Trimming the Fat – Introducing the Lean Micro-College Model for Education

Trimming the Fat – Introducing the Lean Micro-College Model for Education


Last year the DaVinci Institute launched a computer programmer training school, DaVinci Coders, and one of the key people we tapped to be one of our world-class instructors was Jason Noble. On Friday I attended a talk given by Jason at the Rocky Mountain Ruby Conference in Boulder, Colorado titled “From Junior Engineer to Productive Engineer.”

DaVinci Coders is an 11-week, beginner-based training in Ruby on Rails, patterned after the successful Chicago-based school, Code Academy (later renamed The Starter League).

Working as a Senior Software Engineer for Comverge, an intelligent energy management company in Denver, and also part-time instructor for DaVinci Coders, Jason understands what it takes to train people both in the classroom and on the job.

In his presentation he compared the apprenticeship times necessary to bring three different newly hired Junior Developers up to speed – one with no Rails experience, one who attended our 11-week course, and another who attended a 26-week program at a different school.

He concluded that the one with no Rails experience required 6-7 month apprenticeship time, the one with 11-weeks training required 2 months, and the one with 26 weeks schooling was up to speed in 3 weeks.

He also estimated hiring a talented college grad with a computer science major, the apprenticeship time would likely be more than 2 months, but they’d also bring other valuable tools to the table.

Yes, this is an unusually tiny sample size for a test case and training times will vary greatly. But this type of comparative analysis naturally begs the question of how much training should be required prior to taking a job, and whether the investment of time and money spent on training should be optimized around the company or the employee, knowing there will always be some in-house training required.

When we look at the bigger picture of retraining for this and many other professions, knowing that people will be rebooting their careers far more often in the future, with time being such a precious commodity, how do we create the leanest possible educational model for jobs in the future? That’s where the Micro-College concept comes into play.

How Lean is Too Lean, and How Fat is Too Fat?

In the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” Jamal Malik, a penniless eighteen year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, is asked a series of very difficult questions on his quest to win a staggering 20 million-rupee prize on India’s “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”

As a street-smart kid with virtually no formal education, the probability of him answering these questions correctly was zero. However, as luck would have it, his life experience had given him precisely the answers he needed, and very little more.

This is an example of an extremely narrow education, only applicable to the one-in-a-billion situation portrayed in the movie.

On the other side of the equation are people who go through all the work of getting bachelor and master degrees and still not having the skills necessary to gain employment.

Traditional colleges, for the most part, do a great job, but they are all oriented around seat time. They also come with the overarching philosophy that nothing of value can be learned in less than four years, a timeframe woefully out of sync with someone needing to change career paths.

So at what point is education “too lean,” and conversely, when is it “too fat?”

Does “Breadth of Learning” Happen more Naturally Today?

Typically, universities require students to achieve both breadth of knowledge across disciplines and depth of knowledge in a particular chosen subject area, known as a major. For this reason, students studying Arts or Humanities are required to take science courses, and vice-versa.

While this made sense hundreds of ears ago when the university system was first created, the average person today in the U.S. spends 11.8 hours each day consuming information. Yes, much of it is TV, radio, and rather frivolous kinds of information, but not all of it.

The sheer volume of information we’re exposed to every day makes the average person today far more informed, aware, and intelligent than their counterpart 50 years ago. Known as the “Flynn Effect,” after researcher James R. Flynn, the average IQ in the U.S. has been increasing every generation for over 80 years, ever since IQ tests were first developed.

So does “breadth of learning” still needs to be a requirement since it’s already part of our “ambient learning culture?”

Micro-Colleges Defined

Micro-Colleges are any form of concentrated post-secondary education oriented around the minimum entry point into a particular profession.

With literally millions of people needing to shift careers every year, and the long drawn out cycles of traditional colleges being a poor solution for time-crunched rank-and-file displaced workers, we are seeing a massive new opportunity arising for short-term, pre-apprenticeship training.

Many Micro-Colleges will fall into the category we often refer to as vocational training, a term poorly suited for the professional craftsmen, artisans, and technicians they will be producing. Since status and credentialing are critical elements of every career choice, any training producing specialized experts will need to come with industry-recognized certifications and titles.

