Noah Rost was looking for a quick way to give Arizona State University students hands-on technological training. As the director of global education, it was his job to help students acquire the digital skills they needed to thrive in the global marketplace. The pandemic had robbed them of internships and job offers, and studying abroad wasn’t always an option.
Rost found a perfect partner in Podium Education, a technology company that creates for-credit online global technology courses for undergraduate students, allowing institutions to expand their course offerings to impart more in-demand tech skills.
“Because of the pandemic, we quickly recognized that we needed to find ways to engage students in global learning opportunities that did not involve actual mobility,” Rost said. “And so Podium was one of the opportunities that we decided to offer to our students as global tech programs in conjunction with others.”
Podium’s global tech program is taught by technology experts and offers three different tracks: digital marketing, coding and data analytics. Brooks Morgan, CEO and co-founder of Podium, said the company was modeled on traditional boot camps and college alternatives but designed to be integrated into the undergraduate curriculum rather than aimed at recent graduates.
“Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of innovation in education,” Morgan said. “But largely, it’s all been outside traditional undergraduate education.”
Podium and other boot camps are part of a larger trend of colleges outsourcing some of their technology skills–based learning, said Brady Colby, founder of 32EDU, a data platform focused on online higher education and digital learning services.
“We’ve seen a lot of uptake on boot camps just in their acceptance, specifically in the programming fields, and it’s starting to branch out into other fields,” Colby said. “Universities are starting to really pay attention to that. It’s a new credential that’s really gaining traction in the industry.”
Morgan noted that because most people who enroll in traditional boot camps already have an undergraduate degree, many spend an additional $15,000 or more to gain new skills. Podium is meant to combat that model, Morgan said, by allowing students from any major to learn in-demand tech skills.
“All this extra opportunity cost shouldn’t exist,” Morgan said. “Can we actually just take that and put it into the undergraduate system so that students, instead of being reskilled, they’re just skilled in the first place before graduating?”
Each of Podium’s semester-long courses is worth six credits and meets weekly online. The company so far has partnered with more than 30 institutions, big and small, public and private. In addition to Arizona State, they include the University of South Florida, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania and John Carroll University.
All three tracks include an intercultural competency and leadership skills component, in which students experience the intercultural training used by the U.N. and learn how to communicate and collaborate with diverse peers. At the University of South Florida, the Podium program serves as the institution’s global virtual internship, and students get internship credit for completing the courses.
Brooks said the courses also feature résumé workshops where students can learn to articulate their new skills. And when students complete the courses, they earn badges to display on their LinkedIn pages that demonstrate what they know. Brooks noted that throughout the course, students create websites and other tangible products they can show to potential employers.
Jennifer Malerich, assistant vice provost of academic and global engagement at Arizona State, said finding courses that were both hands-on and online was an important factor in ASU’s decision to partner with Podium.
“We’re giving [students] a real-life experience, and a way that they’re able to get their hands on real work and have an engaging, live learning experience during this time where that’s been challenging for a lot of people,” said Malerich.
Podium works alongside Arizona State’s virtual internship program, which is operated by CAPA, a study abroad program provider that offers virtual internships in global cities—including Barcelona, London and Sydney—as a substitute for physically studying there. Students at Arizona State can use their general elective, engineering elective or business elective to sign on to the course.
Rost said the combination of Podium’s global tech program and the global virtual internships allows any student to get a study-abroad experience through intercultural learning.
“These are wonderful learning opportunities for students who maybe are unable to travel even without a pandemic,” Rost said. “Study abroad comes at a cost. ASU has a very diverse student population, and we have a lot of nontraditional students … many of whom are working full-time or they have families, and the ability to participate in a regular study abroad program just isn’t possible for them.”
At South Florida, Amanda Maurer, director of education abroad, said typically only 10 percent of students go abroad, but Podium’s global program allows many more students to access the experience.
“Any student, any level, any major can benefit from this experience,” Maurer said. “And to me, that’s really, really important. We had students who were freshmen, students who had already graduated, students from tons of different majors who participated in this program.”
