What does a full-stack university look like?

A generation ago, we learned in a very different way. A school teacher might ask – ‘how far is Neptune from Earth?’ Answering this simple question involved something of a journey – not as far as from Earth to Neptune, perhaps, but it might seem like that to an eight-year-old child.

First you had to go to the library – either in town, or at school. Then you had to work out where the books on astronomy would be. Having assembled a collection of books, you’d plough through looking for information about Neptune. Some of the books might cover the planets in detail, but not have information about distances. Some might have charts and maps, but finding that elusive statistic might take the best part of the morning. Eventually, and with a sense of discovery and excitement entirely unknown to today’s students, you’d spot the jackpot and victoriously write it down – somewhere between 4.3 and 4.55 billion kilometres, because both planets are always on the move.

Today, of course, we’re only one click away from a piece of information like that. The journey from Earth to Neptune is much, much shorter than it used to be, and far better illustrated too. But the point of this is that the way we learn has evolved as a result. When older generations went looking, they’d find out all sorts of other things along the way – how many moons Jupiter has; how gravity works; how long Saturn’s year is; what the atmosphere’s like on Mars. It also helps you question assumptions – the false assumption being, that there’s a straightforward answer to the question.

Today’s learners simply don’t experience this process. They can find the information they need quickly, and can learn voraciously and widely, but they don’t develop depth of knowledge from incidental research.

This kind of wide but shallow knowledge is a problem. In today’s highly competitive world, we need the very opposite kind of knowledge to succeed – we need deep, but not wide. And this is at the heart of the ‘full-stack’ concept. In programming, a full-stack developer is someone who can complete tasks at any level of the particular technical stack they work in. In practice, this means being able to work with the hardware, what systems you need, how to code in the required languages, how to keep databases live and accurate, and how to project manage and handle external clients. Consequently, the programmer is likely to have deep, but not wide, knowledge – with core competencies in the area of the stack where they operate most.


The other end of the telescope

What might a full-stack university look like? The key is to remember that deep not wide is replacing the broad scope that traditional providers still think is fit for purpose. Classical providers might offer rich, absorbing education experiences, but the focus is still more on the experience than the career to come. A full-stack approach to education looks rather different. Mike Fishbein, who originated the term ‘full-stack education’ argues that such a provider ‘might not look like a school at all. It could look like an employer, a lender, a school, and/or a recruiter all rolled into one.’ For Fishbein, a full-stack provider might do three particular things to distinguish itself from other universities, whilst benefiting the student and the employer enormously.


  1. Hiring.Instead of spending… money on recruiters and still providing training on top of what candidates have already learned, why not skip the recruiter [and] educate someone from scratch. The cost savings in terms of lower wages and/or recruiting fees could outweigh the cost of training. The employee would benefit because they don’t have to pay for college and aren’t crippled by the corresponding student loan debt.’
  2. Recruiting. More alignment between what the student is studying, and what the employer wants to see. ‘If employers don’t value [the credential the student gets], the education is nearly worthless.’
  3. Lending. The full-stack uni could get favourable rates to lend to students on a non-profit basis. ‘Schools could lend to their students with their massive endowments. Employers could waive tuition fees altogether.’


We would argue that, building on this, there are three principal elements to a full-stack university.

  1. Diversity of learning objectives. Talent is accredited differently. Rather than the ‘academic first, job second’ approach, we would make practical learning from professional experiences the most important element. In practice, this means bringing people from the workplace, into the classroom. A key component of this is becoming a reflective practitioner – someone who always enquires about their own practices and has a critically reflective mind. For Ryan Craig, author of College Disrupted, this means to ‘develop and deliver specific high-quality educational experiences that produce graduates with capabilities that specific employers desperately want.’
  2. Ease of finance. Rather than seeing the student’s financial issues as their own affair, we would like to see more constructive involvement from the provider. (This could be offering lending, as Fishbein suggests.) It means providers must ask themselves the question, are we making it as easy as we can for students to study? What is the ROI for the student? Can the student break even on their investment in two years, five years, ten years?
  3. Connecting graduates with employers professionally. This is at the heart of the full stack university principle. Enhanced linkages between what students are learning, and what employers want. Again, the shift of focus in syllabus terms is practically aided by professional intervention. Mentoring, coaching, internships, visiting lecturers from business and action learning projects all contribute powerfully to this.


