Is it a good idea for the top-ranked U.S. coding bootcamp to create an online campus?

By: Mark Davis

Next month, Fullstack Academy is launching a remote version of our Software Engineering Immersive program.  

As we wait for the first batch of students to arrive, I want to reflect a bit on how we got to this point, and why we decided to create an online campus for the top-ranked coding bootcamp in the country.

And to answer one simple question:  

Is this really a good idea?

A (very brief) history of Fullstack Academy

We started Fullstack Academy back in 2013, backed by Paul Graham and the legendary team at Y Combinator. Since then, we have developed a reputation for helping graduates secure software engineering jobs at top companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, and more. 

We doubled the size of our campus in New York City in 2014, and then again in 2015.  We also doubled the number of students who graduate through our immersive program each year.

And the adventure has continued into 2016.  In March, we opened a new campus in Chicago, by acquiring the original coding bootcamp, Starter League (founded by the amazing Neil Sales-Griffin, with investors like Jason Fried from Basecamp).  Now we’re firmly rooted in the fast-growing tech scene there and starting to graduate our first Chicago students. 

Merchandise Mart in Chicago

Fullstack's campus in Chicago is in the center of the tech scene, in the legendary Merchandise Mart building alongside the Chicago River.

So what do we do next?

It has been an amazing ride so far, and it’s fun to see our graduates leave Fullstack and get hired by companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon.  But there’s one thing that bugs us, and frankly, keeps us up at night.

It comes down to this simple fact:  

Sure, now we’ve got great campuses in New York City and Chicago, but what about people who want to study at Fullstack but aren’t willing (or able) to study in one of these cities?  How can we help these students who also want to change their lives by learning to write code?

One thing we could do, obviously, is open campuses in more cities.  And who knows, we may do that in the future.  But even if we open 2, 3, however many more campuses, we’re still only going to be able to reach a small portion of the people who might want to study at Fullstack, but don’t live near one of our locations. 

And that’s what brings us to the idea of creating an online campus.  This sounds like a promising concept, but there are two big questions that leap to mind.

BIG QUESTION #1: Is it technically possible?

The short answer is yes.  

For the last 6 months or so, we’ve been hacking on a bunch of different technologies to try and create the best mix of technological capability and – most importantly – cool ways to interact live with fellow students and instructors.

We’ve come up with a mix of tools (hardware and software) that create a truly immersive classroom experience.  Some of the tools are things we’ve built ourselves — like our learning management platform — and other tools are things that we’re integrating into our platform.  

The best way to get a sense for what we’ve created is to actually see it in action.  In this walkthrough video, one of our instructors, Karen MacPherson, takes you through the experience of being a student in our online campus: 

BIG QUESTION #2: Could an online campus really be as good as a physical campus?

There’s something interesting (and kind of surprising) that we’ve learned over the years about our students.  

When they’re evaluating different bootcamps, their top priority is usually quite simple:  

I want to learn the skills that will help me land my dream job as a software engineer.

But then when we interview students after they graduate, and ask what they thought of the experience…their answer is usually something like this:  

The best part about going to Fullstack was all the amazing friendships I formed, with some of the nicest and smartest people I’ve ever met.  I feel like we’ll all be friends for life.  And oh yeah… career-wise, it was the best thing I ever did… now I’m a developer at [insert company name here.]

We hear this kind of feedback all the time.  You can read it for yourself in student reviews in places like Course Report and Quora, and hear it in students' own words in Alumni Stories videos.

So that’s the challenge we’ve got.  Can we create an online campus where our students get to know each other and form deep, long-lasting friendships?

Our hypothesis: yes.  

The immersive, real-time learning platform that we’ve built will make that possible.  And that our online students will graduate with the same mix of new coding skills and new friendships as their counter-parts who graduate from our campuses in NYC or Chicago.  

In fact, some aspects of the online campus will be even better

As we’ve been building our online campus, our focus has been not just on making it as good, but making it even better than a physical campus.  One of the ways we'll be doing that is with virtual reality.

We have created something we’re calling our “VR Lab”, which — as far as we know — is the first of its kind from any top coding school.  It’s inspired by Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, and we’re taking the same kind approach towards research and experimentation in the emerging world of VR.  The VR Lab will be available exclusively to the students who enroll in the remote version of the Fullstack immersive program.

Here’s how it works:

We provide each student with a VR headset to use while they’re in the program.  They use this equipment to explore — and hack in — two types of VR environments.

The first is a "real world" environment, based on Youtube’s new 360-degree live streaming video. Students will put on their VR headsets and watch live events (like our acclaimed CTO Lectures and featured guest speakers) in immersive, real-time video. The students will feel like they're on campus with us in New York City, thanks to powerful technologies like the Orah 4i camera.

The second kind of VR experience is in "simulated worlds."  We have built a version of Fullstack’s NYC campus in Minecraft, where students can hang out with other students, build new things on the server, and "walk inside the Minecraft campus" using their VR headset.

The idea here is simple: the remote immersive is an online experience, so why not geek out with the latest online technologies? That’s exactly what our remote students will be doing in the VR Lab.

So if you’re interested in VR — or are thinking about pursuing it as a career track — then the remote version of the immersive program may actually be a better fit than studying on campus.  Why?  Because you'll be literally immersed in the latest VR technologies and get tons of hands-on experience while you’re going through the program.

So back to the original question: Is it really a good idea to launch an online campus?

When we first started working on this idea, we weren’t so sure.  But as we’ve gone through the process, and started building out the platform, our feelings have changed.  Now we’re incredibly excited about our online campus, and think that it will be an amazing place to learn for students who can’t join us in New York City or Chicago.

But there is a caveat.

The fact is, it's not easy to get into Fullstack Academy.  Our admissions rate hovers around 10%.  

But that's part of what makes our campus so special.  When you come to study here, you're learning alongside some of the smartest and most motivated people you've ever met (and, thanks to our "no asshole" policy, some of the nicest people as well).

If you’ve already got some decent JavaScript skills, then we invite you to go ahead and apply.  Or if you’re more of a beginner, then you can use the Road to Code app to create your own, customized journey of classes that will help you study to pass the coding exam to get into the immersive program.

And when you’re in, that’s when the fun really begins.  You’ll make tons of new friends, and – oh yeah – you’ll learn to be a super talented, full-stack web developer, with some of the most in-demand job skills.  We’ll even help you land your first job after you graduate.  

You can go on to work for a great company like Google or Amazon, or a cool startup in your area, or find your dream job working remotely. 

Even better, we’ll help you create a dent in the universe by launching your own startup.

You can learn more about Fullstack Academy's Remote Immersive program (and potential scholarship information) by going here.

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