Students looking to acquire marketable web-based skills while avoiding college tuition debt now have another alternative available in San Antonio. Laserbird Academy is an online, after-school program providing technical and entrepreneurial training for middle and high school students.

CEO and founder Jonathan Earley designed the online academy to simulate a studio learning environment geared for all ages. His goal is to provide an alternative to costly institutions that provides students skills to compete in the web-based design job market.

“Our outdated educational system is causing serious challenges for our educators, students, and community,” Earley said. “College students are drowning in debt while demand and profitability for web designers are rapidly growing.”

Laserbird Academy teaches students practical web design, marketing, and entrepreneurial skills in order to give them a head start in the marketing and design industry. The courses are set up specifically to work with school schedules. Anyone can enroll in classes, regardless of affiliation with a particular school.

To enroll in Laserbird’s first semester, which begins Aug. 1, click here.

Also on Aug. 1, Earley will host a panel discussion with CodeUp CEO Kay Jones, professional career coach Ryan Schoenbeck from the University of Texas at Austin, Geekdom CEO Lorenzo Gomez, and WebTegrity CEO Kori Ashton. Panelists will discuss “Design Education with A Cause” and speak to the challenges in education as well as the current wave of innovative solutions available.

RSVP here for the free panel discussion from 6-8 p.m. at the Geekdom Event Centre. Interested students will be able to enroll in courses at the event.

Earley founded Laserbird Academy to provide younger students a cost-effective means to become website design proficient while still in high school. He found that there were few avenues to learn these skills based on his own experiences becoming adept in web-based design.

“I pretty much learned my skills on my own,” Earley said. “My school didn’t offer courses in web design.”

WebTegrity CEO Ashton has seen firsthand how many recent college graduates lack the current tech skills required by employers.

“I’ve tried to hire recent college graduates and unfortunately their skill sets and résumés reflect outdated code languages, and [they] are missing key code skills required for today’s tech development,” Ashton said. “Most of our team is self-taught or are CodeUp graduates.”

Geekdom CEO Gomez agrees that the tech industry is a skills-based economy, one where employers are more interested in whether an employee has the necessary skills for certain jobs than where they acquired these skills.

“Think of tech skills as a foreign language,” Gomez said. “The younger you start the more proficient you can become. This [new online academy] is about helping our K to 12 population become more tech literate, which in turn, helps them become marketable. Every industry today has a tech component to it, so these are applicable skills.”

Earley has taught college-level web design and multimedia classes for the past seven years, is a certified webmaster for Wix (a website builder platform), and founded his web design firm Tealix Design. The course materials for Laserbird Academy incorporate knowledge, techniques, and systems from these experiences over the past decade.

Because Earley can run Tealix Design anywhere he left Indiana, where he founded his company, to Brooklyn, New York. After hearing good things about the tech community in San Antonio and Austin, he made the move to San Antonio in October 2016.

“The San Antonio tech ecosystem has much of the same entrepreneurial spirit as Austin,” Earley said. “San Antonio is more like a tech frontier, and that appealed to me.”

Each of the four semesters in Laserbird’s curriculum features six weekly lessons which students can work on in their free time. Pricing for each semester starts at $250 for the online version. Discounts are available for schools that sign up 10 or more students per semester.

The low price point can help students decide if web-based design constitutes a viable career option.

“Exposure to these tech skills in high school or middle school isn’t a waste of time because it can help a student realize early ‘Maybe this isn’t for me,’” Gomez said. “They don’t need to apply to a four-year school to realize this career track is not for them after all.”

Coding schools focus more on the coding behind software while Venture Lab offers more general youth entrepreneurship curriculum to teach marketing and public speaking skills. Earley decided to focus more on adding branding and entrepreneurship skills to round out the web design-focused coursework. Specific skills taught include web design, typography, layout, storytelling, branding, and color theory. The full curriculum can be found here.

“With the amount of college debt students accumulate, there’s need for a drastic shift in how our economy works,” Earley said. “I want to spread the knowledge and skills I have learned: Students don’t necessarily have to get a four-year degree to get a job.

“They can learn everything they need to know from the internet to get a job in whatever they want to do in a tech career.”

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.