As the CEO of Bloc, what’s your main focus right now?
I joined Bloc as the COO in 2014 and took over as CEO in 2016. My main focus is charting our course for the years to come. We’re still in the early days of career-focused, vocational, online education. So when we imagine what education will look like five to 10 years from now, we see very big potential for remote options like Bloc.
A lot of coding bootcamps are putting their curriculum online, but Bloc was always an online coding bootcamp. What have you learned or gained from that experience?
Teaching people to code online is not easy to do well. There are a lot of unique characteristics to the online student experience that in-person schools don't need to consider when their students are physically there in the classroom. To consistently teach programming to students online requires a lot of infrastructure and unique solutions.
Bloc’s advantage is that we've been working on those problems continuously for five years and we've learned a lot about how to do it well. The disadvantage to online teaching is that we can't force a student who's working at home, or on their couch, or in their grandmother's basement, to sit down and do the work. Ultimately, it's on the student to commit the time. Even if we do everything to hold up our end of the bargain – a high-quality curriculum, quality of the instruction, and career services support – if the student doesn't want to invest the time, then there's not a lot we can do. Student success really depends on an individual’s own discipline.
In the past, Bloc has offered a web developer track and a software engineer track as two separate courses. Tell us about the new Web Developer Track?
We spoke with a large panel of hiring managers across the country, and we learned that a lot of our Software Engineering Track curriculum was beyond the requirements for most Junior Web Developers. We've used that guidance to reformat and restructure our Web Developer Track and we’ve made two important changes. First, we brought some basic computer science fundamentals into the curriculum. We want students to have a basic familiarity with concepts such as algorithms and databases when they graduate.
What will you do with the curriculum that you had to cut?
There are other components of our Software Developer Track that we still believe are important for certain students’ goals, so we’ll offer that material through separate online programs that students can enroll in after they've completed the Web Developer Track, or after they've completed a coding bootcamp elsewhere. Those are topics that might not be required for a junior web developer: software engineering principles, database architecture, design patterns, etc.
Do applicants to the new Web Developer Track need programming experience or can they be complete beginners?
There is no admissions process at Bloc. You can enroll as long as you have a high-speed internet connection and a decent computer. We do require at least minimum fluency in English, because the curriculum is in English and the mentors are English speakers.
We don't presuppose who can be a programmer and who can't. If you lose your enthusiasm for some reason, that's fine – you get a prorated refund. But if you want to take a shot, then we’ll give you that shot. Hundreds of Bloc graduates have had no experience and have gone on to get developer and design jobs.
What’s the time commitment for the Web Developer Track?
A big improvement in our programs is that we made them more flexible. In the past, we pre-determined the length of the program based on the amount of time a student could commit each week. Now, we've made the duration of the program much more malleable so it can conform to students’ changing schedules.
For example, a school teacher who usually works on the Bloc program for 15 hours per week, but wants to commit more hours to the program during summer vacation when they don't have class every day. Our programs are now better suited for that type of flexibility. You can basically take as much time as you need, but the total tuition will not exceed $15,000. If you want to go faster and commit 40-50 hours a week to the program, then you can finish in just a few months and pay as little as $4,500 for the whole program.
What is the teaching format for the Web Development Track? Is this instructor-led or mentor-driven?
A number of online teaching formats exist in bootcamps. The first is the synchronous, virtual-classroom model where you're part of a cohort and you need to be in front of your computer during a predefined number of hours. That is not the Bloc model.
A second model is mentorship-as-a-service, in which you have mentor meetings where you get instruction and help. That's Bloc’s legacy, but it’s not our model in the new Web Developer Track.
Over the years, we've learned that mentorship is important because it provides students with a subject matter expert who they can go to for a deeper explanation of a specific topic, or to hold them accountable as they progress through the course. Bloc students have regular meetings with a mentor.
We've also found that students often need a lot more support outside of their few mentor meetings per week. When we revamped the Web Developer Track, we added a myriad of different ways in which we can support students. There are an additional 80 hours of time per week where you've got a mentor standing by to answer questions in real time.
We also offer sessions where we go deep into specific subject matter areas where we know students need more guidance. We've enriched our career services so that we start shaping the students’ thinking earlier on in the program to prepare them for their first technical recruiting process at the end.
Can you show us the Bloc online learning platform and how students communicate with mentors?
