David Yang knew early in the coronavirus pandemic he had to take drastic action at his New York City-based coding bootcamp, Fullstack Academy. It was March 3, 2020, and Yale University medical and social science expert Nicholas Christakis had just tweeted that closing down classrooms can curtail viral spread.
"I remember reading that thread and realizing I need to shut down Fullstack no matter the cost to our business," said Yang. "I didn't want our students to be at risk. One defining characteristic of bootcamp is you have an intense, almost mosh-pit-like feeling of learning, people really getting face to face, hands on with each other. Walking around the bootcamp classroom, I immediately thought, 'we're going to be a super-spreader, we have to shut this down immediately'."
Yang bolted the physical doors at his facilities in New York and Chicago. However, shuttering his brick-and-mortar classrooms did not mean ceasing the business of providing an immersive education in computer skills; it meant going online.
The results were far from certain. Yang harbored his share of concerns, especially as his school was known for its staunch use of "pair programing," in which two people work together in each other's presence as an intentional means of learning how others work and think. The $18,000 tuition for the three-to-six-month course was going to become more challenging to justify, especially in a world with seemingly uncertain job prospects.
Yang's trepidation proved to be well-founded. By June, enrollment had dropped, and the decline continued into the third quarter, plummeting nearly 40% compared to the same quarter a year earlier.
Fortunately for Fullstack, things began to change as prospective students eventually began contemplating enrollment, a mulling process that typically takes a couple of months.
"People were starting to hunker down and realize that this (the pandemic) was going to last for a long time," Yang said. On top of that, the central role of technology and cyber life in an increasingly locked-down physical world was creating an employable need for programming skills.
By the fourth quarter, the contemplators arrived in full force, as enrollment surged a whopping 70% compared to 2019's fourth quarter. The net result was a 30% uptick in enrollments for the year.
It also didn't hurt that, while students were missing all the social benefits of school life, word was spreading about the effectiveness of online lectures. "You can hear the instructor," Yang noted, contrasting a Zoom setting to what can be a more chaotic, noisy lecture hall. "Questions are answered in a very orderly fashion on Zoom. It kind of orders a lot things that were disordered. Students started to recognize the tradeoffs, and realized that it wasn't terrible."
Although other coding schools might take issue with the effectiveness of Zoom per se—Fullstack competitor Codecademy, for instance, opposes Zoom, although it has always taught entirely online using other means—the online medium seemed to keep things running at coding schools and abetted an increase in student numbers, albeit not always a madcap jump in numbers.
Despite the initial blow that Fullstack suffered over the first few months of the pandemic, its June turnaround accelerated over the summer, leading to a roughly 30% jump in enrollments for the year, which was in line with the school's target.
Codecademy, the traditionally all-online school, recorded a 125% spike in new sign-ups to 5 million from around 2.2 million the previous year, according to CEO Zach Sims. That leap includes millions of learners who tapped into the school's free tester. The increase was still a healthy 50% boost in paying subscribers who numbered 150,000 in 2020, up from around 100,000 in 2019. Codecademy charges $40 per month for "all-you-can-eat" access to its coursework, and tends to attract users in the 18-to-34-year-old range.
New York City-based Course Report tracks the coding school business, and over the course of 2020, it detected a rise in interest and awareness among prospective students, although actual enrollments did not increase any more than in a normal year.
"I've heard from schools that generally, yes, interest is higher," said Course Report co-founder Liz Eggleston. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that they are opening the floodgates and enrolling tons more people. If you get laid off because of the pandemic and have never coded before, you might be interested, but you're very unlikely to just enroll in a bootcamp the next day. Enrollment has grown, but not at an incredible clip." Eggleston characterized the enrollment increase as similar to past years. Graduates numbered about 25,000 to 26,000 in 2020, compared to 23,000 in 2019.
Codecademy's Sims noted that in normal years, students often were trying to augment their skills for an existing job, but "what we saw last year was people that were more interested in transitioning to a full-time job in software engineering or data science than maybe we would have seen in a normal year," he said.
Likewise, Yang at Fullstack noted that about a third of the school's "employer partners" (companies it works with to help provide skilled programmers) last June unfroze their hiring budgets and rushed to push forward their technology plans. Not only was that another reason why Fullstack's registrations recovered in June, but it also gave a sharper than ever employment focus to coursework. At Codecademy, the "business-to-business" segment —training that Codecademy did directly for companies—grew fourfold.
"In 2020, a considerably higher number of people were unemployed before they even started bootcamp," said Course Report's Eggleston. "That is consistent with pandemic trends." In previous years, there was a higher number of people who were employed and learning computer skills in preparation of an eventual career change. Last year, however, many more new bootcampers "were actually unemployed, maybe had been laid off from their last job, and really had to change careers," she said.
In a notable demographic twist at Fullstack, "We saw a significant increase in women attending our programs," Yang said. COVID, it seems, prompted more women to take advantage of Fullstack's five-year-old Grace Hopper Program, aimed at women via incentives including deferred payments and female-only classes. Yang surmised women who, in the past, had merely contemplated enrolling, decided to take the plunge as the pandemic "helped them pull the trigger." Fullstack also noticed a jump in part-time students, which Yang attributes to people having more time and energy now that they were working from home and not coping with the strains of commuting to and from a long day in an office.
In another development, Course Report and Codecademy both pointed out that more students than ever enrolled in bootcamp last year without having a bachelor's degree. Codecademy's Sims pointed out that some of them were still in high school. While the uptick in itself is probably another indicator of a jobs focus, it also reflects a continuation of a trend in which bootcamps are gaining more mainstream legitimacy.
"In 2013, 90% had bachelor's degrees," said Eggleston. "It's been going steadily down, and this past year, that very much continued."
Another factor that has helped to draw code schools in as a university alternative: high schoolers have become habituated to online learning during the pandemic, so the new online aspect of coding schools may be seen as a continuation of that norm. Of course, an online university course would continue that trend as well, but at a much higher price, one that has young adults pondering their education choices perhaps more than ever.
That is not to say that Zoom has become an absolute favorite. While Yang praises the teleconferencing service as the "cornerstone" of several effective online methods that Fullstack uses, Sims shuns it at Codecademy. In fact, Sims noted that some of the high schoolers turning his way have found that "their Zoom classes maybe are not as edifying as they would have hoped." Instead, Codecademy has its students write code straight into browser-based coursework.
"It's all learning by doing, in a way they wouldn't be able to do on Zoom," said Sims.
"There's always this argument in education about what's more effective: asynchronous or synchronous," said Yang. "The answer is, both can work. I love this African proverb: 'If you want go fast, go by yourself (asynchronous); if you want to go far, go together."
Mark Halper is a freelance journalist based near Bristol, England. He covers everything from media moguls to subatomic particles.
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