Udacity VP of Learning: ‘We Never Start Anything Out of Academic Interest’


Udacity VP of Learning: ‘We Never Start Anything Out of Academic Interest’

By Tina Nazerian     Mar 28, 2018

Udacity VP of Learning: ‘We Never Start Anything Out of Academic Interest’
Udacity's CEO Vish Makhijani on stage during the company's third annual conference.

A red carpet and a self-driving car were just a few of the things attendees saw on Tuesday at Intersect, the third annual conference put on by online learning provider Udacity. Amid the futuristic glitz and glamour, the company announced plans to roll out a new set of short-term series of online courses, called Nanodegrees, all in part of the company’s growing push towards jobs-training.

At the event, which was held at the Computer Science History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., Udacity shared it will be offering programs in computer vision (essentially, analyzing and processing digital images), natural language processing, deep reinforcement learning and AI programming with python.

Conference attendees wait in line on a red carpet to ride in Udacity's self-driving car.

Udacity already offers courses in artificial intelligence, but the addition of even more programs in this field signals the company’s faith in a growing demand for employees with experience in the field. “All of these programs map to jobs in the fast-changing world of artificial intelligence,” said Udacity CEO Vish Makhijani on stage.

The new Nanodegrees also emphasize Udacity’s increasingly jobs-centric approach to learning and recruiting students and clients. But it’s not the first time the company has promoted this strategy. The company already directly partners with employers and tech companies, such as Lyft and Google, which offer scholarships to students who want to enroll in certain Nanodegree programs.

Udacity also has a history of working with with colleges and universities—but company officials say this isn’t the direction the company will be heading in the future. For example, Udacity previously partnered with San Jose State University to offer MOOCs for credits, and the company offers an online Master’s degree in computer science with Georgia Tech. While other MOOC providers such as Coursera have recently added more of these kinds of degree programs to their platform, Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun said his company has no plans to expand its offerings in coordination with other universities. “Udacity focuses on industry,” Thrun said.

Christian Plagemann, Udacity’s VP of learning, had a less-strict attitude at the event, saying the company is “open to anything” when it comes to potential future collaborations with universities. However, he echoed the sentiment that Udacity is more interested in working with industry partners.

“We never start anything out of academic interest, we always start from the job and from the work and from the requirements,” Plagemann said.

Other parts of Udacity’s business plan remain more ambiguous. Udacity quietly rolled back the money-back guarantee pledge it had in place for its Nanodegree Plus Program, for example, and many were left wondering why. On Tuesday, Thrun told EdSurge the move is temporary, and that Udacity has plans to roll out the pledge on a “grander scale” in the future. (The Nanodegree Plus Program only applied to students in the United States.)

Thrun did not say when that might be, however, or what might be different from the guarantee that the company recently decided to revoke, other than that it could apply to students outside of the country as well.

Udacity's self-driving car.

Udacity has plans to continue adding more courses and Nanodegree programs—but users aren’t going to likely see any liberal arts lessons on the platform in the steer towards more technical training.

“You’re not gonna see us go into English literature classes or something like that,” said Makhijani. “People might have passion around that topic and want to learn those things, [but] for us it’s always been this core connection to economic opportunity or a job.”

That statement may irk some traditional faculty from colleges and universities. In a piece for the Washington Post, Gerald Greenberg, a senior associate dean at Syracuse University, wrote, “mathematics, the sciences, engineering, and technology are certainly useful, but the humanities provide another way of viewing issues, and better decisions are made when diverse opinions and ideas are considered.”

Makhijani hears those concerns, but places them lower when it comes to prioritization and hierarchy of needs. He stressed that Udacity isn’t competing with colleges, and instead is focusing on skills and trainings that he hears employers want.

That may look like more courses and programs around app development, for example. The company also announced Tuesday a Nanodegree program that teaches learners in China how to build apps in WeChat, a Chinese messaging and social media platform. WeChat’s developer, Tencent, is giving a million RMB away in scholarships for students who want to take the course.

“This is an opportunity to reach a massive audience,” Makhijani said.

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