The Future of Skills-Based Education with General Assembly’s Matt Brimer

Written by Jennifer Maerz, contributing editor of Lean Startup Co.

General Assembly cofounder Matt Brimer launched what became a groundbreaking education hub in 2011 because he was interested in interconnecting New York’s startup community. His organization ended up revolutionizing the concept of “adult education” by focusing on the skills necessary to remain competitive in a rapidly-changing marketplace.

Now in 15 different cities around the world, General Assembly offers technology, design, and business classes from working practitioners. Its campuses and online courses attract people early in their careers looking to level up as well as the more established folks looking to shift direction or add new fields to their knowledge bases. General Assembly goes beyond just educating individuals to teaching entire organizations new skill sets too — while simultaneously growing a community that’s become a source of new talent for hiring managers.

We had a great webcast with Matt back in May about “turning an experiment into a lifestyle brand,”where he discussed both General Assembly and his phenomenally popular sober morning dance party series Daybreaker. The webcast was such a hit with our community that we’re featuring edited excerpts of that conversation here as part of our “Future of….” series that includes interviews with experts out in the field on the Future of Workspaces, Government, Corporate Agilityand more in the weeks leading up to Lean Startup Week.

We’re excited to hear more great stories from Matt about what he’s learned from running General Assembly and Daybreaker during Lean Startup Week. (We’re also really excited to have General Assembly as our official livestream partner in 11 cities around the world. More info and registration info here.) But first, a taste of the knowledge he dropped on our webcast — especially as it’s related to the future of skills-based education.

Don’t underestimate the power of face-to-face learning

“The more that we put our lives online, the more that we seek and crave truly meaningful, truly special in-person experiences where we’re not on the phone, we’re not on our computer. People want really powerful special experiences. I think you’re seeing that across the board.

“At General Assembly, we actually are doing a lot of online education now, and we are expanding it in a big way so we can reach people who are outside of our 15 metro areas. But it turns out when people are learning very difficult things — and they’re changing their careers, and they’re changing their lives, and they’re moving into new professions, learning how to code, what have you — they like to be around people. Who would have thought, right?

“I think sometimes we forget that in our digitally-focused age, there’s a certain social je ne sais quoithat comes with sharing experiences together, motivating each other in person, being able to ask someone a question that you can’t find online. It’s a very powerful thing that I think has translated well for GA.”

Training an entire organization on a new skillset requires more than a virtual classroom and an online certificate.

“We work with a pretty sizable proportion of the Fortune 500 now to help them with change management, digital skills acquisition, helping them think through entrepreneurial leadership. And it’s not consulting — it’s transformational education for organizations.

“So you might be a big company and you have 500 marketers, and you’ve been around for 50 years and you realize, ‘Oh, there’s this Internet thing.’ And we can’t have a chief digital officer who just, like, owns the digital. Digital is this thing that lives horizontally across the entire organization. Everyone in the company has to understand how digital works, so we need to take all these 500 marketers and make sure that they all become digital marketers. But how do you do that?

“General Assembly started by building our consumer brand and our consumer expertise and curriculum across our campuses, and everyone who teaches at General Assembly is a practitioner. They’re not a professor who studies a field. They’re a practitioner who does whatever they’re teaching for a living. All the curriculum we’ve built in house, and we work with the employers and work with the practitioners to do it.

“We’re able to take that curriculum and understand what makes it a really outcome-oriented educational experience. Not just, ‘Okay, here’s a piece of paper, here’s a certificate,’ but what can take you from A and get you to B, so that you have new skills that you can immediately put into practice in your job.

“We started by doing that offline, learning how that works. By really figuring out how outcomes-oriented education works most effectively offline, it gave us a fantastic foundation to then translate that into the online educational products that we’ve built.

“Now that we want to do blended learning models, we can take the curriculum and the learning styles and the experience, and figure out how to translate that online in a broader context where we can reach millions of people around the world who might not live in one of our metro areas where we have our campuses.”

The experiment that built the global brand

“I’ve been working on General Assembly now for six years. We launched our first campus in New York City as a community hub for the startup scene. It was very much an experiment. We got to that point where we were like, ‘Wow, this is working.’ We realized, ‘You know what? We actually have a much bigger vision here.’ This isn’t just about creating a nucleus for all these people to come together and learn from each other and to socialize with each other and to collaborate with each other. We actually could potentially be creating a whole new educational institution that’s relevant to this millennium, this new economy.

“The education aspect started to work so well that we were trying out classes and workshops. We thought, ‘Okay, we’ll have some of our classes be practitioner-led. We’ll have practitioners that nobody knows by name, but who are good at what they do.’ We’ll have them teach some classes, and then we’ll have some professors from big-name universities like Columbia and NYU come in and teach the future of media or history of the Internet or something like that. A few months in, nobody was showing up at the more academic, intellectual classes, and people were just coming in droves to the practitioner-led, more skills-oriented classes and workshops. So we discovered this whole skills gap once we were just doing it. We just had to start doing it, because the original hypothesis of university professor meets practitioner, that wasn’t the gold.

“So we doubled down on the practitioner aspect of what we were doing. It was, okay, adults have limited time — you’re looking to build your career, you want to grow, you want to level up, you want to change your profession, or start a company, or get a promotion, or be better at what you do. And so when you want to learn stuff, it needs to be practical. It needs to be useful. It needs to be relevant. It needs to be taught by people who are in the industry because that’s where the expertise is.

“So much of what we teach is not taught in universities. For the most part, colleges and universities are about staying the same in terms of what they are offering, whereas the 21st century is moving fast, in terms of what employers are demanding and what you need to be successful skills-wise in today’s digital economy. There’s this big skills gap between when you graduate from college and the whole rest of your life and your career in the digital economy.

“Your education should always be in beta. And so now, as we think about the future of General Assembly, we want it to be an educational institution in the community that is always relevant — and that you can come back to, to take a class, to take a workshop, maybe to teach a class, maybe to hire a graduate from, maybe to work with us, partner with us in some way, for the rest of your life and the rest of your career. But that means that we need to evolve too. As new programming languages are invented, and as the world moves forward, we always need to stay current as well.”

Hear more from Matt and other leaders pondering the effects of long-term innovation on the way we do business at Lean Startup Week Oct. 31-Nov. 6 in San Francisco. Take advantage of our special Fall pricing and save up to $350 here.

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