Udacity’s Nanodegrees Offer Opportunity to ‘Skill-Up’


Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun and his 140-person team continue to re-imagine massive open online courses (MOOCs) with Nanodegrees aimed at teaching millions of people in-demand tech skills.

After four years of online courses that showed poor completion rates, Udacity says it has perfected a low-cost, scalable vocational training model that can give millions of people the opportunity to earn technical skills in short time.

Several Udacity students who completed Nanodegrees got the jobs they were aiming for, including Ms. Kelly Marchisio, a 25-year old customer service representative at Google who took Udacity’s ‘Full stack developer” Nanodegree and now is a software engineer at the tech giant.

Nanodegrees are often developed in association with tech companies and on high-demand skills like mobile programming, web programming and data analysis. When students complete their courses, they are awarded a Nanodegree certification, a skills certification that Google, AT&T and Facebook, among other firms, acknowledge.

Nanodegrees help individuals boost their skills or help them break through in competitive industries. Udacity’s goal is to double the world’s GDP through up-skilling, Thrun has said.

“We can’t turn you into a Nobel laureate,” Mr. Thrun told the New York Times. “But what we can do is something like upskilling — you’re a smart person, but the skills you have are inadequate for the current job market, or don’t let you get the job you aspire to have. We can help you get those skills.”

Udacity counts over 10,000 students enrolled in Nanodegrees with the majority already being college graduates looking to improve their career or change their path at a low cost. The structure of Nanodegrees, and the fact that they’re focused and concise, seems to appeal to these kinds of students. Jeannie Hornung, Udacity’s spokeswoman, says:

“You only spend 15 hours a week when you are available. You can trade your TV time for coding.”

While MOOCs were initially touted as a threat to elite universities, Udacity’s Thrun considered his digital school as a fast-track channel of intensely structured lessons for high-in-demand vocational skills that would get people jobs. For Thrun, lifelong education is a must in a tech-driven, constantly advancing world:

“It’s a mistake to think that a single college education can carry you for a lifetime,” he said. “To keep pace with change, your education has to be done throughout your life,” he told the New York Times.

Marcia Linn, professor of education at University of California, Berkeley, says the extremely focused Nanodegrees are aimed too narrowly. She says:

“[Y]ou train people exactly to get the job that is currently available, but not skills to learn something new. When they get to the workplace they don’t have the ability to get the next level job. That’s where a college education is really an advantage. You are getting a diverse set of courses.”

Udacity’s new slogan — ‘Be in demand’ — reflects how timely and relevant Nanodegrees are:

“You can learn for your own sake, and that’s fine, but if you come to Udacity you learn because you want someone else to understand what you learned.”