How One Coding School Hopes to Teach Thousands of Students, Without Professors


When I first heard of the coding school 42 it sounded almost like a hoax. Tuition is free, for one thing, and some students even get free lodging in dorms. What’s the catch? To get a slot at this coding school, you have to go through an intense admissions process that involves a month-long coding challenge. For four weeks applicants show up to one of the institution’s campuses and work day and night, some even bring along air mattresses so they can get in as much time as possible. They call the coding challenge the “piscine,” or swimming pool because students are thrown into the deep end.

This unusual school started in Paris in 2013 -- it’s the passion project of French telecom billionaire Xavier Niel, who donated $100-million to the effort. Just last year, it opened an offshoot in the US, just outside of Silicon Valley, with the ambitious goal of teaching 10,000 students in the next five years. A promotional video on the site contains an endorsement from well-known entrepreneurs, including Evan Spiegel, co-founder of Snapchat, and Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and CEO of Slack. If you’re wondering why it’s called 42 -- that’s a reference to the sci-fi comic novel, "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy," in which the number was the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.

It’s not just the admissions process that’s unusual. The curriculum is project-based, and it’s focused on peer learning, meaning there are no professors. There is a help desk, with a handmade sign that reads: If you have a question: Google It. If you still have a question. Ask your neighbor.

For this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast, we sat down with Brittany Bir, the chief operating officer of 42’s US campus. She has a unique perspective on its model, since she went through the program in Paris as a student, before becoming an administrator for the effort. I was curious to hear how it works, and whether there are any lessons for traditional colleges.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app.

EdSurge: So one of the most surprising things about the coding boot camp you work help run 42, is that there are no professors. Even MOOCs have a professor, even if it might be one for 100,000 people. How do you take the professor out?

Bir: The idea is that the students are learning and teaching. There are many students who learn much more effectively by being able to digest the information and then teach each other. Sometimes they're going to make mistakes, but they're also going to be learning from those mistakes. They are able to kind of give each other checks and balances. That's really important in this learning environment. With them learning by doing, it's just like when we learned how to walk or talk, they're learning from each other, they're observing, and they're actually doing things hands-on.

Let's go back to when you were a student. I guess I really want to picture what that looks like. Tell me about a moment when you were a student in 42’s campus in Paris. You were sitting at the computer, and were you looking at MOOCs from other colleges, or were you tapping the person next to you to ask a question? How did you learn?

It's basically all of what you've described and then some. Typically what my day would look like was, go in, look at the assigned subject and doing a bunch of research online, and then maybe talking with the person that's to my right, talking to the person that's to my left, figuring out what they're doing as well, what the kind of ideas that they have, how they interpreted the subject.

So it’s project based. Can you give me an example of a project?

One of the first projects that students do would be to recode parts of the C library. Essentially, when you learn a programming language there's a lot of different functions that already exist, and so if you need to do a certain function you can just say, "I know what that function does, so I'm just going to copy it and paste it, and it'll do what I want it to do." What we ask our students to do is to recode those functions that they normally would've just been able to copy and paste, and actually think about what it is those functions are doing with the computer. That's what our students start off with. Then it goes into more complicated things such as redoing the entire command shell that they are going to be typing the commands in as well.

So this is not a light curriculum at all?

No, not at all.

How long is it, you said three to five years?

Yes. It's three to five years, based on the student and how quickly they move through the projects. Because the projects do not have deadlines, the student can take the time that they need to learn the material.

What do you get at the end? It's not an accredited institution.

No, it is not. What we give them at the end is a certificate of completion. And in addition to that, all the projects that they worked on at 42 are their personal property, so they can use that for their portfolio, and many of our students have used that as their springboard to create their own startup.

Since there’s no faculty, how does this into become a Lord of the Flies for college? Who's in charge?

I'm in charge, actually. I also have a great team. We're at eight right now, and we'll have two more who will be joining us soon, and then we also have a team, and that's in the kitchen as well, of a high school cafeteria.

What keeps your students from going down a wrong path with material they might have found online? Or is that not an issue for computer coding?

