January 14, 2019
Introducing Lambda Async: Our Way to Guarantee Student Job Readiness
Caleb Hicks

On Friday we held a school assembly announcing Lambda Async, our mastery based progression program that ensures that every student finishes Lambda School with every skill they need to land a job and contribute on a team.

We covered 4 things:

  1. How we design outcomes focused instruction.
  2. How we evaluate student learning.
  3. How we're making it possible for every student to train and retrain on content until they can demonstrate mastery.
  4. How we roll that into our Careers and Outcomes support.

Before I share any more, I want to tell a quick story about this mountain outside my window. This is Mount Timpanogos, one of the tallest mountains in Utah. The view from the top is incredible.

Mount Timpanogos

From the summit you get this top-of-the-world vista of Utah valley to the southwest, Salt Lake valley to the northwest, and Sundance and into Park City to the northeast.

I'm not sure anyone climbs Timpanogos in January, but the trail is pretty well maintained during the summer. It's a long hike, and will take the better part of a full day, but it's doable for most anyone willing to make the climb.

Consider everyone reading this blog post. If we all took this hike together, imagine for a second, what would that look like? Who would get to the trailhead first? Who would need to stop by the store, pickup some hiking boots, and break them in for a week or two before climbing? Who would need to fly to Utah just to start?

And once folks started to climb, who would race to the top? Who would need to take a break every few minutes? Maybe you didn't sleep well the night before, or maybe it's the altitude, maybe you have asthma, or allergies, or you're just not as good of shape as some of the others.

At Lambda School, we accommodate everyone.

Our vision is to enable every student to fulfill their potential, or to reach that summit, regardless of circumstance. That means that no matter where a student starts, where they need more time, or how long it takes, we're going to get students to the top.

It will be hard, some will struggle or even drop out, but if they show up, if they make the effort, we'll hike every step of the way at their side until they get that job.

How We Design Outcomes Focused Instruction

When we start building a new course, we work with industry experts and hiring managers to build out a giant list of the skills that would make someone a no-brainer hire for those jobs.

We may end up with a list of 200-300 discrete skills written as "Student can..." statements. Then our team of learning engineers designs projects, assessments, and learning activities for every single one. We look at it top down, bottom up, and sideways until we fit in every skill.

For each of the tracks we run today, we end up with 30 sprints. Each a week long in full-time, and two weeks long in part-time. Each sprint represents a set of those objectives, with multiple opportunities to prove to students and to those who'll be hiring them that they know how to contribute to real world projects.

Let's look at one class. Our Web class currently has 272 concrete objectives. Throughout the course, students will spend time on every single one of them, spiraling outward from the individual skill, to implementing that skill in projects, build weeks, and labs.

A lot more goes into how we build curriculum at Lambda School, and we're always looking for great people. If you're interested in joining our instruction or learning engineering teams, check out Lambda Careers.

How We Evaluate Student Learning

We assess student learning at the objective, module, sprint, unit, and course levels. While some jobs will hire students without nailing every objective, we've designed the curriculum to overshoot baseline expectations so that our students are the obvious choice. So it's important for us to measure every individual objective.

Right now we do that best at the Sprint level. Students build a project every Friday that encompasses everything they learned that week. When a student is unable to demonstrate mastery (It's not "failing". Remember the mountain? It's entirely expected and planned for.), they go back and repeat the sprint immediately.

We don't send them back to the next class, or have them start over entirely. Both of those are a waste of time. The student needs some targeted help on one concept. That shouldn’t require an additional month or more of the student's time.

Someone asked me if I felt comfortable sharing our playbook with the world. Short answer: no. Longer answer: this isn't the whole playbook, and practically everyone in education already knows this is the right way to deliver skills-based learning.

There are some unique things in our specific implementation, but the theory is widely known. Most schools just aren't willing to do the work or pay the price.

We've spent the last 18 months building our entire learning model and curriculum to support mastery based progression. Instructors have been building preclass videos, guided projects, and sprint challenges to make sure students have everything they need.

We lean into each of those to make Async possible.

Why Mastery Based Progression?

I started my first mastery based progression program four years ago. What I found was really interesting... almost every student took advantage of mastery based progression at least once.

But what was really cool was that students who would normally fall behind and struggle through the entire class, when they took an extra week early on, usually did not need it again.

Entire classes would usually finish within 2-3 weeks of each other. Unfortunately, the school shut down the program after my successor left because they felt it was too expensive and required too much work.

That gets at my favorite part of working at Lambda School. When I raised Async with Austen (before I even had an offer to come to Lambda) there was no question it was the right way forward. The whole team has been obsessed with student success from the very beginning, and Async was going to be part of our DNA.

Instructors have moved mountains to make Async an amazing experience. Students who run through our Async program are among our biggest fans, even more likely to recommend Lambda School than those who haven't, and become the best performers in their classes.

Huge shout out to our Student Success team, who saw the need with a small group of students nearly a year ago, volunteered to jump in and make it work months before we would be ready, and learn by doing. They've organized the chaos of running this with ~1000 students every week.

Running a program like Async is expensive and hard. No other school in the world runs a program quite like what we’re doing. It’s just one more thing that sets Lambda School apart. If you're interested, come and see for yourself.