The awkward irony of not being able to take a good coding bootcamp online

Hard to hack.
Hard to hack.
Image: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed
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Silicon Valley will tell you that the future belongs to those who can code. Tales are always trickling in about some 20-year-old at a tech startup raking in six figures a year, about employers courting skilled programmers with all the voracity of sports recruiters hunting down the next Olympic athletes; in today’s machine-driven world, programmers are easily one of the most desirable and high-salaried workers.

So the explosion of coding bootcamps—vigorous, high-intensity curriculums that cram years’ worth of programming education into mere weeks—makes sense. What makes much less sense is this: To learn an entirely computer-based skill, why do you still have to attend a bootcamp in person?

A recent article in the New York Times (paywall) highlighted some coding schools that are currently testing “blended” models, combining in-person and online instruction in order to increase flexibility and accommodate more students. But by and large, most coding bootcamps—an industry that in 2017 is graduating 10 times the number of students that it did in 2012, according to a study from Course Report—are bricks-and-mortar institutions. While the Flatiron School, a leading name in the space, debuted an online-only version of its signature program in late 2015, the advantages are questionable: Tuition is only a little cheaper ($12,000 for eight months compared to the $15,000 15-week in-person bootcamp) and it’s difficult to track students’ engagement.

“Online boot camp is an oxymoron… No one has figured out how to do it yet,” Ryan Craig, a managing director at the startup investment group University Ventures, said to the Times.

In the end, online coding bootcamps—while a great idea in theory—suffer the same pitfalls of online education at large. They can be much less engaging than a real classroom.

They don’t bring students any of the energy and interaction of sitting in a room with ardent, excitable peers, which is particularly important for the supposedly collaborative and forward-thinking field of programming. Some schools like 42, a coding school backed by a French billionaire that plunges students into a four-week “pool” of training, build their reputation off the interaction of talented and dedicated students. Existing coding schools don’t want to risk diluting their brand by offering a subpar online product; new ones don’t want to be online-only because they risk spending all their money on expensive technology only to see it fail.

The coding school industry is presently a $266 million market, with ample room still to grow. And unless some radically inventive new education software hits the streets to replicate all the heady spirit of an in-person bootcamp over the internet, it will continue to do so solidly offline.