Flatiron News

Q&A with Peter Bell on Developing New Online Teaching Techniques

Flatiron School / 1 June 2017

This post first appeared on Course Report

Flatiron School’s Head Online Instructor Peter Bell was already a big fan of Flatiron School when he joined the team in 2016, bringing extensive programming experience, and a background teaching at Columbia Business School and Github. Peter tells us how Flatiron School’s online program differs from the on-campus bootcamp, how he and the online team communicate with remote students around the country, and how his team continues to add new material to the curriculum.


Meet Peter Bell

Tell us about your background and experience in programming.

I studied a technical topic – I took a BEng/MEng in Electronic, Communications and Computer Systems engineering, but then I became a therapist, ran a sales training company and built an ad agency. I didn’t start programming professionally until five years after college when I started building CD-ROM product catalogs and trade show demos for clients in the mid-’90s.

Since you didn’t study computer science at college, how did you learn to code?

My college course didn’t include much coding (some Pascal), but I started programming as a kid in Basic on a Commodore Vic 20, and while in high school I went to a local community college in the evenings to learn to program in C. Later, I learned to program professionally using Visual Basic, ColdFusion, and Ruby, by selling apps to people and then figuring out how to code them!

How did you become aware of the bootcamp model? Did you need to be convinced of the effectiveness of this education style?

I know a lot of people in the industry and have always been convinced that we needed to improve the effectiveness of education. In fact, I quit college just before graduating because I didn’t believe a degree was a good way of determining how smart or capable someone was.

What made you excited to work at Flatiron School in particular? And why did you want to work in online education?

I know people running many of the top bootcamps and have always been a huge fan of what Flatiron School Co-Founder Avi Flombaum and the team are doing. They really care about changing lives and continuing to innovate – from working with underserved groups to providing independently-audited job reports. I also believe they have the perfect setup with a single physical campus for experimentation and a real investment in their online program.

What is your role as Head Online Instructor?

I’m responsible for figuring out how we can help our online students be successful. I do that by hiring and managing a team of Section Leads, Program Mentors, and Technical Coaches who help the students with onboardings, live lectures, group check-ins, office hours, 1:1’s, accountability sessions and on-demand technical coaching to help them to stay engaged and learn to code as quickly and effectively as possible.

What sort of teaching experience do you have? What is different about teaching at an online coding bootcamp compared with that prior experience?

Before I joined Flatiron School, I already had a bunch of experience with both online and in-person education. I taught digital literacy at Columbia Business School, have created materials for a number of different bootcamps, wrote a book for O’Reilly, created a video series for Pearson, and have presented at technical conferences around the world. For a number of years, I was also the only contract member of the GitHub, providing online and in-person Git and GitHub training to organizations around the world.

The biggest difference with creating educational materials and teaching online is that, generally, you get less feedback from students, so it’s important to be teaching materials that you have experience teaching in-person so you know how to present the material and the kinds of questions that are likely to come up. It’s also really important to think carefully about how best to engage students so they’re actively participating rather than just watching/listening.

How do you teach concepts through the online platform? How does this compare to teaching students in-person at Flatiron School?

Flatiron’s in-person NYC Software Engineering Immersive is great. You get to be in a room all day, every day with people all looking to change their lives by learning to code. It’s intensive, focused and if you have the time to do it, it is a wonderful way to learn to code in a highly structured environment.

On the other hand, Flatiron’s Online Web Developer Program provides students with the ability to learn on their schedule. In addition to reading text and watching videos, they get to work on labs so they can learn to code by writing code. And instead of just coding in a browser, throughout the course, they get introduced gently to all of the tools that professional developers use – from the command line and text editors to Git and GitHub. In addition, we have Technical Coaches available from 9am to 1am EST every day to help them when they get stuck and over 20 live lectures and office hour sessions every week where they can connect with and learn from the Section Leads and their peers. They also have the flexibility to go at their own pace and to live and work anywhere, rather than having to quit their jobs and move to NYC.

What unique challenges does teaching to a remote class present?

The biggest issue is getting feedback from students and helping them to keep coding when life gets in the way. As such, we are working on a number of accountability programs to make it easier for students to stay on track.

Can you tell me about the new changes to the online program?

We already have a great platform (our Learn.co “online campus”) and a proven full-stack web development curriculum, so we’re continuing to look at how we can add educational services for our online students. We are continually launching new experiments to see how best we can help students to fit their studies in with their lives. Right now, we’re offering personalized onboarding calls with all new students to help them to succeed and are offering 30- and 60-day check-ins to make sure they’re making the progress they need, and to connect them with the resources they require.

What are the reasons for these changes?

Many of our students are already succeeding, graduating quickly, and getting great junior developer positions. However, we find that with a self-paced program, some students have trouble staying motivated and engaged when they get busy, so we’re working on a range of programs to try to help every single student to graduate in a reasonable amount of time.

How will these changes better prepare students to get jobs as developers?

Our graduates are not having any problems getting jobs (in fact, we recently released an online jobs report), so we’re just really focused on helping our students to graduate more quickly. We also continue to add new optional curriculum and live lectures on topics like algorithms and Test Driven Development so the students are ready to ace technical interviews and work successfully on high performing agile teams at the best companies.

How are you involved in those changes? In general, how are you involved in iterating on the online bootcamp curriculum?

As a team, we spend a lot of time talking to students and thinking about experiments we can run to help them to succeed even more quickly. My main role is to help the team organize the experiments, operationalize the winners, and learn from the experiments that don’t perform as expected. We have a whole separate curriculum team, so the instructional team does provide feedback on the content students are struggling with, but the curriculum team is actually responsible for improving the content.

Tell us about your biggest student success story!

It’s hard to choose just one when so many of our students are really committing to changing their lives by learning to code! You can read about how Kailee, Gabe, Shana, and Savannah reinvented their careers in very different ways on the Flatiron blog. People take the Flatiron School Online Web Developer Program for many different reasons.

How are you involved with giving career advice/helping students find jobs?

We have a whole separate team of career coaches who are responsible for helping our students to find and land great jobs – though I do have a lot to share about how to effectively build a career in tech.

For our readers who are beginners, what online resources do you recommend for aspiring bootcampers?

One of my favorite resources is Flatiron School’s free Bootcamp Prep course. It covers JavaScript, Ruby, and Interview Prep, gives students a great jumpstart on learning to code, and a sense of what it’s like to learn at a coding bootcamp – whether they hope to join one of Flatiron’s immersive programs or attend another bootcamp.

Start Bootcamp Prep for free!

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