Udacity's AI Nanodegree is really worth it

Udacity: With the "Nanodegree" to Silicon Valley

How digital education could turn losers into winners: Nicolas Dittberner talks about this while stirring his coffee in a hip café in Prenzlauer Berg. Dittberner, 36 years old, patterned jacket, direct view, set up Udacity, an online university specializing in further education, in Europe.

The young man is convinced that courses on the net can reach people who have no opportunity to study at a traditional university. It can also offer opportunities for those who are already working and are in danger of being left behind - equipping them with those digital skills that companies are currently desperately looking for. But one after anonther.

The story of Udacity did not begin in Berlin, but around 9,000 kilometers away, at the elite Stanford University in California. In 2011, two professors, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, made their seminar on artificial intelligence available online for free. The success was spectacular: 160,000 people from 190 countries registered, 23,000 passed the final exam. Thrun saw potential, quit his professorship and his job as head of research at Google and founded Udacity in 2012. His goal: to make education accessible not just to a privileged few, but to as many as possible.

Refund warranty

How Udacity is currently trying to achieve this goal will be answered by Nicolas Dittberner five years later in Berlin. "Through internationalization," he says. In addition to Europe, Udacity is now also found in Brazil, China and India. "And we're still growing." In many areas, opportunities to study are rare and programs are expensive.

Many courses at Udacity are free. For those who cost 200 euros per month and are supervised by tutors, Udacity created its own degree, called "Nanodegree". If you complete the program in less than twelve months, you will be reimbursed half of the fees, promises Udacity. The Nanodegree programs currently have 40,000 participants worldwide, 5,500 of them in Europe and 2,200 in German-speaking countries.

The courses impart know-how that tech companies are currently looking for so urgently: data science, machine learning, virtual reality or robotics.

How well does digital learning work?

Proximity to industry is very important to Udacity, which is why they cooperate with companies - in Germany, for example, with Bosch, Daimler or IBM. They provided content-related impulses. What also "helps to identify important issues": the company headquarters in Silicon Valley. "We are very close to technological trends," says Dittberner. Against the background of permanent progress, the individual will have to be differently and better trained in the future, he is convinced: "When everything is more automated, it will need someone to control and monitor the software."

Does he think that state universities can keep up with technical training? "You are trying to occupy the areas, but you cannot act quickly enough," said Dittberner. He blames the lack of contacts with industry.

This practical relevance should also be in the foreground at Udacity when it comes to teaching, and students develop their knowledge in joint projects. "Every participant receives feedback until the project is considered to have been successfully completed." So everything is virtual, including the exchange with fellow students.

Didacticians are skeptical as to whether purely digital learning will lead to learning success. Contact with professors and fellow students is important. Dittberner says: "We concentrate on technological professions. Communication has always been online." In addition, community managers would be set up to identify problems in the forums - "Is there a need to catch up on a topic?" - and, if necessary, provide additional information. There are also meet-ups, regular personal meetings.

What the future brings

Bertelsmann is an investor in Udacity. In Europe, however, one is already profitable, says Dittberner. There it is less about democratizing education than about enabling lifelong learning. The target group are primarily experienced professionals who want to arm themselves for the rapidly changing world of work.

"What we have found is that there is a segment that nobody cares about: adult education," said Udacity founder Thrun recently in an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit. In this sector, Thrun sees "good opportunities to play along", because the need is increasing, because: "It will no longer be enough to go to university once in a lifetime." (Lisa Breit from Berlin, June 13th, 2017)