Mr Thrun insists that nanodegrees are distinct from massive open online courses (MOOCs), the digital lecture series which are now offered by many higher educational institutions. Udacity analyses individual students’ learning data (using AI) in an attempt to increase their retention and completion rates. “We effectively reverse-engineer the human learning brain to find out what it means for a person to engage,” says Mr Thrun. “It’s my dream to make learning as addictive as a video game.”
Online lessons and automated tests are free, although students pay for feedback from real humans and to obtain a certificate on completion. Because the teachers are usually recent nanodegree graduates rather than traditional professors, Udacity can keep prices to just a couple of hundred dollars a month, which is about a tenth of the price of a university. Mr Thrun also claims that over 60% of Udacity students finish their courses, compared with around 10% for MOOCs.
Depending on their complexity, nanodegrees are designed to take just 4-12 months to complete. Shorter courses like these are appropriate for today’s high-paced workplace, says Mr Thrun. “The dream of lifetime employment has gone. In my field, whatever you’ve learned becomes obsolete within five years. If you only spend six months on your first degree, as opposed to the average six years for a bachelor’s degree today, you can afford to get more education when you need it again later on.”