This post is part of Hire Education, an occasional series about technological innovation in education and how it’s reshaping the way students prepare themselves for a transformed workforce.
Udacity, a provider of online courses, is hoping to bring the idea of highly-skilled and career-specific Web-based learning programs to the masses. On Monday, the company announced its first “nanodegree” program in partnership with AT&T: a technical training program in mobile and Web computing that aims to prepare thousands of job-seekers for high-demand jobs.
Why nanodegrees? College isn’t for everyone, nor does it always position you in the right way for a job. Traditional two- and four-year degrees require commitment to a specific field, the desire and ability to take spend the time in classes learning both skills relevant and irrelevant to your eventual career, and, usually, a very large chunk of money for tuition that has risen dramatically in the last two decades.
The Vocational School Goes Online And High-Tech
There are options for people who’d like to take a different career path—vocational schools for things like automotive technology, health and beauty services, and, more recently, coding programs that promise a fast-tracked way to learn how to build apps.
Udacity’s non-accredited nanodegrees aim to be a series of what CEO Sebastian Thrun calls “stackable” programs that complement different skills.
“By putting in half a year of work, less work that you put in for a regular degree, we can get you from one point to another,” said Thrun in an interview at the New York Times Next New World conference on Thursday. “For instance, if you’re a skilled programmer, we can turn you into a mobile programmer, and for mobile programmers, there’s an endless number of open jobs right now. Or we can take you from programmer to data scientist.”
The series of courses are taught as massive open online courses, or MOOCs, a popular format for online learning. The nanodegree programs focus on entry-level software skills, and the first one will be recognized by AT&T for software jobs. Giving the program weight is the promise that students can potentially kickstart their careers in technology through AT&T.
AT&T is helping design content for the program, guaranteeing its relevance for jobs at the telecommunication company, and AT&T plans to offer some graduates a paid internship at the company, as well as provide scholarships for students who are unable to afford the program.
A Cheaper, Faster Route To A Degree
Nanodegrees are designed to be completed in less than a year, at a cost of just $200 a month. Some coding schools can cost upwards of $10,000, making the Udacity program seem like a relative bargain.
AT&T is currently the only company working with Udacity to offer a nanodegree, but Udacity is planning on launching career-specific programs with other well-known tech companies.
Udacity already works with companies like Google, Autodesk and 23andMe in the Open Education Alliance, a group of employers that contribute classes to the Udacity platform, and recognize students’ certificates of completion when they apply for jobs. Udacity also offers recruiting services to help students find career opportunities with tech companies like Square and Facebook.
AT&T is a member of the OEA, so it’s likely other member companies will follow its example and provide career-specific training programs and access a new pool of talent through MOOCs.
“The objective is to make this a broad industry platform,” Thrun said.
Udacity plans to take nanodegrees outside the tech industry: Thrun told me the company is talking with a lot of banks about finance nanodegrees.
Not A Replacement For College—Yet
Online-learning services like Udacity and Coursera, which also offers degree-like programs, might seem like they’re thumbing their noses at traditional brick-and-mortar universities. Thrun insists that is not the case.
Most of the students on Udacity already have a college degree, Thrun said; they are just looking to expand their skill set and potentially take on a new career path. This is not unusual for a company that offers online courses—Andrew Ng, cofounder and co-CEO of Coursera, told me earlier this year that 75 percent of Coursera students already have a degree as well.
“We don’t dump the degree,” said Thrun. “This is just an additional platform. There are fantastic four-year degrees, but not everyone can get in. This is meant to be an alternative path for people who don’t fit in to the traditional class because they can’t take the time out, or they are mid-career.”
Some critics of online courses point to remarkably low completion rates as an argument that programs like Udacity aren’t educating students as well as they should. One study from May 2013 found the average completion rate for a MOOC is less than seven percent.
But as supporters for the MOOC model claim that number is considerably higher when students fork over money in return for education.
“Our completion rate is 70 percent when students pay for a course,” Thrun said. He admits that he doesn’t know if that behavior will translate to the new nanodegree program.
There are some students, like me, who pay for classes and still don’t complete them. The value of the courses must be high enough to warrant what they pay, plus the dedication of time and energy to completing a course.
If it does work, however, and the nanodegrees open employment doors for students, it could become a new path into the tech workforce, and eventually, other industries.
While insisting that online courses like Udacity’s are not trying to usurp traditional education, Thrun does wish educators would do more to experiment with new models of instruction.
“We are in for a rocky ride—we are at an inflection point,” Thrun said. “Things like tuition rates, bureaucracy, and job investments, are all colliding right now. And the level of education that you need to have for even the most basic job has gone up. For an educator to ride the wave, you have to embrace experimentation and openness towards technology.”
AT&T is the first company to take advantage of the MOOC as both an educational platform and a recruiting tool, but if this experiment works, we could see a surge in students taking on new career paths thanks to the bite-sized online degrees that come packged with a promise of landing a new job.
Lead image by Francisco Osorio; image of Sebastian Thrun courtesy of Neilson Barnard/Getty Imagesfor The New York Times