The truth about MooCs and bootcamps: Their biggest benefit isn't creating more coders

The world needs more software programmers and MooCs and coding bootcamps promise to deliver the needed skills. But as an on-ramp to becoming a developer, they have debatable value.

No one can fault the ambition of the companies that run Massive Open Online Courses.

One of the pioneers of these online learning hubs, Udacity founder and chairman Sebastian Thrun, recently summed up their mission as nothing less than democratizing education.

"We believe that if you catch a man a fish, he has dinner for the night. If we teach them, however, how to fish, he or she has dinner for the rest of their life," he said.

But how effective are these "MooCs" at putting food on the table of their graduates? Or, to be more specific to the tech industry, is completing a MooC or a coding bootcamp really enough to kickstart a career as a software developer?

Since Stanford and other major US universities began experimenting with making courses available online in 2011, the number of MooC providers and the breadth of courses they offer has ballooned, and today major platforms, such as Udacity and Coursera, will certify students who successfully completed their courses. As the number of courses has grown, so have the students, with 35 million people enrolling for MooCs in 2015 by one estimate, although the numbers completing courses is far lower.

While MooCs might be democratizing education, offering courses that in some cases rival the best available at universities, and for free or a fraction of the price, the evidence that these MooCs help their graduates onto a career ladder is shaky—at least when it comes to programming.

On their own, completing these online courses seems to mean very little to those hiring at some of the largest tech firms.

"I'm not sure online courses such as Udacity, Coursera, and General Assembly are enough to teach all the foundation covered in a computer science degree. On the whole, coding camps are still quite rudimentary, where we try to look for software engineers who understand computational problem solving," said Theresa McHenry, HR director of Microsoft UK.

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For the major tech employers, it still seems there's really no substitute for a university degree in computer science, particularly from a top US or UK institution.

"Typically, we ask for a BSc degree or higher in computer science or an equivalent qualification," said Microsoft's McHenry.

"If a candidate demonstrates extensive relevant experience, this can at times supersede a degree. However, early in a career, a computer science degree/equivalent or STEM with coding or algorithmic application is generally preferred."

That strong preference for a CS degree is also true at UK technology giant ARM, whose chip designs are used in more than 80% of smartphones. ARM's job postings for software and hardware engineers typically ask for at least a BSc in computer science or electrical engineering.

John Goodenough, VP of technology collaboration and standards at ARM, said a solid grounding in the fundamentals of computer science, and an ability to learn new skills, are more important than a working knowledge of half a dozen of the latest languages gleaned from a bootcamp.

"One of the speakers today made a very good point about people needing to be evergreen," he said at a recent event in London.

"Anybody who comes into our business, what they'll be doing in three years' time won't be what they're doing today. It's more about STEM fundamentals."

Only the minority of people who completed MooCs offered by two of the most well-known providers report having landed a job on the back their newfound skills and qualifications.

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The flexibility of self-paced learning is one of the big appeals of MooCs.

Image: iStockphoto/DragonImages

A 2014 survey published in Harvard Business Review, polled tens of thousands of graduates from Coursera, which offers more than 1,800 courses and specializations covering a wide range of tech.

The study found that just over one quarter of the 26,000 people who completed a course with a view to furthering their career credited Coursera with helping them get a new job.

Dr. Gayle Christensen, associate vice provost at the University of Washington, who was one of the researchers who carried out the study, said candidates still had an uphill battle to get the large technology firms to recognize MooC credentials.

"In the top firms or large firms ... there's a huge demand for the computer science degree," she said. "They want a certain type of credential, that they know represents a pretty challenging top flight kind of opportunity. It's hard for these online courses maybe to be seen in that same light."

The large MooC providers are repositioning themselves to be better at addressing the needs of the tech industry.

In 2014, Udacity, launched its $199 per month "Nanodegree" courses, whose curriculum has been written with the help of Google, Amazon, and IBM and other large tech providers. Today, Udacity offers 13 Nanodegrees programs, in areas covering topics like machine learning, Android and iOS development. These commercial partners offer some benefits to some Nanodegree graduates, Google has invited top graduates to its campus, and AT&T has pledged to create up to 100 internships.

Udacity's $299 Nanodegree Plus program, which covers its machine learning, and web and iOS development courses among others, goes even further, offering US job candidates money back if they don't secure a job in a related area within six months.

To date, roughly one third of the 3,000 people who have graduated have gone on to get jobs related to their Nanodegree program.

Slightly different, in that it's not a MooC but more of a coding bootcamp, where people attend physical classrooms to learn in person, is General Assembly. Like MooCs, coding bootcamps are an increasingly popular non-traditional route into the tech industry, with 91 bootcamps operating across the US in 2016.

