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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.
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