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Making a Big Deal Out of Nanodegrees

The ever-increasing need for emerging tech skills has given rise to microcredentials. Here's how CLOs can decide what’s right for them. 

Emerging areas, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data, require special skill sets in high demand. Beyond traditional four-year degrees and time-intensive training programs, there’s an increasing number of alternative paths to develop those skills, including microcredentials, badges, specializations and nanodegrees — all terms to describe industry-specific credentials developed for the in-demand skills of today’s workforce.

Jerusha Harvey, vice president of education at the Data and Marketing Association, said DMA research found many companies are struggling to train their own talent for the next wave of needed skills. “We’re finding that the traditional education route — getting broad degrees from universities and colleges — while important and necessary, misses the boat when it comes to a lot of these emerging tech and trend areas,” Harvey said.

Udacity, an online education company, offers nanodegree programs in areas such as self-driving cars, AI, machine learning, robotics and mobile and web development, and it’s becoming a popular microcredential option. More than 10,000 people have graduated since the nanodegree program launched in October 2014, and there are currently more than 53,000 students enrolled.

Udacity Director of Enterprise Alper Tekin said machine learning, AI and data analysis are the building blocks of digital transformation and there is a massive skills gap and substantial competition for talent surrounding those skill sets. “Skills transformation cannot be attained without a systematic approach,” Tekin said. “And traditional degrees are no longer enough to keep up with the pace.”

Specializations are another microcredential option. Education technology company Coursera has 180 specializations in areas including deep learning, data science construction management and cognition. Vice President of Global Enterprise Development Leah Belsky said these new fields are highly technical and require significant engagement, both to master and even gain a basic understanding of the emerging technologies.

“The learning required is not something that can be accomplished through a Netflix or YouTube-style exploration of a catalog of videos,” she said. “Training in machine learning or AI requires deeper, more structured learning and commitment.”

Belsky said specializations can provide learners with a structured academic and applied learning experience and a recognized credential.

Decisions, Decisions

When deciding which type of microcredential to pursue or which education company to go with, DMA’s Harvey said CLOs should consider who is developing the curriculum for the credentials. She said there are many training and development opportunities in the marketplace but they are not all necessarily founded in practice. Finding a trusted provider in the marketplace will ensure the content is solid and reliable.

DMA also has its own marketing certificates, and Harvey said they look to leaders in the industry to inform the content of their certification programs. “It could be a company or it could be a particular subject matter expert who is highly advanced in the field, but make sure you know who’s building that content,” she said.

In addition to deciding what company to use, CLOs must consider the degree of skill development required. Belsky noted that sending an employee for a master’s degree in computer science or business administration is different from having an employee take a one- to six-month course to upskill in specific subsets or topics.

“CLOs have to look at the training and ask the question: Does that get my people to where they need to go?” Harvey said. “With some of the programs out there you could learn a lot of things and learn the vocabulary and semantics, but do you really know on a practitioner level how to do something?”

At Udacity, Tekin said they often recommend to CLOs which nanodegree programs would be best for their workforce by pre-assessing employees and providing insights into technical skills gaps.

CLOs also must consider quality, cost, flexibility and appetite of employees to engage in a multiyear program, Belsky said. Credentials are available ranging from free to several hundred dollars, and CLOs must figure out what’s best for their particular workforce.

The cost of courses doesn’t always have to come out of the learning budget. Belsky said some companies use tuition reimbursement money in the HR benefits budget for Coursera courses.

Company Collaboration

Both Udacity and Coursera also create custom programs. Udacity works with Google, Facebook, IBM and Amazon, and Coursera is used by Google and PwC, among others.

“Our vision is that learners can get a well-rounded education with universities providing foundational learning and companies providing applied skills courses that are often not taught in universities,” Belsky said.

She added that sometimes learning leaders add case studies or shorter modules to the Coursera content to apply the learning to their own populations. “We haven’t yet worked directly with a CLO to build consumer-facing content on Coursera, but I suspect this will change by next year,” Belsky said. “We’re having more and more CLOs come to us and ask if they can bundle their own courses with Coursera courses to build official company-branded credentials that could be released to the world.”

For example, Belsky added, imagine a financial technologies certificate curated by financial services firm BlackRock with content from BlackRock and universities, or a certificate from Adobe on machine learning that incorporates Adobe’s own product knowledge with university education. “We anticipate that this type of university-industry collaboration is part of the next frontier for career-relevant credentials,” she said.

Ave Rio is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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