École 42, the tuition-free school without teachers and without books

By José Escamilla de los Santos


The University as we currently know it is in constant transformation. An example of this is the École 42 in France: a tuition-free school without teachers and without books. The project emerged as a result of the view of the French millionaire, Xavier Niel, that universities are not developing the IT experts needed by French industry with the knowledge and skills required in this field.

Universities are not developing the IT experts needed by industry.

École 42 is a highly selective engineering school in software development. The first year it opened its doors, it received 50,000 admission applications for 1,000 places. Applications are open to anybody: you don’t need a high school diploma, or an undergraduate or graduate degree. The only requirement is to be between the ages of 18 and 30.

An educational business model is more than just tuition, enrollment and budgets, since it also involves organizational structure and operations matters. This includes academia, professionals, support staff, facilities, technological infrastructure, physical and virtual spaces, and amenities.

École 42 has a total of 30 employees, including teachers and support staff for the cafeterias, cleaning and security. Importantly, the students themselves are responsible for managing and operating the school’s services, such as the internet network and computers. Since students don’t pay any tuition, most of them are more than willing to participate in these tasks for the school, as a sort of community service. This support provided by the students makes it possible for the school to operate with just 30 employees.

The selection process for admission to École 42 is as follows. First, participants take a series of online tests related to topics such as attention, logic, concentration and resilience. Then, the best 3,000 participants are selected and divided into groups of 1,000 applicants. The next stage of the process consists of an immersion test known as “La Piscine”, which is French for swimming pool. Each group of 1,000 applicants begins a one-month boot camp (intensive programming course). For this stage of the process, no knowledge of programming is required. In fact, there is even a difference in the levels of programming skills among students. There is a weekly evaluation. At the end of the intensive course stage, the 333 best students from each group are chosen for a total of 1,000 students who will begin training at École 42. The duration of studies at École 42 is planned to cover a period of three years; however, since students can advance at their own pace, they can even graduate within one and a half years.

Xavier Niel at École 42. / Photo: Martin Bureau, AFP

Xavier Niel at École 42. / Photo: Martin Bureau, AFP

An educational business model based on altruism.

At École 42, the figure of the professor does not exist as we now know it, but there is a pedagogic team, in charge of designing the curriculum. In relation to the academic activities, students are responsible for their own learning and also carry out peer activities and peer evaluation. Learning activities are designed with a project-based learning, peer-learning and peer-evaluation approach. Consequently, when students carry out team activities, the team’s grade is the lowest grade of any of the team members, assuring that they all contribute to the team so as not to affect their grades. The pedagogical approach used at École 42 is oriented toward the development of disciplinary competencies, but not explicitly toward transversal competencies.

École 42 is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Its physical installations are modern and inspiring and are similar to those of the companies in Silicon Valley. There are spaces that integrate street art concepts and works by Banksy, table soccer spaces for entertainment, a “disco elevator” with music and lights, and the school’s exit door says “hasta la vista, baby” as you leave.

Affordable learning that advances a large number of students thanks to peer learning and peer evaluation.

The school’s business model is based on altruism. Niel donated part of his fortune, 100 million euros, to build École 42. In addition, Nicolas Sadirac, who in 1999 founded École pour l'informatique et les nouvelles technologies (Epitech), with his experience in learning by doing helped in the conception and creation of École 42.  

With this model, students are expected, on completing their studies and after obtaining a good job, to offer other people the chance to study like them at École 42 totally free, by giving donations. Some interesting facts reveal that 50% of graduates work in startups where they can make recommendations and put their knowledge into practice. 35% work in companies established as corporations and 15% found their own company.

In 2016, another official École 42 campus was opened in Silicon Valley, in Fremont, California. Niel's interest to establish there was due to the great labor demand that exists of students with the knowledge of computation and programming. The École 42 model has also been adopted in other countries and there are currently three franchises in Rumania, Ukraine and South Africa.

An alternative for university credentialization.

