Nanodegrees: Unlocking the Value of Tutors

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 6.39.59 PM

Image by Udacity

By Gunnar Counselman

Earlier this year Sebastian Thrun made the most important announcement since Udacity, Coursera, and Harvard/MIT’s edX launched the MOOC wave in 2012.

With the creation of Nanodegrees, he’s essentially making Udacity into an unaccredited, targeted, useful, affordable university with a great initial market, namely the technology industry. That’s not the cool part though because General Assembly, Code Academy, Code School, and others did that a long time ago.

The reason that this is so important is that it brings headlines, focus, and a cool new brand to bear in addressing the most fundamental problem in education, that is, the inadequacy of the degree.

It takes about 32,000 hours of studying to earn a degree, including the time spent in primary and secondary school. For that time and effort, you get a measly 4 data points for your resume. Your school, degree name, year, and maybe GPA. Nanodegrees offer the possibility of a much richer and more interesting set of credentials. Or as Reid Hoffman wrote, “We need to take what now exists as a dumb, static document and turn it into a richer, updateable, more connected record of a person’s skills, expertise, and experience.”

When it comes to Nanodegrees, there’s absolutely nothing new except for Sebastian and Udacity’s incredible gift for branding and moving headlines. “Nanodegree” is a new and much cooler brand for “digital badges,” which were an attempt to be a cooler brand than “micro-credentials”, which were much better than “certificates.”

content creation is a huge blocker for programs because of the time and effort involved. learn how we can help.

But the core concept is the same: to confer a precise credential to people that vouches for a focused set of knowledge, skills, or capabilities. It’s no different than how the boy scouts issue merit badges, how the Navy does qualifications to pilot nuclear submarines, or even how the Citadel gives chain links to Maesters in Game of Thrones.


To make the point that this is an important brand change, imagine the headline:

“Creator of Google’s Self-Driving car announces certificates for entry level web development and data analysis.”

Not that interesting. But Nanodegrees are new and shiny. They make me think of nanotechnology, nano-bots, and Dennis Quaid in a tiny intravenous space ship in the 1980s classic Innerspace. So, they must be great.

The purpose of brands is to get and focus attention.  Now that he’s got our attention, here are a couple of things that Sebastian should do with it.

1) Search: Companies need to be able to search for specific skills and talents tied to each credential.

2) Convenience: The creation and testing process needs to be easy.

3) Levels: As I’ve written before, we need to deep-six the notion of binary certification. Everyone’s expertise lies along a spectrum and so to be useful all badges have to be scaled to be trustworthy.

4) Brand: Finally, prestigious universities and well-known companies need to get in the game.

Check out this blog post to read more of my thoughts on digital credentials.

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