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Posted: October 11, 2013

The futurist: The lean, mean, micro-college model

A fast path to a career change

Thomas Frey

Last year, the DaVinci Institute launched a computer programmer training school, DaVinci Coders, an 11-week, beginner-based training in Ruby on Rails, patterned after the successful Chicago-based school, Code Academy.

One of our world-class instructors was Jason Noble. As a senior software engineer for Comverge, an intelligent energy management company in Denver, and a part-time instructor for DaVinci Coders, Jason understands what it takes to train people both in the classroom and on the job.

In a recent presentation, he compared the apprenticeship times necessary to bring three different newly hired junior developers up to speed – one with no Rails experience, one who attended our 11-week course, and another who attended a 26-week program at a different school. 

He concluded that the one with no Rails experience required at least a six-month apprenticeship; the one with 11 weeks' training required two months; and the one with 26 weeks' schooling was up to speed in three weeks.

He also estimated hiring a talented college grad with a computer science major, the apprenticeship time would likely be more than two months, but they’d also bring other valuable tools to the table.

Yes, this is an unusually tiny sample size for a test case and training times will vary greatly. But this type of comparative analysis naturally begs the question of how much training should be required prior to taking a job, and whether the investment of time and money spent on training should be optimized around the company or the employee, knowing there will always be some in-house training required.

When we look at the bigger picture of retraining for this and many other professions, knowing that people will be rebooting their careers far more often in the future, with time being such a precious commodity, how do we create the leanest possible educational model for jobs in the future? That’s where the Micro-College concept comes into play.

How Lean is Too Lean, and How Fat is Too Fat?

In the movie Slumdog Millionaire, Jamal Malik, a penniless 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, is asked a series of very difficult questions on his quest to win a staggering 20 million-rupee prize on India’s Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?

As a street-smart kid with virtually no formal education, the probability of him answering these questions correctly was zero. However, as luck would have it, his life experience had given him precisely the answers he needed, and very little more.

This is an example of an extremely narrow education, only applicable to the one-in-a-billion situation portrayed in the movie.

On the other side of the equation are people who go through all the work of getting bachelor and master degrees and still not having the skills necessary to gain employment.

Traditional colleges, for the most part, do a great job, but they are all oriented around seat time. They also come with the overarching philosophy that nothing of value can be learned in less than four years, a timeframe woefully out of sync with someone needing to change career paths.

So at what point is education “too lean,” and conversely, when is it “too fat?”

Does “Breadth of Learning” Happen more Naturally Today?

Typically, universities require students to achieve both breadth of knowledge across disciplines and depth of knowledge in a particular chosen subject area, known as a major. For this reason, students studying Arts or Humanities are required to take science courses, and vice-versa.

While this made sense hundreds of ears ago when the university system was first created, the average person today in the U.S. spends 11.8 hours each day consuming information. Yes, much of it is TV, radio, and rather frivolous kinds of information, but not all of it. 

The sheer volume of information we’re exposed to every day makes the average person today far more informed, aware, and intelligent than their counterpart 50 years ago. Known as the “Flynn Effect,” after researcher James R. Flynn, the average IQ in the U.S. has been increasing every generation for over 80 years, ever since IQ tests were first developed. 

So does “breadth of learning” still needs to be a requirement since it’s already part of our “ambient learning culture?” 

Micro-Colleges Defined

Micro-colleges are any form of concentrated post-secondary education oriented around the minimum entry point into a particular profession.

With literally millions of people needing to shift careers every year, and the long drawn out cycles of traditional colleges being a poor solution for time-crunched rank-and-file displaced workers, we are seeing a massive new opportunity arising for short-term, pre-apprenticeship training. 

Many micro-colleges will fall into the category we often refer to as vocational training, a term poorly suited for the professional craftsmen, artisans, and technicians they will be producing. Since status and credentialing are critical elements of every career choice, any training producing specialized experts will need to come with industry-recognized certifications and titles.

More on Monday.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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