For Bitmaker Labs, the trouble started with a flattering newspaper profile. In April, Canada’s Globe & Mail ran a piece on the Toronto-based hacker school, calling it “an intense program for programmers” and saying that founder Matt Grey is “dedicated to changing the world.”
Two months later, Bitmaker has temporarily ceased operations. The problem? Local educational regulators read the article and — two weeks ago — came knocking on Bitmaker’s doors.
The story caught the attention of Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities, or TCU. According to Bitmaker’s website, the government is “concerned with the vocational nature of our program and lack of proper government oversight.”
Reached Monday, the TCU confirmed that it was conducting an inquiry into Bitmaker. “No determination has been made regarding the program, no enforcement action has been taken against Bitmaker Labs and the Ministry has not requested that Bitmaker Labs cease offering its program,” TCU spokesman Gyula Kovacs said in an email message.
Bitmaker offers a CDN$9,000 nine-week intensive web development classes that focus on Ruby-on-Rails — an open-source platform that’s becoming the standard for website development. It was founded by former business students who decided to learn to code, Bitmaker CEO Matt Gray explains. It started when two of the other co-founders, Tory Jarmain and Will Richman, attended a similar program in Chicago called Startup League. When they returned, many of their friends asked for help learning to code.
“We started out just teaching each other how to code,” he says. But the founders ended up visiting DevBootCamp in San Francisco and deciding start a school based on that model.
The rub is that Ontario’s Private Career Colleges Act of 2005 prohibits anyone to charge a fee for providing “instruction in the skills and knowledge required in order to obtain employment in a prescribed vocation” without approval from the TCU. The laws were enacted to protect students from expensive and misleading private vocational schools that offer substandard education, though the agency has been criticized for lax enforcement in the past, according to the Toronto Star (the U.S. hasstruggled to regulate such institutions as well).
The Bitmaker founders didn’t think these requirements applied to their school. “It really came as a massive surprise to us,” Bitmaker co-founder Matt Gray says. “We never thought we fit the mold of traditional education. We don’t market ourselves as a college and don’t award certifications or degrees.”
But the TCU believes that Bitmaker may indeed fall under its purview. “Although many vocational programs contain a formalized system of evaluation, a program being offered and delivered may meet the definition of vocational program without the institution administering examinations and/or awarding students particular grades or marks or issuing to students degrees, diplomas or certificates at the completion of the program,” Kovacs said.
Gray says that more than 80 percent of Bitmaker’s students end up with a job or or founding their own businesses. But with the provincial regulators breathing down its neck, Bitmaker decided to close temporarily and get its act in order. The company’s lawyers advised that if it stayed open and ended up receiving a “cease and desist order,” it might make it harder to receive certification in the future, Gray says. The founders even took the school’s website down on Monday, fearing that running a website might count as “advertising an unlicensed school.”
Gray says he understands that TCU is trying to protect consumers and act in the public’s interest. He says Bitmaker is registering with the TCU and is hoping to fast track the process so that the current batch of students can finish the program. But he’s worried about the lack of communication thus far. “We’re sort of in the dark here.”