engineering_studentsFor the first time, people learning to code can actually do it efficiently part-time. And I don’t mean high-school students with no social life and fewer responsibilities who teach themselves, though that does describe my teenage years. I mean adults with full-time jobs. I mean people whose schedules are full and who can’t afford to quit and pay college tuition at a traditional University.

While much of the marketing around much of the “learn to code” movement focuses on short-term goals, aspiring coders see themselves on a much longer path. To teach themselves, these early adopters are using different education programs at different stages of their development.

There’s a big divide between those who can code and those who cannot. This divide is similar to the difference a generation ago between those comfortable using a computer (typing, virtual files, etc) and everyone else. A burst of innovation in PCs back then means that today computer literacy is a prerequisite for every service-sector job. That kind of change required a lot of training.

As software continues to eat the world, the next wave of computer literacy training is growing right alongside it. Today’s spike in demand for engineers will be tomorrow’s expectation that employees can manage data too large for an Excel spreadsheet, and that everyone automates their own manual tasks. Behind the talk of the skills gap and the craze around sourcing top engineers is a stronger, more durable trend. In the future, the last line of everyone’s resume will include some variant of “python” and “JavaScript” where today it reads “Microsoft Office” and “Excel.”

The tools for all this learning are new, so their impact on education can be hard to see. After all, high-quality alternatives to two-year Masters programs won’t appear overnight. But if you think of lifelong education as an investment for the long-term, as successful adult learners do right now, the future of technology education becomes clear.

For absolute beginners, the most common starting point is Codecademy. Millions of people have jumped into their encouraging, inviting lessons. A personal trainer at our gym wants to barter for a spot in a Thinkful class. Not surprisingly, the trainer got his start on Codecademy. Similarly, fast-growing companies like CodeSchool and Lynda offer students the opportunity to learn during downtime, such as while commuting or over lunch.

But learning alone is slow, difficult, and doing so usually proves demotivating. The lack of personal attention is proving to be the achilles heel for MOOCs, where students who seek help describe the experience as “the blind leading the blind.” This is one of the primary reasons online courses commonly see completion rates of between 5-10 percent. As a result, it’s no surprise to see experimentation with mentorship models similar to those from Thinkful. After all, there’s a reason individuals have directly taught each other for thousands of years.

Most important for learners at this stage is not job-readiness, but rather that students learn how to answer their own questions. When I’m writing code, I have two windows open: my text editor of choice and a Web browser I use to find answers. Proficiency in coding is often as much about identifying gaps in your knowledge, and filling them quickly using Google, as anything else.

The last stage in this new education system is provided by schools like Flatiron School here in New York City and many others opening in cities across the US and abroad. These are mostly offline programs providing short, intense, and expensive crash courses in all things web development. They require you to quit your job and, often, pay over $10,000 in tuition. In addition to the high-quality, hands-on education that students receive, the secret sauce of these programs comes in their filtering of applicants to only those who are already almost job ready. The majority of these schools’ revenue comes through recruiting fees. This means that applicants are screened for job-readiness in high-paid engineering positions as much as anything else.

These new learning options aren’t going to replace the elite computer science programs at Columbia or Stanford anytime soon. But even if these schools were affordable the commitment they require isn’t reasonable for most adults. MOOCs are bringing credibility to online learning, but it’s this new set of programs that, when combined, are finally delivering on their central promise: Efficient, accessible and effective online education.

[Image courtesy Duke Yearlook]