Both Arizona State and South Florida have seen the benefits for students who enroll in Podium’s programs.
“It’s been wildly successful,” said Rost, citing the global tech programs and the global virtual internships as particularly rewarding for students. “Those two programs combined have enrolled over 1,000 students since the pandemic.”
Kiki Caruson, assistant vice president for research, innovation and global affairs at South Florida, said the global tech program has reached an exceptionally diverse cohort of students.
“The demographics of the students who participated in this particular program were so different from the traditional demographic of a physical study-abroad program,” Caruson said. “I was blown away by the students who chose to be in the Podium program.”
Rita Cidre, vice president and global digital marketing professor at Podium, creates course content for students and said a big part of her job is developing a curriculum that gives students tangible skills.
“When a student that has had no previous knowledge of web development, digital marketing and data analytics succeeds after taking one of our courses, I think it’s an emotional thing for that student,” Cidre said. “For me as the professor, it’s also very emotional, because I get to see the evolution of a person go from potential fear of not being able to understand these concepts to mastery in a very short period of time.”
The Changing Face of Boot Camps
Podium’s model of partnering and working alongside institutions is a relatively new type of boot camp, said Sean Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University. When boot camps first exploded in 2015, Gallagher said, they typically operated separately from institutions, but now they’re more likely to work in tandem.
Chris Parrish, president of university partnerships at Podium, said institutions are drawn to Podium because of the revenue boost they see through additional enrollment. Podium also works with institutions to target prospective students, advertising ways they can acquire tech skills without being a STEM major. At the same time, institutions don’t have to make any investment of their own, Parrish said. Many aren’t familiar with building courses the way Podium does; the computer science courses, for instance, are designed for everyone—meaning no prerequisites or math requirement.
“We want students from all majors, all backgrounds, all levels, and we teach them sort of the applied pieces of things that they really need and want for that career journey,” Parrish said.
Not everyone sees the development as unequivocally positive. Gallagher noted that boot-camp programs like Podium’s raise questions about the core competencies of colleges and whether they’re giving students the right skills to land a job.
“I think these partnerships are great, but you can also question why a university might work with a third-party provider when universities are already in the business of designing a curriculum, recruiting students and hiring instructors,” Gallagher said.
Scott Greenberg, associate vice president of academic affairs at Framingham State University, noted in 2018 that when institutions respond to student needs with shorter-term credentials—including boot camps—they should be transparent about what they represent and how they differ from degrees.
“Students who have not completed an undergraduate degree should be advised about the pros and cons of seeking alternative credentials,” Greenberg wrote. “In the long run, spending their time, energy and financial resources on a college degree may be a better strategy, especially if the alternative credential cannot be used toward academic credits.”
At Trilogy Education Services, another boot camp that offers noncredit technology training programs, some students reported feeling “blindsided” when they realized that their boot camp was run by Trilogy and not the host university. Other critics have said the close relationship between boot camps and universities could be misleading to students.
Additionally, Gallagher noted the implementation of boot camps like Podium could possibly upset faculty, but he acknowledged that outside partnerships in curricular development have become more accepted in recent years. Gallagher also said some institutions may not have the resources to create offerings for different technology and programming courses. Institutions might also be drawn to boot-camp programs because they are seeking employees from sought-after fields who have in-demand skills, especially in technology, but they might not have the resources to hire them, he said.
“I think this activity really is about the pace of change in the job market, and in relation to some of these specific programming languages and digital skills,” Gallagher said. “And it’s hard for many universities to keep up.”
As a larger trend, Gallagher said, the courses and digital skills Podium offers overlap with what different publishers, service companies and technology firms are already offering.
“Just because it’s boot camp, it can’t be divorced from the broader trend of augmenting a traditional undergraduate curriculum or degree,” Gallagher said. “The college motivation is we want our undergraduates to have additional skills that maybe aren’t a part of what they’re already getting as part of our degree.”