Get Your Tech On

Bootcamps and Online Courses vs. the Traditional Classroom

As college tuition continues to rise and competition in the job market becomes tougher, some millennials are turning to tech bootcamps and online computer science courses as an attractive supplement, or alternative, to traditional higher education. However, students should understand the costs and benefits of these alternatives before committing themselves to a program.

Bootcamps provide intensive programs that teach various tech-related skills, from User Experience (UX) design to software engineering, with the goal of landing students a job that fits their specialization.

Enrollment in bootcamps across the nation has increased from 2,178 students in 2013 to 20,316 students in 2018 according to Course Report, an organization that tracks market growth and outcomes of the schools. The development of distance learning in tech-related courses and certifications has expanded the online student population by 173 percent just in the past year.

Coding bootcamps are generally non-accredited, meaning students will not earn a degree after completing a course. However, schools are required to be licensed and have their curricula reviewed with a state regulatory agency. Rather than offering a degree, the goal of bootcamps is to land graduates a job.

Makiko Harris, a UX designer based in San Francisco, landed a job in her field after graduating from the UX Design bootcamp offered through General Assembly, a private, for-profit organization that teaches in-demand skills related to the tech field.

“My ex-roommate and her husband both have master’s degrees in UX design,” Harris says, “and at this point in our careers we’re basically in the same place. I guess having a degree makes it easier to get a job initially, but after that, employers don’t really care where you went to school.”

Bootcamps offer an efficient, focused curricula tightly linked to job placement. The average full-time bootcamp in the US is 14.3 weeks long and costs $11,450 according to Course Report. In 2018, 79.3 percent of graduates were employed in a position that used the skills they learned at bootcamp and had an average starting salary of $64,528.

“The program at General Assembly also includes help with job placement,” Harris says, “We learned how to write resumes and update our LinkedIn profiles and we did mock interviews.”

General Assembly also offers an optional Career Services program to help students with job placement. According to its outcomes report, 76 percent of graduates choose to participate in this program, and of those 99 percent land a job in their field within 180 days of graduation.

College Board says that the average college tuition for the 2018-2019 academic year is $9,970 and $25,620 for in-state and out-of-state public universities, respectively, and $34,740 for private non-profit colleges. According to data collected by Complete College America, a four-year degree takes an average of 4.8 years to complete. Starting salaries are similar to those of bootcamp grads with an average of $65,900 as reported by the University of Wisconsin.

However, the data also indicates that coding bootcamps act as more of a career-booster rather than an on-ramp into the workforce for inexperienced young adults; the typical profile of a bootcamper is a 30-something with about six years of previous work experience. Furthermore, 59 percent of students already have a bachelor’s degree.

Both Harris and Eller expressed doubt about using bootcamp as a viable alternative to traditional education.

Eller, who has a B.A. in history from Santa Cruz and worked for four years as a paralegal before enrolling in bootcamp, says that the college experience offers a place for young adults to mature that bootcamps can’t provide. “Theoretically, an 18-year-old may be able to do the same work that I can, but employers want to see that you have previous work experience. I don’t think most high school graduates have the maturity to be successful at a bootcamp,” he says.

Harris has a B.A. in philosophy from Tufts University and worked as a merchandiser before enrolling in the UX design program at General Assembly.

“I do think colleges would benefit if they implemented the kind of pedagogy used in bootcamps,” said Harris, “It’s very hands-on and intensive. You’re in class five days a week from nine to five or later. I never experienced that kind of focus when I was in college.” This idea has slowly taken hold. Since 2016, some universities have partnered with bootcamps or developed their own internal bootcamps, allowing students to experience real-life applications and project-based learning while simultaneously earning college credits.

In previous years, bootcamps were reserved for the select few who had the money up front to pay for tuition. However, they are gradually changing to make their programs more accessible to people without these advantages.

According to Course Report, some schools such as App Academy and General Assembly now offer deferred tuition and income sharing agreements. These payment plans allow students to pay a small, or even no upfront fee in return for the promise that they will pay an agreed upon amount after they graduate and find a job. This opens options for more students; 34 percent of bootcampers are women, compared to the 19 percent who are enrolled in undergrad CS programs. For low-income students, completion of a coding bootcamp lifts their salary on average by 128 percent.

For students who want to go beyond the practical applications of coding to gain a robust understanding of the basic principles of computer science, online courses, some of which are offered by top Ivy League schools, provide a verified alternative to in-person college attendance.

EdX, a provider of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) is an open-source platform founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, as stated on their website. It connects the public with free, online courses from the world’s top universities.

Computer science courses attract the greatest number of students to MOOCs, according to Esten Perez, a writer for the Harvard Gazette. CS50, one of the most popular among these courses and the largest on-campus course offered by Harvard, equips students with a fundamental understanding of computer science and programming. Online students can opt to take the course for free or pay $90 for a certificate of completion.

Courses offered through MOOCs make it possible to earn the equivalent of a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in computer science without paying the steep costs of university attendance. Computer Science Zone, one of many organizations that provides resources for computer science and IT students, has compiled a list of 20 highly-rated courses that are roughly equivalent to an undergraduate degree in computer science at NYU. Courses on the list are offered through institutions such as Carnegie Melon University, MIT, UC Berkeley, and Princeton University.

In 2013, Georgia Tech, a top public research university and institute of technology located in Atlanta, Georgia, launched a master’s of computer science program delivered entirely through MOOCs. The program costs about $7,000 compared to the residential price of about $45,000, and students can complete their classes entirely from home and on their own time.

Despite the appeal of Georgia Tech’s online master’s degree and MOOCs in general, online education continues to have a dismal completion rate. Harvardx and MITx reported in 2017 that the completion rates for their online classes was about 5.5 percent.

“There’s no accountability,” says Harris when asked why she didn’t complete the UX classes she enrolled in with MOOCs after graduating from her program at General Assembly. “Honestly, when you’re busy, the things that you aren’t accountable for are the first things to go.”

However, initial enrollment is not always a good indicator of the effectiveness of MOOCs. Some students shop around for classes that interest them, and others want to learn only some of the content and don’t feel the need to complete a whole semester’s worth of work. Defining success on the completion of an entire course draws from established ideas about education that don’t necessarily make sense pedagogically.

That being said, there is a lack of support that makes it difficult for some students to get the help and motivation they need to be successful.

“I think there’s a big plus to human interaction,” says Paul Winsberg, a computer science professor at Berkeley City College. Winsberg has been teaching at BCC for about three years and has also taught at Laney College, Diablo Valley College, UC Berkeley, and UC Los Angeles. “I present context for the material from my personal experience, I help students if they get stuck, I also facilitate other students helping each other.”

While working independently may be a benefit to some students who are resourceful and can find answers on their own, the lack of teacher-student interaction is generally a downside.

Coding bootcamp and online computer science courses are by no means an exact replacement of the college experience, nor does successful completion of either guarantee a job in the field. Furthermore, the curriculum in a bootcamp is, at least as of now, not equivalent to the curriculum a student would cover in a computer science degree. When deciding which of these paths to follow, students should assess their ability to learn in different environments and with different degrees of support. They should also consider exactly what kind of career they are pursuing and confirm that their chosen program is aligned with that pursuit.

While there are many improvements yet to be made, it is clear that bootcamps and online courses have provided for many a way to higher grounds where there was none before. This small triumph deserves a little appreciation.

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