Udacity Review : A look At Nanodegrees and Course Offerings
Udacity is an entirely different and completely new experience in online learning. Originally offering university style courses, it now offers a free online education in the vocational arena. Its purpose is to help professionals, or those entering the career field, a way to increase the level of proficiency in their field and further their careers.
Since 2013, Udacity has built a small but effective set of courses designed for the tech professional in computer science and programming. They have a unique partnership with actual brick and mortar universities and offer Nanodegrees, which are online certificates that show completion and proficiency in a certain area of training.
Many of these programs are custom-tailored to specific industry needs, which makes the information they provide relevant to the workforce.
Udacity offers learners courses that they can take at their own pace, and they also offer timed programs that result in Nanodegrees. The free coursework is at your own leisure and with less support, without any feedback from instructors and lacks interaction from the other students. The paid Nanodegree programs and courses include coaching, certificates of completion, and for those who choose to pay, Nanodegrees, which indicate the completion of a complete course of study.
Udacity.com does not offer traditional online courses. Udacity courses feature some of what you would expect in standard college education including forums, online assessments, and video lectures. But Udacity breaks the barriers of admission and is open to anyone, so it offers its technical knowledge to a wider base of individuals.
Students are taking courses that may be designed by one company for their specific needs. So, while the skills will carry over, the exact proficiencies may not be what another company needs.
Udacity is better referred to as an emerging form of education known as the MOOC, or massive open online course, which allows participation from anyone with an internet connection that can access the website.
Udacity is similar in model to the famous Khan Academy, which is a not-for-profit enterprise geared towards general education. They host and create their own course content. The difference lies in the fact that Udacity works directly with corporate partners.
Because of this, Udacity claims that its credentials are “built and recognized by industry leaders to advance your career.”These credentials are for profit, while the underlying education is free. That is, Udacity is completely free to use for those who wish to learn coding, but in order to obtain a Nanodegree certificate, you have to pay for the certification and follow a prescribed course of study.
The benefit is that if you do obtain the degree, it shows that you have persevered the coursework and have obtained the skills you set out to achieve. Others may use it just to obtain the knowledge, and circumvent the cost. Either way, the teaching methodology is the same.
Udacity’s course catalog is explored through drill-down. You start by choosing a category, and can select things such as skill level and even the corporate sponsor of the course. The category view shows one limitation of Udacity. Their breadth and depth is still in development, with very few non-technical courses available and very little mobile development. Overall, Udacity currently offers approximately sixty online courses.
If you sort the course content by skill level, it becomes apparent that Udacity is geared toward mid-level learners with some relevant experience. Around half of the course offerings are listed as intermediate, and the rest are divided between New, Beginner, and Advanced. Most corporate sponsors have only one course available, except for Google, so there appears to be more on the horizon for development with these sponsors.
Sponsors are wide-reaching and represent some of the biggest names in the industries— Facebook, Twitter, and AT&T are among the corporate sponsors that have content available. Filtering by sponsor can be unreliable, turning up results from more than one sponsor. Be sure to check the sponsor directly if you are studying for a specific corporation.
In addition to corporate sponsorship, there are on-ground campuses that have courses listed with Udacity. Georgia Tech has a category for classes in its graduate program in Computer Science. Also, San Jose State University is listed as a sponsor for one of the programming courses. Part of this stems from the fact that in 2013 Georgia Institute of Technology started the “massive online open degree” designed to be a low-cost option for students seeking a post-secondary degree for a price tag around $7000. The strategic partnerships with corporations were part of the cost savings capability. While some of these courses are on Udacity, the verdict is still out on the viability and veracity of the MOOD and so our focus will remain on Udacity and its internal offerings.
Courses at Udacity are self-paced and designed to last about two weeks, assuming a work load of around six hours a week for the student. The amount of time a student is willing to put in to the course will affect the amount of time it takes to complete a course. Courses are made up of lessons, comprised of instructional videos and exercises. Each course concludes with a final project.
