The peer-to-peer learning model of coding school 42 Kuala Lumpur (42KL), Sunway Education Group’s latest partnership with French-founded Ecole 42, may pique the curiosity of many. After all, the premise it touts “zero tuition, zero teachers, zero classes, 100% coding” is intriguing.
Or, revolutionary. That’s how the head of pedagogy at 42, Olivier Crouzet, describes the education model pioneered in 2013 by French technology entrepreneur, Xavier Niel who felt education was broken in France and not keeping up with fast moving technology demands.
The esoteric name of the school '42' is actually a nod to the science-fiction series from the 1979, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, where 42 is the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything".
One wonders if 42 would have struggled to answer the question of how exactly does learning take place, student to student without the guidance of experts or mentors?
In his introductory speech at Friday’s virtual launch, chief information officer of Sunway Group and director of Sunway iLabs, Matt van Leeuwen, shed light on the 21-level gamified programme structure. “It is project-based learning from Day 1. The curriculum is infused with challenges and problem statements from the industry. On top of that, real companies come in to run hackathons and workshops. It mimics a real-life situation.”
The 42KL programme will run at Sunway City’s upcoming innovation hub, Sunway FutureX, a 5-minute walk from the Sunway University Campus. Matt declined to share the investment amount into this venture but confirms that “a significant part of the investment goes into IT infrastructure and new iMacs for the students.”
Can learning without mentors be effective?
Backed by prominent stakeholders like Sunway Group, Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) and CIMB Bank, the appraisal of 42KL by these notable industry forces certainly lends it added credibility in Malaysia. Other industry partners include Huawei Malaysia, DHL, Roland Berger and Carsome.
Ecole 42’s reputation, however, precedes itself with 70% of students being employed within a year or less of joining 42, even without graduating.
“This is just after finishing their industry placement. 30% of students do come back to campus to continue higher levels of the programme, but they have 100% employability,” explained Thila Vijayan, a senior executive from Sunway iLabs.
It sounds too good to be true for a peer-to-peer model to be so effective but an ex-alumnus from 42 Paris shared why having no tuition and teachers can be beneficial. “Everything you need to know is already out there. You just need to figure it out, grasp it and use it. That’s what learning is about,” said Parth Pokar, founder and CEO of Seashore Networks.
[Para updated with full name and designation of Pokar.]
More compellingly, the Ecole 42 model sets students on the path of self-learning. “After 42, in your careers, you will come across lots of new software, technology and frameworks on a daily basis. If you don’t have the habit of learning these things fast enough, it’s going to slow your career down fundamentally,” he adds.
Leveling the digital playing field
42KL is undeniably yet another urbanised digital talent effort. Despite the only requirement being a minimum age of 18 years, a point of valid concern is if the programme’s merit-based, STEM focused assessment is skewed against the knowledge-base and social strata of B40 students.
“When we talk about merit in this context, it is not about academic merit,” responded Matt when posed with the question.
“The admission process is designed in a way that puts students on a level playing field. The first online test is a game that requires applicants to solve logic puzzles. It’s explorative and requires strong logical reasoning and creativity,” he adds.
Upon passing the assessment, applicants with join the 4-week immersive learning experience La Piscine (The Pool). “The Piscine is not an intelligence test or testing who can code better. It is an endurance test. Many programmers find they have to unlearn everything about programming to fit into this structure. Fundamentally, it is about mindset,” explains Matt.
Still, to help bridge the prevalent gap with B40 communities, Sunway works with MDEC and Malaysia Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC). “However, once they get into the Piscine, there is no handholding and it is up to them to make the best out of the opportunity.”
Aptly, there are plans to introduce 42 in Penang and Sarawak in the near future. “We have already received initial interest, so once we are up and running in Sunway City KL, we can use our playbook to expand to other places. Hopefully we can have a second centre within a year from now,” said Matt, ambitiously.
Applicants can be rest assured that the curriculum at 42 Kuala Lumpur is the same quality as from 42 in France and other campuses in Silicon Valley (opened in 2017), Melbourne and Bangkok (opened this March). To maintain quality, Crouzet confirms that students will follow the same projects, deadlines and rules. But some adaptation is made for the outcome of the programme.
“In France, an internship is the pre-hiring requirement which can be placed right in the middle of the curriculum. So we give some freedom for every campus to adapt to local markets and the way students usually enter the labour force,” adds Crouzet.