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Catching a new wave of courses

Aiden Zimmerman and George Sass (right) in robotics design class.

Building a six-legged walking robot powered by a salvaged forklift engine is not exactly your typical adult-ed course offering. But anyone interested in getting some hands-on experience in robotics can do just that at Artisan’s Asylum, a Somerville workshop that also offers classes in digital music software, operating a 3-D printer, and building and programming electronic circuit boards, starting at about $75.

The eclectic courses are part of a wave of new education initiatives offered locally that compete with traditional adult-ed centers or continuing-education programs on college campuses. These initiatives try to be quicker in developing courses around new technologies, and they often recruit working professionals, instead of lifelong educators, as teachers. One of the robotics instructors at Artisan’s Asylum, for instance, works by day at Boston Dynamics, which designs sophisticated walking robots for the military.


“Some people take classes because it’s fun to learn by working on cool projects,’’ says founder Gui Cavalcanti. “Others are looking to add an item to their resume that will let them jump into a different field, like robotics.’’

One of the newest education initiatives is Intelligent.ly, created by entrepreneur Dave Balter and Sarah Hodges, a former marketing executive at RunKeeper, a Boston start-up. Starting this week, it will offer courses at its South End offices geared to entrepreneurs and tech industry worker bees. A one-night class on “How to Hire an Army of Interns to Build Your Business’’ costs $30, as does a class on running advertising campaigns on Google, taught by Patrick Campbell, a former Google employee.

Boston Startup School is geared to recent college graduates, and it kicks off next month in Cambridge. The objective is to transform recent grads into more appealing hires for fast-growing start-up companies, explains Mark Chang, an Olin College professor developing the curriculum. (Chang also serves as a technology consultant to the Boston Globe.) Participants will choose a track like product design, software development, or sales, and learn about those topics primarily from professionals working at local start-ups.


“My job as an academic at Olin is to give a young person time to grow as an individual and figure out what they’re interested in,’’ Chang says. “But I think once someone graduates, it’s not so creepy to say, ‘These start-ups have told us the kinds of skills they need, and here’s a program that will teach them to you,’ whether it’s database optimization or user-centered product design.’’ Applications for the six-week program are still open; it will accept about 60 students in its first year.

Skillshare began offering classes in Boston last spring, and it’s different from the other new ventures in its openness: anyone can create and teach a class, as long as they have a place to do it and can attract a few willing learners. Skillshare, a Manhattan company, simply takes a 15 percent cut of the tickets sold in return for its promotional help.

Skillshare classes tend to meet just once and can cost as little as $10. Upcoming offerings in Boston include “Bullets are for the NRA: Making Great Presentations in PowerPoint,’’ and a crash course in AutoCAD, a widely used software application for product design.

Emily Olson has both taught and taken Skillshare classes in Boston. “I co-taught a course about how to make gnocchi, and I’ve taken four or five courses on blogging, and how to find internships at start-ups,’’ she says. “You’re learning from your peers - someone at your level, your stage in life.’’


Chad Mazzola took a course last year on raising venture capital. He says he liked the credentials of the instructor, a local VC, as well as being able to see who else had signed up for the class online. “Also,’’ he adds, “I find it easier to do one-off classes, rather than longer commitments.’’

In June, a New York company, General Assembly, plans to start offering courses in Kendall Square, using space at the Cambridge Innovation Center. “All of our course offerings are very goal-oriented,’’ says General Assembly cofounder Adam Pritzker. “People are looking to start a company, or level up at work.’’

Popular courses in New York have included “Programming for Non-Programmers’’ and “Introduction to Start-up Law,’’ but Pritzker says the menu for Cambridge hasn’t yet been set. Classes typically cost about $30. General Assembly’s investors include Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and Maveron, a Seattle venture capital firm cofounded by Howard Schultz of Starbucks.

These initiatives are responding to the same dynamic: New skills, tools, and technologies are emerging and becoming important in the workplace faster than ever before. It can be challenging for more hidebound educational institutions to spot them, and identify experts who can teach them. And in various ways, the new initiatives seem to be addressing a desire for bite-sized learning - a day or an evening dedicated to keeping you current, and perhaps helping you decide whether you want to dive more deeply into a particular topic.


But all of the initiatives are quite new. It’s still an open question whether they’ll be successful enough at attracting learners to endure as long as some of this city’s great educational institutions.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.