“Start as a thinker and become a creator”: General Assembly’s 26-year-old founder talks 21st-century education

Matthew Brimer
Matthew Brimer

Matthew Brimer

Matthew Brimer, the 26-year-old co-founder of global education network General Assembly, is part of a new wave of entrepreneurs trying to figure out how to update education for the digital age.

“It’s a space that’s had very little innovation for centuries,” he says, during a recent visit to Berlin. “People are realising now – as the world’s changing faster and faster, as the economy is changing, traditional industries are being turned upside down – that we need to rethink education in a big way.”

Students and teachers aren’t the only ones expressing interest. Education is a persistent answer when venture capitalists are asked about areas of future growth for tech startups (try Kleiner Perkins’ Megan Quinn, at a panel moderated by Brimer in Berlin, or Niklas Zennstrom last year at LeWeb London).

Those who’ve already secured millions in funding include non-profit Khan Academy (which is pushing for a “flip” so online lectures happen in the evening, tutorials during the day) and Coursera and Udacity, who offer online courses, some in partnership with top universities. UnCollege is pushing hard for self-directed learning outside institutions.

Megan Quinn, MG Seigler and Matthew Brimer – BerlinMatthew Brimer (right) at Betahaus, General Assembly’s home in Berlin

General Assembly – vocational training for the digital age

General Assembly, backed by about $14.3m in funding from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Vegas TechFund, Jeff Bezos, Alexis Ohanian and others, is more specialist – it provides tech, design and entrepreneurship training for job seekers and company execs alike.

The General Assembly courses – available in real life in the US, London, Berlin (in partnership with Deutsche Telekom), Hong Kong and Australia as well as online – run from a few hours to 16 weeks and cover everything from Introduction to the Berlin Startup Scene to front-end web development.

Or, as Brimer puts it, “skills in demand in today’s world” – specific business, tech and design skills needed right now in the job market. “A liberal arts education is great,” Brimer says. “The question for us is what comes after that.”

“In producing a data science course, for example, we worked with American Express and their data science team,” he explained. “If they looked at the ideal data science candidate, what would be their ideal skills? We can then work backwards… By the time people emerge from the course, they’re suitable for real-world jobs.”

The real value of university?

Brimer himself graduated with a BA in Sociology from Yale. “I really appreciated my education,” he says. “One of the things people always talk about is how all these entrepreneurs – Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs etc – how they all dropped out of school, right? What we don’t talk about as much is, for the most part, those entrepreneurs got their start and had their ideas in that campus setting… surrounded by a diverse network of peers, in an environment that could help catalyse new ideas.”

General Assembly’s future plans include bringing more of its course material online. That will suit some people and not others, Brimer says.

This is part of the general direction he sees education taking: “This idea that one track fits all is becoming less relevant and less meaningful for people – depending on who you are and what you want to do, hopefully opportunities will be available for you.”

That means online or offline, liberal arts or a trade apprenticeship or self-directed learning, in your 20s or in your 80s. While there’s a good amount of skepticism about mass open online courses, General Assembly’s positive reputation in the tech community points to clear short-term gains for students.

The one gap, perhaps, is that none are accredited by third parties. Brimer is open to that idea but, for now, is happy if students leave with skills they can see themselves.

“Some people come and say ‘I just quit my finance job, I want to start a company or build a product’,” Brimer says. “For them, the outcome, the opportunity, is this fundamental ability to take an idea and turn it into reality. Start as a thinker and become a creator… It’s always really powerful to see that happen.”

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