Possible Types of Micro-Colleges 

On a recent “Future of Beer Tour,” an event we produced at the DaVinci Institute that took us on a futuristic bus tour of 5 local craft breweries, one of our on-board experts mentioned that a local college was planning to offer an official major and degree for becoming a “brewmaster.” This is yet one more example of taking an industry where most brewmasters are self taught in a couple months and stretching it into an expensive 4-year college degree.

The Micro-College approach to training brewmasters would be an intense 2-4 month training program with a designated apprenticeship period learning on the job.

Using this line of thinking, the potential for Micro-Colleges is huge, and emerging technologies and business trends are creating more opportunities on a regular basis. Here are a few possible:

  • Certified crowdfunding training
  • Dog breeder university
  • Brew master college
  • 3D print technician training center
  • Drone pilot school
  • Body scanner academy
  • Data visualization and analytics school
  • Aquaponics farmers institute
  • Online competition manager/producer school
  • Project manager training for the freelance economy
  • Urban agriculture academy
  • School for legacy management consultants
  • Pet day care management school
  • 3D food printer chef institute
  • Privacy management academy
  • Senior living management school

These are but a few examples, but with a creative team brainstorming, we could easily list over 100 possible Micro-Colleges.

Automotive engineers working at a car factory in the 1950s

The “Engineering Major” Scenario

As a former IBM engineer, I’ve thought a lot about the relevance of my college years and the work I did as an engineer.

Since my coursework happened in the pre-computer era, most of the skills I needed after computers were introduced were primarily self-taught.

While I used a far amount of math, trig, and geometry, I never used what I learned in the required higher-level math courses like calculus and differential equations.

Most of my engineering coursework became quickly dated as computers and calculators made the previous generation’s work tools like slide rules, protractors, calipers, and drafting tables obsolete.

My first FORTRAN class using a card-punch machine was obsolete even before I had punched my last card.

Perhaps the most valuable courses with long-term relevance were classes in writing, English, speech, art, design, and the special research projects that forced me to find my own answers and write a final report. The art helped me understand that engineering was a form of creative expression.

Nothing I learned was worth zero, but certainly some courses held far greater value than others.

However, starting from the premise of training for the minimum skill requirements of a profession, what exactly are the core courses needed for someone to enter a particular engineering field?

Yes, an electrical engineer is far different than a petroleum engineer, and a mechanical engineer falls in yet another category. The number and type of core courses may vary. But rather than expanding courses to fill an arbitrary four-year requirement, how much fat can be trimmed and still produce an effective, competent engineer?

Using an intensive, full-immersion approach to education, could a school churn out competent industry-ready engineers in less than 2 years?

If the school were tied to an industry-specific apprenticeship program with a near-perfect handoff between academia and real-world work happening inside the industry, what would a super-lean engineering program like this look like?

The Coming Transition

Since we launched DaVinci Coders in the 2nd quarter of 2012, over 40 other coder schools have cropped around the U.S. and even more in Canada in Europe.

Every successful Micro-College will cause others to follow in their footsteps and refine the original business model.

It’s easy to imagine that as traditional colleges see their student base decline, many will begin to partner, merge, and purchase fledgling Micro-Colleges and begin incorporating these new areas of study into their own catalog of course offerings.

Since existing colleges bring with them credit-granting accreditation, along with status, credibility, and the ability to offer student loans, in-house Micro-Colleges will likely become a rapidly growing part of campus life.

Many colleges will find the Micro-College niche they take on to be the key differentiator between them and other schools.

Using the school-within-a-school approach, core Micro-College programs will become feeder mechanisms for additional types of credentialing.

Final Thoughts

The systems used to create colleges centuries ago seem justifiably primitive by today’s standards. Learning formulas for nearly every degree are based on hours, one of the least important considerations when it comes to assessing talent.

Colleges today cost far too much, and they take far too long.

Just like many other industries, traditional colleges are being tasked to do more with less. But at this point they don’t have a clear understanding of what “less” looks like.

MOOCs are offering a new way to produce and distribute lecture-style courses, but that only represents a piece of a much larger equation.

