To set up a college, where there are no teachers, and a curriculum like a video game, must mean you really hated school. Kwame Yamgnane, founder of 42, a French coding academy that’s opened its latest branch in Palo Alto, doesn’t even bother to disagree.
‘Clearly something happened in my childhood. And my mother’s a teacher. So it must be some kind of Oedipus complex.’
He’s joking but he’s deadly serious about one thing: traditional forms of education are not suited to everyone. ‘I didn’t like school, or at least not in the form that it was presented to me.’
42 is the result of this dissatisfaction. And keeping with the pop psychology, perhaps it shows he has some of the same desire as his father, the former Togolese presidential candidate Kofi Yamgnane, to change things. The free computing university opened in Paris three years ago, inspired in part by the tech school EPITA he attended when he was young, with his co-founder Nicolas Sadiron (the third partner in 42, Florian Bucher, was involved in their previous educational project Epitech). Students are set rigorous tests which they’re meant to solve in groups (and other students mark).
The problem is that at the moment, traditional education is the only option and some people find it f*cking boring.
It all starts with applying online then a demanding four-week introduction session where they’re subjected to rigorous tasks. It’s called ‘La Piscine’ (the swimming pool) but it’s really the techie’s equivalent of Blofeld’s piranha pool. Only 60 per cent survive, Kwame says. The others decide it’s not for them.
Kwame is OK with that. ‘We know it’s a type of education that doesn’t suit everyone. Just as traditional education doesn’t suit everyone. But the problem is that at the moment, traditional education is the only option and some people find it f*cking boring.’ And this new system will keep you on your toes; Kwame explains. ‘It’s like sitting an exam but having no idea what’s on it … it’s totally weird; it’s super fun.’
Kwame’s a cool guy. He swears, he wears a hoodie, and he’s just opened a museum for street art in the Paris campus. Coding is art, he explains, so what better than to be surrounded by art? This is part of his educational philosophy; he doesn’t think subjects are relevant anymore. Instead the focus is on skills – rather than knowledge of a specific subject area. (What’s Google for?) It it the ability to solve problems that will have a practical impact on how students navigate the world after graduating. Studying alone in the library won’t help anyone, but finding solutions in groups will.
42 certainly doesn’t attract the usual academic crowd
That’s exactly what happens at 42. Named after the answer given to the ‘Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’ in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (yes, they may be cool, but they’re still geeks), the school is founded on peer-to-peer learning and problem solving. It’s free to attend and you get digs thrown in too (thanks to the French technology billionaire Xavier Niel). The campus in open 24/7 and the 1,000 students selected each year can come in and out of the 4200m sq space when they want to solve the tasks set in their groups.
42 certainly doesn’t attract the usual academic crowd. 40 per cent of their students are high-school dropouts; 65 per cent are from outside Paris. All the information they demand upon application is your name and date of birth (fine if you’re a convicted murderer but you have to be between 18 – 30 years old). Alongside, they also run a training programme for unemployed people over the age of 50. Of course, one stat about 42 is predictable: only 10 per cent are women.
Graduation stats are pretty incredible; they have 100 per cent employment rate, many go on to work for big tech companies like Tesla or Facebook, and a whopping 25 per cent start their own companies. So what’s next for 42?
Setting up in America, in the birthplace of the tech industry, has offered its own set of challenges, mostly to do with diversity.
In July, they set up in ‘the place where most of the things happen in digital in the world’, Palo Alto. They offer their training materials, if not their brand, to schools in Ukraine, Romania and South Africa. Sharing knowledge doesn’t mean ‘you lose your knowledge… it’s not like sharing pizza.’ The most resistant critics have been teachers, not surprisingly. But even without teachers, Kwame is sure it’s never going to be a solely remote exercise. Students need the discipline of face-to-face contact (if only between themselves) and Kwame sees ‘blended learning’ as the future. He’s also a great fan of the Zuckerberg-funded edtech startup Andela, who are also represented at the conference Africa 4 Tech in Marrakesh this week: ‘I’d love to do something with them.’
Setting up in America, in the birthplace of the tech industry, has offered its own set of challenges, mostly to do with diversity; they have 400 students at the moment and place for 1,000. ‘Our target is East Bay… we try to get access to the black communities, the Mexican communities, the Chinese communities.’ The problem is that San Francisco is heavily segregated; many ethnic minorities live in Oakland and consume different media.
In Paris, you find people from across the continent and Africa working and studying together in what is the heart of Europe. Reaching a different range of people in the US is tough – even for a free university in a country where higher education is exorbitant. So if you live in the USA, are between 18 and 30 and fancy a free, high-class education without any books, I’d think about applying.