The key take-out from this is that university should be about the career, not the process. Or to summarise the thinking of Ryan Craig and Mike Fishbein, the purpose of a university is not just to get a good education. The purpose is to get a job. Craig argues that universities need to ask themselves three searching questions, that can be placed within the three categories above:

  • Learning objectives: ‘Are the educational experiences we’re offering sufficiently differentiated and specific to address unmet labor market demand from specific employers?’
  • Connecting graduates with employers: ‘Are employers involved in educational experiences midstream? And are we doing all we can to package, present and connect students to employers once they’ve completed?’
  • Ease of finance: ‘Are we helping students solve for financing, including pursuing a range of business models beyond the default (private-pay, out-of-pocket tuition)?’


Notes of caution

There’s a caveat to the full-stack approach, which providers need to be aware of. In Tech Crunch, Anshu Sharma, a partner at Storm Ventures, writes about ‘stack fallacy’ – ‘the mistaken belief that it is trivial to build the layer above yours.’ For example, ‘Apple continues to successfully integrate vertically down  — building chips, programming languages, etc., but again has found it very hard to go up the stack and build those simple apps — things like photo sharing apps and maps.’ For Sharma, stack fallacy ‘is a result of human nature  – we (over) value what we know.’ He adds, ‘the bottleneck for success often is not knowledge of the tools, but lack of understanding of the customer needs.’

This explains why major companies ‘keep falling’ for stack fallacy. In fact, ‘in a surprising way, it is far easier to innovate down the stack than up the stack. The reason for this is that you are yourself a natural customer of the lower layers. Apple knew what it wanted from an ideal future microprocessor. It did not have the skills necessary to build it, but the customer needs were well understood. Technical skills can be bought/acquired, whereas it is very hard to buy a deep understanding of market needs.’

Ryan Craig agrees with Sharma’s analysis and asserts that universities ignore it at their peril. ‘Colleges and universities are hearing plenty of scary stories of unemployed and underemployed recent graduates with tens (and sometimes hundreds) of thousands of dollars or student loan debt,’ Craig says. ‘Not surprisingly, connecting graduates to jobs and the critical importance of the first job to future earnings has never had a higher profile at cabinet and trustee levels. We’re even starting to see some universities follow the example of coding bootcamps with job guarantees.’


From ‘education provider’ to ‘job aligner’

So, what’s to be done? And in practice, what can a university do differently to offer more of a ‘full-stack’ approach? Let’s consider five powerful options that some innovative universities are currently offering. This list isn’t prescriptive or comprehensive, but it’s a starting point for the kind of thinking we think could make a big difference in the future – shifting the focus from education provider to job aligner.

  1. Offer a ‘nanodegree’ equivalent

Udacity is the main success story so far with stackable, evidence-based credentials. Udacity currently offers ‘eight tech-centric nanodegrees in web development, data analysis, full stack development, mobile development, and tech entrepreneurialism, according to George Lorenzo, writing in Fast Company. ‘These rigorous, project-based, career-focused nanodegree courses, with plenty of video instruction and highly specialized assessments, have been co-developed with such companies as AT&T, Google, Facebook, Cloudera, and mongoDB.’

It’s likely that other providers will be able to take a leaf out of Udacity’s book and offer similar flexible courses in the future. ‘Combined, nanodegree courses currently enroll about 10,000 students,’ says Lorenzo. ‘After officially launching its first nanodegree in October 2014 with a $35 million investment infusion, around 1,000 students have completed nanodegrees.’ And at least 150 students ‘have been directly assisted by Udacity with finding meaningful work.’

Lorenzo quotes Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, who in talking about the company’s business partnerships says, ‘What we basically get from these companies is accreditation.’ Arguing that the validation of nanodegrees comes from the ultimate employer, not the provider, Thrun says, ‘if they say we are more than happy to hire these people, that we trust Udacity, then the entire machine works out for us and the students.’ In other words, Udacity is gradually accumulating proof of our thesis that the aim of an education provider is not to give you an education; it’s to get you that job.

Nanodegrees answer the finance question too. Udacity is ‘now offering a 50% refund to students who complete a nanodegree within 12 months. This means that last year’s $200 per month rate for these courses has been cut down to only $100 per month.’ How is this achievable, and is it sustainable? Thrun’s answer is to outsource. ‘Beyond the company’s relatively small team of core employees located at Mountain View and San Francisco,’ Lorenzo comments, ‘Udacity has hired several hundred remote independent contractors from around the world who are highly qualified program reviewers, mentors, and content developers.’


