École42: the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life!

What is the common denominator between a billionaire, a computer science school and self-organization? Not this is not Bill Gates. But École42. During one of my trips in Paris, I had the privilege to visit this very special school (école=school in French). A school over computer science that provides no diploma, has no professor, and starts with a swimming bootcamp. Curious now?

The Genesis

École42 was created by Xavier Niel. Quite a rebel figure in France. A billionaire entrepreneur in telecommunication who owns the telco provider “Free” known for its aggressive pricing strategy and innovative offerings. Quite a parcours for X. Niel as his first company was a minitel-site (ancestor of the Internet in France for the young generation :-)) provided sex oriented chat services.
X. Niel wanted to create a school responding to business needs, with motivated students using all their talents and able to identify the best of the best programmers. He then created École42 on the principle that there will be no professor (peer learning will be used instead), admission will be open to anyone regardless of diploma and origins, and it will be free for all.

The Functioning

First the selection. Before getting to École42, you have to go through the “swimming” pool process. After passing analytical tests online, you are invited to spend 4 weeks on campus (almost days and nights) where you will be challenged with various assignments. Peer-learning and Peer-rankings are used to select the best of the crowd. Quite like an army bootcamp style where the most motivated and talented survive. 3000 get in, 900 get out and integrate the school.
After entering, you have no classes and you meet no professors. Via the school intranet, what is provided to you is a tree of various assignments that you do at your own pace. Some are individual, others in groups. Like in a game, you accumulate points to pass levels. If you are getting stuck, “google” and your classmates are your best friends. Rating of your work is done by your peers. Everything is logged in a very elaborated intranet where you can see the tree of assignments and who is around to communicate with. Being a computer science school, online collaboration tools like Trello or Slack are used on constant basis to improve peer-work.

Key principles

École42 is based on 3 key principles:
  • Peer-learning: you progress if you interact with others. So while a lot of self discipline and motivation are necessary,  your interaction with others will make you successful.
  • Gamification and progress: inspired by video games, you pass levels of skill/expertise and mastery. Remember there is no diploma at the end so what motivates the student is to learn not to be graded.
  • No time bound. There is no deadline at École42. You follow the tree of assignments at your own pace. So at its core, it is a very individual development. As a student you are not bounded to the class and your classmates advancement and progress.
A small group of people (some being students) define the overall tree of assignments which is the real backbone of the school. This tree is not fully co-created with the students (only part of it). So in that sense, there is a lot of structure at École42 but not on how to get the cursus done but on what the students should know. Combined this with the extreme transparency provided by the intranet and IT tools, and you have some of the basis of self-organisation (clarity on role/accountability + transparency of activities).

Going Further

Ecole42 reminds me a lot of alternative school systems like Montessori or Dalton schools. With the difference that grades and teachers are still there in these school systems but the focus on the individual parcours of the student is similar.
Some question marks do remain though. I am curious for instance about the drop out rate in École42 which seems to be reasonably high. In a sense, it is a non-issue as only the motivated will finish but it could eventually dismissing the impact of the students as only a very few would “make” it.
Replication of École42 would be great in my opinion. A key assumption here to validate would be to launch such a school without the deep pocket of its owner. What would happen if the students have to pay for it?
All in one, it was an inspiring visit and a lot of reflections came out it being myself associated with a business school. I could only imagine what would happen if tomorrow I tell my colleagues: no more professor, no diploma, all free. How possible? The answer to this ultimate question of life is … 42.
Ps: Merci Hugo pour la visite, Merci Justine pour le contact

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