Should your institution consider a nanodegree program?

Students seeking to build technical skills and credentials are enrolling in nanodegree programs.

nanodegree-udacityThe growing focus on skills-based education has prompted many education providers to design programs that target students and professionals searching for ways to improve their technical skills and advance their careers.

Programs like Udacity’s “nanodegrees,” can help students of all ages enhance their existing professional skills or explore career-related areas of interest.

Udacity, a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) platform, partners with companies including AT&T, Google, Facebook, Cloudera, and MongoDB to develop educational content for the degrees.

Students can earn degrees for specific positions, such as a data analyst or an iOS developer, for $200 a month, typically over a six to 12 month period. Two additional job-specific degrees, as well as an introduction to programming degree, are available.

(Next page: How are students moving through the nanodegree programs?)

Nearly four months following the nanodegree launch, 10 students have earned their degrees, according to Clarissa Shen, vice president of business development for Udacity. More than 2,000 students are currently enrolled in a nanodegree program.

Shen said the company’s founder and chief executive officer, Sebastian Thrun, thought of the degree’s namesake with industry partners.

“It’s meant to be ‘nano’ and focused for your career in the moment, and stackable so you can earn credentials over the course of your career,” Shen said. “Nanodegrees are singularly focused and purposefully lean.”

Shen said the nanodegree programs ascribe to Udacity’s philosophy of “learning by doing.”

“Students are guided through projects along the way to demonstrate learning and supported by a network of mentors,” she said.

The programs also are accessible via mobile devices for students on the go.

Nanodegrees are the only credential with courses instructed by employees from companies like Google and Facebook, said Shen.

Partner companies like AT&T invested significant funds into nanodegrees. Through its Aspire student learning program, AT&T has invested $1.5 million to aid Udacity’s nanodegree launch, according to Anne Wintroub, AT&T’s director of social innovation.

Shen said while graduates have yet to be placed in jobs with partner companies, these individuals will be soon. Wintroub said A&T has also set aside up to 100 internships for nanodegree recipients.

Prospective AT&T employees would qualify for some entry-level software jobs with the company. Wintroub said these individuals would compete with candidates who completed “comparable education.”

Wintroub said AT&T is helping create curriculum “based on tangible hiring and training needs.”

About 6,000 AT&T employees applied for the first 50 nanodegrees reserved for company personnel. AT&T currently reimburses tuition costs for more than 300 of its managers.

“It’s an important part of our reskilling of our workforce as we transition to more of a software-centric business,” Wintroub said.

Dale Pike, executive director and associate provost of Technology-Enhanced Learning and Online Strategies at Virginia Tech, said nanodegrees are part of the changing higher education landscape that shows there is “no right solution for everyone.”

Pike said it is important to assign the appropriate expectation to any particular form of certification.
According to Pike, nanodegrees are best for students with “deep, intrinsic motivation.”

However, Pike noted that a Bachelor’s degree is like “a symbolic stack of credit hours” that show employers the time and commitment a student put into earning a degree.

Pike said he believes a Bachelor’s degree is “future proof.” He said the face-to-face enrichment students gain from that type of degree cannot be replaced.

Pike commended AT&T employees enrolling in the program to advance their careers. He said the degree would be particularly helpful in cases when employees aim to “refresh skill sets or give exposure to new processes or tactics.”

AT&T previously partnered with Udacity in January 2014. Along with Georgia Tech, Udacity and AT&T developed the first accredited Master of Science in Computer Science through the MOOC platform.

Additional nanodegree programs are in development.

Rebecca Lundberg is an editorial intern at eSchool Media.

Laura Ascione