Online Educator Udacity Adapts Courses to Changing Labor Market

Online Educator Udacity Adapts Courses to Changing Labor Market
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In the fall of 2016, online educator Udacity announced the launch of a “nanodegree” program for self-driving car engineering. For $2,400, a student (usually an adult) proficient in coding could enroll and learn the skills used at some of the premier self-driving technology companies in the world. The one-of-a-kind program and curriculum were designed in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz, Nvidia and Uber ATG. These companies, along with other corporate partners including BMW and DiDi Chuxing, pledged to consider hiring graduates of the program.

At first glance, the nanodegree, which is a project-based credential, seemed almost too good to be true. How could one nine-month class transform coders into qualified and desirable self-driving car engineers?

The first class has yet to conclude but already some impressive results are coming in. Chrysler has indicated that it wants to hire 40 graduates, according to Sebastian Thrun, founder and president of Udacity. And by his measure, the program has quickly become the leading program of its kind.

“With more than 6,000 students enrolled in this program, we are today educating more self-driving car engineers than all other institutions combined,” Thrun said. “There are more than 1 million people dying every year in traffic accidents -- largely due to human error and distracted or impaired driving. Employers are looking for thousands of engineers with the skills needed to solve this urgent, global problem. This is why making self-driving car engineering education accessible and efficient is so important.”

Although it's still early, if the program continues at this pace, it will become yet another notch in the belt of Thrun, the former Google vice president and professor of computer science at Stanford University turned education revolutionary. Thrun was also the co-founder of the Google X research lab that developed Google's self-driving car.

Today, Udacity boasts 15 nanodegree programs and has placed over 1,000 students in well-paying careers. It has 25,000 paying students and, perhaps more impressively, over 5 million students who take the courses for free but don't receive a certificate.

Udacity recently announced the launch of its two newest nanodegrees: robotics and digital marketing. Along with it, Udacity debuted a slew of new hiring partners, including IBM Watson, Amazon Alexa, Lockheed Martin, Bosch and Facebook. To date, Udacity has enlisted more than 50 hiring partners and the number is growing almost weekly. These companies are drawn to the idea of being able to shape the curriculum and hire graduates they know will fit the needs of their company, without having to pay for expensive retraining programs.

“Automated vehicles are the future of mobility, and Udacity’s Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree program is preparing the next generation of autonomous vehicle engineers,” said Angela Klein, automated driving research project lead at Bosch (the world's largest supplier of automotive parts), in a statement. “With Bosch’s worldwide employment opportunities, we’re looking forward to tapping Udacity’s qualified candidate pipeline.”

At first, Udacity entered the online education space offering university-style MOOCs (massive open online courses). But the company met resistance when it tried to partner with some colleges and universities. After some growing pains, the company has since turned to developing relationships with corporations and designing nanodegrees to educate and place graduates in cutting-edge, highly competitive jobs fields.

Today it has found its niche within the credential revolution. As Thrun explains, technology and automation are forcing people to learn new fields of study at a faster pace. While it can take traditional colleges and universities years to design new fields of study and hire new professors, online alternative learning programs have been able to adapt quickly and enable students to secure the jobs that are in demand right now. To put it bluntly, traditional higher education is having a hard time keeping up with technology and the changes in the labor market.

In addition, the prospect of hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans and less-than-desirable employment opportunities are also steering more students toward alternative learning programs. Companies like Udacity are seizing on this opportunity to offer additional incentives to attract students. For nanodegree programs such as machine learning engineer or data analyst, a student can enroll in Nanodegree Plus and if that student is not hired within six months of graduating, Udacity will refund 100 percent of the tuition.

The Flatiron School, a coding school in New York City, offers its students its own money-back guarantee if they don't receive a full-time job offer in the field within six months of graduation. The Learners Guild in Oakland, Calif., actually pays its students $1,500 a month for 10 months to take a coding course. Once the student graduates and lands a technology-related job making at least $50,000 a year, the Learners Guild starts to recoup its money.

A decade ago, programs like these were almost nonexistent. But given the pace of innovation, they too may be obsolete within the next 10 years. Udacity understands this and hopes to position itself to continually fill the void between traditional postsecondary education and the rapidly changing needs of today's labor market.

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