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Diversity by Design: Meet Four 2U Curriculum Experts Helping HBCU Students Elevate Their Tech Skills with Netflix

Written by Bannon Puckett on Feb 25, 2021

Related content: Diversity And Inclusion

Last week, not even a Texas-sized power-grid breakdown was going to stop 2U Lead Curriculum Architect Camden “Cam” Kirkland from extolling one of his team’s most buzzworthy passion projects. Emerging from his Houston home after four days without electricity or water due to the state’s massive power outage crisis, Cam could still barely contain his excitement for the recently launched Netflix Advanced Java Boot Camp—a leading-edge partnership between 2U, the Silicon Valley-based streaming entertainment giant, and southeastern Virginia’s Norfolk State University, one of the country’s famed Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

“Working with the team and seeing everything come together over the past several months has been both a herculean effort and an amazing ride,” Cam says. His statement alludes to the significant responsibility of architecting a new educational offering and coordinating its development across multiple time zones and coasts: east, west, and gulf. His enthusiasm speaks to the relative uniqueness of this project—one of a growing number of 2U-powered online boot camps being created and taught by a diverse mix of experts in order to elevate the skills of historically marginalized learners.

Largely Black-Designed and Delivered, Fully Focused on Diverse Student Needs

“As educators,” Cam says, “we should always strive to bring examples to the fore that are tangible to students’ lived experiences—which is why having a significant number of Black learning experts on the team building this particular curriculum is so crucial. Most educational experiences start from a place of assuming a common standard of living across the U.S. But when certain analogies and metaphors utilized by an instructor don’t resonate with students, it creates gaps in understanding that can only compound over time.”

In an early team planning meeting for the boot camp, Cam recalls a professor mentioning some Norfolk State University students may not be like others 2U has worked with. For example, they may be dealing with food insecurity, or they’ve had to sleep in their car the night before class.

“Fortunately and unfortunately,” Cam says, “these aren’t new scenarios for the 2U team. I’ve personally taught students who have been in both of these situations, students with parents or siblings who have passed away during the program, students who are struggling with English, and students who are fighting for permission to work because they are recent immigrants.”

The Netflix Advanced Java Boot Camp is a part-time program across 16 weeks, but Cam is the first to recognize that a lot of life can happen in four months. “Having facilitators who understand the students’ lives and empathize with their experiences—while delivering content that represents work being done in the technology field right now—is one of the things that makes 2U unique as a company,” he says. “For our team of education specialists, several of whom are Black, bringing our expertise to bear for groups of predominantly Black students is a very cool first step to something big.”

Having facilitators who understand the students’ lives and empathize with their experiences is one of the things that makes 2U unique as a company.
— Camden K., Lead Curriculum Architect, 2U

From Enterprise-Grade Curriculum to Exclusive Career Services

Intentionally created for current Norfolk State students and recent alumni of the university, the Netflix Advanced Java Boot Camp covers such topics as object-oriented programming (OOP) principles, Spring Framework, relational and non-relational databases, dependency injection, unit testing, and more. Students gain valuable portfolio-building experience by developing and deploying real-world applications using Java, NoSQL, and AWS.

As a lead curriculum architect at 2U, Cam was responsible for designing the blueprint of the boot camp from end-to-end. Working with a diverse team ranging from Project Lead/Java Instructor Rich Widtmann to Senior Director of Curriculum Boot Camp Learning Jeff Boykin, Cam decided the overall content to be included in the program and how the underlying narrative played out. Curriculum engineers then took his blueprint and wrote specific content and lesson plans for the instructors to deliver to students.

“For the Java boot camp,” Cam says, “we based the curriculum off of content that we use to train software engineers at some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies. Meshing Netflix’s input with the style of content that Norfolk State students were used to seeing was probably the most difficult stage of our planning, and by far the most challenging task I’ve had in my role to date. But I’m extremely happy with the results. I truly feel we’ve crafted something that can help students be effective in a company of Netflix’s caliber in their first week.”

“Hands-Down, the Perfect Duo for Teaching This Course”

One core member of Cam’s Curriculum team is Dalonte Griffin, an HBCU graduate himself. Dalonte is just as pleased with the culmination of the team’s efforts. “We were able to come up with a curriculum that adheres to both the vision of Netflix and the academic standards of Norfolk State,” he says. “I was then fortunate enough to be asked, along with other Black colleagues, to continue as lead instructor of the boot camp. To me, spotlighting Black talent in this manner really speaks to 2U’s commitment to recognizing the role higher education plays in promoting diversity, both within the company and beyond it.”

Nateyana Blake was also one of those team members asked to stay on the project, as assistant instructor. “I initially worked with the team on quality assurance and developing lesson plans for the student cohort,” she says. “Now I’m working in the online classroom to deliver that content. It’s been a really great experience because I’ve been a part of the full process, from helping create the course to teaching it. These Norfolk State students are entering unfamiliar territory and learning new concepts every day, but they know they’re in a place that accepts them as they are—and with faculty who understand and relate to the unique experiences of a young Black person trying to make it in the tech industry.”