2. Nurture your entrepreneurial talent

The survival rate for new companies makes for sobering reading. New research shows that in the UK, there were 246,000 business failures in 2014, of which some 99% would have been SMEs. How to improve this? Teach entrepreneurship. Make students aware of the pitfalls, and show them what they need to create a successful start-up. Concentrate on developing a USP. Look for ‘blue space’ in the marketplace. Check what the competition’s doing, and make your company different. Don’t try to be the cheapest. If you’re product-focused, don’t neglect service.

As Katy Tynan points out in EdTech Times, ‘between 1985 and 2008, the number of entrepreneurship courses in U.S. colleges and universities increased from 250 to over 5,000, and that number has continued to grow.’ Tynan quotes figures that estimate nearly half a million students are now taking courses in entrepreneurship in the US. ‘Colleges are making a concerted effort to convince these budding business owners that rather than dropping out they should stay in school and launch their ventures from inside the supportive ecosystem of their alma mater,’ she says.

For Tynan, providers are taking different approaches to the problem, whilst agreeing that losing their ‘best and brightest’ to startups is an issue. ‘For some schools, the answer lies in direct investment into startups by students. In 2009, Stanford students launched StartX, a nonprofit accelerator program for students and alumni. In 2013, the University began directly investing in StartX and in the companies it launched.’

Another option is simply to integrate entrepreneurship into the curriculum. ‘MIT incorporates business plan challenges, pitch days, mentorship, and other elements of the startup process into its Entrepreneurship and Innovation track during the MBA program,’ Tynan adds.


3. Be flexible

Traditional education might be seen as a matrix helping you (or not helping you) towards a job. The full-stack university is more like a funnel. If you need a particular credit, the ultimate full-stack university might enable you to get that credit. If you need a certificate from a coding boot-camp, let’s look at getting you that certificate. If an internship or a spell at a particular company is what you need, let’s see how that can fit into the holidays. Increasingly, students, providers and companies will work together in future to ensure that the graduate is aligned to what the recruiter wants.



4. Develop soft skills

Being good at work isn’t just about what grade you got. It’s also about being able to work effectively in a team; negotiation skills; understanding how your role fits in with wider corporate objectives; social skills; empathy; creativity; and other character traits that aren’t measured in an exam or in a dissertation. Such skills are about successful interaction with others – with the aim being to become interdependent; not working in silos as the culture of traditional learning in universities (solo working in libraries, for example) might seem to promote.

These skills can be taught, but are often largely or entirely ignored at university. Education providers who want to create a USP can develop this component as an important element of the student’s time. Research from Google indicates that ‘psychological safety’ is one of the foundation factors in the company’s best teams. ‘The safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles,’ says Laszlo Bock, Vice President of People Operations at Google Inc.

We would argue that the ideal university creates the ideal person – homo universalis. University is about nurturing, shaping and positively influencing students as individuals. That’s not just about academic learning – it’s about improving self-esteem, improving relationships with peers, and about creating psychological confidence. These elements impact hugely on how the individual develops their later career. All of this is about developing, enhancing and maximising the individual’s potential. It’s about, in effect, the value of being human. Consider the Southern African philosophy ubuntu, which we might define as, ‘I am because you are’. Embedding this principle of shared humanity is what university should ultimately be about.


5. Recognise that validation is changing

Globally, companies are no longer seeking employees based purely on how good a degree they have. They are more interested in how suitable the candidate will be for the job. Gregory Ferenstein writes in Forbes Magazine how Google is increasingly ignoring traditional signifiers of good quality job candidates. Google ‘doesn’t care much about Ivy League credentials or a sterling college transcript,’ says Ferenstein, again quoting Laszlo Bock. ‘It’s one of the flaws in how we assess people,’ Bock says. ‘We assume that if you went to Harvard, Stanford or MIT that you are smart. We assume that if you got good grades you will do well at work.’ But as Bock explains, these assumptions are inadequate at best and simply wrong at worst. ‘There is no relationship between where you went to school and how you did five, 10, 15 years into your career. So, we stopped looking at it.’

Bock makes the alarming – but potentially exciting for new providers – assertion that ‘college degrees and grades… don’t indicate whether employees can perform well in the real world.’ And significantly, he adds that ‘Google is skirting around traditional universities in the process of pursuing an expanding educational business agenda. If others follow Google’s lead, it could portend big changes for the future of higher education.’ As a result, it’s more vital than ever for education providers to move away from the classical education approach and move towards the full-stack concept.











Business failures stat: House of Commons Library Briefing Paper number 06152: Business statistics. 7 December 2015.