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How Nanodegrees Are Disrupting Higher Education

New "micro" online certification programs are changing the educational pathways to success in certain industries.

Nanodegrees in higher ed

Udacity created quite a buzz at the annual Google I/O conference this year when the for-profit online education provider unveiled its new Android Developer Nanodegree program. Created in close cooperation with Google, which owns the popular mobile operating system, the program is designed to provide software developers with the skills they need to build Android applications and a credential to prove to potential employers that they have those skills. Udacity later made the headline-grabbing announcement that it will refund half the tuition ($200 per month) for students completing the program in 12 months.

The Android nanodegree is the sixth member of Udacity's young lineup of industry-led, career-oriented, online certification programs, but it's not surprising that the launch of this one would draw so much attention. There are about a billion active Android users worldwide, and consequently, something approaching urgent demand for Android developers. But this high-profile launch also raises again the question of where these kinds of programs fit in the post-secondary educational landscape, and whether such focused learning programs might finally emerge as a disruptive force in higher education.

Udacity has trademarked the term "nanodegree," but the concept of an institution-agnostic microcredential isn't new and the company isn't the only cutting-edge provider — it's not even the first to work directly with Google. Earlier this year, Coursera announced partnerships with Google, Instagram and others to provide a series of "microdegrees."

"Certificates have been around for a long time," said Alexander Halavais, associate professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Arizona State University, "offered either on the industry/trade side, or in conjunction with university extension programs. In fact, the push of 'university extension' is well over a century old, and it was intended to break down some of the medieval structures of university education and make them more widely available."

But in a recent report, Stuart Butler, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC, pointed to the Udacity and Coursera certificate programs as examples of a trend that could result in "a radical shakeup of higher education." In particular, he wrote, the companies' partnerships with industry and potential employers could represent "a game-changer."

Udacity COO Vish Makhijani couldn't agree more. "That's what makes these programs different," he said. "For our Web Front-End Developer program, for example, we worked directly with AT&T, which was trying to hire a ton of entry-level front-end Web developers. They knew exactly what kind of person they needed, so we knew exactly how to build a curriculum to generate those competencies. For the Data Analyst program, we worked with industry innovators dealing with big data, companies like Facebook, Twitter and MongoDB. Google spent thousands of hours working with us to develop the Android program; we worked directly with the source."

Makhijani said partnering with potential employers effectively answers what was considered a critical question raised by the advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs): Will employers take these certifications seriously? The challenge to providers of online micro-certifications, he said, is twofold: earning the trust of students and maintaining a relevant curriculum.

"We boil things down to their essence," he said. "That's kind of what a nanodegree is. We're telling students, this is exactly what you need to know to be in that job. And we absolutely have to deliver that. And students have to see a clear linkage between us and real job opportunities. Relevancy matters most to us."

Udacitiy's nascent nanodegree curriculum is the result of a strategic pivot by CEO and co-founder Sebastian Thrun, whose company had been one of the leading providers of MOOCs for higher education. In 2013 Thrun abandoned the MOOC, declaring that his company had "a lousy product," and announced plans to shift its focus from higher ed to corporate training.

"Sebastian made a quick move from MOOCs to something that had a business model behind it," said Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension and a former vice president at the American Council on Education. "I don't see [the nanodegree programs] as a new or unique type of education, but he's doing to it in a high-quality way, and he's positioning himself to move quickly and with great agility into new areas. He focused on the professional development market and high-end IT computer science area, where there's rapid innovation, which was smart. So was his decision to partner with other entities to develop curricula."

Thrun also entered a market that is increasingly open to the idea of hiring certifiably skilled people who lack four-year degrees, Sandeen said.

"A growing number of industries are open to the idea of employing people with portfolio backgrounds — that is, people without four-year degrees who have done different things and can show you what they've done," she said. "We see it in tech industries, especially software development, but also in creative industries — Web design, graphic design, screen writing — jobs that have traditionally been open to people who have followed different sorts of educational pathways other than the traditional four-year degree. I think we'll see more and more certification programs that may appeal to those industries."

Makhijani doesn't expect Udacity's nanodegree curriculum to have much of an impact on higher education, given the kinds of students the programs are attracting. "The bulk of our students today are people who are switching lanes," he said. "Say, you're a marketing person and you want to become a developer because you see better career prospects. That's more typical of our students today."

In other words, even people who earn a degree are going to be adding to it with additional certifications throughout their lifetimes, Sandeen said.

But Halavais sees micro-certifications seeping into the higher ed process even earlier. "It used to be that certificates were mainly meant for those who had already completed a bachelors degree and needed either continuing education for professional licensure or, often later in life, to pursue new intellectual challenges," he said. "That's changed. Now we see undergrads seeking out certificates while they are completing their degree, or — as in the case of ASU — completing the equivalent of 'pre-bachelors' programs to try out the university before continuing on."

And that portfolio model may be influencing how higher ed approaches transcripts. The University of Wisconsin Colleges and Wisconsin Extension, for example, are participating in the Lumina Foundation's Extended Transcript Project, which aims to build and test a first-of-its kind "credential registry."

"We're looking at a new form of transcript that will validate learning through life experience," Sandeen said. "It's part of a larger trend to capture students' experience, college degrees and industry certifications for a richer transcript." The registry will use a Web-based system with information provided directly by the institutions issuing the credentials, she said.

"Right now, universities generally lack interoperability," Halavais said. "They are like old-fashioned Macs losing out to the openness of Windows and other platforms that made it easier to 'plug-and-play.' Folks are coming to realize that the transcript of the future has to be plug-and-play."

"But this doesn't mean that we are going to lose the four-year bachelors any time soon," he added. "It just means that those four-year programs that are best able to integrate with 'nano-,' 'micro-,' and 'meso-' certificate programs will be more likely to thrive."

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