Treehouse heralds an age of digital literacy, no degree required

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 8, 2012

From The News Desk

Treehouse, a startup that teaches Web, iOS, and Android development, has partnered with the Thiel Fellowship to offer free lessons to the young drop-outs in a move to further discourage entrepreneurs from enrolling in college. Why? Because, like Peter Thiel, Treehouse CEO Ryan Carson believes that higher education is not necessary to be successful.

"If you want to code or make websites or build mobile apps, you definitely should not be going to university and wasting your money," he says. "I have a Computer Science degree, so I know exactly what you learn. None of it is relevant."

The college question has become a hot-button issue for startups, investors, and pundits alike. Some, like Thiel and Carson, argue that higher education takes much more than it gives. Others, like PandoDaily's Adam Penenberg, say that entrepreneurs should stay in college to "learn how to learn." The Valley lies divided.

Treehouse's decision to promote the life of the drop-out comes shortly after Codecademy, a startup that also offers coding lessons, partnered with New York University to offer a select group of students free lessons. Though the companies' methods couldn't be more different – one is chasing dropouts, the other academics – their core mission, promoting digital literacy, is the same.

It's not surprising, then, that Carson and Marita Sturken, the chair of NYU's department of media, culture, and communication and the woman overseeing the partnership with Codecademy, shared similar views about coding's relevance to daily life.

"We think that that has become a skill, a language, that they need in addition to knowing how to write, understanding the history of technology, understanding how to analyze aspects of media," Sturken says. "It's not about knowing the basics of how to program. It's that they understand code and programming and algorithms as a language and a grammar that underwrites so much of this activity and their activity."

Carson echoed her sentiment, saying that he believes "technology is becoming this base level of literacy." Though Carson is actively trying to get students to leave college – or simply not go in the first place – he and Sturken agree that code has become a language that one must learn in order to understand the world around them.

Both also addressed the thing we're really talking about when we ask whether college is useful or not: jobs. Carson says that "the only value I got out of university was pure luxury," and that his experience made him "a well-rounded person, but none of them were necessary to get a job." He argues that we will move more towards a trade school-like model where people that want to learn a certain skill will focus on learning that skill and how to apply it in a real-world situation.

Sturken, on the other hand, says that her department tends not to focus on the teaching of specific skills. "We have to constantly update and rethink what skills students need to have," she says. "So one of the things that we say is 'well, we aren't going to train you in a particular media form, we're not going to train you for a particular job category. What we're going to do is help you become flexible thinkers."

Which, perhaps unsurprisingly, reminds me of Adam's assertion that entrepreneurs should attend college to learn the act of learning. Carson's argument is that people need to learn the skills appropriate to their profession, while Adam and Sturken's argument seems to be that people need to learn how to learn those skills.

Both parties agree that college isn't as risky as being an entrepreneur, though that can be a good or bad thing. Where Adam sees security and the opportunity to take risks Carson saw luxury and a "huge machine" that fails to deliver on its supposed promise of a guaranteed career path.

Sturken and Carson seemed to be aware of the fact that higher education is in a state of flux, and both shared similar feelings about preparing people for their future careers. Where they disagree, however, is in the interpretation. For some, college is seen as an expensive boarding school that doesn't guarantee a job and has massive opportunity costs. For others, college is a place where people can find out who they are with a modicum of stability and a built-in support system.

The two sides may never see eye to eye, and the truth of the matter is that there is no black and white, clear-cut solution for this problem. College may be right for some people, and it might be wrong for others. No solution will ever encompass everybody,  nor should it. Some people need the time to learn about themselves and their careers in a safe environment – others need to throw themselves into the world and learn as they go.

What both sides can agree on, however, is technology's role in everyday life. Not understanding the basics of HTML or other code languages is a huge detriment in our digital world, and everyone should understand, to at least some degree, the tools that they use every day. Some people – myself included – don't care how that digital literacy is gained, so long as it is grokked in some way. Both Codecademy and Treehouse (and, of course, other solutions that offer similar tools) are helping to make that a reality.

[Disclosure: Peter Thiel is an investor in PandoDaily]