General Assembly said 99% of full-time course graduates who participated in its career services program, secured a job or paid internship within 180 days of graduation.

"Coding camps are still quite rudimentary, where we try to look for software engineers who understand computational problem solving."
Theresa McHenry, HR director of Microsoft UK

However that figure also includes those graduates who returned to their existing job or company and are using the skills learned with GA. GA wasn't able to provide a figure solely for what proportion had successfully landed a new job or changed careers after completing one of their courses. Also, roughly one quarter of graduates from full-time GA courses don't participate in its career services program.

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When it comes to the statistics, most Udacity and Coursera graduates don't go on to secure a new job or career on the back of their studies, while the nature of General Assembly's figures make it impossible to separate those landing new jobs from those returning to their employer.

That's not to say that MooC and coding bootcamp graduates without other relevant qualifications haven't gone on to get jobs. James Peterson, who despite only having a year of community college education, got a job as a web developer after completing a Udacity nanodegree, as did Dan Haddigan, despite having a fine arts degree and no applicable experience prior to taking a Udacity course.

Unlike Peterson and Haddigan, Martin Chibwe is a computer science graduate, but he also credits his completing Udacity's iOS Developer Nanodegree with helping him get a job as an iOS developer.

"It was extremely helpful when I was applying for the iOS position. In my opinion, it can be a standalone degree where you don't have any experience in software development or a degree in computer science," he said.

"It gives you all the necessary skills you need. And then, after that, I think it's up to the individual to continuously improve their skills," said Chibwe, adding that a Udacity career coach had also helped him identify and apply for jobs.

However, Chibwe's is just one perspective among MooC graduates. Tarun Kumar is an electronics major at Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Pilani, India and has completed multiple MooCs, both with Coursera and Udacity, and is currently studying for a course related to deep learning with fast.ai.

In Kumar's experience, technology firms have limited interest in whether a job applicant has earned a certificate in a particular technology from a MooC provider, and don't rate MooC certifications highly enough to offset the need for a degree in a relevant area.

"I'm pretty sure that taking a MOOC and putting it on my CV will not make a difference," he said.

"The only difference I feel is that it shows you are self-motivated. I don't think you need a certificate just to show that. It's not worth it.

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Bootcamps can help professionals get up to speed quickly on new skills, but they aren't an instant path to a high-paying job as a coder.

Image: iStockphoto/Goodluz

"Say, I'm applying for a machine-learning sort of job or a web-development sort of job. Forget the MooC. If I'm from a traditional university, I'll just put up that I have a BS in electronics or computer science.

"I don't see the mindset of the companies changing because it's not in their nature," said Kumar. "Maybe it will change, but I don't think that's happening right now. So, with a MOOC, you can use that knowledge, but the certification in itself, I don't think it adds much value."

Instead of necessarily springboarding people with no relevant experience or qualifications into a new role, some evidence suggests that MooCs are perhaps more successful at helping those who are already skilled in a particular area to further specialize.

Of all the tangible and intangible benefits of taking a Coursera course, by far the most common cited of those responding to the 2014 survey published in HBR, was 'enhanced skills for current job'.

While Udacity has courses for those with no programming background, Amy Lester, head of communications at the company, admits its courses are generally aimed at augmenting the skills of existing professionals.

"Udacity courses are not meant to be a substitute for a computer science degree at all," she said.

"Our courses and curriculum are targeted to professionals who have been in the workforce and are now looking to build skills to get a new job or advance their career."

Kevin Mills, head of corporate partnerships for Coursera, also stresses the difference between the vast majority of its courses and university teaching.

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"A single course or specialization doesn't necessarily lead to mastery for someone starting from the beginning, but it does enable people to learn new skills on a regular basis, stay competitive and grow throughout their careers," he said, adding Coursera is working with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to deliver two accredited online degree programs, an iMBA and a Masters of Computer Science - Data Science.

Trust and recognition is undoubtedly still a hurdle for most MooCs and coding bootcamps, including the need to persuade companies to trust the quality of their accreditation.

But what about the actual calibre of the education they offer? Recent scrutiny of a small number of courses offered by Coursera, Udacity and EdX found that none passed a Quality Matters review, which evaluates the extent to which courses meet a set of standards for online education.

The areas in which most courses were generally found to be lacking were in learner interaction and engagement, and in learner support. While the courses examined didn't meet enough standards to pass the assessment, some scored relatively highly, and the researchers said a couple of the MooCs could be considered "high quality online courses" following "some minor revisions".

