strong>In a small New York classroom, some 15 students are jammed around a table laden with laptops, Red Vines, and Arizona Iced Tea. The ratio of Macs to PCs is the same as the ratio of men to women: 4 to 1. The instructor, a hipster with brushed-back hair and an earring, is critiquing the class's website layouts—and in the process, advancing one of the most interesting experiments in education today.
This is General Assembly, founded in January 2011 in a 20,000-square-foot loft in New York's Flatiron District by four friends in their late twenties and early thirties as a campus for technology, design, and entrepreneurship. It's not a degree-granting college; it's not a high school; it's not a traditional trade school. It's something new—augmented education, a stopgap for the startup economy. It's an intermediary that gives the postcollegiate crowd real-world skills they didn't get at their alma mater: exposure to the way business is done on the ground. The school focuses on technology and entrepreneurship, covering everything from fundraising to wireframing. Some classes are three-hour one-offs, others are weeklong workshops, and certificate programs, such as the front-end web-development class attended by those 15 students, are 60-hour programs spread over several weeks.
The teachers are practitioners—the one with the earring is Joey Kilrain, creative director of hot design firm Gigapixel Creative—who focus on usable results. Tech evangelists from Google, Twitter, and Foursquare stop by to school eager young app writers on their various APIs; VCs like Fred Wilson dispense advice; the glass-walled space hosts hackathons, meetups, happy hours, and two dozen startups (Project Noah and Yipit are two you may have heard of). In some ways, General Assembly is like an Ivy League college: It creates a selective, aspirational network, mixing promising newbies and people who have already made it. Entrance to this community is at least as important to students as the skills offered in the classes themselves. "We know from surveys and focus groups that one of the main reasons people come to General Assembly classes is to interact with peers facing the same challenges," says cofounder and education director Brad Hargreaves.
But General Assembly is far more flexible than an Ivy League institution. It iterates and updates its offerings every few weeks, based on detailed student surveys. When its students said they wanted to study Android development, General Assembly ginned up a class two weeks later. A traditional college might take years to meet a new need.
This close-to-the-ground, customizable model has been a missing piece of the innovation ecosystem. Top universities can't always move fast enough to provide the technical and entrepreneurial skills needed in this new world. That's why there's a rising tide of these programs in the U.S. and in Europe (see sidebar). That's why large software companies invest in hands-on education: HP sponsors a tech-entrepreneurship program that has taught half a million students in 47 countries the basics of running a business via web applications; Microsoft, Cisco, and Apple have created their own modular independent software certifications, which, of course, push "students" to use their products.
And that's why established institutions are partnering with General Assembly: Ad agency KBSP bought classes in bulk as a perk for employees; the Wharton School held a daylong entrepreneurship and technology boot camp there for 50 first-year students; and GE, one of the most famous names in executive education, is sending more than 100 suits for a five-day session that will get them up to speed on emerging technology, design, and entrepreneurship.
In September, the company scooped up $4.25 million in funding from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos; Facebook, Zynga, and Twitter investor Yuri Milner; Alexis Ohanian of Reddit; and pioneering education investor Tom Vander Ark, among others (more from Vander Ark here). General Assembly plans to triple its New York classrooms to 12, and there are rumors that the company will expand to London, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. They will also expand online by recording classes and sessions and making class materials, like slide decks, available.
Of course, each school in this emerging field will have to discover if the market is large enough for its ambitions. General Assembly, like the others, has a Barbizon Modeling School problem: It is selling entrée into a hot glamour industry, where true success is available only to a lucky few. The 15 students in Kilrain's course (chosen from more than 150 applicants) coughed up $3,000 for certification from an unaccredited for-profit startup that didn't exist 10 months ago. It's not yet clear whether that piece of paper will be meaningful in five years—or even in 2012. At these prices, the ones who need this opportunity the most—students who graduated from ITT Technical Institute instead of Yale, folks who may have already incurred significant student-loan debt—could also be those with the most to lose.
Whatever form it takes, this kind of education favors practice over theory, evolves quickly in response to the real needs of students and connects communities of practitioners. Augmented education both complements and moves beyond the Ivory Tower, and that's why it's here to stay.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.