3 ways in which the traditional bootcamp model is broken

The tensions and failings in a model of crammed, passive and self-centred education

In a previous post, I talked about some good reasons for paying to attend a coding bootcamp: it gives you the setup, structure and follow-through with a valuable peer group.

The coding bootcamp industry has done, and can do, some good. It has produced lots of graduates who now work as developers. But, despite this, I think that the traditional bootcamp model is dysfunctional in three main ways:

  1. Bootcamp-style cramming is less effective;

  2. Passive learning through lectures doesn’t best prepare you for modern work; and

  3. There is a conflict of interest between the bootcamp, its individual students and their peer group.

In this post, we’ll look at each of these in turn. (In a future post, we’ll look at how Tech Collective proposes to solve these inefficiencies.)

Bootcamp-style cramming is less effective

Traditional coding bootcamps are implicitly built on the idea that it’s optimal to have an entirely new skillset crammed into your head by an instructor in 3 months.

Educational research suggests that the exact opposite is true.

Spaced repetition: learning is more effective when spread out

If you’ve ever studied for an exam, you might be familiar with the phenomenon of cramming for it last minute and forgetting everything as soon as it’s over.

‘Spaced repetition’ describes how knowledge is more effectively retained for the long-term if learning is spread out over a larger time period, as opposed to short-term cramming.

To quote one research article, “Hundreds of studies in cognitive and educational psychology have demonstrated that spacing out repeated encounters with the material over time produces superior long-term learning, compared with repetitions that are massed together.” (Kang 2016, emphasis added).

Cognitive load theory: too much new information impedes learning

Diagram from the Teach Computing blog

A common memory trick is to group bits of information, like parts of a telephone number, into ‘chunks’ to improve retention. This helps because our working memory can hold a finite number of chunks, typically 7 ± 2 (Miller, 1955).

Using this, ‘cognitive load theory’ explains how, if we try to take in too much at the same time, our working memory gets maxed out, making both thinking and learning too difficult: “If cognitive load becomes too high, it hampers learning and transfer.” (Sweller et al., 2019, emphasis added)

Why don’t bootcamps innovate here?

Traditional bootcamps are oriented entirely against both the spaced repetition and cognitive load theory of educational research: in a bootcamp, you are overwhelmed with dense information in a very short period of time, and expected to digest it all.

I think that there are two possible explanations for why bootcamps don’t follow the educational research:

1. They don’t have the educational expertise

Being a developer and being an educator require two very different sets of skill and knowledge. It’s very rare to find people running bootcamps who have spent time understanding and researching teaching and learning, so it’s possible that most bootcamps lack the educational expertise and awareness to teach most effectively.

(Advice: if you are interested in a bootcamp, try to find out how engaged their instructors are with educational research. Can they explain the implications of cognitive load theory for learning?)

2. They’re targeting an audience with short-term time horizons

What a traditional bootcamp typically promises you is a life-changing transformation in a matter of weeks. If you have a short-term time horizon, sufficient finances and a high tolerance for career risk, it might be better for you to roll the dice and go all-in on a trusted bootcamp. Although delayed gratification is associated with a lot of benefits, it might be rational to prioritise shorter-term gratification in particular circumstances.

(Advice: if you are considering a bootcamp, you should ensure you have sufficient savings not just for the bootcamp duration but also for a period of job-searching afterwards. Can you find out how long it takes, on average, for a given bootcamp’s graduates to find employment?)

Passive learning through lectures doesn’t best prepare you for modern work

As I have noted previously, both technical and interpersonal skills are increasing in value as jobs get disrupted by automation. This modern world will require individuals to be active, collaborative workers and learners.

Passive learning doesn’t prepare you for an unpredictable future. Whilst it’s worthwhile investing time in learning current technologies, it’s the meta-skill of ‘learning how to learn’ that is your biggest asset when it comes to ‘future-proofing’.

Isolated learning doesn’t prepare you to work with others. A modern developer works in an agile, collaborative team. “Good programmers write code that humans can understand.” (Martin Fowler)

But traditional bootcamps are built on this idea of paying money to sit in a lecture and have knowledge poured into your head, using familiar tropes from school and university - even though, in a study of university students, it was found that “a higher consumer orientation [to education] was associated with lower academic performance” (Bunce et al., 2016).

