In 2014, the former French President François Hollande announced a billion-Euro “big plan for digital” to be implemented in elementary schools. The Digital Plan for Education included a 3-day digital literacy program for teachers, thousands of mobile devices set to be distributed among all school students and an introductory course to coding for children in grades spanning from preschool to ninth grade. Amongst other goals, these proposals were aimed to fulfill “an ambitious strategy to bring schools to the digital age”.
Hollande’s program was driven by the impending notion that France is one of the many nations struggling to adapt its workforce to an increasingly globalized and digitized economy. According to “Pôle emploi“, the French state unemployment agency, there is a tangible shortage of programmers in the labor market, as only 1.5 candidates per-job-offer applied for this type of position in 2018.
Reinventing schools in France
Whether it be machine learning, self-driving cars, application development or data-analysis, code-based jobs are becoming dominant on the employment market. Yet the digital age evolves much faster than the education system that is supposed to feed it, leading to a gap of talents and a threat to France’s competitive growth. Computer schools in France – often affiliated with top engineering schools – rank fairly well in general, but their tuition fees and elite postures drive many potential talents away. Facing this conundrum, France had to reinvent its education system or lose its competitive edge in the technology sector.
In 2013, Wired, The New York Times, The Economist and The Financial Times all reported the opening in Paris of « 42 », a freshly launched computer science academy that offered what seemed impossible in the US: free tuition. The school sits in a 3-floor building north of Paris, where rows upon rows of Mac computers fill the space inhabited by nearly 1,000 students and 30 staff members. The school is open 24/7, has a dedicated videogame area, an amphitheater and some other amenities, but no teachers, schedules, courses, or diplomas are to be found. Attendees are only expected to solve designated programming tasks in a project-based learning environment, making use of all resources needed -technological or not. A central server analyses their performance and learning behavior constantly, suggesting new training paths and projects as it deems necessary.
Academic, social or economic backgrounds are not taken into consideration for entry, only the students’ ambition for learning. After application and several hours of online logic questions, candidates are put through a true endurance test on-site. The Piscine –French for swimming pool- is a 4-week programming frenzy meant to “immerse” pupils into problem solving; all that matters there is the applicants’ resolution to find the information and tools they need, regardless of previous knowledge -or lack of it. It’s the French version of “Eat, Sleep, Code, Repeat”.
Nicolas Sadirac, the concept designer
The head founder of 42 is the French telecom baron Xavier Niel, who banked on his name and his money to secure the development of 42. The conceptor of 42’s novel education style is Nicolas Sadirac, a French computer veteran with a Physics Ph.D. from Stanford, a self-taught hacker who went from bypassing ticket vending machines systems to accessing the German Ministry of Defense servers where the Rafale fighter bomber blueprints were stored.
After completing his studies in the USA, Nicolas Sadirac completed a computer cursus at the Epita in Paris. A hacker with a keen interest for network and security matters, Nicolas Sadirac was entrusted with managing the computer security system at Epita after his graduation. Beyond filling his admin duties, Nicolas Sadirac developed a vibrant community of students committed to develop the school’s computer system and beyond. When Epita became part of the Ionis group and started to realign its programs with the country’s standards, Sadirac created Epitech, an independent computer programming cursus within Epita. His intention was to nurture a new form of pedagogy based on autonomy, peer-to-peer education and performance, convinced that computer programming was a matter of creativity beyond all things. The year was 1999.
Instead of focusing on memorizing chunks of knowledge, students had to develop an ability to create new ideas. They were designated tasks to solve with no strict instructions, manuals or tutors, but rather relying on a peer-to-peer organizational model. The experiment achieved a similar result to what Indian education scientist Sugata Mitra called “a self-organized learning environment”. Step by step, Nicolas Sadirac’s Epitech became an ovni in the landscape of French schools. Obligatory attendance was no more, teachers left the classroom, students co-managed their education and evaluated each others, diplomas went out the window, admissions became hackathon-like events, and Epitech ranked among the top computer schools in France.
Web@cademie, proof of concept
Sadirac’s education model was a formal demonstration that a student’s scholastic or cultural background was not correlated with his success in a peer-to-peer, creativity-driven environment. He actually noticed the contrary : Students heavily formatted by the traditional education models were less formatable, less inclined to adopt new learning behaviors, thus less performant to achieve innovation. On the contrary, those who had failed traditional school cursus would suddenly excel in Sadirac’s pedagogic environment.
In 2010, Nicolas Sadirac launched the Web@cademie with Zup de Co, a non-profit dedicated to helping young dropouts get back at work. The approach of the Web@cademie was borrowed from Sadirac’s Epitech pedagogy, but the program was simplified and focused on web development.
In 2012, Lilas Merbouche, a former pet-shop employee with a high-school dropout profile, was attending an executive-level meeting at the office of Free. Her employer, 42 co-founder Xavier Niel, quickly noticed her outstanding capabilities and was surprised to discover her limited curriculum, which included only a 2-year degree from the Web@cademie. A dropout himself, Niel had now turned into a billionaire and was fascinated by the idea that anyone could transcend academic qualifications to put their true skills to work.
Completely sold by the Web@cademie concept, Xavier Niel met Nicolas Sadirac. The two set in motion 42 in a didactic project that combined Sadriac’s bold approach to digital education and Niel’s penchant for philanthropic stunts, challenging both French strict academicism and common financing practices in a single move. Niel has been quoted saying that he was “doing what the Ministry [of Education] hasn’t” by funding the school with a 100 million-euro initial investment.
Focusing on hands-on experience as a way to acquire knowledge, 42 is an experiment in diversified learning methods with sound results. According to Sadriac, “alumni have been getting better salaries than many engineers of Centrale”. “Some of them didn’t even finish high school”, he adds. As a matter of fact, some reports claim that a all of 42’s former pupils had found a job in 2019.
Nowadays, the French school has risen to fame and boasts two official campuses in different continents. The American branch in Fremont, California, matches the original one in Paris, and has been endorsed by multiple Silicon Valley personalities. Additionally, more than a dozen schools have embraced 42’s methods in countries like South Africa, Argentina, Morocco, and the Netherlands, to name a few.
After five years of leading the school, the French hacker heeded his restless nature and turned his eyes to newer horizins. In his own words, his collaboration with Niel was “not in line with the needs of digital education”.
01 (Edu System)
In early 2019, Nicolas Sadirac launched 01 Edu System. Built upon the pedagogic foundations of his previous school ventures, 01 Edu System aims much higher than 42 in terms of scale, targeting 1,000,000 student coders from all around the globe and tuition-free in the next 15 years. 01 Edu System is a new digital learning platform that is meant to be easily accessible even for schools that lack top-of-the-line infrastructure and resources. It aims for rapid growth in developing countries where the tech culture is still shy. As stated on its website, a designated operational area of 16,000 sq ft (1 500 m2) and a staff of 15 people is enough to manage 3,000 students.
The first “Zone 01” school is Alem, in Kazakhstan, but at least another one is planned to begin operating in the African continent. Additionally, the platform is expected to land into the professional reskilling market, trying to fill the gap for companies that require workers with updated knowledge bases. While free, these new schools generate a revenue when students who find a job after their cursus pay back their training. In an interview for WISE, Sadriac expanded on this subject:
The idea of 42 is totally non-profit and based on charity, but I don’t think we can solve a wider problem with charity, so we need a process where we create value and this value is used to open more schools. It’s just like a basic football club: you find talent, you train them, and you share value.Nicolas Sadirac
Sadriac’s ultimate goal with 01 is to expand the possibilities of his teaching methods to other fields like arts, design, biomedical….