Udacity’s Nanodegrees: Edtech’s Challenge To College Credentials?

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Through the Open Education Alliance, a group of companies are collaborating over course design—-and also encouraging the wider community of technology companies to honor the nanodegree credentials in their own hiring.

If that model takes off, a student who completes a Google-backed nanodegree but fails to get hired at Google may nevertheless land a job at a small tech startup or a mid-sized company on the strength of the Udacity credential. Whatever business success Udacity attains with its own products, the development of employer-backed, consensus credentials in the tech industry may someday be ranked as a pivotal cultural invention that was later adopted by other edtech companies and other employers.

Now that Udacity is charging for its courses, it is adding services including career guidance, job placement services, and coaches to cheer students on and check their work. As the company takes on some of those support roles of traditional colleges, it must gauge how much money needs to be spent to insure high student success rates, and whether it can hold the line on student fees.

While much attention has focused on the nanodegree—Udacity’s two-way collaboration with employers—the company is also trying out a three-way partnership with AT&T and Georgia Tech, which is offering an accredited online master’s degree in computer science at a cost of $6,600. The same degree costs $45,000 for on-campus students.

AT&T’s Smith says the company’s inclusion in both the nanodegree project and the Georgia Tech collaboration will help to quickly correct any deficits in course design that leave a skills gap among AT&T hires from those programs.

“We get to work that really quickly with Udacity,” Smith says. “We don’t really have the advantage of working that with a typical university.”

Whether Udacity’s nanodegree will open up job opportunities in tech to a broader array of people—including low-income jobseekers—is an open question.

Anyone—including a high school student—can start the process to sign up for a nanodegree program. But applicants must pass a pre-screening test that measures math aptitude, with a knowledge of algebra as a minimum prerequisite, Smith says.

Both AT&T and Udacity are contributing scholarship funds for needy applicants. AT&T has pledged to offer 100 internships to nanodegree holders, though it hasn’t specified a time period for those hires, Smith says.

Thrun says students won’t be able to tap into state and federal tuition assistance programs at this point. He says he hasn’t yet investigated the process for qualifying the nanodegree programs for that aid. The immediate focus is to keep student fees low.

Thrun envisions the nanodegree as an employment entree for people such as soldiers returning from war, single mothers, and older workers who need to switch careers. But will youth-oriented tech companies shy away from hiring a 43-year-old female former math teacher, even if she performs better than her young classmates in a Web development course?

“I can’t confidently say we know for a fact that it’s not going to be this way,” Thrun says.

The young American high school whiz with a nanodegree will likely compete for tech jobs against other young candidates who also have the nanodegree—on top of a college degree. The job candidates could also come from countries abroad such as India, where tech work is often outsourced.

So, is the nanodegree a bargain compared to a more costly college degree or a university refresher program? Thrun acknowledges that the nanodegree’s value to employers will have some sort of informal expiration date, because the technology skills of today will continue to become outdated.

“The content we build will live for five years,” Thrun says. “In five years, or eight years, it will not be relevant any longer.”

But the same can be said for that aging sheepskin emblazoned with the Latin motto of a college that hangs on the office wall, Thrun says. Employers will look for recent work experience or training, he says.

“My college degree was 20 years ago,” says Thrun, a former computer programmer. “If I wanted to find a job in the tech industry, I would be in trouble. I wouldn’t be able to become a programmer.”

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The Author

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com.

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  • Peter_Cao

    — Sebastian Thrun had collateralled with a criminal suspect named gabriele scheler in a series of fascism crimes starting from a Stanford campus atrocity case — Stanford police case number: IR #04-111-0335;Victim: Peter Cao; Criminal Suspect: Gabriele Scheler] —http://t.cn/SXQ6Rj — attention to the 7 photo evidence to see how cruel people from this fascism circle are —, which led to the tragic death of an innocent Asian Stanford student, Thrun is not innocent in an unsuccessful plotted murder on me either and I have been cursed by fascism powers from Sebastian Thrun and Gabriele Scheler’s side for many years.

    — There is actually a war between fascism and anti-fascism, at this stage, fascism still prevails in our lives; Sebastian Thrun and Gabriele Scheler are just front figures we could see in a fascism circle, there is a whole pack of fascists behind them to cover up their crimes and to retaliate on victims


    — It is a tough task to fight against such anti humanity crimes which are fascism by nature; I bet such anti-humanity crimes would not be tolerated anywhere, including in this article;— equal opportunity and freedom of speech:

    • Peter_Cao

      Answer to nontraditional001′s comment — “you might have a stronger argument if your cut back on the crazy” — from http://chronicle.com/article/The-Miseducation-of-America/147227/


      Dear nontraditional001,

      Appreciate that you’ve found some crazy issue here and thank you for your opinion;

      It is a tough task to challenge those fascists, which might make it look crazy;

      However, wouldn’t one agree that those bloody stripes on my legs in those 7 photo evidence out of a crazy crime scene — http://t.cn/SXQ6Rj — a harsh reality?

      Also, such a simple campus atrocity case with clear evidence and serious police investigation had been purposefully mystified later on, in favor of this criminal suspect Gabriele Scheler, by some judicial officers who hided their identities from me for over 10 years, and this case had therefore induced more and more retaliatory fascism crimes; though I am a victim, my life has been underhandedly cursed by fascism powers behind Sebastian Thrun and Gabriele Scheler for these many years — what’s really going on here? — isn’t this fact much crazier?

      — One may find those things in my statements crazy to learn, but they are no more than facts; I am not the one who did crazy things, those fascists behind Sebastian Thrun and Gabriele Scheler did;

    • Peter_Cao

      Answer to nontraditional001′s comment — “not convincing at all”—

      from http://chronicle.com/article/The-Miseducation-of-America/147227/

      Dear Sir/Ms nontraditional001,

      Well, I bet there is at least a convincing police case number to start with:[Stanford police case number: IR #04-111-0335;Victim: Peter Cao; Criminal Suspect: Gabriele Scheler] — do you have any problem with that? Would you dare deny the brutality from Gabriele Scheler on my body as evidenced in those 7 photos?—http://t.cn/SXQ6Rj—

      If you want to have some credibility here, please show us your real identity in the first place;

      We are all made of human beings; you have your judgement, and we all have our own; Anybody with normal intelligence could easily figure out that there is something seriously wrong going on in this case; Would you be specific which part in my argument is ‘not convincing at all’? on what identity do you speak, after all?

      Your personal opinion out of a simple and arrogant argument of ‘not convincing at all’, under an insincerely disguised user name, are problems that make yourself ‘not convincing’ to anyone ‘at all’;

      — Would you please show us your real identity? I am eager to learn;

  • Richard Roy

    Fascinating. I would be most curious in how and to who Udacity is marketing these nanodegrees — I think it’s frivolous at this point to think the main audience for “nanodegrees” would be low-income high school graduates; for them, college is still their best bet. Maybe a twenty-something trying to find a job or wanting to reset their careers might benefit from this.