However, Kumar agrees with Microsoft's McHenry that the quality of teaching within MooCs and coding bootcamps, in general, is too uneven to appeal to employers.

"Anybody who comes into our business, what they'll be doing in three years' time won't be what they're doing today. It's more about STEM fundamentals."
John Goodenough, VP of technology collaboration and standards at ARM

"It's one of the problems I have with MooCs. They are accessible but sometimes they dumb down or dilute the content too much because they want to reach out to a larger audience," he said.

Kumar says there has been a shift in focus among some of the larger MooC providers to offering more courses focusing on specific technologies and frameworks, and away from more in-depth exploration of topics.

"For materials like this, there are already tons of videos on the internet," he said.

"They have these courses about how to use Git and about Angular. They directly apply to a job but I don't see why someone would pay for knowledge they can get for free. It's very shallow."

While some MooCs offer teaching by a world-leading expert in their field, he said citing Andrew Ng's machine-learning course on Coursera, many "don't have the depth like you have from going to graduate school in a specific area".

"There may be some MooC courses that are better than those on campus but they are not better enough to not justify taking a degree at all."

Whether or not a MooC graduate also has a degree is an important factor when weighing up the efficacy of MooCs for kickstarting a career. If a MooC graduate who lands a new job already has a university qualification in an area related to the MooC they took, then it becomes unclear the extent to which studying with the likes of Udacity or Coursera secured them the role.

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Coding camps are especially valuable for picking up highly specialized skills.

Image: iStockphoto/Rawpixel

Of the 52,000 people in total who were surveyed for the 2014 Coursera study, 83% were already educated to bachelor's degree level. While those without a bachelor's degree were more likely to report a career benefit, by far the most common career benefit reported was 'better equipped for current job', rather than moving to a new post. General Assembly's career services program graduates were educated to a similar degree, with about three-quarters having at least a university undergraduate degree. Udacity also confirmed that "many" of its graduates who went on to get jobs relevant to their course also had a university education.

What aren't easily available are stats showing whether these degrees were relevant to the jobs that MooC graduates went on to secure. But it's difficult to attribute career changes and new jobs postings solely to the skills picked up during MooCs, given that the majority of those completing these online courses are also university graduates.

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While it may seem like a small point, the extent to which completing a MooC will make a relatively unqualified individual appealing to employers is relevant to anyone thinking of taking a MooC to jumpstart a career, particularly because most graduates from two of the most high-profile MooCs, Coursera and Udacity, don't go on to secure a new job related to their course.

Of course, not everyone who studied a MooC will be looking for a new job or to change careers. But that doesn't detract from the lack of evidence that taking these MooCs provides a way for newcomers to break into the tech industry as software developers.

Alternate routes to becoming a software engineer or data scientist are important for individuals, when studying computer science at university typically costs tens of thousands of dollars in the US and UK, and for industry, to address their perennial complaints of a skills shortage.

There are more ways to land a job as a developer than via a university education. Of the more than 40,000 non-student, software developers who responded to the Stack Overflow developer survey, 69% were at least partly self-taught. However, not having a computer science degree does still seem to be a barrier for those looking to carve out a career in software development.

"[MooCs] are accessible but sometimes they dumb down or dilute the content too much because they want to reach out to a larger audience."
Tarun Kumar, electronics major at Birla Institute of Technology and Science

Among those same Stack Overflow respondents, only 13% were wholly self-taught, compared with 43% with either a BA or BSc in computer science or a related field. The need to have some level of formal education does still seem to exist, and is reinforced by a preference for degrees among some of the largest tech firms.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of MooCs and coding bootcamps for prospective jobseekers aren't the badges certifying proficiency in different technologies, but the portfolio of projects and skills they will amass during a course.

However, completing a MooC or coding bootcamp is likely to be only the starting point and needs to be followed by the likes of hackathons, coding contests, and open-source projects. Not only to build a body of work that may catch an employer's eye, but to accrue the hard-won expertise that's difficult to acquire without thousands of hours of practice. As a Silicon Valley tech recruiter recently told TechRepublic, there "is no shortcut to becoming a good programmer."

MooCs may be democratizing education, much as Udacity's Thrun intended. Despite the perception among some that the quality of MooCs is being diluted by their rapid growth, there are now thousands of lessons, some very high quality, available online at a fraction of the cost of a university education.

But Thrun's belief that acquiring these skills will gift MooC graduates the means to feed themselves and their families "for the rest of their life" is harder to stand up. The path to a software development career appears to be more expensive, uncertain, and hard-fought.

Credit for image at top: iStockphoto/undrey

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Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.