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The New Academy

Posted in Ed Tech on January 6, 2014 by



Here at Knewton we’re dedicated to supporting other startups that, while not affiliated with Knewton, are part of the edtech community. This post is written by Daniel Friedman, the founder of Thinkful, an online school for aspiring web developers.

New World of Work

Today, we “20-somethings” expect to have had three jobs before our 30th birthdays. We build our careers in two to three year stints. We take jobs for the learning experience, rather than the company brand name or lucrative salary. We know that what matters now, and what will matter even more in the future, is the skills we have, not just the places we worked or where we earned a degree.

There’s data on job tenure to confirm: since 1973, the average tenure of a male in the private sector declined by 25% (the change for female is more nuanced because of the changing role of women in the workforce in that time period).1

Since we expect to search for a new job every few years, we can no longer rely on traditional educational credentials as the bedrock of a career. Our fourth employer cares more about our track record from our previous three jobs than the college we attended. Historically, college educated, service sector workers worked at one firm for a career, and relied on employers to provide the training necessary to move up the corporate ladder. With less loyalty between employers and employees, employers provide less training because neither side can commit for long enough to see the benefit (though the best companies work hard to buck that trend). The burden is now on the individual to gain skills and grow his or her own career across companies.

I left college three years ago to get ahead of this sea change. I worked in two jobs – gaining experience in sales, product management, and web development – before starting an online education company, Thinkful, to address the skills needs of the modern economy. Thinkful is part of a broader ecosystem emerging to help people constantly level up. The ecosystem is still in its early days, impacting only a few industries and generally targeting young college graduates. Nevertheless, many people starting careers today must rely on institutions that didn’t exist even three years ago.

New Academy

There’s a new wave of learning options flooding the education market. Looking to level up, my peers and I turn to a growing list of alternative (and un-accredited) learning programs, both online and offline. These schools look nothing like my alma mater. They cost comparatively little, they provide skills but not traditional credentials, and they last months rather than years.

The offline “bootcamps”

For today’s young graduate looking for job security, a healthy salary, and challenging work, pursuing a career as a software developer is becoming an increasingly popular path. Borne out of this trend is an alternative style of learning that caters to the entrepreneurially minded: the bootcamp. As the name suggests, bootcamps are intense. They’re typically three-month full-time programs in which students with little experience learn the core skills they need to program professionally. Most model themselves after traditional apprenticeships, with students focusing on building real products. Bootcamps are un-accredited and typically cost between $10,000-$15,000. Their instructors are generally developers (rather than experienced teachers).

The first bootcamp, DevBootcamp, was started in February 2012 in San Francisco. After its success (over 80% of graduates from their first class received job offers within weeks2 ), the market exploded. In less than two years, over 40 bootcamps have been created across the country and around the world.

In 2013, I estimate more than 2,000 students attended bootcamps; many of them will land jobs paying $65,000-$90,000. Some of the bootcamps with stronger brands receive upwards of 1,000 applications for classes with fewer than 50 spaces, suggesting there’s still plenty of room to grow next year.

At the moment, bootcamps are fairly homogenous – nearly all teach the same skill, Ruby on Rails programming, last the same number of weeks, and charge similar tuition. The early success serves as evidence that this model works, and the experiments in apprentice style, intensive learning programs has expanded to other skills, such as data science, technical marketing, and sales. If the model gains traction in even one of these areas, the number of students going through bootcamps will grow dramatically in the coming years.

The online upstarts

Alongside the offline options, an entirely new world of online courses has emerged in the last three years, which fall into two categories: content providers or experience provider.

The content providers, such as Khan Academy, Coursera, and EdX, make one promise: high-quality content that’s affordable and engaging. My friends looking to learn new skills in subjects as diverse as DJ’ing and infographic design have found content online for little or no cost. The most hyped development is of course the MOOCs. Alongside the MOOCs exist a variety of startup content providers or marketplaces including Udemy, Treehouse, and Skillshare, as well as the more mature Lynda. Between these two groups of content providers, a student can now get most of the content they would get in college at little cost.

But, they can’t get a college education at little cost. Though there is wide discussion of MOOC graduation rates, we generally don’t hold these content providers accountable for learning outcomes, as we do a normal college. When we do, they underperform: even paying students learned less taking MOOCs compared to traditional lecture classes.3 Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, often held as the leader of the MOOC movement abandoned the core principles of the MOOC. Udacity’s full course experience is no longer free, and they’ve partnered with Georgia Tech university to offer a more traditional online Master’s Degree.

Udacity’s shift points to the second emerging category: online courses that simulate the offline learning experience with more structure and support. These online schools – currently the smallest and newest category – promise real learning outcomes. These schools use a new breed of blended learning, combining content with real-time support, regular sessions with an instructor, and interaction with peers. Whereas someone working in a self-directed program will often get frustrated at a challenging moment, students in these courses turn to peers and mentors for help. when they forget about the course, they start getting the kinds of positive nudges that can only be delivered by a real person that you have a real relationship with. That’s the promise we hope to fulfill with Thinkful: as close to the outcomes of offline schools as possible with tuition closer to the content providers.

The most ambitious of my peers find creative ways to combine all the possible options – they taste new subjects using self-study, gaining proficiency in more intensive online courses, and finally pursue full-blown career change with bootcamps. That’s the future of learning, and it’s almost here.


  1. https://www.princeton.edu/ceps/workingpapers/172farber.pdf 

  2. http://techcrunch.com/2012/05/10/dev-boot-camp-is-a-ruby-success/ 

  3. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/09/12/after-weeks-delays-san-jose-state-u-releases-research-report-online-courses