The example of École 42 poses several scenarios for innovating in educational settings, beginning with its unique business model and could represent a proposal for replicating this model in Mexico and other countries in Latin America. It also becomes an alternative for university credentialization, because it means that students do not necessarily have to attend university in order to become experts in programming or informatics, as it offers a shorter path with a higher level of employability than many universities, making it very attractive. In addition, it leads us to question why traditional education is so distant from practice. Elements of this model could be incorporated into a traditional university to make practical work more attractive to students with the aim of joining the workforce more rapidly. Finally, some elements or components of the model could be replicated, such as the pedagogical and didactic aspects, where learning is self-directed and teamwork increases the students' commitment to learning.

Interview report: Dean Kamen | Inventor, entrepreneur, advocate for science and technology, and founder of FIRST

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation


Dean Kamen, participated as keynote speaker in the 3rd International Congress of Educational Innovation. As an inventor, holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents, many of them for innovative medical devices that have expanded the frontiers of healthcare worldwide. He is also the founder of FIRST, an organization dedicated to motivating the next generation of young kids to understand, use and enjoy science and technology (FIRST, 2017). 

Observatory: How can we innovate education in science and technology to make these subjects more interesting?

Dean Kamen: If you said to kids, "We're going to play football soccer tomorrow” and they showed up but there's no field, no ball, there's only a 50-page textbook called “The History of Soccer” and then after that, there's a quiz, to see if they know the rules. But if they never played, never kicked the ball, never ran, nobody would like soccer. Well, isn't that how we teach science? We learn this formula, then that formula, and then there’s a quiz on this formula, and then a test on that formula. But, if you said, "We are going to build a robot” and to build a robot, students got to connect this to that, and need to understand voltage and current, and got to understand how to measure things, cut things and assemble things. And then, my robots are going to run around, and if I didn't do it right, it's going to fall apart like the first time you tried to kick a soccer ball and missed. But then you practice, get better and come back, and you see your robot doing more, and that's exciting, and you're proud of it. 

So, when they say they're teaching science in school, they're not teaching science, they're teaching the history of science. They learn Isaac Newton, 1687. They learn Archimedes, 275 BC. They learn facts. They learn names. They learn formulas. To this day, I don't remember which law is which. I don't care what the label is. I know what the laws mean and how to apply them. I believe that we should stop teaching the history of science. Science isn't about studying those guys.

When they say they're teaching science in school, they're not teaching science, they're teaching the history of science. They learn Isaac Newton, 1687. They learn Archimedes, 275 BC. [...] I believe that we should stop teaching the history of science. Science isn't about studying those guys.

Observatory: What is FIRST?

Dean Kamen: FIRST stands for (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). FIRST is an organization dedicated to motivating the next generation of young kids to understand, use and enjoy science and technology. It was founded in 1989 and has served more than 300,000 young people, ages 6 to 18, in more than 60 countries around the globe. My goal in starting FIRST was to create a generation of kids that embrace technology and see it for what it is: a powerful tool to fix the world and give them great careers. Studies have shown that FIRST alumni are highly motivated to pursue careers in science and engineering (FIRST, 2017).

Observatory: What are the competencies that you see in children who have experienced the FIRST program and that differentiate them from other kids?

Dean Kamen: People used to tell me, "Dean, you're not going to teach kids how to be a roboticist in six weeks." And I'd say to them, "You're exactly right." Of course, I don't plan to do that. In fact, FIRST, as I said today, F-I-R-S-T, education isn't even in our name. We are For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. If the kids recognize it, if they are inspired by it, they'll go get an education. It will take them 10 years. We're not going to give them an education. That's what schools are for. To answer your question, they have self-confidence and self-respect. They understand how to work with teammates even when they disagree with them. I think FIRST is a model to show kids what the world could be like if people are open-minded and willing to learn and work hard, and willing to fail and pick themselves up and try again. That's what they learn.

Observatory: What inspires you to work on an invention, and how do you decide what project or idea to work on?

Dean Kamen: It's very hard to explain to somebody why we worked on a specific project. But when you look at all the projects we work on, I think the safest thing I can tell you is, there are so many big problems to work on, we end up sort of stepping onto one if we think our engineers are uniquely qualified to do it better than anybody else, based on their experience. And maybe we believe we need to do this one because nobody else will do it. So, we don't work on any project unless, fundamentally, we believe we're going to make a big difference. If we do this and it happens right, it'll make a big difference to the people that need it.

