Two and a half years ago, when I started Codecademy, investors and friends alike told me and my colleagues that programming wasn’t something people were interested in learning. With an estimated 100,000 programmers employed in the US, it wasn’t likely that there would be a global movement for people to learn what we, instead, thought was the most fundamental skill of the 21st century.
Yet, two years later, programming has been incorporated in classrooms all around the world. In the United Kingdom, it will be a component of every primary and secondary school students’ education in September. In the US, more and more states are starting to consider programming vital to graduation. Yet in the sweep of all of this, what’s happened is we’ve started to view “code” as something you can learn in three months and be done with it, driven largely by the emergence of bootcamps across the country that claim they can take people from zero to employment in a short period.
At Codecademy, we focus on teaching people the skills they need to find jobs—skills that are constantly in flux. What’s amazing about programming is that it’s a field in which the popular topics of today—Ruby, node.js, and others—may not be the hot subject areas of tomorrow. Programmers need to stay on top of their skill set and learn continuously in order to be able to stay employed and effective in a modern economy. This isn’t a bad thing—except perhaps for higher education—but instead a harbinger of learning and skills development in general. With an increasingly digital future, we all have to realize that learning isn’t something we just do within the four-year confines of college, but instead something that should stay with us our whole lives.
Recenly, the New York Times published a few pieces insisting that the value of college is “not just correlation” and has, in fact, been proven. Yet the Times is belaboring a point that’s been well trod by others over the past several decades—more education, it seems, is better for one’s outcome later in life.
The question society isn’t asking, after reading surveys like this, is what type of education students are getting and what happens afterwards. Four-year colleges might not be the models of the future. The concepts a computer science major learned years ago may no longer be relevant with the pace of advancement in the field. The same applies for many other areas—chemistry, biology, journalism, and more— and in each of them what’s important is that their participants keep learning throughout their careers.
When we first started Codecademy, it was in part a reaction to what we were experiencing in college at the time. My cofounder, a computer science and biophysics major, realized he was learning more about CS outside the classroom than he was inside. I (a political science major) had interviewed with a few banks and consulting firms and was frustrated that the skills I had spent three years attaining were of nearly no value to the firms I thought I’d work for. When we looked around the rest of the academic landscape, we saw that more than 50% of college graduates in the US are unemployed or underemployed a year after they graduate. The skills we’re teaching in formal educational systems aren’t relevant to the jobs of today. Seeing this, we started Codecademy as a way for anyone to learn the digital skills they need to find a job and be successful in the 21st century.
Designing a new educational institution required a bit of rethinking, but one of our first principles seemed obvious—learning needed to fit into the lives we live and to change quickly enough in order to stay relevant. We wanted a world where the skills people needed to be successful weren’t walled off by an institution or an application process, but where they could access all the knowledge they needed anywhere, anytime.
Fortunately, we weren’t alone in thinking education needed to change. Dozens of other companies—Duolingo, CreativeLive, Skillshare, and more—have appeared to help fill the gap for people looking to learn continuously over the course of their careers. The emerging meme of “learn something in three months and change careers” isn’t the message we should all unite behind. Instead, what’s most important is moving from an episodic model of education to one that’s integrated at every stage of your life. Learning shouldn’t be confined to your formal education—it should be a lifelong state of mind.