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Taking Competency-Based Credentials Seriously in the Workforce

Companies like AT&T and Google are expanding their partnerships with online education providers, creating new educational pathways to real jobs. 

It sounds cutting-edge, but the concept of a competency-based education that results in an institution-agnostic microcredential isn't new. For well over a century, industries have worked with colleges and universities through various types of extension programs to salt the workforce with better-qualified candidates. But in the Age of the Internet, for-profit online education providers such as Udacity and Coursera have tweaked that model by collaborating with companies to develop programs tailored to their specific needs.

AT&T was one of the first companies to work with the new generation of online education providers to develop a credentialing program designed to fill a specific staffing gap. In 2014, the telecom company was in the market for "a ton" of entry-level front-end web developers, according to Udacity's then COO (now CEO) Vish Makhijani. "They knew exactly what kind of person they needed, so we knew exactly how to build a curriculum to generate those competencies," he said in an earlier interview. Together the two companies created the Front-End Web Developer Nanodegree program, Udacity's first branded microcredential. ("Nanodegree" is trademarked.)

"We worked with Udacity to develop curriculum based on tangible hiring and training needs," said John Palmer, senior vice president and chief learning officer at AT&T, in an e-mail. "Our teams collaborated on determining what skills we needed now to address the needs of our business, but also what skills would be needed five to 10 years from now — not just at AT&T, but at other tech companies."

Palmer believes that such competency-based programs will help AT&T and other companies "widen, develop and diversify the talent pipeline to address the shortage of current and future employees with technology skills."

Udacity currently offers 16 tech-focused Nanodegrees ranging from a basic introduction to programming to an advanced program in machine learning engineering. The list of companies collaborating to develop and maintain those programs includes Facebook, MongoDB, GitHub, Amazon and Google, among others. AT&T collaborated with Udacity to develop three of those programs, but Google has been the most frequent collaborator to date. The company has worked on seven programs, including the enormously popular Android Developer Nanodegree.

While the Front-End Web Developer Nanodegree created with AT&T is an example of a program originally tailored to a specific staffing need, the Android developer program was, from the start, more broadly aimed at expanding an ecosystem, explained Peter Lubbers, senior manager on Google's Developer Relations Team.

"My team's mission is to educate and inspire developers, globally, around our platform," Lubbers told Campus Technology. "We want to reach as many developers as we can, and these programs provide an effective and efficient way to do that."

About three years ago, Google launched its own experimental online course designed to teach the HTML5 markup language to web developers. It was a hot topic, Lubbers recalled, and the free course drew 50,000 students within the first two months. The company continued to experiment with online courses, but eventually concluded that it needed "a more holistic narrative" that would leave students with the ability to do an actual job.

"We felt we needed a curated, well-lit path through all this great training material we had developed," said Lubbers. "About the same time, Udacity was developing their Nanodegrees, and we just came together."

Google unveiled the Android Developer Nanodegree program at its annual I/O conference in May 2015. "It was designed to get people to use the best practices — the tips and tricks and battle-tested procedures — we need them to know to build high-quality apps," Lubbers said, "but not necessarily so that they can work at Google. Our main goal is to get high-quality Android apps into the ecosystem."

About 10 graduates of the one-year-old Android Developer Nanodegree program are currently working at Google, Lubbers said.

Evidence that the enterprise at large is embracing these kinds of competency-based programs is mounting. One dramatic example is Flipkart, India's largest online marketplace, which announced in January 2016 that it would begin hiring students based on their Nanodegree projects alone. No resumes. No in-person interviews.

"They did a detailed review of what our students were learning in the Android Developer program and got very excited about those skills," Makhijani said. "And they said, interviewing isn't really a great way to evaluate people anyway, so we might as well just look at the work they did and take it from there."

Flipkart has partnered with Udacity to gain access to student projects and profiles.

"The kind of disruptive work that we do at Flipkart demands a world-class talent pool and we are constantly on the lookout for experts who can solve the problems of Indian consumers," said Flipkart CTO Peeyush Ranjan. "The conventional hiring process often comes down to the performance of the candidate on that specific day, which may not be a true reflection of their skills and temperament."

To maintain such a high credibility level, the collaborating companies are putting significant resources into developing and updating these programs. Google has invested approximately $4 million in the development of three core Nanodegree programs (Android Developer, Senior Web Developer and Tech Entrepreneur). Lubbers said that 1.2 million students have enrolled in these courses, with new students enrolling at a rate of 2,500 daily. The company has also contributed its expertise to the development of four other Udacity programs.

According to AT&T's Palmer, approximately 11,000 students, including more than 1,000 AT&T employees, have enrolled in microdegree programs co-developed by the company. AT&T is currently working with Udacity to provide 1,200 Nanodegree scholarships, he noted, through organizations such as Year Up. To date, more than 200 scholarships have been awarded, he said.

AT&T has reserved up to 100 internships for graduates of these programs, Palmer said, and the company began hiring for those internships last summer. Several of the interns started full-time positions at AT&T this year.

"Learners earning Nanodegree credentials will be strongly considered when there is a potential job match [at AT&T]," said Palmer. "Skills obtained through the Nanodegree program meet AT&T educational requirements for certain entry-level technical positions. Where AT&T has openings for those skills, applicants will compete with other candidates with comparable education for those positions."

AT&T has also collaborated with Georgia Tech and Udacity to develop the first Master of Science in Computer Science delivered completely online through the massive open online course (MOOC) format. More than 3,000 students are enrolled as of the Spring 2016 semester, compared to about 400 at the start of the program in January 2014, Palmer said. This past December, the program produced its first graduating class of 18 students, including 3 AT&T employees.

AT&T has high hopes for the future of competency-based education in the hands of this generation of online providers, primarily as a complement to — but not a substitute for—traditional education, Palmer said.

"The Nanodegree program and others like it are new educational pathways for learners to further their education and get high-quality post-secondary training that prepares them for the jobs of the future," he said. "We're leveraging technology, relationships and social innovation to help all students make their biggest dreams a reality."

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