Moving America Forward

Introducing the Newest Innovation in Higher Ed: The NanoDegree

July 3, 2014
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Introducing the Newest Innovation in Higher Ed: The NanoDegree
Sebastian Thrun started Udacity, an online education program that offers “NanoDegrees." Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Unemployment numbers should improve even more, thanks to this simple, fast way to get people trained and working.

Pick up any newspaper today and you’ll read the doom-and-gloom statistics about out of control student debt.

But despite its problems, higher education still offers the best chance at climbing the economic ladder and helping our country remain competitive. It’s a vital industry, but certainly one ripe for disruption.

Thankfully, ex-Googler Sebastian Thrun and his company, Udacity, are taking a bold step in the right direction with “NanoDegrees,” a new kind of degree that teaches a narrow set of skills online in fields like front- and back-end coding, mobile development and data analysis.

It’s knowledge presented in small, digestible chunks by an expert (you aren’t left to fend for yourself) and, unlike most online options, it offers skills that can be clearly applied to a job for immediate motivation and tangible results. The best part? It takes less time (six to 12 months) and less money ($200 per month) to complete than almost any other type of learning out there.

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For the many young Americans for whom college has become a distant, unaffordable dream, a NanoDegree lets them harness the web to provide effective training and to begin a career. Intended to teach anyone with a mastery of basic math skills for entry-level job at a company like AT&T, it’s a plausible path for those who may not have the time, money or ability to make it through a four- or even two-year program.

NanoDegrees also have implications for the wider workforce. Today’s industries, especially digital ones, change significantly year to year; skills learned in 2009 might be irrelevant by 2014. But even well-educated adults who can afford to update their knowledge might not have the time. With the NanoDegree you can do so through a “stackable” curriculum that allows you to continually learn new, relevant skills as your career progresses.

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What really sets the NanoDegree apart, though, is the corporate partnerships. Engaging with companies in need of high-demand skills sends a strong signal that if you do the work there’s an actual payoff (a light at the end of the tunnel, so to say). Udacity’s first partner in this initiative, AT&T, said it will accept the NanoDegree as a credential for entry-level jobs and has reserved 100 internship slots for its graduates. Udacity promises further programs with corporate partners and AT&T is already encouraging more companies to get in the game to help.

Such an explicit arrangement might make purists cringe, but this isn’t traditional education. And while it may not offer all the advantages of a liberal arts degree, for example, for people seeking a realistic, viable alternative, the NanoDegree has some serious appeal. NanoDegree graduates can always read Shakespeare while on vacation from their new job, right?

 

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