Higher education is broken. Both in the US and elsewhere, more students are starting to realize that what they learn in school has no bearing on the real world. College has high upfront costs or saddles students with a lifetime of crushing debt. It doesn't prepare students for the labor market and neglects practical life skills in favor of theory and research.
There might be a solution, though.
As many a middle school student has pointed out, when are you ever going to use most of the stuff you learn in school? When’s the last time you used algebra in your private life? I’ll wait.
Something similar happens with computer science and IT. Most businesses have their new, freshly-graduated employees spend the first six months actively unlearning most of the theoretical models they were taught in academia. What’s worse, most of them still need to learn development processes and how to contribute to a code base. Hell, most of ‘em don't even know what version control is.
There have been a number of proposed solutions to counter this problem. MOOCs, on platforms like Coursera and EDx, had their moment in the spotlight. The completion rates were abysmal though. Sometimes as low as 5%. Imagine a university that has a 5% graduation rate. Ouch.
What MOOCs lacked was a structured schedule, some sort of enforcement, and a mechanism for regular quality feedback. When having to choose between browsing Reddit and going online to learn biochemistry, most people will opt for looking at cute kittens on a random subreddit. There are some amazing online courses out there, but they’re constrained by the limitations of the platform.
What if you could learn to become a web developer of sufficient skill to be employable by any tech firm? What if you started learning practical skills right from the get-go? To learn from some of the best instructors who literally wrote the book on some of the technologies you’ll be using on a daily basis? Oh, and you don’t have to pay anything upfront?
Let me introduce you to Lambda School.
Lambda School is an online education platform that provides nine-month immersive courses focused (at the time this article was written) on tech and programming. Over the course of 40 weeks of full-time classes, you can learn Full-Stack Web Development, Mobile Development for iOS or Android, Data Science or UX Design. Starting January 7th, I’ll participating in the first European cohort for Full-stack Web Development.
Lambda School, or Lambda for short, was founded by Austen Allred and Ben Nelson and has been backed by some of the leading investors in Silicon Valley, including Google Ventures, Y Combinator and Dropbox. So far, they’ve had over two dozen cohorts with up to 1,000 students enrolled at the same time.
Their entire pitch is that it’s free until you get a job. They do this via an income-share agreement. Once you get a job that makes $50k+ per year, you pay 20% of your salary for two years, capped at $30,000. For European and British students, the rates are somewhat different. As part of the program, you pay 10% of your income for four years, as soon as you’re making over 27.5k Euro, with a cap at 27.5k. In both cases, you only start paying it off when you're making more than the required annual income.
As of January 2019, Lambda’s income-share agreement is only for US, EU, and UK citizens. Students from other nationalities have to pay upfront.
Quick note on the EU/UK ISA: depending on the country, 27,500 Euro per year can, depending on the country one lives in, either an incredible salary or well below the mean. Given the fact that the ISA counts pre-tax income and the Netherlands has high income taxes, I'm a bit worried about this aspect. I’m curious to see how they will address this fact in the months to come.
As I said before, I’ll be participating in the Full-Stack Web Development Track. For the past couple of years, I've run a web development agency and done quite a bit of work with React and Node. As such, I might have a bit of a leg up on the students who are just starting out. I'm more interested in getting a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of Computer Science and programming as a whole, hence why I'm signing up
While I still don’t have all the information, the curriculum will look something like this:
Note: This has since been changed. For the new schedule, take a look at Lambda’s site
In addition to having 3/4 hours of instructions per day, it seems you'll spend most of your time banging away at your keyboard. Every day starts off with a code challenge and — having taken a glimpse at a couple — they can be tricky. Think medium-level HackerRank challenges. Every afternoon, you’ll spend three to four hours building away at a some sort of project. It seems that this'll be the main meat and potatoes of the course.
To top it all off, there’s a Sprint Challenge every Friday morning that seeks to test what you’ve learnt in the past week. Depending on how you do in the challenge, you move onto next week’s curriculum and/or get offered additional tutoring.
That leads me to my next point; feedback, help and instruction. Lambda school's pace is supposed to be quite fast. From day one, you get sorted into smaller student teams for help and support. You also have access to a Team Lead and teaching assistants who are there to help you when you’re stuck. That’s not to say they’ll be doing all the work for you. They expect you to have spent some time on the issue, trying to resolve it yourself, and approaching the staff with alternative approaches.
I have frequently fallen into what I’ve come to call ‘Tutorial Purgatory’ when trying to learn programming or other technical skills online. After a couple of tutorials and some code-along projects, you feel like you’ve got a pretty solid grasp and perhaps feel ready to do a small project of your own. Things work out pretty great, you’re starting to get the hang of things and then you hit a wall. Whatever you try, there’s one issue that simply will not be resolved. You can take to Stack Exchange or Reddit to ask for feedback, but many an introvert will be daunted by this. I have frankly shied away from this as well. The end result - more often than not - is an incomplete project and frustration.
This also explains why I've tended to stick with the handful of technologies and languages I'm familiar with. When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. As such, I would build projects with React, Node, and MongoDB, even though the situation might not always call for it. In some cases, I would've been way better of trying some other framework or technology.
With Lambda, there’s a support network to prevent exactly this from happening. You put in the work and show willingness to learn, they’ll guide you along and be there when you need ‘em. From what I can gather, they'll actually push you into learning new stuff and exposing you to the latest developments in technologies.
I’ve talked to several current and former Lambda students and, although the specifics differ, one thing is uniform; Lambda is really fucking hard. The curriculum is described as a firehose of information coming at you day after day. The fact that the instructors and even the founders themselves continually say this really drives the point home. This won’t be the sort of class in which you can sit in the back of the class and cram two days before the final exam.
I think I’ll give it my best shot.