A High-Profile Tech Boot Camp Stumbles

Woz U, named for Apple co-founder, is subject of critical news report citing dissatisfied students, prompting a state investigation. Its leaders defend quality but acknowledge flaws and a slow start.

October 10, 2018

Steve Wozniak has had something of a golden touch, most notably in co-founding Apple with Steve Jobs. But the postsecondary education provider named for him may tarnish rather than burnish his reputation.

Woz U launched a year ago to much fanfare because it bore Wozniak's nickname -- and because, like many education start-ups, it promised to one-up the quality of education provided by traditional colleges. Its slogan: "Woz U. Education. Reprogrammed."

Entities that draw lots of attention to themselves often become juicy targets and tend to draw unfavorable attention, too. That includes a decision Tuesday by the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education, which licenses Woz U's home base in the state, to open a "complaint and investigation into the allegations raised by students regarding the programs at Woz U."

The decision follows a report from CBS News last week with the headline "Some former students, employees say Apple co-founder's Woz U doesn't live up to promises," citing complaints from students about allegedly poor quality of the educational materials (typos, etc.) in its web development and mobile application certification programs, and from former employees about high-pressure sales tactics.

The CBS investigation, which said it was based on interviews with two dozen current and former students and employees, included choice quotes like this: "I feel like this is a $13,000 ebook," said one former student. "It's broken, it's not working in places, lots of times there's just hyperlinks to Microsoft documents, to Wikipedia."

The CBS article said that Wozniak had declined several interview requests, and the reporter confronted him at a conference in Miami, where he reportedly walked away after an aide called security.

The article included one paragraph of response from Woz U's president, Chris Coleman, acknowledging errors in previous course content that a newly implemented quality-control system should now be catching.

In a more expansive interview with Inside Higher Ed Monday, Coleman pushed back on several of the article's claims -- but also acknowledged that Woz U is a long way from accomplishing its initial bold promises.

In the interview, Coleman said that roughly 600 students had enrolled in Woz U courses, either through in-person or online offerings through the institution's Scottsdale, Ariz., campus or through partnerships it has with various institutions to offer the courses and share revenue. In those latter relationships, the content is provided through Woz Services, a content provider. 

Coleman declined to say how many of the 600 students had enrolled in which way. (Data provided by the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education, which licenses Woz U's six programs there, show that it enrolled a total of 367 students in the 2017 academic year, including 100 graduates and 84 dropouts. New data are expected Nov. 1.)

When asked for a list of the institution's partner colleges during the phone interview, Coleman initially referred a reporter to the Woz U website, where no such list could be found. He promised to follow up with the names in an email.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for Woz U identified New Jersey Institute of Technology as one campus partner, per this announcement in May, but said that "the contracts Woz U has with its additional institutional partners prevents me from disclosing those partners."

Gale T. Spak, associate vice president for continuing and distance education at NJIT, responded to an Inside Higher Ed inquiry from Phoenix, where she was planning to attend an annual technology conference put on by Wozniak and do "due diligence" on the institution's potential partnership with Woz U.

She said NJIT had struck an agreement with Woz U to explore using some of its content in certification programs that the New Jersey institute hoped to offer to regional companies seeking technology workers. No programs had yet been offered, no students enrolled.

Spak said she had been impressed by what she had seen of the Woz U curriculum thus far but would proceed with the new programs only "if the quality is of the level that NJIT would find acceptable." She admitted to having been concerned by the CBS report.

A spokeswoman for another set of institutions that had previously announced a partnership with Woz U, the Art Institutes, said via email Tuesday that "while there was a partnership announced between Woz U and the Art Institutes, it was not realized."

One of the students quoted in the CBS story said that he had racked up $7,000 in federal student loans (out of the $13,200 Woz U charges for its longer courses). Coleman said that all of the courses that Woz U offers directly through its Arizona campus are not for credit and therefore do not qualify for federal financial aid. Students pay for the courses either out of pocket or by taking out private loans.

Some of its partner courses are credit bearing, and hence students at those institutions may be eligible for federal financial aid.

A More Positive Assessment

Coleman offered a counterpoint to the CBS article on several issues.

He said Woz U requires all applicants to take a test that measures critical thinking and problem solving and that offers a "baseline assessment" of their technical skills. Officials "absolutely" reject some students based on the test results, Coleman said.

Any student who enrolls in a first course can drop out "penalty-free" and get all tuition back, Coleman said. He said a "fair number of students" have done so, but declined to be more specific.

In response to student critiques in the CBS article about the quality of the educational experience, Coleman said Woz U had a "very challenging curriculum" that purposely forces students to work independently and engage in trial and error, just as computer programmers do in the workplace.

"During this program, students are confused a lot, just like in a technical career," he said. "You need to learn how to figure some of this out, which is key to life in technical fields."

He said every student has two tiers of support -- an instructor assigned to each course they're enrolled in (mostly adjuncts who are professional engineers) and a pool of mentors ("like a TA") who are graduates of the program. There are regularly scheduled office hours and live-streamed group workshops that are also recorded so students can return to them.

Most educational programs -- especially vocationally oriented ones -- are judged based on their outcomes, and Woz U is in its early days, so little information is available.

Coleman said that 80 percent of the students directly enrolled in Woz U's Arizona-based programs (in person and online) who have been out of their programs for 90 days have gotten a full- or part-time job in a field relevant to the program within those three months. "We're pretty excited about our placement, especially with the low unemployment rate," he said.

Who Oversees Quality?

Woz U's programs, like many nontraditional credentials, fall into murky terrain in terms of regulation and oversight. Academic programs that are not offered for academic credit, which is the case for all of Woz U's courses offered in Arizona and some of those offered by its (mostly unnamed) partners, would generally not draw any scrutiny from accreditors.

The Arizona programs are offered under the aegis of the Arizona private postsecondary board, which said Tuesday that it would look into the programs' quality in response to the student complaints reported by CBS.

Academic programs containing Woz U content that are offered by college or university partners would presumably have to meet the standards of the institutions' accreditors (for credit-bearing programs) or, for noncredit programs, state licensure boards, which vary significantly in their rigor and aggressiveness.

Where Is Woz?

The CBS article also raised the question of how involved Steve Wozniak is in the program, and how much responsibility he should bear if the education that bears his name is subpar, as the student critics in the article suggest.

Coleman called that a "fair question" and said that Wozniak remains an owner and active board member, in addition to his role as founder.

In a statement released by Woz U, Wozniak was quoted as saying, "While I am not involved in the day-to-day operations, as co-founder and board member, I meet with our curriculum team to advise them on my education philosophy and vision for the future of tech-based career training. I’ve been discussing the concerns with the curriculum content that were expressed in the story with executives at Woz U, who have assured me that procedures were put in place months ago to address the review and distribution of content before it’s available to students."

Coleman said, "He meets with us quarterly, and we sit with him and review our road map, our product offerings. He is involved in all [strategic] conversations, and we absolutely work with him to capture his educational beliefs and philosophies." Wozniak does not, Coleman said, review the syllabi and course content, though.

Is Woz U where its leaders hoped it would be a year in? "Hope is just that," Coleman said, "but we're happy with where we're at."



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