Most people are aware of educational coursework awards such as degrees, diplomas and certifications. The specialized degree or nanodegree first appeared in 2013. A nanodegree is an industry-friendly, online certification program aimed at rapid but in-depth career training outside of the traditional college environment.
Coursera and Udacity are two commercial training companies who are offering these micro-degrees. If the results from these programs prove positive and lucrative, then expect other vendors to offer the same.
What is a Nanodegree?
A specialized degree targets a career or skillset that is in demand. These courses are developed by well known companies and universities such as Facebook, Amazon, Google, AT&T, Tata, Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, University of London, Yonsei University (Korea), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the University of Toronto (Canada).
Available Programs at Udacity (consult the website for all programs) :
• Machine Learning Engineer
• Android Developer
• Senior Web Developer
• iOS Developer
• Mobile Game Developer
• Front-End Developer
• Tech Entrepreneur
• Data Analyst
• Full Stack Web Developer
• Intro to Programming
Available Programs at Coursera (consult the website for all programs) :
• Full Stack Web Development
• iOS App Development with Swift
• Responsive Website Development and Design
• Game Design and Development
• Data Science
• Business Analytics
• Data Warehousing for Business
• Big Data
• Machine Learning
• Data Mining
• Interaction Design
• Software Product Management
• Cloud Computing
Unlike a computer science college degree, a nanodegree has a narrow focus. For example, a computer science student would be expected to take an introduction to computers class then several intermediate and advanced courses in addition to classes in the humanities and sciences. A nanodegree student studies only the core knowledge without additional classes intended to broaden a student's knowledge like history, biology, art or psychology.
These courses are considered specializations. A single course is composed of anywhere from 4 to 10 courses each. Students must pass each course to earn certification. Every course has at least one project. Graduates will have a portfolio of projects to show prospective employers. Course projects are designed to challenge students and give students a chance to apply their course knowledge to a realistic problem or need.
Unlike university teachers who have had years of teaching experience, instructors for specialized degree courses are usually practicing professionals. They are people with the right knowledge but not necessarily the kind of teaching style or method that students are accustomed to. Past graduates have indicated that instructors review projects with rigor and thoroughness. Their job is to see that the students are able to successfully apply their knowledge. It is up to the student to learn.
Is a Specialized Degrees for You?
Specialized degrees are not for everyone. The learning path is short but intense. A student must rely on his or her own intiative to attend class and do the coursework. Unless it's an introductory course, the student is assumed to have some prior knowledge. For example, a data analysis nanodegree will assume that the student has some prior knowledge of statistics. Before paying for a course, carefully study the requirements of each required course. Be certain that you have met the requirements. Ask questions before enrolling.
The involvement of companies in course development is the biggest differentiator between nanodegrees and traditional college degrees. Students need to keep in mind that specialized programs are meant to produce graduates who possess the skills businesses are looking for. This means:
• Course material and focus are subject to change as industry needs change. In contrast, college class materials often don't change for years.
• Student projects help employers better assess the graduates' skill level in a programming language, methodology or concept.
• The skills must be relevant and immediately useful. Graduates learn only the most popular or needed disciplines and tools. It will be up to the graduates if they desire to broaden their general knowledge.
• Graduating from a business-developed course does not mean that company will automatically hire the graduate. For example, Google will recognize completion of their nanodegrees and know what skills have been learned. This will certainly be an advantage for a graduate interviewing at Google.
• Companies may offer incentives for graduates. For example, AT&T has apportioned 100 internship positions to graduates in certain nano degree programs.
• The training school may offer enrollment incentives. In January 2016, Udacity announced a program called Nanodegree Plus that would refund tuition for graduates who have not found a position six months after graduation. This program affects only 4 courses - Android Developer, Senior Web Developer, Machine Learning Engineer and iOS Developer.
Specialized degrees are evolving but certainly not going away. Though they are touted as the next exciting element in online learning, these degree programs are unproven. They will likely experience many transformations in the coming years. They are best for those who have some level of prior technology experience or knowledge. Students who have no technical knowledge or those who rely on having a structured learning environment will find the courses very challenging.
As online learning becomes more sophisticated and powerful, nanodegrees will have their place. For now specialized degrees should be seen as enhancements to a resume and a validation of a specific set of knowledge or learned skill.