University alumni create different approach to teaching code

By Danielle Banks

After two years of projects and couch surfing, University alumna Dave Paola, a 2010 graduate from the College of Engineering, founded a start-up named Bloc with fellow alumna Roshan Choxi. Bloc is a 12-week online apprenticeship that takes a one-on-one virtual approach to teaching students to write code.

“I took a road trip in the summer after I graduated, and I landed in San Francisco,” Paola said. “While I was couch surfing, I was working on various websites. I got a job as a software engineer in March of 2011, I spent almost a year there, and then roughly around January of 2012 is when we started Bloc.”

The inspiration, Paola said, arose from an education gap he noticed between those who are technically literate and those who aren’t.

“If you look at it through the lens of literacy, it’s a little bit like actual literacy,” he said. “Before everyone could read and write, there were these specialized people called scribes. If you wanted something written down or read to you, you went to the scribe because the scribe was literate. When everyone could read and write, information exploded. When you think about what a programmer is, it’s kind of like a scribe.”

Paola said expanding technical literacy will close the gap.

“When everyone is able to build things themselves and interact with software in a really meaningful way, clearly that will benefit society,” he said.

Jarod Reid, a Bloc mentor who instructs students via webcam, said the flexibility the company provides sets it apart from the traditional classroom setting.

“Being able to have that one-on-one time to study, as opposed to being in the classroom, say a student says, ‘There is something happening at my job, I just can’t show up tonight, can we do something tomorrow?’ That allows me to be very flexible and say, ‘Yeah, we can do it tomorrow. Let’s set up a time,’” Reid said.

In addition to flexibility, Reid finds that stronger mentor-student relationships promote better student growth.

“It also allows you to build a bond with the people you’re instructing because every instructor, every session, is a one-on-one thing,” Reid said. “You can actually address their needs specifically. Opposed to a generalized curriculum, you can actually tailor the curriculum that Bloc is giving the students, to focus on the needs of the students because every single student has different concerns, different needs.”

Brittany Martin, a Bloc student, can testify to the effectiveness of the one-on-one approach.

“As someone who just completed their MBA last summer, I can tell you that Bloc brings out the best things about the classroom,” she said. “Having a mentor that shares your screen and genuinely cares about how you are progressing is amazing. (This approach is) absolutely beneficial. In a typical classroom, you need to make a big effort to get that kind of individual attention. With Bloc, it is a given.”

A self-taught coder, Reid said Bloc’s dedication to student progress is what impressed him.

“For two years I studied on my own, trying to break into what I wanted to be my career, and I made very little money, so I didn’t have many resources to go to school,” Reid said. “I kind of went through this long period of struggling, and I’ve seen a lot of people do the same, so when I found Bloc, the real drive for me was that they are taking people in similar situations to mine and giving them more of a fighting chance than I felt like I had early on.”

This focus on student success over monetary gain is what sets Bloc apart from other companies, Paola said.

“We measure our success by the successful outcomes of our students,” he said. “There are a lot of companies that sell access to content, but that’s not what we’re all about, what we’re about is making sure our alumni are successful. That’s our number one value. If we were to hang a banner, that’s what it would say.”

For Martin, this literacy has proved to be life-altering.

“It has opened up a whole new world to me,” she said. “I now love to scan through Hacker News, star projects on Github and attend code meetups to discuss best practices. I’ve had an inner coder inside me the whole time. I just needed a way to bring her out.”

Danielle can be reached at [email protected]