Since 2016, Shopify has partnered with Canadian universities to offer students an accredited computer science degree at no cost, coupled with a paid integrated learning experience with the global e-commerce giant. Now the Dev Degree program is announcing an expansion to an online format that gives students an opportunity to enroll remotely from anywhere in Canada and in select U.S. states.
Like the in-person iterations previously delivered in partnership with Ottawa’s Carleton University and Toronto’s York University, the remote version of Dev Degree lets students transition between classroom education and real-world work opportunities at Shopify. The Ottawa-based e-commerce company covers the cost of tuition and pays students for their time on the job; it says that the total package is equivalent to $110,000 USD worth of salary, tuition, and vacation over four years.
Furthermore, many graduates are offered a permanent job with Shopify, and 90% secure full-time engineering roles at Shopify or elsewhere prior to graduation, with the remainder finding work in their field within six months.
The recent expansion of the program is the result of a partnership with Make School, a private computer science college based in San Francisco that, like many institutions, transitioned to remote learning in early 2020. What makes Make School unusual, however, is that the institution has decided to continue offering its two-year computer science degree program online as an alternative to on-campus studies.
This year Make School will also offer students the option of enrolling in the three-year integrated learning Dev Degree program, providing the opportunity to attend classes online and work remotely for Shopify.
“Back in May of last year Shopify declared that we would be a remote-first company,” explains Alison Evans Adnani, Dev Degree’s senior program lead. “We call it ‘digital by design.’ And we are not returning to our offices when it’s safe to do so—we will be working remotely. So we went looking for a partner that would help us make that remote-first lifestyle available and accessible to a portion of our students. Some of our students are going to want the campus experience, but we have a lot of candidates who are not able to move to Toronto or Ottawa.”
Breaking down barriers
Adnani says the Dev Degree program has sought to improve diversity in an industry that struggles with inclusivity. For example, it has an inferred gender ratio of 50%. Furthermore, the ability to earn a salary rather than going into debt while pursuing higher education opens up even more opportunities for those who would otherwise be shut out of the tech industry.
“We have a blind application screening process for all of our Dev Degree students, where we hire based on potential rather than demonstrated experience, so you don’t need to know how to code already to be part of the program,” Adnani says. “Removing the physical need to move to a location where our office and university are co-located is breaking down another barrier.”
The partnership is also evolving in direct reaction to a broader trend taking hold across the technology industry. Shopify is just one of many tech companies that says it will allow its employees to work from home permanently, which will change the definition of what it means to get real-world job experience.
Prior to the pandemic, work-integrated learning programs relied on internships and job opportunities that were available in the surrounding community. Now that many tech jobs are remote, students are able to get the full on-the-job experience without stepping foot in a physical office.
“Because so many of the careers these students are going to go into are already remote—most engineering careers involve interacting with teams across the world—we found that we were able to keep aligned with that apprenticeship model,” says Anne Spalding, the dean and interim president of Make School. “We were teaching them the skills they would need to work on remote teams through remote education, and it’s been quite successful for our students. All of that is also quite aligned with the Dev Degree program.”
Make School has approval from the accrediting agency to offer the bachelor’s of computer science program over distance learning, has received authorization in 26 states and Canada, and is awaiting authorizations in the remaining states.
Education on demand
One of the most significant advantages of remote education, like remote work, is that students have the ability to participate in learning activities on their own time. According to Spalding, some aspects of Dev Degree’s virtual learning curriculum will require students to be online and engaged at specific hours, but much of the learning can be conducted asynchronously, at their own pace.
“This last year we’ve been doing what we call ‘bi-chronous,’ a blend of the completely synchronous and asynchronous online experiences,” she says. “Instead of a three-hour synchronous online experience, they have one and a half hours a week that is synchronous, and then the components we have that make up the other one and a half hours can be done asynchronously.”
Spalding adds that determining the right blend of real-time education alongside teachers, teaching assistants, and fellow students with on-demand learning is based on subject matter. She says asynchronous learning can help further remove some of those traditional barriers by providing a higher degree of flexibility, and by allowing students to pause and rewind lectures as needed.
Remote learning isn’t for everyone
Like remote work, remote education has the potential to extend opportunities to many who would be unable to participate otherwise. But being a successful remote student requires certain skills.
“The independent thinking, the ability to get yourself to do things, to stick with things, to hit deadlines, and then communication, productivity, asking for what you need if you’re lacking resources or understanding, speaking up for yourself: All of those skills apply to remote work as well,” says Brie Reynolds, a senior career specialist at FlexJobs.
Reynolds is excited by the potential opportunities the Dev Degree partnership will extend to those seeking a career transition.
Furthermore, while Make School’s students tend to be of typical college age, Reynolds is excited by the potential opportunities the Dev Degree partnership will extend to those seeking a career transition.
“It makes the career change more available to people if you do it this way, because they don’t have to worry about finding the time to get to a class physically, or keeping their job while going to school and how to explain that to an employer,” she says. “In the same way that remote work provides opportunities for people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to do a traditional in-office job, remote learning does the same for folks who can’t necessarily attend a traditional college, like working parents or people already working full time.”
Not all remote curriculums are equal
The traditional post-secondary structure typically offers students a wide variety of learning opportunities across an array of disciplines. Having a variety of specialities on the same campus allows them to explore and experiment with different subjects and career options, and expand their educational boundaries.
According to Sandy Baum—a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a former professor of economics at Skidmore College—the Dev Degree program is best suited for those who are certain they want to work in tech and aren’t as interested in learning about other subjects.
“A broader education opens more doors to people than specific training programs,” she says. “There’s all kinds of evidence that just acquiring specific skills won’t serve you as well in your life. It’s really hard to get what would really be the education we associate with bachelor’s degrees, beginning to end, online.”
At the same time, Baum—who is also the author of Student Debt: Rhetoric and Realities of Higher Education Financing—acknowledges that not every student is interested in a more generalized education. She believes that the Dev Degree program is viable in part because it is designed around a specific career outcome. “Very targeted programs are much easier to be successful with in a purely online environment,” she says.
The program also benefits from targeting a particularly attractive industry with lots of high-paying career opportunities. That is why Reynolds of FlexJobs welcomes any program that expands educational opportunities to people seeking a career in tech—especially those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access the education they need to do so.
“We have so many folks who are interested in changing careers; they know tech is where really good-paying jobs are, where lots of jobs are being generated,” Reynolds says. “So the more opportunities that open up for people to participate in these types of programs, the better.”