Education: Coding for everyone

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 10, 2020 - August 16, 2020.
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It is time for the education industry to evolve as the internet has made learning more engaging and accessible to everyone. People can now attend classes offered by the world’s top universities via massive open online courses (MOOCs). They can also learn new skills such as coding and designing.

An institution that has been taking revolutionary steps in this space in the coding world is École 42, a teacherless, tuition-free and non-profit school from Paris. Founded in 2013, the school is in over 20 locations around the world, including Silicon Valley. It will be opening in Sunway City, Malaysia, this year in partnership with Sunway Education Group and Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation.

“Those in the industry always tell us that they face challenges in recruiting graduates with the relevant digital skills. They often have to bring in talent from other countries. But that is costly and laborious,” says Sunway Group chief innovation officer and Sunway iLabs director Matt van Leeuwen.

“On the other hand, universities are not always able to respond quickly to the needs of a fast-moving industry like technology. Many degree programmes cannot be changed quickly because the universities are bound by strict regulations. This has stifled innovation and resulted in graduates with skill sets that are not relevant.”

In his view, 42 is different from other coding programmes in four ways. First, it uses project-based learning throughout its curriculum and students need to solve real-world problems from the industry. Second, it does not have teachers. Instead, peer-to-peer learning encourages students to learn from each other and take charge of their own success.

“Third, the curriculum is gamified. There is no grading system. The students’ progress is accounted for by using experience points through the completion of each project. It is like playing a video game where you start at a simple level and each subsequent level gets harder,” says Van Leeuwen.

And fourth, the programme is completely free for students and open to anyone above the age of 18. Admission is based on merit. Anyone who is interested has to first sit for an online assessment on logic. Once they pass that stage, they will be invited to an offline bootcamp. Only after they pass this bootcamp can they join the 42 programme.

“We can learn differently. Education must adapt. Building a new educational paradigm is possible and we have proven it. This programme shows that alternative solutions in education exist and are working. Knowledge transfer from a teacher to students is now obsolete. While this does not mean that knowledge is not necessary, it means that the teacher has to play a different role,” 42 CEO Sophie Viger tells Enterprise.

“When you enter 42, it is no longer a question of waiting for knowledge to be given by someone who knows [the subject matter]. You must be willing to go out on your own, confer with classmates and understand the ideas before you set it up and explain how it works to others.”

The school emphasises that it is for everyone, including those who may not be able to afford a degree. Social mobility and equal opportunity are its two fundamental values, according to Viger.

“The school exists thanks to a private donor [French billionaire Xavier Niel]. All the campuses exist thanks to private and public donors, whether they are individuals or companies. This model brings high-quality education to the masses at a cost that is five times less than what is offered by public universities,” she says.

Mining digital talent

The need for coding talent has been especially obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic, with digital solutions such as e-commerce becoming essential and popular. It also showed that remote work and collaboration will have a bigger role to play in the future.

“The pandemic has shown the world that businesses and people need an agile state of mind to handle rapid changes. It has also revealed the strong need for new talents in other fields of the economy. This has always been part of our goal because in the information and communications technology (ICT) labour market, many companies have been looking for new talents for a long time now,” says Viger.

The fast-evolving tech industry needs employees who have self-organisation and problem-solving skills, are innovative and are capable of adapting quickly and collaborating remotely, she adds.

42 tries to produce graduates with these qualities via its project-based approach and peer-to-peer learning.

“The big issue now is that students who graduate from high school never learnt how to be autonomous [in their learning] and follow this kind of online lessons correctly. It requires some self-organisation and maturity,” says Viger.

“Maybe that is why there is a high dropout rate in online lessons with young students. This model works better with employees who want to reskill but are not [solely] aiming to get a degree.”

Will programmes like 42 replace the need for universities? Van Leeuwen does not believe so. Even computer science degrees will still have a role to play.

“I think programmes like 42 are more suitable for students ​who want practical knowledge that can be directly applied to industry. We are hoping this programme can nurture and build skill sets that are directly applicable in the industry,” he says.

The school will also work with industry partners, who may come in and offer hackathons. As part of the programme, students have to go for a three- to six-month industry placement, where they will work in project teams and solve problems for their respective companies.

“From the campuses around the world, we have seen that 70% of the students who go through these placements do not come back to the school after that. Instead, a lot of them get hired by the companies because they are talented,” says Van Leeuwen.

Some return to the 42 programme so they can become specialists in areas like artificial intelligence, blockchain and cybersecurity.