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Innovating Boot Camps to Meet New Student Needs

Written by Stephen Eichinger on Jun 22, 2020

Related content: Digital Education

Here at 2U, we embrace change as an opportunity to innovate. We wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t adapt and grow to meet the needs of our university partners and their students. So when the COVID-19 pandemic forced universities to close their campuses to protect student and faculty health, we activated swiftly to ensure we continued to meet their needs amid the turbulence.

While the degrees and short courses we power are hosted online, the majority of our Trilogy-powered boot camps are facilitated in-person. This required a lightning-quick shift, and in two weeks we successfully moved 300 in-person boot camps completely online.

In the process, we also took the time to devise new strategies and initiatives to support more learners and create more value and opportunity. Read on to learn about some meaningful innovations that the Learning Design & Development, Instruction, Student Services, TechDev, and Career Success teams have developed for our university partners and their boot camp students.

Summer coding boot camp academies for high school students

Our partners’ tech-intensive boot camps have helped more than 25,000 learners develop the in-demand skills needed to succeed in a digital world. Until now, these learners have been limited to adult participants. But with the launch of two summer boot camp academies, high school students will be able to get a jump on their coding literacy, too.

Two of our university partners are launching coding academies aimed at high schoolers in the northeast, a region of the country among the hardest hit by COVID-19. With social distancing practices still being strongly recommended, summer opportunities for high schoolers (e.g., camp, summer jobs, volunteering) remain sparse.

These three-week online coding academies, the Penn Summer High School Coding Camp and the Columbia Engineering High School Coding Academy, not only fill that gap but also provide the foundational knowledge that young learners need to understand what coding is and whether they might want to pursue it more extensively in college or later in their professional lives. In other words, the summer coding academies allow high school students to plan thoughtfully for their future in a digital environment.

Both summer boot camp academies will have two cohorts—one beginning July 6 and the second beginning August 3—and both are currently taking applications.

Virtual Demo Days

At the end of their boot camp experience, learners have the opportunity to showcase their final projects in-person and speak about their new skill set face-to-face with program alumni and local industry professionals. Called Demo Days, these free-flowing networking events with project booths foster authentic conversations, meaningful mentorship, and can lead to job interviews.

While COVID-19 has prevented us from being able to offer in-person Demo Days, we knew we couldn’t stop offering this immensely valuable event for learners. In March, our Industry Engagement team made the switch to online, reimagining their remaining in-person Demo Days for that month—all 15 of them—as Virtual Demo Days in under one week.

Having now held more than 50 Virtual Demo Days, our Industry Engagement team has seen advantages to the virtual format, which allows student presenters to rotate in and out of breakout rooms with different groups of industry professionals. Presenters feel they are now on a more equal playing field—there is no “bad seat in the house” when the location is virtual—and they are reporting more thoughtful attention from the industry professionals, who can now focus more on each individual project, allowing them to dive deeper into the presenter’s work.

Industry professionals from companies such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Capital One are also finding it more convenient to familiarize themselves with more than one boot camp in a particular region. Whereas before regional industry reps might have traveled to only one Demo Day in their area, they are now able to easily attend a handful of Virtual Demo Days and are thus able to cultivate even more meaningful relationships with the next generation of skilled tech professionals.

Free one-hour class in JavaScript or Python

When COVID-19 forced boot camps to go online, many individuals who had formerly expressed interest in an in-person boot camp became hesitant. They didn’t think they could succeed in an online environment.

To help alleviate their concerns, we introduced a risk-free way to engage with the high-quality online experience that our partners’ boot camps provide. We recently began offering a free one-hour class: in JavaScript for those interested in coding or in Python for those interested in data visualization. The complimentary class was created with the intent to show prospective learners that online boot camps can be as effective as their in-person counterparts.

Equally important, the class was designed to prevent prospective learners from having to prolong jump-starting their tech journey. Waiting until some as-yet-undetermined amount of time for COVID-19 to dissipate could mean missing out on career opportunities that exist today. We want to enable learners to keep their tech dreams intact.

Instructor Centralization

Our boot camp teaching assistants (TAs) are just as critical to the student experience as are our expert instructors. Before we moved all our boot camps online in the spring, our TAs were responsible for grading and providing feedback on all student homework, and responding to students’ Slack messages when they had questions about their assignments outside of scheduled class time. While there were two TAs assigned to address these needs, response time fluctuated based on their availability, schedule, and other life variables. To improve the student experience, our Student Services and TechDev teams partnered to launch a robust platform that allows TAs to provide consistent, reliable, and accessible support to students. The platform consists of two out-of-class solutions—centralized grading and AskBCS—while maintaining one in-class TA to answer questions during the session.

The centralized grading team has increased the standardization of grading and provided a more consistent student experience. The other out-of-class team of TAs are learning assistants, who address student questions on Slack via a queue called AskBCS. When a student submits a question about their work, a learning assistant who is an expert on the topic responds promptly to answer their question, provide additional resources, and/or invite them to a Zoom session to continue the conversation. The learning assistant may also recommend a follow-up tutor session for a student in need of additional support. AskBCS has improved response times and reliability, increased access to support, and raised visibility into the types of questions students are asking to better inform course feedback and strategy for our Student Services and Tech Dev teams.

Online UX/UI tools

Learning user experience and user interface design is a physically messy enterprise, in the best creative sense. UX/UI learners sketch ideas on paper, plot storyboards on stickies, and design wireframes on a whiteboard before they even touch code. To get to a beautifully designed, finished digital product, the designer first gets down and dirty with old-school art materials.

So what happens when there is no longer a physical space for UX/UI learners to collaborate and create together? This is precisely the conundrum that we were confronted with when we were forced to take UX/UI boot camps online.

We wanted to find tools that would simulate in-person collaboration as closely as possible and, being ever mindful of learners’ needs, tools that could be made available and accessible to all students. We rolled out two tools that fit the bill: Figma and Miro.

Figma is an online, digital design and prototyping tool that allows teams to collaborate on design files, in effect giving them the same experience they had as when they were side-by-side. While Figma is traditionally a subscription-based service, our Learning Design & Development team secured a two-year free trial for all UX/UI students to leverage the best-in-class technology in the online classroom. Miro is intended to mimic in-person storyboarding on an online whiteboard. A free tool, Miro allows users to create virtual sticky notes and easily move ideas from one place to another.

Both these tools fit appropriately into the boot camp learning context and make online collaboration much easier for the UX/UI students.

We, along with our university partners, are committed to supporting students and learners as they continue to navigate an educational and professional landscape changed by COVID-19. Initiatives that put their needs first are critical, particularly in a time of economic and social unrest. The path forward will be cleared with innovative, student-centered solutions.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.