Zach Sims didn’t let the fact that he’s not a programmer stop him from creating Codecademy, a startup that offers free online computer science courses.
In the year since Sims debuted Codecademy at the Y Combinator incubator program, he has lured $12.5 million in funding from backers including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and billionaires Richard Branson and Yuri Milner.
Investment in Web-based education is on track to surge more than 30 percent to $600 million this year, according to the National Venture Capital Association, as younger students seek coding experience and college graduates turn to the Internet to hone job skills. Codecademy and similar startups like Coursera Inc. and Udacity Inc. are attracting investors who anticipate the sites may later profit from paid courses, advertising or recruitment services. Venture backers are also betting that startups will turn traditional higher education -- with four-year costs often exceeding $200,000 -- on its head.
“Education at large is being disrupted,” Mike Abbott, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins, said in an interview. “Everyone’s going to need to learn to program at some level, the same way that people today know how to use Word and Excel.”
Coursera raised $16 million from venture firms Kleiner Perkins and New Enterprise Associates in April. Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr and NEA General Partner Scott Sandell are on the board. Doerr has also invested in Khan Academy, which offers free instructional videos in math and science on its website. Udacity raised $15 million last month in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz and including existing investors Charles River Ventures.
Sims, 22, dropped out of the political science program at Columbia University to start New York-based Codecademy with fellow student Ryan Bubinski. Sims says his lack of experience in computer science, Bubinski’s major, helped keep courses on the website simple enough for first-time coders to follow.
While Codecademy began as a free-wheeling forum for users to create and take classes, Sims said the dearth of computer science graduates for a glut of technology jobs led him to add a more structured service with teens in mind.
At the start of the school year, Codecademy debuted tools including lesson plans and study questions to help educators teach programming and start computer science clubs. Already, teachers at more than 2,500 schools have signed up.
New York City middle school math teacher Shaun Errichiello started Tech Thursdays, using Codecademy curriculum to teach during students’ lunch breaks at the Salk School of Science, M.S. 255, in Manhattan. Errichiello said about 40 students have been attending the meetings.
“They want to know about technology,” he said of his students, who have a homework assignment each week for the club. “They don’t want to be the people that fall behind.”
Courtney Ginsberg, a math instructor at Humanities Preparatory Academy, a high school in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, started a computer science class this year using Codecademy tutorials to structure the curriculum. The hardest part of teaching the class is stepping back and letting students learn from their mistakes, Ginsberg said.
“Even when they’re frustrated, they get so excited when they get something right,” she said. “I want them to struggle through it and get those error messages. It’s hard to say no to helping. They constantly want my help, and I have to say, ‘No, you have to figure it out.’”
One of her 25 students is Isabella Downing, a 16-year-old coding novice who is discovering she has a natural aptitude for the work. Downing is learning to program a computer game of rock, paper, scissors. Now that she has tried it, Downing said she might study computer science in college.
A classmate, Angelina Cubero, said she expects Ginsberg’s class to help her job prospects even if she doesn’t major in the field in college.
“To me, learning this is pretty cool,” said Cubero. “Maybe I’d like to do something like this. This lets us try it out.”
Few students get this chance. Just six high schools in New York City offered the Advanced Placement exam in computer science last year, among about 2,100 nationwide, according to the College Board, which administers the tests. English, the most common AP course, was taught in about 8,900 schools.
Once students reach universities, the shortage of computer science training persists. U.S. colleges awarded 40,000 bachelor’s degrees in the field in 2010, enough graduates to fill about a third of job openings in the field, according to the Association for Computing Machinery, a New York-based trade group.
With the demand for a more technologically adept workforce, students need to come into contact with computer science education earlier, said Brook Osborne, national director of outreach for Duke University’s computer science department.
“When you’re learning something brand-new, the learning curve is steeper,” Osborne said. “You’ve been doing math since you were in kindergarten. It’s putting you at a disadvantage if you first experience a subject when you’re 20.”
Codecademy joins other new companies focused on free online education. Sebastian Thrun, a former Stanford University professor, co-founded Udacity to bring university-level math and science courses online, while Coursera, started last year by Stanford professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, offers classes in robotics and computer programming.
Coursera’s student count has grown from 1 million to 1.8 million since August, Ng said in an interview. While their main customers are college students and working professionals looking to retool, many of their users are high-school students looking for skills to give them an edge on their college applications. The courses are also a way for young people to explore career options.
“It changes the economics of education,” Ng said. “At traditional universities, if you want to teach twice as many students, you need to hire more teachers, and costs grow. With this, the cost no longer grows linearly.”
Already, venture investment of about $450 million in education-related technology companies for the first nine months of 2012 matches what was spent throughout 2011, according to the NVCA.
Novak Biddle Venture Partners, which has more than $580 million under management, has about a fifth of its fund invested in education startups, said Roger Novak, co-founder and general partner. Blackboard Inc., one of the firm’s portfolio companies, last year sold to Providence Equity Partners Inc. for about $1.8 billion.
“If businesses begin to accept competency-based certificates instead of degrees, it really starts to shake things up,” Novak said.