Degreed, CodeFights Ready Alternative Credentials To Rival Diplomas
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not necessarily subject to the government regulations and vetting systems that rule over colleges and universities. For example, Degreed is free to support a middle manager’s informal efforts to learn Spanish via the Duolingo app to advance a career in international commerce.
But despite their independence from academia, both Sloyan and Blake are crusaders of a kind against what they see as the disproportionate clout that college degrees and university hierarchies have over the career fates of individuals.
Blake is more the firebrand of the two. Degreed’s stated intent is disruption of the higher education establishment. “Jailbreak the Degree,” is the startup’s motto. Blake is part of a movement to “unbundle” learning by allowing people to gain mastery of a subject by assembling their own units of credit from a range of providers, including courses from different universities as well as sources such as webinars, edtech offerings, books, and articles.
Blake says his passion for alternative educational pathways began in his teens, when he was a diligent, successful student engrossed in the drive toward admission to a top college. Like many bright teenagers, he also felt that his creativity was being snuffed out by the lockstep game of cramming for tests, spitting out answers, and immediately forgetting what he’d learned. At 17, he and his classmates faced the high-stakes ACT exam that would help dictate his college destination, his early career destiny, and maybe his whole work life.
“It just felt crazy,” Blake says. “I was a really good student, but actually I was a really bad learner.”
At that point, Blake embarked on a self-designed independent study that moved from the history of standardized testing to models of education; to the “skills gap” noted by employers even among college graduates; to climbing college tuition costs and a U.S. student debt burden that now exceeds $1 trillion; and the emergence of online learning options.
About a year after graduating from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s degree in economics, Blake was part of the team that founded Zinch, a social network linking students with educational opportunities. Zinch was acquired by Chegg in 2011. The following year, Degreed was launched to provide the means for workers to keep up with the fast-changing skill requirements of the current job marketplace, Blake says.
Sloyan, who says he was also an excellent student, feels that his talent would never have been recognized if he had relied only on the routes established within school and university hierarchies. He grew up “in the middle of nowhere” in Armenia, he says. It was only due to his success in the International Mathematical Olympiad—-an annual math competition for high school students—-that he “got on the map as someone who deserved a shot.”
Sloyan landed at MIT, where he conceived the idea for CodeFights in his senior year. CodeFights was designed as a more scaleable—-and much more frequent—version of the gamified, yearly math Olympiad that got him addicted to math as a youngster.
“The IQ you’re born with doesn’t depend on the location where you’re born,” Sloyan says. Yet place of birth still determines the fates of people with potential, he says. “We can turn that on its head.”
Sloyan doesn’t deny the value of a college degree in computer science. On average, college graduates do better than others in CodeFights challenges, he says. But that result is at least partially due to the fact that college students have four years to learn math fundamentals and practice their programming skills, while a code school student studies for only a few months, he says. In addition, top universities admit only the students who are already very accomplished in math, he says. So their skills as graduates may only be partially due to their studies on campus.
With the expansion of online courses in coding, Sloyan says, CodeFights now identifies top job prospects who don’t have degrees. One was an immigrant from Ukraine who, as a housewife in North Dakota, learned to love programming via MOOCs (massive open online courses), he says. Then she entered CodeFights competitions. She’s now a software engineer with an algorithmic trading firm in Chicago, he says.
“Her results were mind-blowing,” Sloyan says. “It took two or three weeks to get her a job.”
Among CodeFights’ tools are an automated catalogue of the skill requirements of various tech positions, and automated matching to those positions from the company’s contestant pool.
Sloyan says he can establish the credibility of a CodeFights credential the same way Ivy League schools ensure that employers will prefer their graduates.
“By providing companies with great candidates that blow their minds, we build that reputation and trust,” Sloyan says.