We aim to provide broad, 360-degree support, so there are a lot of different ways in which students can get the help they need. If you have a question right now about your code not working or about a particular concept, you can go to Slack where mentors are standing by and available 80 hours a week to answer questions in real time.
We have a flipped classroom approach, which means students read through “checkpoints,” watch videos, and consume curriculum content mostly on their own, in their own time. At the end of each checkpoint, students submit a piece of code that demonstrates understanding and proficiency of the material. That submission is reviewed by a mentor, and either approved, or sent back to the student. There's an asynchronous exchange with a mentor on your code submissions.
And then the synchronous time with mentors can be used for more esoteric discussions about specific concepts and to dig into why something works the way it does, how concepts work together, when to use concepts like loops and arrays etc.
How else do you assess students to make sure they are not falling behind?
At the end of each module (or collection of checkpoints), we require a student to complete an assessment with a mentor (other than their usual mentor) who is a subject matter expert. It’s a really helpful mechanism to make sure that our students can consistently demonstrate the proficiency we require. We won't allow a student to move forward to the next module unless they've passed this assessment. That gives students the confidence to know that they have the skills required to be job ready, and helps us build a positive perception of Bloc programs and Bloc graduates.
With the large number of students (including over 1000 currently enrolled) who have gone through Bloc courses, we now have a pretty robust data set. When we see students really struggling with a specific checkpoint, we can address that, and deploy changes to our curriculum in real time if needed. Similarly, if a student is falling behind or hasn't been active, we can see that and check in with that student to find out what’s going on. Our Student Success Team is really hands-on when students need a little bit of extra help, encouragement, motivation, or special consideration.
What types of projects do students work on?
As the curriculum guides students through various web development concepts, they use those concepts to build projects. By the time you're done with a given module, you will have built a project and demonstrated your proficiency in a number of different concepts along the way. An example of a project is Bloc Jams, a music app similar to Spotify that students build for their portfolio using React.
How often do Bloc students collaborate? Do they ever meet up in person?
Collaboration is not a requirement at Bloc, because many of our students need the flexibility of being able to work autonomously. They need to know that Bloc is there to support them at all hours. It gets more complicated if they are dependent on another student.
We have a really robust, supportive, proactive, and attentive community of Bloc students who are all helping each other. Students are standing by on Slack and in various support channels, who want to help others and pay it forward. Out of that comes a lot of great relationships, unplanned in-person meetups in various cities, and in some cases, collaboration on separate projects. We've had Bloc students get together and launch startups after they graduate. We've also seen our design students collaborate with our web development students to create projects together – those collaborations are very organic.
What kinds of jobs do you expect students to get after they graduate from the Web Developer Track?
We’re explicitly aiming for that first entry-level job as a web developer. In some cases that job is called web developer; in other cases, it's junior web developer, or junior software engineer.
If students want to get a job as a software engineer at a top technology company like Zendesk, Twitter, Airbnb, or Dropbox, those companies expect more out of their software engineering roles than we might arm them with in our new Web Developer Track. That's when additional subject matter expertise from a shorter Bloc program becomes useful - and those will be available to accept new enrollments very soon.
When is the next Bloc cohort starting?
Bloc does not have cohorts, and new students can start on any Monday they choose. Our next start date is January 8th, 2017 and we're taking enrollments now. The amount of time it takes to complete can be anywhere from a couple months if they're studying full-time, to over a year if they're spending less time per week on it. 12 hours per week is the bare minimum commitment. If you can't commit that, then you probably shouldn't take the course.
What advice do you have for students who are about to embark on an online school? Any tips for getting the most out of it?
My tips are all about mitigating risk. The first way this can go wrong for a Bloc student is if they overestimate the amount of time that they are able to commit. People have busy lives, jobs, and obligations, and that's often a big part of the reason they're looking for an online program. But to be successful at Bloc, they need to have the discipline to dedicate the required time. This is a significant commitment and you have to adapt your life to that.
The second tip is to be ready for the emotional rollercoaster. This is not specific to Bloc – learning to code is hard and there will be plateaus along the learning curve that can be really frustrating. You'll also have explosions of understanding where you race up the learning curve, and those feel really good. Any experienced software engineer out there will tell you that even today, they still sometimes want to bang their head on a wall when they're working on a hard problem. We do what we can to smooth out the lows, but they're going to be there. You just have to keep grinding and keep trying.