Because of their ability to instantly positions themselves at the critical cross-section of skill and commerce, far more new industries will be born through Micro-Colleges than through traditional colleges.

So will there be a Micro-College in your future?

NOTE: This is a new concept, still with lots of rough edges. I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave your comments below.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything




8 Responses

  1. Christina

    Hallo Thomas,
    Quality cost effective training in the shortest possible time makes perfect sense. Thanks for writing about this. Parents welcome your insight.

  2. tom

    We would like to add that “certs” are as important as degrees.

    We would like like to be part of any effort.

    Thanks, Tom

  3. FuturistSpeaker


    Thanks for your input. With a little ingenuity, entrepreneurial-minded people will devise many different ways to launch training centers that fit into this over arching category of Micro Colleges. They will uncover many opportunities that previously never existed.

    Thomas Frey

  4. The dampener here is hiring. Anyone who hires someone lacking a traditional degree is opening themselves up to risk of censure should the hire not work out (nobody ever got fired for buying IBM). While the micro colleges may work well for augmenting skills, it will take much more to change the degree demanding forces at work.

  5. FuturistSpeaker


    Actually Google is having some major problems resulting from hiring over qualified people for the positions they’re putting them in. This is resulting in higher than normal attrition rates and high rates of internal bickering. Highly educated people also expect higher salaries. So what you’re saying is not always the case. There are exceptions.

    Thomas Frey

  6. Interesting thoughts, Tom.

    I would agree that some of the time-based credentials are now being challenged, and in the US the Dept of Education is now encouraging the development of competency-based degrees that would not depend upon the credit hour at all. There are definitely some challenges in determining the skills and knowledge mastered by a student, but in a world of MOOCs and self-directed learning, we need another model.

    I would disagree about breadth requirements, though. A well-rounded undergraduate education isn’t for everyone — we probably have far too many students taking them now, hoping they will be the ticket to a career, when in fact they will require another diploma or degree after a general BA to be employable — but the real problem with humanities education is that it has been getting narrower, more esoteric, too theoretical and is losing touch with the whole point of the humanities. Sadly the internet does make us widely-read, but not in the same quality of material and thought.

    While I would love to believe that the internet, like TV before it, would bring a world of education and sophistication to everyone’s doorstep, the reality is that it brings funny cat videos and celebrity gossip more than anything. Educating minds requires more and more expertise in curriculum, presentation, game design, evaluation, and more…

    This is a fascinating subject and one in which I spend all my time… We’re going to see a widening variety of approaches to education for different subjects, different student learning styles, and different career paths.

    Thanks for this,

  7. Micro-college is the perfect name for describing Thank you for giving a name to our work. When we built our virtual campus we weren’t exactly sure what it was but we did intuitively know that communities of the future would need a different kind of leadership. If communities were to thrive they would need strong leaders at all levels able to build the foundation of trusted relationships, networks, and webs that are essential for supporting “meshwork”. As a micro-college we can be responsive, nimble, affordable, and entrepreneurial combining the best of post-secondary with a new kind of apprenticeship. So while we’re not traditional or typical no one seems to care because participants graduate with the competencies, confidence, and direction they need for leading in a changing world. Ultimately, as with any education, the certification is only as credible as the institution granting it.

  8. Thanks Tom for writing this piece,
    15 /20 years ago I predicted that in 20 years most banking operation will be done online and a lot of job will be gone. This was the era of ING, my bank colleague at the time argued with me that my prediction will never materialize because the baby boomers are mostly blue collar and will never bank online. Really…….. fast forward 15 years, banks are now staffing a branch with one manager and 2 tellers; everything is online. First and foremost the colleges are too expensive and they are turning out graduates owing a minimum of $30,000 in student loans and who do not posses the skills nor the experience to handle a career; if they find a job at all. Hence they go back to school to accrue more debts for a masters program because more degree is a status emblem that say you are smart. In today’s world a customer service company whose main job is answering phones require a college degree to hire: for what? No wonder people are over qualify for the position they find themselves, because they need a job they will take anything. No wonder people job satisfaction is at the lowest ebb.. Not every profession needs a degree. People education should be tied to the specialization needed to function on the job and more emphasizes should be placed on on the job training.

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