Building an “On Ramp” Curriculum for Tech Jobs

This is another one of those blog posts where someone asked me a question and I wrote an essay as my answer. I figured others might find it interesting so I reproduce it here. The question was also asked of my colleague Colleen van Lent so in my response, I talked about our collective approach.

Building an “On Ramp” Curriculum for Tech Jobs

The changing shape of the workplace towards software and web is something the Colleen and I talk about all the time and spend a lot of our time trying to lay the groundwork to prepare people for this new economy through every chance we get.

http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/02/05/382664837/map-the-most-common-job-in-every-state

We are both highly motivated to build educational experiences that are “on-ramps” that build strong foundations for further tech learning.

So far our efforts have been in the following areas:

Teach broad “on-ramp” classes to our UMSI on campus students like

  • SI502 – Intro Python
  • SI539 – Intro Web Design
  • SI664 – Intro Web Development.

We have taken the material from these courses and made Coursera specializations:

We build these three specializations with an eye to making a free curriculum that anyone can master regardless of background and prepare them for an entry level web programming job We hope they would be able to fix bugs, write new code with supervision, and do QA but probably not ready to start their own professional quality software project on their own. Because we focus on “on ramp”, we want to get a wide range of ages and skills to the “starting line” where they can begin to learn more on their own.

These Coursera specializations are very successful and Coursera is doing a great job of providing certifications that the industry is starting to accept as helpful signals for hiring. These certifications have been the primary source of revenue for Coursera. My Python specialization has over 200K completions over the past 2 years. It is one of the most popular and highest revenue specializations on Coursera.

We are also both very committed to free and open access because we feel that a career in web applications is a great way for those with lower financial means to improve their lives. But increasingly Coursera is putting more and more of the content of a specialization behind a subscription based paywall. While Coursera allows for financial aid, some students do not want to apply for aid. Also any financial barrier effectively blocks students in certain countries.

To insure my content remains 100% free, I have built my own web sites to insure that students can access my content and assessments at no charge. Here are my web sites:

  • Python For Everybody – www.py4e.com
  • Web Applications For Everybody – www.wa4e.com – this is roughly what the Coursera specialization will look like in the Fall

These sites are effectively stand-alone MOOC providers using my Tsugi software. The sites track student progress and even award badges as students make progress. Colleen has not built a separate site for her course materials but that is something I would love to see happen to complete the set.

In terms of ascribing “meaning” to credentials, Coursera has spent 100’s of millions of dollars to build brand awareness and has 25M+ students taking courses and probably >100M certificates in LinkedIn. Coursera is five years old and has several TED talks (1, 2). And at this point – with all of that – Coursera certifications are becoming gradually accepted as a moderately reliable signal of suitability for employment.

Coursera certificates are not yet in the same category as Microsoft Certified Professional or Cisco Network Professional certificates. Those are very detailed and very stringent. Ultimately with all that Colleen and I do, if you get all 15 certificates from all three of our specializations – it is like you took 3 community college courses and got at least a “B”. This turns out to be a wonderful way to get students confident enough to play with tech in their current jobs or prepare them to learn more.

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