Brad Hargreaves. “Education: Reloaded”

April 22, 2013, 20:00 lecture


On April 22, the Digital October Center hosted a live telecast featuring Brad Hargreaves, the cofounder of a project that has changed the face of business and practically oriented education. While giving a talk as part of the Knowledge Stream project, he discussed how the General Assembly startup came about, how it works, and where it is headed in the future.

“I grew up in the backwoods of Arkansas; it would take hours to get to the closest movie theater. But I managed to enroll in Yale University, and, since I had to pay for my education somehow, I couldn’t think of anything better to do than sell antique furniture. Of course, it was nothing like working at a startup, but that’s how I began on my path to entrepreneurship.

“At the same time, we started developing games – at first, for the students at our college, but soon enough, people were playing our online strategy games on campuses across the country. We raised a pretty good amount of venture capital, too, but in 2010, the company shuttered. I spent a few months hanging out in New York, but I didn’t like anything that I tried my hand at there. At the same time, new trends were popping up on the Internet – and my friends and I decided to act on them all at the same time.

“When we launched General Assembly, we hadn’t considered doing anything in the educational sphere: we just had a grant and some space in the very center of New York City. So we said, ‘Hey, startups, come on over – work in our coworking space, meet up with experts, top-notch designers and programmers – learn something from them.’

“But then, when we opened, it turned out that there was very little call for coworking spaces. But there was a huge call for education. We started studying the statistics and, over the course of our research, we found out that:

“The majority of companies don’t have enough people specializing in design and development.

“So we thought, in that case, why not put together some regular evening classes? At first, we decided that 50% of the courses should be led by practical experts, and the other 50% should be led by professors and theorists.

“But soon we realized that even the very best professors didn’t rate with this crowd. We dropped in on a lecture entitled, “Analyzing Social Media”, which was being given by a prominent graph theory expert. Half of the people in the room were ready to leave after just 15 minutes. When we asked them why, one person replied that he didn’t want to learn theory, he wanted to learn how to use Twitter in his own business.

“That’s how we identified the problem: people need basic, practical knowledge, a different type of education following a non-traditional model.

“Add that to the fact that the unemployment rate for young people 25 and under is extremely high: 16% in the US and 23% in Europe (while in Spain it’s still at 50%). This is a universal problem: academic institutions usually aren’t focused on teaching their students practical knowledge, so, after investing a good amount of money and several years on their education, people still aren’t getting the chance to realize their potential.

“Well, I’m sure you know examples of young college graduates flipping burgers, too. These days it’s impossible to expect to land a good job right after getting your bachelor’s degree. That’s how we came up with the idea for our first 12-week course – the kind of course that would help you to find a job upon completion.

“And when we got 200 applications for 15 spaces, it became clear that we were on the right track.

“We started teasing out problem spots in the labor market: we tried to figure out what employers were looking for, what kinds of professions were going to grow in the next 3-5 years. Today, 90 people work with us to do just that: they talk to big companies like General Electric, as well as small-scale startups. They make a detailed analysis of what real demands employers plan to make on future job seekers. At the same time, they try to figure out what our potential students want – well, other than a good job.

“After that, we sit down to write our curriculum – and that’s why, upon graduation, we end up with a crop of students that specific companies want to hire. But, on its own, the curriculum isn’t enough; we need the right instructors to bring it to life. By the way, we’ve noticed that many of our students find their first jobs in their field of study through our instructors.

“We’ve also learned by experience that it’s easier to take, say, an experienced coder and teach him how to give a lecture

than it is to take a brilliant speaker and theorist and explain to him, for instance, what Java Script is.

“At the same time, we studied the experience of Harvard, Stanford. A university’s brand name is a product in and of itself. And we realized that we wanted the same thing for General Assembly – not just to teach skills, but to improve our students’ career opportunities.

“Now we run a long-term program designed to have students learn the exact skills that a particular company wants. For instance, our data analysis class is based on a request we got from American Express, which had come to us to say, soon we’re going to need a hundred experts in this field.

“But I don’t want you to get the idea that we want to be a middle man, a sort of matchmaker for employers and jobseekers. We aren’t headhunters, we don’t take a cut.

“So McKinsey came to us and said, ‘We need a new kind of employee. Let’s train them together, only we’ll use our instructors.’ We decided not to rely entirely on them, and we came up with the following solution.

“Around the same time, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce was looking to collaborate with us. They wanted to lend a hand to small businesses in that neighborhood of New York. So we gave the students in our McKinsey course an assignment designed to help Brooklynites: as it turns out, our students also put together some practical projects that will look pretty good on their resumes. Now the program’s winding down, and 75% of the students already have interviews with McKinsey. We’re very proud of that story, but we already know that we’re going to have to alter the course. Because we totally understand that there is no such thing as the perfect class.

“That’s why we recently launched a program featuring internships with well-known companies: they’re working for peanuts, but they can try out the skills they’ve just learned in real-life situations and figure out whether or not they would actually want to work for that company. The pilot program was designed for web developers. Of the 17 people who signed on as interns in that first round, all but one were hired for the positions they wanted there. That says a lot.

“The most important thing we’ve learned is that just throwing content at a person is ineffective. That, I believe, is the major drawback of traditional online universities, as silly as that categorization sounds. These days, we often send students to hackathons. We even sponsor them, if we have to. And if our students are working on analytical research projects, we help them out, too.

“Basically, we’re trying to synthesize everything that’s good in our educational system.”

Brad Hargreaves for Knowledge Stream


557 show Elena
serial entrepreneur, co-owner of Eduson TV educational project
558 show Boris
Managing Parnter, Bright Capital
559 show Anna
moderator, Managing Partner, TEC VENTURES

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