Monday, June 23, 2014

Time for nanodegrees?

Microscope Stage 2 by tncountryfan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by tncountryfan

Last year Sebastian Thrun, head of MOOC-consortium Udacity caused quite a stir by announcing that his company would be changing focus; leaving the higher education MOOC market and focusing on corporate training (see article). This change provoked a lot of "I told you so" rhetoric from the MOOC skeptics; evidence that the concept was not compatible with higher education. Now after a few quiet months Udacity are launching the concept of nanodegrees which offer highly practical MOOC-like training in cooperation with a number of high profile companies like AT&T. The MOOC format is still recognizable but the focus is on helping learners get necessary work-related skills to make themselves more attractive to employers. The nanodegrees will take 6-12 months to complete depending on the pace the learner chooses. As described on the Udacity blogAnnouncing nanodegrees: a new type of credential for a modern workforce:

We are designing nanodegrees as the most compact and relevant curriculum to qualify you for a job. The sole goal is to help students advance their career: whether it’s landing their next job, their next project, or their next promotion. It should take a working student about 6-12 months to complete without having to take time off. We will teach all the necessary skills together with why those skills matter along with career guidance. In other words, you won’t just learn *how* to code, but also *why.*

The first courses have just been announced and you can already sign up to receive further information as it becomes available: Front-end web developer, iOS developer, Back-end web developer and Data analyst. I'm not sure what sort of business model they have in mind but I can imagine that there will be the familiar layered approach already used in higher education MOOCs; free to participate but tuition, assessment and credentials at a fee. It's interesting that although these nanodegrees will have no academic validity they have chosen an academic name for the concept. If there are no university credits involved why use the term degree? Academics may object to the concept on the grounds that a degree involves long-term in-depth study and that if you shorten this process as radically as Udacity do it cannot be called a degree. It's like calling a 5 km race a nanomarathon. Let's see how the debate goes.

The big question is whether employers will accept new credentials like these nanodegrees or similar initiatives. It would be interesting to see if Udacity would consider using Open Badges in their forthcoming courses since that would give added impetus to the initiative. They have been working closely with some major companies who plan to offer internships to selected nanodegree students but the crunch will come when such qualifications square up to regular degree certificate on a candidate's CV.

The validity of open learning is questioned in an article in the Guardian, Will a degree made up of Moocs ever be worth the paper it's written on? and the main criticism of open learning here is that it lacks the dialogue and personal contacts between teacher and student that occur on a campus programme. Here I think there is a danger of over-estimating campus education. Many universities have extremely large undergraduate courses and quality interaction with a faculty member can be as minimal as on many MOOCs just as there are many examples of online courses with extensive teacher-student interaction. Education at scale is not feasible on campus but is clearly possible online and the fascinating side of the MOOC movement is how different actors are trying to find ways of providing interaction, assessment and feedback. A degree (or even nanodegree) made up of MOOCs can and probably will be worth the digital badge it's written on but may not be equivalent to a full-time campus degree. It's not a matter of either ... or ... but different qualifications for different needs and target groups.

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