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An Emerging Model in Learning: Just-in-Time Education

I was reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with my kids recently when I had an epiphany. It’s one of my favorite books and movies, and when I was a kid, I wished I could be Charlie. But while I had always thought of the book as just a whimsical story about a boy who tours, and eventually inherits, a chocolate factory, it’s also a tale of the power of competency-based, just-in-time education.

Willy Wonka tests all the children in how well they can handle the challenges, and temptations, that come with running a business. That’s the power of competency-based education. Using the experience he already has, Charlie is able to prove that he’s a worthy successor to the great candy maker. And because the whole story takes place in only one day, it shows how quickly an education can be achieved.

Of course, just-in-time education is more than touring a chocolate factory – it’s changing how we perceive and deliver education.

Defining the Terms

So what, then, is just-in-time education? It’s education on a singular mission: to impart a set of in-demand competencies and skills geared toward helping learners get a job. In some industries, just-in-time education is viewed as more important than the degree, which is a trend I suspect will continue to grow with employers, especially those in industries that are being disrupted by the rapid advancements in technology. Just-in-time education comes in many shapes and sizes, including certifications, badges and nanodegrees (like the ones offered by Udacity). The truth is the scope, shape and size of just-in-time education is still evolving each day with new competitors in the landscape. In short, just-in-time education is:

  • Instruction that prepares learners with new and emerging skills that meet immediate market demands
  • Typically more affordable and more quickly attained than a traditional university degree
  • Education that is directly tied to outcomes and usually placement

The marketplace is predicting that this type of education is going to grow in popularity. Pluralsight, an advanced online training source for technology professionals, recently purchased Code School, which offers online courses for first-time coders, for $36 million. This comes less than a year after investor funding paved the way for Pluralsight’s $75 million acquisition of Smarterer, a skills assessment and scoring system. Additionally, the recent acquisition of by LinkedIn shows that the world’s most popular business-networking service is also paying attention to this trend.

Coding Bootcamps Lead the Way

Perhaps one of the most successful and fastest-growing examples of just-in-time education is the coding bootcamp. These programs, which are between 10 and 12 weeks and teach students software development skills in an intensive, immersive environment, are growing dramatically. Job placement rates range between 95 to 98 percent, and cost can range anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000. Armed with a set of new, viable, transferable skills, the Coding Bootcamp graduate comes prepared with market-ready skills to help them open doors.

I feel so strongly about the potential of bootcamps that I recently led the charge for Learning House to acquire the Software Craftsmanship Guild. We are now offering immersive coding bootcamps in Akron, Louisville and Minneapolis, and are looking to launch a low-residency option in January 2016.

I am not the only one to believe in this kind of education opportunity; now, the Department of Education has announced plans to grant accredited institutions the option to outsource portions of their offerings to on-site technology training programs, which would allow enrollees to receive need-based federal tuition assistance. Not to be outdone, the private lending market is also catching up to the trend.

For current students, this could mean recognizing a skills gap early and using federal financial aid to pay for training before entering the workforce. For colleges and universities, it reveals the need for new kinds of content and curriculum to help prepare enrollees for fast-paced, intensive, goal-oriented training.

What Does This Mean for You?

The challenge now is for schools to join the conversation. These new types of educational initiatives have been primarily developed and led by private companies, not colleges and universities. This means that institutions have an opportunity to become leaders in the space, using their strong educational reputations as a competitive advantage. But that window of opportunity is closing; as more people become accustomed to gaining certification or attending bootcamps from private, for-profit companies, those companies will become the industry norm, and colleges and universities will fall behind the curve. Unlike their for-profit “ancestors” before them (e.g., University of Phoenix), these for-profit education providers live and die by the outcomes of their programs, which right now appear to be stellar.

Although coding bootcamps have gotten the most attention, we may be missing the larger implications of these initiatives; specifically, what they are versus what they could become. Let’s look beyond the existing models for on-ground skills trainings. Although there is currently great need for skilled software developers, this immersive, specific education model also could be extended to relevant skills in business administration, communications, design, marketing, informatics, or management. The trick here will be to partner with employers so that students see a clear and immediate ROI, in the form of better jobs and higher salaries. It could also be a way for employers to outsource training of existing employees without having to invest in in-house training capabilities.

The Challenges

These types of educational models, however, present their own challenges. While there is a large pool of professors available for traditional teaching, and even for teaching online, an intensive, just-in-time model is a different beast.

I anticipate a few different challenges that we, as an industry, need to overcome:

  • Finding instructors who have in-depth, up-to-date experience with their topic along with the skills needed to teach it
  • Adapting this training to hybrid or fully online models and potentially entirely asynchronous platforms, while retaining the rigor and rewards associated with existing bootcamp models
  • The role of federal funding in these programs. What about programs that go beyond an explicit, DOE-recognized skills gap? How can we come to an agreement on what distinguishes a formal program from an informal program?

By this time next year, we should see the first students of bootcamp-style programs beginning to receive federal financial assistance. While the job market is strong for those graduates, by focusing too narrowly on that space, we lose the opportunity to help students and employers in other skills and competencies that may be required.

I challenge you to think outside the coding box and consider what other areas could benefit from just-in-time education. How can we identify skills gaps, and then develop programs to meet those needs? I see this in my own life. At Learning House, we are always looking for talented marketing and analytics experts. But the potential employee market is small, in part because colleges are not currently developing graduates with these skill sets.

I am always urging my team to develop “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” – to set the biggest, most ambitious goals possible and then figure out how to achieve them. Developing more models for just-in-time education is one of those goals, and I encourage you to take this journey as well. After all, Charlie would never have earned the chocolate factory if he had refused to even try to win the golden ticket.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: