Why I’m Building Make School

A co-founder of an innovative university replacement for computer science tells all.

GUEST COLUMN | by Ashu Desai

CREDIT Make SchoolI built my first iPhone app in high school, a game called Helicopter, which sold 50,000 copies. Building and shipping a real world product was by far the most engaging and empowering educational experience I ever had. Instead of being driven by a test score, I was motivated by the ownership I felt over my project and the promise of a tangible result that would be used and appreciated by people around the world. Not only was building an app an incredible learning experience, it opened doors for internships and jobs that were normally only available to college grads.

After high school I attended UCLA to study Computer Science, but I was sorely disappointed by the quality of education. Instead of learning to build products and experiences using cutting edge technologies, I found myself stuck in uninspired lectures and studying dying languages for paper-based tests. The content and teaching methodologies for this rapidly changing discipline had not changed in decades. I left school after a year to move to Silicon Valley and quickly discovered that most software engineers I met shared my frustrations with their university experiences. What’s more, every company I encountered was having trouble hiring quality engineers. It became evident there was a growing skills gap between what universities were teaching and what the industry needed.

There was a growing skills gap between what universities were teaching and what the industry needed.

We’re building Make School in order to provide a more relevant and engaging computer science education. Our students learn computer science principles through creating their own products using the latest technologies. For example, this year one of our students built Refuge Restrooms, a way for transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming individuals to find safe restrooms. It’s exciting to watch computer science students learn through building products that impact the world and drive social change. While some universities offer app development and product development courses (our curriculum powers courses at MIT and Carnegie Mellon), it’s far from a focus of a traditional CS degree.

We regularly talk to CTOs of tech companies to determine topics to include in our curriculum. We also ask what they looked for in new grad hires. Many still look at which school students attend, but mostly because top schools tend to select bright students in the admissions process. A portfolio of independent projects and products shipped held far more weight in the hiring process than coursework and GPA. Even at top universities, students have to supplement their education with independent learning, weekend hackathons and summer internships in order to graduate to a developer job.

However, even if universities were to modernize their CS curriculum into a practical, project-based approach, they still wouldn’t be able to meet the demand for software engineers. The shortage of software engineers will continue to grow and consequently, a projected 1 million IT jobs will go unfilled by 2020. While Harvard recently received a grant of around $60 million to hire CS professors, due to tenure requirements, this grant will increase the CS department by 50 percent, only an additional 150 CS majors. University CS classes are busting at the seams due to the rising popularity of the field, but bureaucracy and institutional rules make it impossible for them to keep up with demand.

We’re aiming to create an institution more adaptable and future proof than traditional universities. It starts with two core feedback loops. The first is the student-teacher feedback loop. While I was at UCLA, I was really frustrated by my inability to fix problems with my education. At Make School, we iterate on student feedback while in session, ensuring higher quality education and constantly challenging our methods and content. We also build in opportunities to customize each student’s education, giving more or less focus to topics and concepts that interest them. Giving students control and ownership over their education drives stronger outcomes. The second feedback loop is the industry-curriculum loop. It’s important for us to stay up to date with the topics and languages that are used in the real world, especially as the software industry changes so rapidly. We’re building this feedback loop into our business model, as students pay tuition exclusively through earnings. The only way for us to make more money is by providing better education and outcomes for our students—a refreshing change of pace from the crisis of tuition hikes and student loan debt plaguing universities today.

Our first class of students had strong outcomes, securing jobs at tech companies like Snapchat, Pandora, Edmodo and more. We’re excited to see Make School continue to evolve as we open our doors to more students. It’s incredible to see the dramatic uptick in high school students building real world products. Just like the younger version of myself, they’re seeking a more engaging educational experience that will teach them to excel at what they love. These students are the reason we’re building Make School.

Ashu Desai is one of the founders of Make School, a university replacement for computer science. Ashu built his first iPhone app in high school which sold 50,000 copies. He attended UCLA to study computer science before dropping out to join Y Combinator and found Make School in hopes of improving computer science education.

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