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Is The Wild West Of Hack Schools About To Be Tamed?

General Assembly has an uphill battle, as it recruits companies to its coding bootcamp credentialing cause.

Is The Wild West Of Hack Schools About To Be Tamed?

General Assembly, a coding school that aims to churn out web developers with its 12-week courses, is actively recruiting companies to develop standards for credentialing programming students without a formal degree in computer science.

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The companies, which thus far include PayPal, General Electric, Medium, and about 20 others, will comprise a consortium responsible for developing the standards. The plan is to release the first credential, for web development, in early 2015, with certificates also slated for related disciplines, including product management and design.

General Assembly is hoping fellow coding bootcamps, each its own rogue operation, will adopt the credential. The New York City-based school, one of the largest in this emerging education category, has campuses in 12 cities globally, including London, Hong Kong, and Sydney. The rising industry is expected to reap $59 million in tuition in 2014, according to a report released earlier this year.

Though the details haven’t been hashed out yet, CEO Jake Schwartz said there will be an assessment portion, and it will be administered free of charge to students. (The term students is used loosely and can apply to the self-learned.)

“It’s not going to be a multiple choice test,” Schwartz tells Fast Company. “It’s a series of challenges and other ways of assessing basic understanding of concepts as well as the next-level-down programming.”

The assessment portion likely won’t be automated, at least not at first. “We have a saying at GA,” says Schwartz, “that is, ‘The first time is always handmade.'”

General Assembly (or any of its peers for that matter) is free to create a credentialing program–or in this case, ask companies it’s friendly with (many of them existing hiring partners) to create an industry credential. The obstacle will be getting other organizations to recognize it.

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It’s an issue translation startup Duolingo is familiar with. In April, the three-year-old company launched its own online certification program for language learners.

Duolingo said its proficiency tests could solve a major problem for English-language learners in developing countries, who see tests like the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) as a gateway for better employment opportunities. However, taking the test can require traveling long distances to test centers and saving up several months’ salary to pay for the exam (the TOEFL costs several hundred dollars, with price varying by country), said Gina Gotthilf, Duolingo’s head of marketing and international development.

The startup’s language test is administered on a mobile device, which Duolingo charges $20 for to offset the cost of a human proctor who looks for signs of cheating over the phone’s camera.

Companies and universities are “hesitant to actually take a strong stance,” Gotthilf said. “It’s much more comfortable to lean on something that’s been proven and big institutions and universities already accept.”

Like General Assembly, Duolingo looked for big-name partners–starting with one of the biggest, Google–to get its certificate off the ground. Carnegie Mellon University is also conducting a study to see if there is any correlation between Duolingo’s test scores and that of widely recognized language exams.

Unlike Duolingo, though, General Assembly is in uncharted territory. The coding bootcamp landscape is only about three years old at this point, and a credential seems almost counterintuitive to the field, which has thus far eschewed paper diplomas in favor of acquiring real-world skills.

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It’s apparent coding schools are no longer operating in the Wild West, with states, including California, looking to regulate the industry. However, regulation has thus far focused on consumer protections–giving students a form of recourse if these schools go under–more than on what students are learning.

“For me, the certification is a joke,” Dev Bootcamp founder Shereef Bishay told me in an interview last November. “I really don’t think we should be in the business of certifying.” Bishay didn’t respond to a recent email request for an interview. But safe to say, with an initiative that bears a name like the GA Credentialing Network, it’s unlikely Dev Bootcamp will encourage its students to pursue the credential.

Though General Assembly hopes for broad industry acceptance for the credential, it also thinks its affiliation could help lure in prospective students.

“Do we hope people would join our community and all the [things] we have to offer?” Schwartz asked. “Absolutely.”

About the author

Based in San Francisco, Alice Truong is Fast Company's West Coast correspondent. She previously reported in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and most recently Hong Kong, where she (left her heart and) worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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