The good news is education is available to more people than ever before however the average “student” is now older, part time, and has some debt already so the focus is changing from the institution to the learner’s perspective as their need changes. Karen Pedersen, chief knowledge officer for the Online Learning Consortium, said “I think there’s going to be more focus on how to best serve individuals, whether they are new to education or whether they are returning professionals seeking different credentials or different learning experiences”. A part of this focus is the recent introduction of small, short courses many content providers are providing that allow students to focus on completing a specific topic in a short time for a relatively low cost.
Udacity, a web-based education provider, came up with the nanodegree which is a credential program. In simplest form, you enroll, you meet a series of expectations, and you receive a credential affirming your successful completion of the program. More specifically, a Nanodegree program is a project and skills-based educational credential program. You enroll, you learn a suite of skills, you successfully complete a certain amount of projects that demonstrate your mastery of these skills, and you receive a credential affirming your mastery of these skills.
It is more than technical skills however as more providers add to their online offerings in fields as diverse as mathematics to medical science. This is where the concept of gaining a series of small skills can be put together, or “stacked”, that can lead to a credential that might be a certificate, a diploma, or a badge. A key advantage this type of learning provides today’s working learners is that these short courses or microcredentials, such as nanodegrees and badges, can be re-used in different credential paths or “stacks”. For example, if you took an Algebra microcourse during the path leading to a certificate in IT programming you could also use this course again as a part of a certificate in business management. This type of flexibility is not something you will find at most colleges and as we have more people entering the gig economygig economy, the nanodegree with its ability to quickly add new content and help people change careers, upskill, and demonstrate new abilities will become a valuable advantage. This doesn’t mean that microcredentials are the wave of the future and that the traditional degree will go away, it won’t. Each meets a different need for an individual at different times of their lives and/or careers. It has the potential to be an extremely efficient way to train the next generation of workers, and for many could provide a way to avoid a prohibitively expensive college degree.
I can see how taking on small sections of something I can use immediately in my job is attractive. From learning what can help me today to making the choice to continue without losing any ground is an advantage too. Deborah Seymour, chief academic innovation officer at the American Council on Education noted that “Employers are showing trends of paying more attention to those levels of education and completion,” referencing the use of microcredentials.
As careers change and our employment needs follow the concept of obtaining various credentials that can be “stacked” and provide current certifications the nanodegree is a very attractive model. I foresee the blending of these types of learning credentials with other content providers such as educational institutions focusing on competency-based programs and professional organizations that need to provide the highest and most current level of certification. Bringing speed, cost effectiveness, and increased access together will help create learning models that begin as career pathways and result in lifelong learning opportunities.