Udacity and the Evolution of Nanodegrees

The problems facing higher education today are legion: escalating tuition costs; spiraling student debt; political correctness; underachieving students; professorial emphasis on research to the detriment of undergraduate teaching; adjunct professors earning starvation wages, and we’ve barely scratched the surface.

One company, however, within the MOOC (massive open online courses) ranks, Udacity, appears to have latched onto a solution that addresses many of the abovementioned ills: its nanodegree programs.

The founder of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun, is a German polymath, who as a graduate student at the University of Bonn created an armless cleaning robot, RHINO, which could digitally map out a room, locate messes and bark out commands to start cleaning. Though RHINO might raise a few eyebrows, it brought Thrun to the leadership of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), and then onto Google [X], where he became the creative force behind such iconoclastic developments as the driverless cars, Google glass and airborne wind turbines.

At Udacity Thrun’s first major project was launching Algebra and Statistics courses with San Jose State. Unfortunately, half the enrolled students failed their final.

By November 2013, Thrun, ever the realist, announced in an article in Fast Company, that Udacity had a ‘lousy product’ and that the company was going to focus on “vocational courses for professionals.” Shortly thereafter, in 2014, Udacity joined up with Georgia Tech and AT&T to create its nanodegree program.     

Udacity develops nanodegree programs by partnering with such companies as AT&T or Autodesk to devise courses incorporating prized skills such as programming and web development. However, earning a nanodegree goes beyond merely mastering skills. Nanodegrees also employ individual coaching, mentorship, career counseling, and job-interviewing: soft skills necessary in navigating the business world.

Udacity also offers personalized instruction through online outsourcing. Grading is done by a network of capable, knowledgeable staff that can quickly assess projects and supply detailed feedback to the students. Instruction for, say, the Android course, is staffed by the actual developers of Google’s mobile operating system.

Udacity also incorporates Mr. Thrun’s AI (artificial intelligence) to analyze individual learning techniques and make the material more palatable and engaging, thereby increasing student retention and course completion.  According to Thrun, “We effectively reverse engineer the human learning brain to find out what it means for a person to engage. It’s my dream to make learning as addictive as a video game“.  According to Mr. Thrun,  60% of Udacity’s students finish their courses, versus the 10% average for MOOCs.

To make the process even more appealing, a student can take as long or as short a time as necessary to finish a degree. Udacity has found that the typical student earns a nanodegree in 5 months. Better still, upon completion of a nanodegree, the student is given back half the tuition—meaning the actual cost of a 5-month degree is $500.

Nanodegrees are comparable to Germany’s apprenticeship program, which addresses ‘skills mismatches’ in the German labor force. In Germany it’s reported that over 60% of its students are involved in apprenticeships, also called ‘dual training’. Germans apprentice in such fields as advanced manufacturing, IT, banking, and hospitality for periods of 2-4 years. Company attitude towards apprenticeships is best reflected by a comment by an HR manager within Deutsche Bank, “This has nothing to do with corporate social responsibility. I do this because I need talent.”

As do companies in the United States: Mr. Thrun often references a report by McKinsey Global Institute which estimates by 2020 the world will have 85 million jobs begging for technically capable employees.  Udacity has the audacity to believe it has the scope and model to help fill a lion’s share of those positions. Your own upskilling Udacity journey is but a click away.