Nanodegrees & Lifelong Learning – A View

Future of learning

We live in a world where speed, size, and convenience define our choices.

Take devices, for instance. We go for the fastest, most convenient, and easy to handle gadgets – the phones keep getting slicker, smaller and faster.

However, does this ideology extend to education?

Does the idea of Nanodegrees, for instance, seem acceptable? Or does it seem like an oxymoron of sorts? Because a degree, by definition, is thought of as something immersive that requires time and perseverance.

It may be time to turn the idea of education on its head. Let’s look at what Nanodegrees are and if they hold any promise.

Table of contents:

What is a nanodegree?

It begins with the fundamental question – what is a nanodegree? It is, at the end of the day, a degree and so you have learning, assessments, and certifications involved. However, contrary to a conventional Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, the typical duration of a nano degree is 6 months to a year. During this time, you keep up with the latest developments of a field, learn a new skill or advance your capabilities with an existing skill, undergo assessments, and finish with a nano “degree”.

The backstory

The nanodegree definition is synonymous with the ed-tech giant, Udacity. Since the entire company was an offshoot of the 2011 computer science classes at Stanford, the emphasis is presently on its sub-disciplines. If Data Sciences, AI, Machine Learning, Business Analytics are topics that intrigue you, nanodegree might just be the thing for you.

Getting back to the story,  by 2013, the founder of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun pivoted the firm to focus more on vocational courses for professionals and thus began the nanodegree. Udacity partnered with AT&T in 2014 and designed a  nanodegree course to train possible future recruits for an entry-level IT position at AT&T.  Within a year, this model caught on and over 1.6 million were registered in twelve full courses.

Who can join nanodegrees programs?

So far, Udacity’s nanodegree programs are open access. Anybody who is interested and has the willingness to put in the required hours can join. Their degrees are classified into Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced levels for you to decide where to pitch yourself.

In tune with Thrun’s idea that skyrocketed the nanodegree campaign, the program was designed for professionals to upskill themselves to keep up with the demands of the trade or distinguish themselves. Udacity does not claim that nanodegrees can replace traditional degrees.

What is the value addition?

As mentioned earlier, so far, nanodegree programs are limited to the computer science domain. Some of the most popular programs offered by Udacity include Introduction to Programming, Android Development, and a course on Business Analytics that include SQL and data dashboards. Blockchain management, different levels of AI, and Machine Learning are some of the well-received courses. Now imagine learning, in parallel, these skill-based modules along with the systemic university coursework. You are giving yourself the best of both worlds.

Udacity has partnered with giant tech conglomerates such as AT&T, Google, GitHub, Salesforce, and so on, creating a direct channel of communication between learners and prospective employers It also means that you have a chance to learn from pioneering experts who are currently in the field.

Nanodegree programs are vocational and focus almost entirely on skill development. Rather than theory, the emphasis is on learning practical skills that will increase your demand in the market. Through case studies, experiments and projects, you learn real-world applications of the field you are studying.

Ryan Collins, a proud bearer of a Udacity Nanodegree says, “Your projects are reviewed by a content expert who has taken the courses you are taking and have done the projects already. The code is gone over with a fine-toothed comb, which is something that happens in the real world when you work as an engineer. Even an old dog, like me, can learn new tricks through the code review process.

Nanodegrees also help build your online brand, opening up the world of gig economy to you. For an established professional, this kind of super specialisation increases market demand for you, giving you the freedom to venture out into the world of freelancing.

For learners who are just starting out, nanodegrees, especially at the beginner level can give you a sense of what the industry has to offer. It can be a great sampler program for you before you can make a more permanent call about what to study.

Since the program is entirely online, it is accessible from anywhere in the world and can even find its way into your existing schedule with minimal alterations.

As professionals, nanodegrees can help you broaden your job market and explore opportunities that bring together your existing experience and your newly acquired knowledge of tech.

Exploring other options

As the nanodegree trend catches on, Udacity is not without any competition. Coursera, General Assembly and Upgrad are some of the other ed tech institutions you can dig into, if nanodegrees are your thing.

Nanodegrees and conventional degrees

When comparing nanodegrees with conventional ones, we approach from two ways: from the learner and the prospective job seeker perspective for, we live in a world of “stackable” degrees. The expectations in any profession have increased tremendously and the more diverse your pursuits are, the more you can distinguish yourself.

For learners, nanodegrees are nowhere close to replacing traditional degrees. It might be a possibility a decade or so from now, but currently, these can be used as samplers before a bigger commitment or used to specialise after a basic minimum required qualification. Certain nanodegrees are now being considered as equivalents of a postgraduate diploma. It does give you an edge but, in today’s world, you will be at a disadvantage without a traditional degree.

From the employment standpoint, in the tech industry, nanodegrees are becoming more common and well received. Christopher Ohara, a Udacity Nanodegree graduate comments on how it functions as a great bridge, especially for those looking for mobility. For instance, a business graduate can equip themselves with such a degree in data sciences and be a better candidate for a management position in a company that lays emphasis on data sciences.

From a recruiter’s standpoint, Allan Hui, former Senior Vice President at Healthline suggests that it is good for candidates to go over a company’s HR policy to know how online nanodegrees get evaluated. While startups are more flexible, more traditional establishments might have rigid policies. For Hui, it is still early for this. While it certainly boosts your resume, replacing traditional qualifications can leave you at a disadvantage.

Many old-school educationalists also believe that nanodegrees can be “disruptive”. Their argument stems from the idea that such focussed learning can be detrimental and narrow its applications in the real world. But it does not change the fact that more students are exploring these opportunities while or even before their graduation. Interoperability seems to be the key here, with more collaboration between universities and ed-tech companies. If interoperability is achieved, it will, one, boost the standard of nanodegrees, two, make systemic long-term degrees more relevant and three, create an ethos where both complement one another.

Always a Learner

If there is one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it is that it is never too late to learn, whether it is making your own bread or Machine Learning. And nanodegrees, seem to be the perfect bridge between passions and industry requirements. It may not be long before the nanodegree trend catches on to other disciplines too. To keep ourselves from stagnating and to expand our portfolios, we need to remind ourselves that we never stop being learners. Life and learning go hand in hand.

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