I think students are always going to go down some dead ends; they're always going to find some bad information. They may try something out, but it will be faulty, and that is something that they're going to learn from. That's part of their learning process, is seeing that information, trying to make it work, and then seeing that it doesn't work. Also, with the information that they can find from others that are around them, that is the checks and balances that will help put them back on the right path.

How many students in the US right now?

Right now we have 250, addition we have a little more than 100 which will be joining us at the start of the school year.

They all fit in this one facility in Silicon Valley?

Yes, we have 1,024 working stations for students, so we definitely have room to grow. We had our construction team that took a little bit more time than they had planned to originally to finish the completed building. We are looking at doing rolling admissions also, to model the American school system, and we'll be bumping up those numbers here soon.

What have you learned in this project based, teacher-free model? Are there any lessons for traditional colleges or professors?

I think that there are so many different ways that we can learn. Some individuals learn well when they can hear a professor speak, and they can go then and try and replicate that information. But a lot of individuals, they need to see something physically in front of them, and they need to really work on something to learn it. I think what professors could maybe take away from this is also having a little bit of lecture, but a lot more hands-on approach to the material that it is they cover in class.

Does your model at 42 work because there are so many MOOCs and other free courses online now?

It is in part what helps to make this possible. The thing is that all this information that the students are going to be learning in classes, it already exists, be it in books, be it online, be it via human resources. What they need to do is just reach out and take that information and make it their own. That's what we want to help train our students to do: Rather than relying on someone to give them that information, they need to go out and take it for themselves and make it their own.

Do you think 42’s model could work for anything but computer science? Because computer science is so perfect in that there is a right or wrong answer, so to speak, when you try to build something.

I think computer science is the ideal model for this type of learning. I think it could be applied in other domains. However, I think people would really need to sit down and reflect on how they would be able to make that work for their specific subject, to be able to appropriate that in that sense.

What's the biggest challenge for 42, going forward?

The biggest challenge right now, especially in the United States, is to let people know that this is actually for real. Often times people hear there’s a free university, with free tuition, no student fees, they hear also to that there are no professors, and some people will think that it's some sort of scam. Because we have for a very long had this notion that, in order to have a quality education, it's got to have a high price tag, and the more you pay, the better it is. I think that's one of the things that is going to be the biggest challenge for us, is to break down this notion, that a quality education inherently comes with a huge price tag.

That is the question then also, and how do you measure whether it's quality? I'm sure a lot of professors in the audience are going to say, "How do you test whether you’re not just wasting people’s time, even if it is a free experience?” How do you know this is any good?

How we know this is good is by the results, by the students that go out and either start new companies or get hired in companies. Then those companies have come to tell us how much they're excited about what we're doing at 42, that our students are creating new, innovative ways to look at their programs, they're creating new solutions for their programs that the others have not yet been able to create.

Do they have people skills? If you're sitting at a computer all day, is it really just kind of up to you to figure everything out?

That's one of the great things about peer-to-peer, is that it also helps our students to develop more people skills. You obviously have to learn how to defend your product to another student, who may not necessarily agree with you, without trying to strangle them.

So there are reviews that have to be done among these peers?

Exactly, yes. You're not just working in isolation; you have to communicate with your peers. That's essential in order to be able to advance in the curriculum. You have to have human interaction; you can't just sit in a cave with your hoodie on and be by yourself all the time. You have to have human interaction. I always tell our students, if you come to 42, you either have to already have some communication skills, or at least be willing to work on it, because you're going to be required on a daily basis to talk amongst one another, and to be able to converse in not only a professional manner but in a polite manner, to get your point across.

Is there a test at the end, at 42?

No, there is not a test at the end.

How do you know when it's over?

You know when it's over because we have a gamification system. With each of the projects, the students will get a certain amount of experience points. With those experience points they'll level up, kind of like in a game. Essentially, once students near level 21, which is the end, they're going to go on a final internship. They have two required internship periods that they have, and so that final internship period will be essentially their final, I guess you could say capstone, to validate the experience that they've had here at 42 and finish.

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