Jobs for all, and the university with a money back guarantee

I’ve written here before about online provider Udacity’s course which guaranteed a job for graduates within six months or they get their money back.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

The promise is being offered only to students who enroll in Udacity programs that teach the most marketable skills: machine-learning engineer, Android developer, iOS developer, and senior web developer. And students must complete the courses, something a vast majority of the four million students enrolled by Udacity do not accomplish.

Not a proper job for Udacity graduates
Not a proper job for Udacity graduates

Students who want the money-back guarantee must also pay an extra $100 a month for that piece of mind, remitting a total of $299 a month until they finish the course. For most students, it takes six to eight months of working 10 hours a week to complete a program, said Udacity’s chief executive, Sebastian Thrun, in an interview this week.

There is also no guaranteed benchmark salary, although Mr. Thrun said the positions are “real” jobs — “not jobs as a Starbucks barista.”

There are, of course, huge caveats about this so-called guarantee, as the Chronicle’s piece points out. And to take advantage of these very specific conditions students do have to make the equivalent of an insurance premium too.

Sebastien 'Only 10 universities in the world' Thrun of Udacity
Sebastien ‘Only ten universities in the world’ Thrun of Udacity

The idea has had some terrific coverage but is not perhaps that novel. There are plenty of examples in the UK of company sponsored degree courses which guarantee jobs at the end (usually in accountancy), and the armed forces have been sponsoring students through degrees with guaranteed careers at the other end for a very long time. And it isn’t a world away from the Degree Apprenticeships model.

It’s important to remember though that Udacity is fundamentally concerned with challenging and undermining universities. Part of their approach is offering “nano-degrees” which, although small, are not actually degrees.

Nanodegrees are also intended to be “stackable” in the sense you can do more than one and add them together into a pile. Credit accumulation is though perhaps not such a remarkable notion and it is still not entirely clear whether all of this will disrupt existing institutions as profoundly as some fear and others hope.

Mr Thrun, Udacity CEO, predicted there would be only 10 universities in the world by around 2060. Given that a report from 2016 suggests the equivalent of one university a week is opening in China and currently there at least 13,000 universities globally, things do seem to be moving in the wrong direction as far as this prediction goes at the moment.

So, moving beyond the “Moon shot” hype of the rather tightly specified guarantee of a job, we now have the extraordinary finding that face-to-face education has benefits:

Udacity Connect, or UConnect, is a brand-new program where Nanodegree and Nanodegree Plus students can visit physical locations weekly in their neighborhood to work with peers and get face-to-face guidance with goal setting and hitting key milestones.

We ran a pilot program a few months ago that showed encouraging signs. Students who combined their online education with face-to-face study sessions were more engaged in the program. Compared with similar Nanodegree students who did not participate in the pilot, UConnect students had a 30 percent increase in project submissions and were three times more likely to complete their Nanodegree program. The goal setting, group accountability, personalized mentoring, and social interactions with others galvanized students to move faster and be more vested in their education.

As we rapidly scale our ecosystem, we have become active participants in the “Gig Economy,” which today includes almost 22 percent of the U.S. workforce. Our global grader network, which is now over 400 people strong, gives people the ability to earn extra money for rapidly grading Nanodegree student projects. Today, they return student projects in an average of three hours, get an average star rating of 4.8, and can make up to $28,000 a month.

What are you waiting for?

A nice promotional piece on Forbes highlights Udacity’s move into China and the breakthrough idea of in-person group tutoring as well as offering Thrun another opportunity to promote the brand:

 “A lot of people don’t have access to Stanford,” Thrun said, noting that many of his students in his online AI class were soldiers or mothers. “We are the new university of Silicon Valley.”

Thrun said the biggest challenge Udacity faces is proving its credibility and building trust in its brand.

“It is engraved in society that the right path forward is to get a college degree,” Thrun said. “In the future, it will be much easier to be not just a taxi driver or an educator at Udacity, but also maybe a medical doctor.”

“The next generation of technology is escalating the question, ‘Is it [a degree] worth it?’” Thrun added.

Time will tell whether it is degrees or their stackable nano alternatives which are worth more.

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