Can online education and coding academies give us back a middle class?

A couple weeks ago, I read something that tied my stomach in knots. It was that type of nervous anxiety often associated with public speaking. I associate it with my first email from the law school registrar saying that grades had been posted, and finding out for the first (and hopefully last) time several years ago that I was out of a job.
Only, this article had nothing to do with me, my family or my future. It was an article on Slate about a victim of the Long Island serial killer and her descent into prostitution. And although the story ends in about the worst possible way, it was the beginning that made me sick to my stomach.
It told how a woman named Melissa Barthelemy grew up a rough part of Buffalo, N.Y., but didn’t want to succumb to her surroundings. She wanted to become a hair stylist and earn enough money to take care of her mother; she was “beaming” proud at her beauty-school graduation ceremony. But, author Robert Kolker wrote:

“When the time came for her to cash in on all her work, though, the best job she could find was at Supercuts. At the location in Williamsville, N.Y., a northeast suburb of Buffalo, she had to sit at a mall for two hours every night after closing just to catch a bus home.”

Melissa tried to do the right thing, and it didn’t work out. Or maybe it worked out about as well as one could reasonably expect — beauty school, after all, isn’t the Ivy League. You can almost forgive her naivete for not seeing something was amiss when a guy she met on a trip to New York City offered her a too-good-to-be-true gig in a hair salon there. She just wanted her hard work to pay off.

Born without a silver spoon

I think Melissa’s story struck such a chord with me because every day I see other lives that have probably followed similar, if not worse, paths. I live smack in the middle of Las Vegas, not in the suburbs or in a strip high-rise. Anytime I drive anywhere I see folks working their butts off to make ends meet through an honest day’s work — the mothers wearing their work uniforms and pushing kids in strollers to the bus stop — and those who have given up trying.
Some have pretty clearly fallen prey to the world of prostitution that captured Melissa.

Downtown Las Vegas is not exactly paradise.

Downtown Las Vegas is not exactly paradise.

I’m not suggesting that money or higher education are the hallmarks of a successful life or prerequisites for happiness. But I know struggle when I see it, and it’s even harder to see when you know just how much opportunity is out there for people who have the right skills. There’s evidence to suggest we don’t have an unemployment problem in the United States as much as we have a shortage of people with the right skills.
For example, Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, was on “Real Time with Bill Maher” recently talking up his Profoundly Disconnected foundation and the fact that it doesn’t take a four-year degree to earn six figures a year operating heavy machinery. A lot of doors open up if you go to college of some sort or at least learn a trade. Not all careers are for doctors, lawyers, teachers, shop owners or astronauts.
Silicon Valley isn’t fighting for immigration reform because it loves ethnic diversity.
However, I’m not certain kids like Melissa ever get this memo. If all a kid sees around her are people struggling through life in crappy jobs, maybe unemployed, it’s probably hard to have a worldview much beyond that. It’s probably hard to see how learning math, chemistry or world capitals is particularly relevant when you don’t view a university education as a realistic option and don’t see a whole lot of alternatives between that and the daily grind.
You grow up, graduate high school and, if you’re lucky, get a job at a salon — something that doesn’t require breaking your back or ringing up lottery tickets for near minimum wage.

It’s not just a poverty thing

And this isn’t just a poverty issue; in some ways, I sympathize with Melissa. Mine is hardly a tale of woe, but I can tell you that growing up in a middle-class blue-collar town limits your scope of vision. My friends and I were smart, creative kids by any measure, but I don’t recall us ever speaking about grand career plans or the great universities we would attend. I think everyone kind of assumed they’d get a degree from a state school, find a nice, respectable job in the area and start a family.
It’s a fine plan, but one I think made because of a lack of information. Move one step up the economic ladder — what else would you do? Yes, lots of people break through their glass ceilings — Marissa Mayer grew up a few years earlier than me and just a few miles up the road (albeit in a city 10 times larger, but still not large) — but the people and experiences around us do help form our expectations.

Probably not a lot of software engineers around. Source: Shutterstock / David Dea

Probably not a lot of software engineers around. Source: Shutterstock / David Dea

An internet connection and an open mind?

I hope technology, particularly the advent of massive open online courses and online coding academies, can help change this. Yes, they can open up kids’ and even adults’ minds to new things. Perhaps more importantly, they can do so without the pressure of having to earn a grade or pay thousands of dollars to take a class they might not not end up enjoying.
As Bill Gates said when discussing the issue recently, it’s not just a matter of learning new stuff, but of improving a broken education system. College in the United States is incredibly expensive, and it can be difficult to justify that expense if you don’t know what you want to study or whether there’s a job waiting for you at the end.
MOOCs and services like Codecademy change everything. All of a sudden, a high school kid from rural Americah immerse himself in game theory at night. A veteran systems administrator can learn the basics of cloud computing and not only save his job, but make himself more valuable. Maybe a young woman like Melissa Barthelemy decides to spend her free time learning an in-demand skill like coding, or even the basics of business, instead of going to beauty school.

A sampling of jsut new classes on Coursera.

A sampling of just new classes on Coursera.

It doesn’t seem likely a certificate from EdX or Khan Academy is going to replace a Harvard degree anytime soon, but they are a sign that you’ve learned something. You’ve possibly learned a very valuable skill and done so from a recognized expert. Already, some employers are hiring top students from programs such as Coursera and Udacity, and I have to think more employers will start paying a lot more attention to what job candidates know instead of where they learned it.
Gates seems to think MOOC-like instruction will infiltrate all level of public education, and that doesn’t seem like a bad thing. It doesn’t mean teachers get fired or schools close down, but it does mean kids from all walks of life could learn extremely valuable skills in things like computer programming, web design or number of any number of fields that suit their fancy without relying on teachers who correctly spent their time studying education rather than those pursuits. It’s a pretty powerful proposition.

Not perfect, but better than nothing

Yes, Bill Gates has his critics. And, yes, MOOC completion rates are low. Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun swears they’re getting better, but even if they’re still low that’s not a reason to write off MOOCs. I’ve started and stopped more classes than I care to admit, but I’ve learned something every time.
Those well-paying, nicely pensioned manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. The ones that remain might require a little mathematical and technological knowledge. If we want a middle-class, we need the new skills that are going to support it.
If an internet connection, a laptop and a few hours a week can are all it takes to start learning them, I think we can make it work.
Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Andrea Izzotti.