Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Computer Academy in France Defies Conventional Wisdom

Mr. Niel, an affable, longhaired telecommunications executive with a high school diploma and several billion euros to his name, has spent the past decade gleefully disrupting France’s staid corporate establishment. With 42, he means to do the same, in a small but conspicuous way, to higher education in France. Programming classes start this month.

There will be no lectures or teachers per se, only group projects and “friendly organizers” wearing T-shirts. No state-sanctioned degree will be awarded, nor must incoming students, ages 18 to 30, be high school graduates. Installed in a refurbished administrative building at the gray edge of Paris, 42 is tuition-free and has sought to attract students from the country’s poorest neighborhoods.

In a nod to the playful work culture of Silicon Valley, which entrepreneurs here venerate, there are plans for a slide between the rooftop deck and the cafeteria.

The school breaks with the often-rigid methods and philosophy of the government-run education system wherever it can, and Mr. Niel believes it will produce graduates who are more innovative, more employable, more diverse and more useful to the stagnant French economy as a result.

But the French revere their schools system, the Éducation Nationale. And 42, billed as an affront to tradition, has proved a minor scandal here.

Its very name is a cryptic provocation: In “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the zany science-fiction novel by Douglas Adams, which is a favorite of technology types here, the number 42 is proclaimed the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.”

“People say to us, ‘But why didn’t you see about working with the Éducation Nationale?’ ” said Mr. Niel, who has put up 70 million euros, or about $94 million, for 42’s first decade of operations.

“Well,” he said in an interview, “do you want this thing to work or not?”

The Ministry of Higher Education declined to comment on the new academy. But public officials acknowledge that existing institutions are failing to train students in skills that are in demand. Critics deride universities as “unemployment factories.” Despite a national jobless rate of nearly 11 percent, as many as 60,000 computer coding jobs are thought to be vacant in France, the government says, for lack of qualified candidates.

The new academy promotes what many French call the Anglo-Saxon virtues of entrepreneurship and creative thinking, Mr. Niel said, whereas the standard French approach relies heavily on rote learning.

“In France, there are always excellent engineers — the Germans recruit them hand over fist, for that matter,” said Nicolas Baverez, a historian and economist at the Institut Montaigne, a nonpartisan think tank. But 42 marks “the French educational system’s inability to address innovation, upward social movement, the emergence of new technologies and sectors,” Mr. Baverez said.

Typically, French students learn specific rules for specific situations, said Nicolas Sadirac, 42’s director. “The problem is that for inventing stuff,” Mr. Sadirac said, “that’s a catastrophe.”

On a recent afternoon, Sébastien Ho-Van, 28, slouched beneath the glow of a wide-screen monitor. He clicked occasionally on a mouse and chewed a thumbnail.

“I’m trying to make a program — basically, it’s really straightforward — that calculates an expression,” said Mr. Ho-Van, who used to work as a handler at a warehouse.

Prospective students, who are not expected to have any programming background, take several hours of online logic tests. One question, for instance, asked for the missing letter in the following sequence: 7(S), 11(O), 15(Q), 20(V), 30(?).

There were 20,000 applicants this year.

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