Landing : Athabascau University

Udacity Partners with IBM, Amazon for Artificial Intelligence 'Degree'

Udacity is now valued at over $1b. This seems a long way from the dream of open (libre and free) learning of the early MOOC pioneers (pre-Thrun):

"Earlier this year, Udacity’s revenue from Nanodegrees was growing nearly 30% month over month and the initiative is profitable, according to Thrun. According to one source, Udacity was on track to make $24 million this year. Udacity also just became a unicorn—a startup valued at or above $1 billion—in its most recent $105 million funding round in 2015."

This should also be a wake-up call to universities that believe their value is measurable by the employability of their graduates. Udacity has commitments from huge companies like IBM, BMW, Tata and others to accept its nanodegree graduates. Nanodegrees are becoming a serious currency in the job market, at lower cost and higher productivity than anything universities can match, with all the notable benefits of online delivery and timeframes that make lifelong learning of up-to-date competencies a reality, not an aspiration. If we don't adapt to this then universities are, if not dead in the water, definitely at risk of becoming of less relevance.

I recently posted a response to Dave Cormier's question about the goals of education in which I suggested that our educational institutions play an important sustaining and generative role in cultures  - not just in large-scale societal level culture, but in the myriad overlapping and contained cultures within societies. Though I have reservations about the risks of government involvement in education, I am a little fearful but also a little intrigued about what happens when private organizations start to make a substantial contribution to that role. There have always been a few such cases, and that has always been a useful thing. Having a few alternatives nipping around your heels and introducing fresh ideas helps to keep an ecosystem from stagnating. But this is big scale stuff, and it's part of a trend that worries me. We are already seeing extremely large contributions to traditional education from private donors like the Gates and Zuckerberg foundations that reinforce dreadful misguided beliefs about what education is, or what it is for. With big funding, these become self-fulfilling beliefs. As long as we can sustain diversity then I think it is not a bad thing, but the massive influence of a few (even well-meaning) individuals with the spending power of nations is  very, very dangerous.


  • Hi Dr Dron,

    You are making a good point here. I am working through an Android tutorial at Udacity and it is quite good. I signed up for the self-driving car nanodegree starting in Feb (not sure I will do it though). It does have a feel like a different species of education/training. Seems like a hybrid of toolset specific training with a wider conceptual context thrown in.

    Hope that you have been well!


    Simon Chandler October 28, 2016 - 12:55pm

  • Really interesting, thanks for sharing Simon! I'm fascinated by your comment that it feels like a different species. Different species make it possible for them to occupy different niches. I've only skimmed Udacity nanodegrees (and have not looked recently) but your experience does help to confirm the impression I got last time I checked. This kind of thing is something that is quite hard to replicate in institutional higher ed, and I'm not at all sure we should even try to do so. If we were to become equally agile it would change the character and nature of higher ed beyond recognition, potentially losing much in the process (accelerating the employability/student as customer trend that has been eating away at it for many decades). It does raise the thorny question, though, of why anyone should bother with our more cultural-sustainance-focused model. My half-formed thoughts on the subject are that we in universities might actually make use of things like nanodegrees or Coursera's signature tracks rather than attempt to compete with them, supplying a scholarly community, process support, and broader contextualization to complement rather than supplant them. This would provide both the generative freshness of topical/relevant qualifications, and the wisdom and reflection that universities at least ought to be good at.  Better to enrich an ecosystem than to treat each new incursion as an invasive species.

    Jon Dron October 28, 2016 - 1:19pm

  • I am curious myself to know how the nanodegrees progress. They are relatively low cost so I may just jump in and see. Certainly the nano-mode of delivery will be (IMHO) incapable of providing the depth and breadth around the subject matter that universities offer. And this is not a trivial limitation. (It can't be overlooked that the folks creating cirricula and moderating the courses are typically high achievers from academia in their own right). Seems like there is a university/nano mashup in play at that may be closer to what you envision.

    Simon Chandler October 28, 2016 - 6:53pm

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