For example, we worked on a water machine because we can help the largest number of people on this entire planet. It's the biggest problem, there is no water. But, also, we worked on a prosthetic arm for a few hundred soldiers, and we hope they won't need anymore because we hope to stop sending them out into battles to get their arms blown up. So, I guess a long answer to your question is, we finally pick the project to work on mostly if we think we're really going to make a difference. If we had to compete with five other companies for the project it means we don't need to do it, they'll solve this problem and can take care of it. What I’m saying is I'm not in this to compete.

Observatory: What personality trait makes you who you are?

Dean Kamen: I guess curiosity about the world is what's always driven me, believing that if you think about it long enough you'll understand it, you'll have an insight, you'll figure out how to solve a problem if you really understand it. So, curiosity is a driving force in the world of innovation.

Observatory: Do you think higher education is efficiently delivered? 

Dean Kamen: I think it could be made more effective. It could be made lower cost, and therefore it could be delivered to millions more people that desperately need it. I believe there are many things we could do to make it different. For example, I would make sure kids use the education piece for the education. In other words, I think people confuse education and training, and we use schools to do the training, and we should use schools to do the education. And for the training, schools should say to students, "If you want to be able to do this, here's this program." It's Word, or it's Inventor, or it's some software program. "Go study this and learn how to use it." You don't need a professor to train you to use this program; you just need to practice it. That's training. And then come to class and use the classroom for the education of taking your training and doing something valuable with it.

Observatory:  What's your opinion about this 3rd International Congress of Educational Innovation?

Dean Kamen: I see a lot of people from Tec de Monterrey and its 26 campuses and 37 high schools, and others that came from other institutions in Mexico and other institutions around the world, including South America. It seems like there's a lot of energized people, energized universities, energized companies, energized parents, energized professors, and energized government people that really get it. They realize that if they want the future to be really successful and exciting for these kids and for their country, they've got to double down on tech, and they've got to give kids the inspiration and the tools to make tech part of their future. And, so far, that seems to be the mission of this convention, and that's pretty exciting.

FIRST (2017). Founder, FIRST President, DEKA Research & Development Corporation. http://www.firstinspires.org/about/leadership/dean-kamen

Images: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ciietec2016/albums/72157677668877466                                                             

Interview report: Juan Freire | Co-founder of TEAMLABS

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation


Juan Freire is the co-founder of the TEAMLABS “laboratory”, also known as the classroom-, teacher and exam-free university that aims to create learning experiences through team projects and the "Learning by Doing" method. TEAMLABS forms part of the international network for education in entrepreneurship, Mondragon Team Academy (MTA).

Observatory: What are the biggest challenges a teacher currently faces in the classroom?

Juan Freire: The main challenge teacher faces is their changing role. They are no longer the only source of information or the only means of transmitting knowledge to students. Nor do they decide which information is relevant or not. You don’t need a teacher for that. Nevertheless, the teacher is more important than ever.

Teachers can be called facilitators, companions or coaches. In fact, I like the concept of a coach, because in sports, the coach doesn’t play the game, but gets others to play. In other contexts, the coach also asks good questions: in this case, asking the right questions is more important than giving the right answers. This new role for teachers implies a complete shift in their teaching practice.  

The main challenge teacher faces is their changing role. They are no longer the only source of information or the only means of transmitting knowledge to students. Nor do they decide which information is relevant or not. You don’t need a teacher for that. Nevertheless, the teacher is more important than ever.

Observatory: Which skills or competencies do our students need to develop to face the challenges of the future?

Juan Freire: I think that there’s one core skill and that’s entrepreneurship, which doesn’t mean that the student is going to become a businessperson. Entrepreneurial skills include autonomy, activity, being proactive, having the capacity to address challenges or problems, finding solutions and implementing them. I think it’s a fundamental skill for the world we live in.

Personal and social knowledge, or emotional and social intelligence, are other key skills. In other words, we need to be able to deal with and relate to others. Critical thinking implies understanding global diversity and its complexity, becoming aware of and participating in, rather than rejecting, this plurality in order to generate new opportunities. There are also several technical skills that I call “the new languages”. Nowadays, digital, design and innovation languages are technical abilities that have also become transversal skills and universal languages. When we were younger, we learned to read and write and now we need to learn these new languages.

