How Udacity Decides What Subjects To Offer Courses In (And Why It Isn’t...

Higher Education

How Udacity Decides What Subjects To Offer Courses In (And Why It Isn’t Doing New University Partnerships)

By Tina Nazerian     Jul 26, 2018

How Udacity Decides What Subjects To Offer Courses In (And Why It Isn’t Doing New University Partnerships)

Udacity helped start the whole MOOC craze several years ago, offering online courses that drew tens of thousands of students and sparking a conversation about whether these new online programs could replace college as we know it.

These days, the company has a billion-dollar valuation, but its scope is more focused on offering courses designed to serve specific areas in technology. And it does most of its work without involving traditional colleges, or trying to seek traditional accreditation.

Instead it has turned to the corporate world to partner with tech giants to design online certificate programs tailored to their needs.

EdSurge recently sat down with Clarissa Shen, Udacity’s chief operating officer, to learn more about how Udacity selects what will be taught on its platform and its industry-centered education strategy. Here’s an excerpt of the interview, which has been edited and condensed for grammar and clarity.

EdSurge: How does Udacity go about selecting partners and exploring what it wants to offer and who it wants to partner with?

Shen: There are multiple factors that we look at. We look at: what are the most in-demand jobs that we're seeing data around—whether it's industry reports, the McKinsey reports, and so forth. Our partners now inform a lot of that as well. So, our advisory counsel—we have five or six of who we usually think of as leading people in that space—can help us predict trends. They often have a lot of data around where the job openings are, in their ecosystem. That helps determine "Hey, here are the things and the pattern of requests coming in before we see the highest demand." We go and build that, based on that data.

How far out are the predictions? With the so-called ‘new collar economy,’ there are a lot of jobs popping up that haven't existed, and a lot of jobs that do exist that are going away.

There's a little bit of art and science to this. I won't say we always get it right, but I think we look at not just the number of jobs, but growth for those jobs. Because certainly, there's a lot of jobs that you could say are out there but they may be actually declining. So, we want to always look at where the options are, that they're at least growing.

Then there are things like—I'll take quantum computing as an example. It was incredibly hot, [as far as] people talking about it, but we're not making a bet there because we don't believe it’s something that has, I guess in Silicon Valley language, cross-chasmed yet. It's not going into mass adoption. Which means the impact on job opportunities is not going to be there.

Udacity COO Clarissa Shen. Photo Credit: Udacity

Udacity has a university partnership with Georgia Tech and AT&T to offer a $7,000 computer-science Master’s Degree. But at your conference a few months ago, Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun said that university partnerships aren't in the future and the focus is on the corporate end of things in terms of partnerships and bringing courses to students. Can you talk more about that strategy and what it's going to look like moving forward?

Georgia Tech was an exception—to really see what we could do, and push the envelope. But, all the growth, all the demand, all the student interest has been very much on the industry side and the jobs-and-career-options side. That is why we're betting on it. Nothing has changed on that front.

A two part question. Does Udacity see itself more as a place where people can go to round out their studies, like their bachelors or bachelor's degrees that they've already gotten, or more as a place where people are starting totally new, they don't have a bachelors at all? And are you worried that if people only go through Udacity, that they will miss out on areas like the liberal arts?

We've chosen a very specific area to play in. We won't ever be the place that teaches social studies, art and all of that. I think there are many other great places to learn that. In terms of your first question on the different kinds of students, we hope that our umbrella is large enough to cover and welcome many people from different backgrounds because we have pathways that will take them from entry-level or intro to programming, all the way to the more advanced self-driving car course at the very extreme.

We see that we have different segments of students. We have people who are career switchers, we have people who are career advancers. Then, if you look around the world globally, we have students who are still in college and they’re looking at being competitive coming out of that. And, we have many people who are in their late 40's, 50's even, who are learning with us to advance a career.

We hope and we believe that the opportunity in the solutions we have is a broad enough and welcoming enough umbrella for all those folks.

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