Bitmaker Labs shuts down, under investigation for running ‘unregistered college’

Editor’s note: Story updated at 8:30 PM with comment from the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities.

A Toronto-based Web developer “boot camp” that charged a tuition for an intensive nine-week course in computer programming has shut down its operations while under investigation by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU).

A letter to site users took the place of Bitmaker Labs normal home page on Monday, explaining it had taken the action at the advice of legal counsel to avoid receiving a cease and desist request. The ministry began investigating Bitmaker Labs two weeks ago following an article mentioning it in the Globe & Mail.

The ministry confirms that Ontario’s Superintendent of Private Career Colleges is conducting an independent inquiry into Bitmaker Labs in an e-mail statement. “No enforcement action has been taken against Bitmaker Labs and the Ministry has not requested that Bitmaker Labs cease offering its program,” writes a ministry spokesperson.

It was either pre-emptively take down the Web site and stop operations, or face the possibility of stiff fines and jail time, according to Bitmaker Labs co-founder Matt Gray.

“We’re pretty enraged by the whole thing,” he says in a phone interview with “We had to deliver the news to our students this morning, which is pretty much the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do.”

In addition to shutting down its operations, the firm is now pulling together the paperwork to apply to become a private college. But it’s not the route the company was hoping to take, according to co-founder Tory Jarmain. It will mean the program’s curriculum must be approved by the Ministry, and that can take a lengthy amount of time in an industry that is changing daily.

“They don’t understand what we’re doing isn’t traditional education,” he says. “We have no choice but to conform to that.”

Bitmaker Labs has a plan to complete its current curriculum by applying to the ministry to teach a single skill course for Ruby on Rails, Jarmain adds. “We’ve received amazing support from our students, alumni, mentors and hiring partners since making the announcement and are doing everything we can to come into compliance so that we can get back to teaching.”

Bitmaker Labs was founded 10 months ago by five graduates from Western University. Its stated goal is to take Web developer beginners and make them capable of creating business-level Web applications in a nine-week curriculum. The tuition for the program is $9,000. That includes 40 hours of class time per week, Gray explains, each day is divided between a morning session and afternoon session. The morning begins with a lead instructor delivering a class, and after lunch several instructors work with the students in smaller groups to hone fully-finished Web applications.

The program doesn’t issue diplomas, or even grades. What it does arrange at the end of the nine-week program is a job fair at which some of the 25 partner companies come to meet the students. Hiring partners listed on Bitmaker Labs’ cached Web site include Shopify, Uken Games, VidYard, TribeHR, FreshBooks, Wave, and ScribbleLive. A recent graduate is going to present a company idea at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.

A ministry spokesperson says a program can be defined as vocational even if it doesn’t issue grades or program certificates. “Businesses that operate unlawfully in Ontario as unregistered private career colleges deprive students of the legal entitlements and protections.”

Businesses are looking to programs like Bitmaker Labs to help streamline their hiring processes, Gray says. It also helps dissuade talented students from heading to the U.S. in search of better Web development career options.

“We’re trying to put Toronto on the map here,” he says. “To shut it down just sends the signal that Toronto and Canada isn’t really serious about being innovative.”

Students, teachers, and members of the Toronto technology community took to Twitter and Facebook to express disappointment and anger targeted at the government as a result of the shut down.

“What kind of person doesn’t want people to be educated in one of the fastest growing skills in the world?” writes Ian Steffy on Bitmaker Labs’ Facebook page.

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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