Imagine a degree that costs less than $1000 and takes only months to complete. Does it sound suspiciously like a 1980s TV commercial for correspondence school? Meet the latest trend in online education: the nanodegree. Not far off from a modern-day equivalent to the floral arranging or small engine repair accreditation of yesteryear, the nanodegree provides cheap, fast, hands-on training in the technical skills that employers are looking for.
The brainchild of Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, nanodegrees address the skills shortage in the tech sector, the increasing number of young people incurring massive amounts of student debt and the larger number of people changing careers midlife.
Thrun’s first stab at online learning was a failure. In 2011, he and Google Director of Research Peter Norvig created one of the first free online MOOCs (massive open online course). A whopping 160,000 people registered for the artificial intelligence course, but only 10% of them completed it. It gave Thrun the drive to create a different kind of online learning: Udacity.
Udacity, which according to the organization stands for “We are audacious for you, the student,” aims to make education more accessible and affordable. In partnership with industry giants like Google, Facebook and AT&T, it teaches skills that the industry needs like programming, robotics, artificial intelligence and web development. The cost of nanodegrees is kept low by “Uberizing” the education process and outsourcing teaching to independent contractors — experts in the field who get paid on an hourly, per project basis.
While some employers are still skeptical of nanodegrees and other online microcredentials, like MOOCs, they are increasingly catching on, especially in the tech sector. For those onboard, it’s less the credential itself than the highly specific skillset people with those credentials display. In a 2015 Fast Company article (“Could ‘Nanodegrees’ Be the Solution to the Student Debt Crisis?”), one graduate states that it wasn’t the nanodegree that got her a job — her employer had never heard of such a thing — but rather the projects she created while getting it, which demonstrated a high skill level.
For employers and HR managers still suspicious of micro-credentials like nanodegrees, it’s worth exploring. We’ll likely be seeing more of them in the future.