The design of the courses is Spartan. YouTube hosts the short lectures, and they can be navigated in the browser fairly simply using obvious controls. Besides being able to skip around, lectures will automatically continue to play if you want, to keep a student moving through the lecture portion of the course. The lectures can be somewhat short, often as short as a minute, but they have high quality of production and great video and audio quality. English subtitles are available if audio is not an option, but there are no transcripts like on some other educational sites. Language support is not available for anything other than English.
After watching the lectures, learners are challenged with projects before they can continue. This keeps the learner engaged and on task and makes sure that the student is getting the full benefit of the coursework. However, there is no regimented way in the free courses for the students to be compelled to complete coursework requirements. In the free section, if you need feedback, you must go to the Forums and ask fellow students. At this time, the forums are in Beta and the user base is not large so the free education can be a solitary one.
This lack of support can be seen in the forums, where the most active thread had less than a percentage point of enrollees responding to a request to post up their design for a final project. The most active form of response was simply to like another student’s work, not to actually show an image of the completed work. Keep in mind that these courses are free, and there are no guarantees of support from your peers, but well-designed forums could be used here. This is probably one of the greatest weaknesses of the system. There is little sense of community.
If you want tactile proof that you have completed coursework, Udacity offers two types of subscription packages to students. Individual course enrollment, or Nanodegrees. The cost per month is similar between the two, around $200 a month. Therefore, the Nanodegree makes more sense if your goal is to have something to show for your efforts. Enrolling in the paid portion of Udacity gives you access to associated courses to the ones you are taking, contact with fellow students, and targeted education designed by industry for industry.
Unlike the for-free coursework, Nanodegrees begin at set times, but the end time is set by the individual learner. Students can take as long as they need to complete the program, although if you take too long you will get bumped into a later session. If you are an accomplished learner, you can save money by completing early and spending less in monthly fees.
Some Nanodegrees are the sole work of Udacity, and others are developed in collaboration with co-creators. The iOS program was developed in concert with AT&T, for instance, for developing mobile applications, while multiple partners signed on to work with Udacity for their Data Analyst program. Once again, these programs are developed for and by some of the largest names in the technology business, so they are relevant at least to that segment of the industry.
Nanodegrees are a way for workers and aspiring workers to quickly develop new skills to improve their careers. The Nanodegree program was first brought about in summer 2014, in collaboration with AT&T. Udacity’s first Nanodegree was an entry-level programming course that was designed for entry level programmers. Each Nanodegree program of today enrolls approximately one thousand students. Some Nanodegrees are even developed around internships, although competition can be steep with a small number of internships available for a large student base.
There are many aspects of Udacity’s approach to education that are exemplary. Udacity puts education in its rightful place as an ongoing phenomenon to advance one’s life as opposed to a one-time thing in career development. The Nanodegree program addresses a need for college graduates in particular to show strength in a specific skill set, but is not lost on the general public. If you are self-motivated, you can get a lot out of Udacity’s growing breadth and depth of online coursework.
However, this is an online college developed for and by the tech industry. Whether you thrive at Udacity, especially in the free program, will be a function of how well you learn on your own. Being able to afford the monthly subscription rate for feedback and mentoring will be a barrier for some, and those who choose the free path will not get the tangible proof that a Nanodegree offers in their career field. Because the company is new and is working so closely with industry, there are no guarantees that what you learn at the behest of one employer will carry over to your educational needs with another.
All that said, because the ability to try Udacity is free, there is no harm in taking a free course and seeing if their offerings match your needs. If you find that you are getting the good out of the program, the subscription and Nanodegrees may be worth your money. If you are not thriving, you are free to walk away without a dime spent. So, check out Udacity, and see if their online courses meet your needs.
If you need a more structured approach with teachers, we suggest you try Team Treehouse TechDegree, where there is much more in the way of support and peer involvement in an online tech education.