AT&T last week announced a new online degree program that will offer aspiring tech workers the ability to earn something called a nanodegree — a highly specific, tech-oriented degree that can be earned in a year or less, will cost just $200 per month, and will be fully recognized by AT&T for the purpose of landing an entry-level software job with the company.
The term Nanodegree was coined by Udacity, the online education company that AT&T will partner with to offer the program. Udacity's CEO and co-founder is Sebastian Thrun, a research professor at Stanford University and the former Google engineer behind the search giant's autonomous car and Google Glass smartglasses.
The Udacity website explains that Thrun is interested in "democratizing higher education," but it's unclear yet whether nanodegrees might merely be worker training programs that workers now have to pay for or whether they might be the next step in the evolution of education —training that addresses niche needs with a more certain payoff at the end. AT&T says it will offer paid internships to up to 100 nanodegree graduates, so that payoff, while real, seems limited, as least as of now.
Certainly, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have been around for a while. But the nanodegree idea is a much more targeted one, and even AT&T has admitted outright that "this model benefits AT&T." In the statement announcing the program, the company goes even further. "AT&T developed Nanodegree with Udacity because of its great potential to help our employees build skills in critical software disciplines," said AT&T Senior Executive Vice President Bill Blase, "and to also widen the pipeline of trained applicants."
Even so, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. A glance at the proposed curriculum suggests that the skills being developed — basic coding and programming — are of the type that would likely be transferable to other companies doing similar work, and that's Thrun's broader vision: "We are creating the nanodegree to give lifelong learners access to affordable credentials that will be recognized by employers as they move forward in their professional careers.”
Both of these statements are in the same press release, suggesting that even among the nanodegree's co-sponsors there exist differences in philosophical approach. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, either: One doesn't have to exclude the other. And Udacity is hoping to expand the nanodegree program to other companies. Already, Cloudera, Salesforce.com, and Autodesk have at least broadly endorsed the initiative.
Compared to the cost of a four-year or even two-year degree, a nanodegree is certainly a bargain. Of course, you're not getting a traditional degree with all the traditional bells and whistles, like the English literature and philosophy classes that make for the classic well-rounded graduate. You're getting a highly specialized education that is tailored to just one field, and maybe even just one company.
A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded that in many countries around the world, including technology-rich ones, there's a shortage of people who have adequate information communications technology skills. Programs like this could be one of the answers, and are worth welcoming at least for now, until more data comes in. With proper execution, they could help both the companies that run the courses and the people who take them.
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