By contrast, in the modern workplace, you deliver value by actively working with your team-mates to solve problems and develop the skills you need to stay relevant.

The way we learn should reflect that. Success isn’t bought - it’s achieved through active graft, working with others. 

Why don’t bootcamps innovate here?

Bootcamps and lectures can be an incredibly profitable model - high volume and high margin. It’s hard to give that up!

Let’s imagine a small, fictional bootcamp which does one cohort every 3 months, each with 25 students paying £10k each.

Assuming they’re at full capacity, that’s a cool £1m annual revenue. (4 cohorts per year x 25 students x £10k = big money.)

Suppose you had an unusually high instructor:student ratio, of roughly 1:8. Suppose further that these bootcamp instructors were paid an unusually high amount, say £100k annually. (That’s about what a Chief Technology Officer in London would earn.)

That’s 3 instructors, with a total salary cost of £300k.

Sure, there are more costs (rent and marketing likely being significant), but on a £1m revenue, it looks like a very healthy profit - especially when most bootcamps will have a lower instructor:student ratio, with a far lower average instructor salary.

There is a conflict of interest between the bootcamp, its individual students and their peer group

Bootcamps are not aligned with individuals

Traditional coding bootcamps might invest a lot into marketing to get you through the door and secure your fees - but, what happens to you then? At that point, they’ve got your money. There’s much more profit for them in cutting costs in teaching and ploughing more into ‘customer acquisition’.

Some might contend that they’re incentivised to trade on reputation here: if they provide a bad service, students will complain, their reputation will suffer, and they’ll struggle to attract new students.

However, the sad truth is that a student can damage themselves by complaining: if they complain and damage the reputation of the bootcamp, this also damages the reputation of the bootcamp’s graduates - a terrible bootcamp is probably not producing very good graduates, is it? By extension, a student who complains can harm their own future job prospects by tarring the reputation of the bootcamp and its graduates.

Individuals are not aligned with peers

We’ve heard that peer groups are often the main source of value in bootcamps - which is why it’s such a tragedy that there isn’t direct interest alignment.

In the traditional instructor model, with a teacher:student ratio anywhere perhaps from 1:20 to 1:40, the instructor’s time becomes a scarce resource for which students have to compete.

In schools, this leads to a phenomenon known as the ‘forgotten middle’. Teaching is difficult when you have a range of experience and current skill levels, and it’s a natural tendency for teachers to prioritise the extreme ends of that range.

As a result, bootcamp students enter into an environment that is more optimised for competition (for scarce instructor time) than it is for cooperation (in learning and solving problems together).

Why don’t bootcamps innovate here?

We are seeing some innovation here, in fairness.

There are coding bootcamps which use Income Share Agreements (ISAs), so that they only get paid when their students get paid. Most famous of these Lambda School (but it’s not without its controversy).

Founders and Coders in London has built an incredible peer-driven learning model, removing instructors and encouraging students to work together.

But these are the equivalent of bug patches on the traditional coding bootcamp.

What if we tried to rebuild things from scratch, from first principles of educational research, active collaboration and incentive alignment?

What comes next?

I’ve outlined here some big problems with the traditional bootcamp model: bootcamp-style cramming is less effective; passive learning through lectures is outdated; and there are inbuilt conflicts of interest between bootcamp, student and peer group. 

I think that these problems can be solved. In a future post, I’ll explain in detail how we at Tech Collective are trying to take on these challenges. It’s not one without trade-offs, but we think it’s a better way for the world we live in.

We’re building another path of learning to code. One that affirms both technical and interpersonal skills. One that’s built around peer group community. One that’s optimised for actively team-centred workplaces.

It’s a tech-upskill community for active, collaborative learners, with:

  1. 🖇️ A small, selective cohort of motivated peers;

  2. 🏦 Part-time study and income-sharing to reduce your risk; and

  3. ❌ Zero membership costs until you have a good job.

It’s called Tech Collective, and we’d love you to join us on our mission.

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