Learning to code is fun (most of the time). Learning to code with the added goal of landing a first job as a Junior Developer after just 7 months of training can be daunting. Gamification is a great way to build self-confidence through this intensive learning period.
At BeCode (the largest network of inclusive coding bootcamps in Belgium), we may have found a way to both gamify our trainings and improve the job marketability of our learners at the same time.
It did not happen overnight. All the pieces fell into place recently, while working on our latest advanced training: DevSecOps. This article explains how we gradually came to design the BeCode Learning User Experience (or LUX, as in Light in Latin).
Here is more or less chronologically how the pieces started stacking up, through good old trial and error and iterations over almost 3 years.
When we launched BeCode in 2017 we did not want to create just another school. We wanted learning to be fun, collective, positive, healing. We wanted to surround our learners with the comfort, structure, autonomy and kindness needed to dare take risks and embrace failure. After all, learning is about searching and experimenting "until it works". Inspired by Simplon (a huge network of inclusive coding bootcamps in France), we replaced the teachers by coaches and chose active learning techniques, where the learner is in charge and controls its learning experience. We unleashed the beast in 2017 and since then, boy have we experimented.
We organize project-based learning using two types of challenges:
- Learning challenges are great to explore, try, experiment. They usually involve a lot of googling, discussing and sharing, trying and failing... When the deadline is reached, what sits on the learner's hard drive is most probably buggy, dirty, dysfunctioning, or completely broken. But they have learned.
- Consolidation challenges come after a few learning challenges to re-invest what has been learned/ explored previously. This type of challenges focuses on the quality of result. It can be used to assess whether the target skills involved in the challenge have reached a professional level.
You can find more about our project-based approach on this Slide Deck BeCode LUX: the Learning User Experience.
BeCode basically provides the conditions of learning. Trainers do not teach but stimulate learning via group dynamics, individual coaching, instilling into the group a "failing forward" approach to mistakes and of course, real-life challenges. According to European education administration, the type of learning we offer sits somewhere between experiential and non-formal learning, which by definition happens while working on real-life projects. There are no clear, unified certification system for that. And that’s okay… until you need to reassure companies that you are worth being hired, with no diploma to show for it. This has been an ongoing question for us to solve: how to certify skills in a non-formal learning environment ?
In the meanwhile, and pretty much since the first day of the first training, we have been playing around with the Open Badges technology. It's important for the learner's self-confidence to receive gratifications for their achievements, big or small. Positive reinforcement is key to learning and badges felt like a good way to do that.
We started creating and granting badges for every technology we use during the training.
The point of these challenges is to grow the skills enabling the learner to enter the job market, bringing value to companies.
Of course, various degrees of craftsmanship are possible. Again, we need something as simple as possible and easy to understand to maximise adoption by everyone - learners and companies. Through various iterations, we came up with this 4-level grid:
- Level 0: Skill is non-existent
- Level 1: Skill has been explored - the candidate has interest and motivation to grow the skill.
- Level 2: The candidate has been able to use that skill on a professional level.
- Level 3: The candidate has acquired enough knowledge and experience and has the teaching skills required to be able to train people on that technical skill
- Level 4: The candidate has contributed to the technology source code, aka "Godmode" - it is of course very rare that someone reach that level. We consider this level to be the ceiling.
Practically it means that learners having finished a learning challenge and shown genuine interest and motivation could claim the Technology’s level 1 badge. When finishing a consolidation challenge, they could get the technology’s level 2 badge. If they give a hands-on workshop on the technology, they could claim to have reached level 3. If Linus Torvald ever comes to BeCode (you never know…) we would grant him Linux’s Level 4 badge. (I'm sure he'd be thrilled!)
From a business point of view, a level 1 badge certifies that the candidate has "some exploratory" knowledge and is interested to master that skill but is not autonomous yet nor able to use the technology in a real-life professional scenario - some senior mentoring would be required.
An important benefit of Open Badges is the fact that they can be embedded on the Learner's LinkedIn profile (here is how). The potential employer, reviewing the profile, can click on the badges and check what it means and more importantly, how it was obtained. In that regard, open badges are much more transparent than diplomas and classic certificates.
They are also very relevant: since every learner is different, the set of badges acquired can more closely represent the strengths of each profile. This is a great way to improve the marketability of our learners and move beyond the "informal" aspect of their training, indeed giving it a recognizable form.
In the summer of 2019, we undertook an important work synthesizing what soft skills we can observe (and thus certify) during the seven months of the bootcamps. Through a couple of co-creation workshops involving smart people from various disciplines (management, previous learners, trainers, marketing people and an external HR expert) we came up with a vocabulary of 10 Soft Skills badges that enable everyone at BeCode speak the same language about the behaviours expected in a professional environment.
When we introduced the soft skill badges to the learners and fellow trainers from Simplon (our French partner), it brought a lot of enthusiasm as it gamifies the acquisition of soft skills, whereas soft skill training is usually experienced as "condescending" and is generally a hard to tame beast, since it is so subjective. Unwillingly, we had created the embryo of a gamification system.
Ultimately, badges are a mean to an end: finding a job, starting a career path.
Well, in essence, a career path is a set of tech skills and soft skills to acquire.
If we can describe a career path through the necessary combination of level 1-4 badges, we have a clear way to describe to the learner what path they need to take to achieve their goals. That's exactly what we did, involving company experts in the process of content creation.
To certify that a learner has acquired all the required badges, we need another badge, representing the career: we called them "meta badges". Here is an example of the Secure Developer metabadge, and the badges necessary to earn it.
The gamification of the Learning User Experience at BeCode essentially means acquiring skills through challenges, deciding which career path to pursue and when learning goals are achieved, certifying them using open badges. The goal of the game is by the end of the training to obtain the meta badge corresponding to the learner's desired career path. That badge certifies that the learner has the soft and technical skills required to enter the job market in that career, and with enough self-confidence to grow into the position autonomously.
What are the next steps ? Our next trainings will implement it from the starting day. It will be a real life pilot from which I expect to discover a lot of opportunities for improvement. We also need to update our Junior Web Developer training to match this structured gamification approach.
Also, I am eager to see how “open minded” will companies be about these badges as a way to assess a candidate’s skills. They make a lot of sense to us, trainers, but time will tell if it is actually effective in “landing that first job in IT” – the hardest one.