Designing the learning experience at HackerYou

As curriculum designer at HackerYou I am involved in curriculum development and instructional design for the full-time front-end web development bootcamp. Through iterative and incremental development I help decide what, when and how concepts are covered and make sure that students are actively engaged in the learning.

In most educational environments educators prescribe the learning outcomes and students’ learning is assessed by using these same outcomes. A teacher might decide that students need to know how to write a JavaScript function and then assess the students by asking them to write one. Another educational approach is the constructivist one, where learning outcomes are not prescribed and students are allowed to take ownership and direction over their own learning. Much is written about learning theories and instructional design and many battle lines are drawn. But at the end of the day what works best depends on the context; just like everything else in life there are no clear-cut nor easy answers.

Designing an exceptional learning experience takes time, effort, and care. What makes a design of any kind great is the details, the little things that take something plain and turn it into something worth talking about.

The right environment

HackerYou’s full-time programs are unique learning experiences. As a former student, I can attest to the fact that they are like nothing else I have experienced in my life. Students are immersed in the program for nine weeks; the line between “school” and the rest of life is almost non-existent. I had so much fun participating in the full-time program as a student. Now my priority is to help give the next cohort an even better experience.

In most educational contexts, courses are required to be within the bounds of government or institutional policy documents. In my opinion, policy documents are unnecessary when you have passionate educators because these educators will do everything in their power to build amazing learning experiences. They do not need extra incentive and certainly do not need the boundaries set by policy. HackerYou is accountable only to the students and that makes a whole lot of sense. We can experiment and tinker with ways of teaching until the students are getting the best possible in-class experience. Experimentation is crucial to design; it allows us to explore more possibilities.

Unlike most educational experiences, HackerYou’s full-time courses are developed and taught by a team. The combined experiences, perspectives and opinions of the team members helps develop a well-rounded learning experience.

The right people

Traditional education is plagued with fake teachers and fake students. Your high school science teacher wasn’t a scientist and your classmates weren’t interested in science but were forced to put up with it. An exceptional learning experience requires authentic teachers and students. HackerYou’s instructors have recent and ongoing experience in the field. The instructors have experience teaching and they are extremely generous with their time, simply because they love sharing their passion for web development. The students are hand-picked to ensure their success and the full-time course will be their top priority for nine weeks.

Start at the end

When designing HackerYou’s full-time front-end bootcamp, we started by asking ourselves “what do we want the outcome of the course to be?”. This guided the rest of the design process. Teaching the technical skills is not enough. We need to push people to achieve more than they thought they could. We need to take people who are interested in web development and inspire them to love it. We need to prepare people for the real world, giving them the essential tools to take on whatever clients throw at them.

Staying close to the docks

You can “teach” someone to swim by throwing them in the sea and checking in on them the next day. If they’ve managed to survive then pat yourself on the back; if they drowned then clearly they weren’t working hard enough. Or you can keep them close to the shore, give them the skills they need to survive at sea, and then let them explore when they’re ready. If they struggle, you’ll be able to pull them to safety.

The early stages of learning should involve just enough exploration to keep things interesting but not enough that students are left feeling helpless. At HackerYou’s full-time program, students will get a very detailed curriculum to serve as a common set of outcomes and as a shared vocabulary. We built the curriculum knowing that web development is complex, and didn’t attempt to include all possible topics. The outcomes serve as buoys to mark the safe territory rather than control learning. To help students achieve the outcomes we have lessons and activities planned for each day of the week. The plan or syllabus will be given to the students in advance along with the curriculum, notes and resources. Students are free to explore but we’re watching their backs.

Assessment without grades

Students at HackerYou will receive constructive, non-judgemental feedback from their instructors and peers. They will also be pushed to be reflective and to keep track of their own progress. The detailed syllabus and curriculum will give students the vocabulary to ask good questions. They will know what is expected of them at the end of each day and each week. They’ll know if they missed the target. The instructors will be available full-time to answer questions and keep track of student progress.

Explore when ready

The later stages of learning require not only the freedom to explore but also a push. At HackerYou, students will be given authentic, realistic and challenging problems throughout the program. Students will be pushed to be reflective and to contribute to the community. Collaboration will be emphasized over competition.

Students will have plenty of opportunities to do interesting work and get some time in the limelight to celebrate their accomplishments.

The outcome

No grades nor degrees will be issued because employers and potential clients don’t care about that in this industry – they care about results. Students will leave with real, up-to-date, and immediately useful skills. Their portfolios will be full of beautiful, functional work to show off. Students will have the resources and tools they need to launch and grow their freelance business. And they will be part of HackerYou’s network of instructors, mentors, alumni, and advisors. After all, most freelance work comes from networking and referrals. And if we can get the students to love web development then they will be on their way to learning much, much more on their own.