To ensure Cam’s team continues to have all the resources it needs as the boot camp evolves, Vice President of Curriculum and Learning Andrea Berlin transitioned internally to her new 2U role just last week. “I’ve been watching the development of these Netflix/Norfolk State boot camps from the side with great excitement and admiration for a while,” she says. “I’ve worked in edtech for 20 years, and the lack of Black representation on teams designing and building programs across the industry is undeniable. Shifting into this new role lets me participate more directly as both an ally and change agent, and that’s incredibly exciting.”

Norfolk State students know they’re in a place that accepts them as they are—and with faculty who understand and relate to the[ir] unique experiences.
— Nateyana B., Assistant Instructor, 2U

Pathways to a More Diverse and Fulfilling Future

For some students, Cam says, working for West Coast “FAANG”—the “big five” of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google—may seem like too much of a stretch for their skill set immediately after graduating. The Netflix Advanced Java Boot Camp, he points out, creates a pathway that not only trains Norfolk State students to work with a contemporary tech stack but also exposes them to the people, culture, and companies that are building some of the most cutting-edge technology today.

“Tech-heavy industries like software engineering, machine learning, and fintech have historically lacked significant Black representation,” Cam says. “They’re very specialized roles, and companies’ valuations of merit for hiring have often been preclusive of the Black experience. The boot camp creates opportunities for students in places where they may not have been able to look before, or where they’ve felt intimidated from looking. “Conversely, the program offers companies the opportunity to hire exceptional talent in places where they haven’t traditionally been looking either.”

Nateyana adds another layer: “Huge tech companies are creating a future that will affect all members of our society. If there are no people of color involved in creating that future, then we will see the effects of racial bias written into our software. This is how we end up with issues like racial discrimination in facial reogontion technology and bias in computer progams that calculate prison sentences. Tech companies must do more to offer space for individuals of color because we are currently witnessing the by-products of a lack of diversity.”

“More diverse teams solve problems more creatively and develop better solutions for everyone,” Andrea emphasizes. “And, of course, any time 2U tries something new in our boot camps, it stretches our own thinking and challenges us in ways that lead to new ideas and opportunities.”

More diverse teams solve problems more creatively and develop better solutions for everyone.
— Andrea B., VP of Curriculum and Learning, 2U

Rewards Run Deep

For Dalonte, the Netflix Advanced Java Boot Camp is not just a great opportunity for Norfolk State students. As a computer science graduate of Grambling State University, another HBCU, he finds personal fulfillment in the work as well. “I’ve discovered that I learn by teaching,” Dalonte says, “so to teach to a group of folks that I culturally identify with is important and rewarding. I have been in their shoes and can speak from very relevant experience. Hopefully my lecturing style and industry insights from my 20-plus years of consulting will help this cohort in their future endeavors as Black technologists.”

Nateyana is equally inspired by the fact that the project mixes software development with social justice. “Working in tech changed my life dramatically,” she says, “and I would like to see that happen for other people. It’s rare to see a huge initiative at a major company like this where the team designing and facilitating it comprises so many Black learning experts. Many times, programs aimed at helping the Black community fail to employ actual Black people to get the job done. I really like that my work is being centered around helping other members of my community.”

Cam expresses how profound it’s been to see so many Black technology professionals in one place during cross-coastal meetings. “Growing up in Houston,” he says, “I’ve been around Black lawyers, doctors, engineers, and athletes to a vast degree. However, to see this many Black tech leaders, all of whom are operating at the highest degrees of excellence, has been both inspiring and galvanizing. There’s no excuse for programs like this to not have existed already, and I have an appetite for more!”

Andrea seconds all of her team’s sentiments: “Being part of an organization that ‘walks the walk’ is a huge factor for me. This partnership is a great example of that.”

Teach[ing] to a group of folks that I culturally identify with is important and rewarding. I have been in their shoes and can speak from experience.
— Dalonte G., Lead Instructor, 2U

Looking Ahead: Winning Student Outcomes, Eager New Partners

Now that the Netflix Advanced Java Boot Camp has officially launched, Cam is in what he calls the monitoring phase of the program. “As a company,” he says, “2U constantly requests feedback from students about how they’re feeling and their experiences, which we use to improve and enhance the course in-flight. Crafting a unique experience that focuses on student outcomes is the most important goal for all of us.”

“Norfolk State has been an outstanding university partner,” Cam sums up. “They’ve been willing to take the next steps to see what the future of tech looks like, with 2U and Netflix helping them forge a more diverse, empowered, and emboldened workforce. I hope we’ll get to see more academic institutions follow their lead this year or next.”

Learn more about all three of the Netflix Virtual HBCU Boot Camps built in partnership with Norfolk State University, for skill-building in Advanced Java, Applied Data Science, and UX/UI Design.

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