Juan Freire at  CIIE 2015 . 

Juan Freire at CIIE 2015

Nowadays “the new languages”: digital, design and innovation languages are technical skills that have also become transversal skills and universal languages.

Observatory: How can we help to develop a spirit of innovation in children or the new generations?

Juan Freire: Children and young people need spaces where they can experiment, innovate, create new things, and learn by experience, practice or actions. Therefore, we must create spaces that offer freedom and confidence. We were brought up in a highly structured educational setting where everything was planned, scheduled or predefined. Spaces that are quiet, inspire confidence and offer freedom must also be allowed to exist.

2nd International Congress on Educational Innovation (2015). Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/ciietec 2nd International Congress on Educational Innovation (2015). Retrieved from http://ciie.itesm.mx/es/httpciiemxspeakerdeb-masters/juan-freire/  

Interview report: Thomas Frey | Executive Director and Senior Futurist at DaVinci Institute

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation


Thomas Frey is the Senior Futurist at the DaVinci Institute and Google's top rated Futurist Speaker. He participated in the Second International Congress of Innovation in Education (2015). Thomas Frey raised a number of predictions for 2030. He estimates that the average person will be able to: print their own clothes, live in a printed house, receive packages delivered by a drone, have more than one robot, use a self-driving car, among others predictions.  

Observatory: What are the skills students will need to tackle challenges in the future?

Thomas Frey: The skill set that we're going to need in the future is going to shift into different areas. Some of them will be about being able to work with virtual reality, augmented reality, and big data and also thinking three-dimensionally is I think an important skill for the future. All of these new industries that are being developed are going to shift, morph and change over time and so we have to continually expand our thinking learning techniques and tools that didn't existed five years ago.

So as a technology evolves let's just take 3-D printing as an example, 3-D printing is still very crude right now, It's very slow, very methodical and the number of materials that we're able to use with 3-D printing is starting to expand very significantly.

Thomas Frey at  CIIE 2015 . 

Thomas Frey at CIIE 2015

And so as this expands, then we're going to have people that have to become very good at understanding what's the right material to use for this particular application, I want to create this one part specifically, maybe it's a part for a jet engine and a jet engine has lots of forces on it that has heat issues, it has pressure issues, it has vibration issues.

And so you're going to need just the right composite material for that particular application. Having people that know the right material to use at the right time, that's an interesting skill set that probably nobody has right at the moment. And so as our options increase, then it's going to be more complicated over time. So, somebody that gets into this field, which is kind of metallurgy field, a new product material, new material development field as that expands over time, the possibilities are many in different directions.

The biggest challenge that educators will face in the future is staying up to date constantly. Every morning I wake up and say, "Okay, what has changed today?", If I don't spend at least two hours every day doing research, I'm going to get le behind.

Observatory: What is the biggest challenge that educators will face in the future?

Thomas Frey: One challenge I have is staying up to date constantly. Every morning I wake up and say, "Okay, what has changed today?", If I don't spend at least two hours every day doing research, I'm going to get le behind. And that's the same with the professors, whatever they're teaching. There are new tool sets, new techniques and there are new challenges in every profession. They need to be on top of all that. And so, we have all the tools for doing all this research. You can do it right at home, you could just work late at night and do that research. But you need to be committed to doing that. So, if you created a curriculum ten years ago and it hasn't changed, you really shouldn't be teaching anymore.

Observatory: How can we develop the spirit of innovation in future generations?

Thomas Frey: I think challenges need to be more relevant. I think you need to actually put some real world problems in there that they're solving. And actually, I love the idea of having prizes that whoever does the best job, they get to claim the victory. I don't believe in everybody getting the participation ribbon. I think everybody needs to be recognized for what they accomplish. By putting these challenges together, I think that stimulates a lot of interesting thinking. And it creates natural alliances between the students, it tells you how to work on teams, and that sort of things. It ends up being lots of communication issues that you're dealing with, lots of project management issues, and all of this gets tied in with a challenge like that.  

2do. Congreso Internacional de Innovación Educativa (2015). Retrieved from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ciietec /page12 2do. Congreso Internacional de Innovación Educativa (2015). Retrieved from: http://ciie.itesm.mx/es/revolutionizingthinking- about-the-future-of-education/