has continued to get more competitive and with the introduction of Online, I don't see that slowing down anytime soon. Our Program Managers suggest applying two months before the beginning of the program to give enough time to complete the prep course and go through the admissions interview process completely.
Explain the career services for online students.
The BrainStation career services works the same way for online students as it does for in-person. During the course we provide career development workshops and seminars to help people improve their professionalism and soft skills. The team does resume and LinkedIn reviews and workshops, we talk about building GitHub portfolios and personal web portfolios, and we do mock interviews.
Most people come to the course for a career change, so that means that we need to start figuring out what sort of jobs will work for students before they even start the course. We ask questions in the admissions interview and continue to work and develop these things until students graduate.
Do you think online students will get the same types of jobs as in-person students?
When students are looking for jobs, we work with our Student Success Team based out of our campuses in New York, Toronto, Vancouver and San Jose to find opportunities that fit their goals, whether those are remote roles or something geographically closer to them. We work closely with students to plan their next step because your first tech job is a tricky thing to get; and a tricky thing to get right – you have to love it as much as your employer loves you. At Brainstation we want to make sure we're exposing students to as many opportunities as possible and providing the resources to help students through the process.
Our huge BrainStation alumni network is constantly in touch on the alumni Slack channel, posting job and remote work opportunities. It’s awesome to see the community involved.
What’s the biggest lesson that the BrainStation team has learned throughout the time of operating this remote bootcamp?
The biggest lesson we've learned so far is the difference in time that it takes to deliver certain pieces of content. It's caused us to pivot in the way that we schedule certain lessons, allowing more time for some topics and less time for others. We’ve solved this going forward by making sure time is properly managed.
We've also added some more structure to parts of the course that were previously unstructured. During periods where people are working on big projects on campus, it's very flexible because everybody's here and we can have an ad hoc procedure. Online required us to build in a little bit more structure to make sure people still feel engaged.
What's your advice for prospective students thinking about attending an online coding bootcamp like BrainStation?
It's totally up to the individual to get the most out of this program. People often ask, "If I'm spending this money and taking this time out of my life, how do I get the most out of it?" My answer is always the same: You have to give it absolutely everything you've got because you only get one shot, and it’s only 10 weeks. You have the best-suited people to teach you programming at your fingertips, so it's about making sure you can make the commitment, buckling up, giving it 100% from day one, and pushing through for 10 weeks. When you're in class, be present, sit up straight, own it, and you'll definitely get the most out of the course.
It's about seeing yourself in the larger picture. Have a bit of an out of body experience and see that in the scale of your life, this is just 10 weeks. Sure, you’re tired today, but if there's a lesson that you want to redo or something else that will help you, just do it. I went to university for six years and it was very difficult to keep up morale for that long. If somebody had told me that I could’ve done it in 10 weeks, I absolutely would have. Listen, learn, and love it every minute, then you'll naturally get the most out of it. There's no way that you couldn't.
I'm really excited about the course and I want people to at least look at it as an opportunity. Our next court launches in January 2018.
Lauren is a communications and operations strategist who loves to help others find their idea of success.
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