After his father suffered a heart attack last year, 16-year old Ayan Saha had to quickly look for a job to support his family. Living below the poverty line in the state of West Bengal, he didn’t have the three-to-four years required to pursue a college degree. As he had some knowledge of Java from his government-school education, he sought opportunities in the field of technology.
An online search led him to Udacity, a global for-profit educational organisation whose online academy he joined post-class 11. With relatives lending a helping hand, Saha took two Android Developer courses, or nanodegrees, over eight months.
Today, the youngster works as an Android app developer for the West Bengal government. His Rs14,000 ($219) monthly investment has made him qualified enough to earn over Rs30,000 ($470) each month. His next goal: a nanodegree in machine learning.
Saha is among over 8 million global students, including 800,000 Indians, to have taken a course with Udacity in the last few years. At any given time, more than 40,000 people are enrolled for its nanodegree courses.
Nanodegrees are micro-credential certification courses designed to make learners job-ready through module-based learning, online video lessons, and hands-on projects. These courses are “hyper-focused” and “make candidates go through the last mile required to be job-ready,” said Sudeep Sen, assistant vice-president at TeamLease, India’s largest staffing company.
Three types of users train on Udacity. “One, working professionals with three-four years of experience who are continuously looking to upskill. Second, third- and fourth-year engineering students seeking a good start to their careers,” Ishan Gupta, Udacity’s managing director in India, told Quartz. “The third category is entrepreneurial people trying to build tech skills.”
Convinced of its potential, even companies like Infosys, Wipro, Honeywell, and JustDial have sponsored Udacity programmes for their employees. Paytm, Zomato, Olacabs, Swiggy, and others have hired Udacity’s graduates for roles that would otherwise have to be filled by more experienced candidates with higher salaries. Besides, the nanodegrees are valuable because they are designed in collaboration with Silicon Valley giants like Google, Facebook, AT&T, Salesforce, and Cloudera.
Looking to learn
Udacity was launched in 2011 when Stanford University professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (AI)” course online free of cost. Over 160,000 students from more than 190 countries enrolled that year. Following its success, Thrun, an inventor of the autonomous car and founder of Google X, officially set up the online platform in 2012 to offer myriad free courses.
In 2014, Udacity began operating an online university of sorts, offering nanodegrees. ”One has to look at it as an investment to skill and not as an expense, as discrete skills can improve employability,” said Sen of TeamLease.
Apart from the usual quantitative marking, like in the free-course model, nanodegree projects of students also receive customised reviews from a network of mentors like professionals of the chosen field of study or nanodegree holders. “We are scalable and learning can be customised to every student,” Gupta said. “As (the number of nanodegree) students increases, (the number of) reviewers also increases.”
The student-mentor matchmaking under these programmes is akin to Uber matching ride requests to drivers, according to Gupta. “A student submits a project, reviewers give human qualitative feedback within 48 hours,” he said. Typically, it takes between three and nine months to complete a nanodegree. And if one needs to take a pause that is allowed, too.
Return on investment
Amisha Sharma, 22, took an Android development course during the third year of her IT program at Manipal University in Jaipur. Last October, during her campus placement interview with edu-tech startup Byju’s, she was asked what was special about her. “I said ‘the nanodegree’ and, within 15 minutes, I was hired,” Sharma said. She has now moved on to the business-analyst nanodegree.
Dinesh Mirchandani, the partner and managing director for executive search firm Boyden India, believes the $200 monthly investment is worth making. “In the US, there’s a proliferation of coding bootcamps targeted at people who want to make a career switch into tech. And they seem to do well. Tech companies there care about what skills you have, not how you got them,” Mirchandani said. “If they have good projects and interviewing skills, companies hire them.”
When hired, Udacity learners are paid on par with industry standards but they come much cheaper than people with more work experience. This is especially true for newer technologies like automation and virtual reality, where demand still exceeds supply.
“The younger guys understand programs. (These startups) take those guys and groom them,” Gupta said.
Planning for the future
India’s $150 billion IT sector suffers a massive skills shortage.
Despite churning out the world’s largest engineering population, Indian university graduates have dismal skills levels. Over 60% of its 800,000 annual engineering graduates remain unemployed each year. Doused in a culture of rote learning, hands-on experience had taken a backseat, with less than 1% of the engineering students undergoing summer internships.
Yet, only 15% of India’s over 3,200 graduate engineering colleges have programmes recognised by the National Board of Accreditation (NBA), an autonomous body that evaluates technical institutions and their courses.
Meanwhile, as traditional IT jobs like data entry and server maintenance decline, new career paths are set to open up in digital domains such as big data, AI, the internet of things (IoT), cloud computing, and cybersecurity. The number of skilled personnel available is less than half of the demand.
Udacity is, thus, sitting on a sweet spot in India. Last year, the government spent $3 billion on skill-development schemes for the youth. By 2021, the country’s online education industry will be worth nearly $2 billion, up nearly 10-fold from $247 million today.
But valued at over a billion dollars, Udacity dwarfs all of them.