This week Alex, our team member responsible for Curriculum Development, visited the École 42 school in Paris. A lot has been written about it and its revolutionary approach to training programmers (check this article on Quartz). Why revolutionary? There are no teachers, no application criteria, and their building is available 24/7 for its students. With the first batch having graduated, numbers are in now: 80% agreed to a job offer before they graduate and a full 100% started had a job right after the program. Its founder ” Xavier Niel was concerned about the future of France if it couldn’t catch up with digitalisation. Now, the 3-year program he founded trains 1000 top-notch programmers per year.

No Teachers? How do they learn then?

Log-In to any of the computers and you see your dashboard. The school is completely project-based with the central point being the intranet dashboard.

You see your current experiences points and level, then once you reach level 20 you’ve graduated. It’s generally expected to obtain 7 levels per year. Still, everyone can go at their own pace and most people graduate within 3-5 years.

On the dashboard, you see a map of projects with different directions to take. Tracks are Algorithms & AI, Security, and Visual Projects like games, web and mobile apps.
Some projects are solo projects, many 2-person projects, and some larger group projects. Each project starts with a 5-10 page pdf document containing context, basic requirements and some further directions for extra points and creativity.

Since there are no teachers, they also found a solution for project feedback: once you press submit, 3-5 peers get a notification with information about where you’re sitting. and automatically come to give you a grade and feedback. You then give feedback on their feedback too. And like in the Google Intranet, there are plenty of internal subdomains for random things. Here, you can e.g. access the security cameras under scam.ecole42.fr. Because of this, people are comfortable leaving their phone on their workspace.

Where to get help

Every project has a related forum where students can share information, questions, and ideas. Then there are short staff videos (<10m) that explain a central concept. And finally there is a Slack Channel for chatting (like in most start-ups). Didactic staff won’t bother answering project-related question. You will have to find the answer yourself. And judging from their graduates and 100% job-placement rate it is working.

Open for anyone who wants to become a programmer

One thing that sets this education system apart from the traditional “haute écoles” is the openness. They don’t care about your high school grades, motivation letters, or extracurricular experience. Even with a criminal record, you’re not being discriminated against. To apply, you have to play some logic games online, and then you get invited to the “piscine”, french for swimming pool. Being pushed into cold water, you have 4 weeks to finish the projects, and the best 1000 students can continue from there.

Strongly gamified approach

A space like this needs certain rules. Being caught taking the elevator or eating in front of the screen means doing community work. To decide what to do, you spin a wheel. A punishment could be cleaning every monitor on a floor. In the staff office, around 20 persons are working, divided in a pedagogical team, a security team, and the intranet team. Through their projects, experience points are earned and progress is made. And for big achievements you get points and can spend those on real-life stuff. Basically, this 3000-person school is run through a platform and a 24 persons of staff!

 

RefugeesCode uses online courses

Yet we can learn a lot from the methods École 42 is using. We have decided to go for an intensive 12-week online course from Harvard, followed by 12 weeks of projects to build a portfolio. At the end of these 6 months, participants do a 3-month internship at a company we arrange for them. The advantages with online courses is that we don’t reinvent the wheel. And we can guarantee a certain standard for each participant. Yet also Harvard CS50 is following a project-based structure using “Problem Sets” that require a participants to implement the concepts they’ve learned from the lectures. They come from different real-life domains such as cryptography, geography, forensics, and many more.
With the experience we’re gaining now, maybe we’ll one day be able to launch a similar program in Austria. We have now seen that it works and we can prepare cases for the project phase, and know what a future structure may look like.
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