NanoDegree promises fast track to workforce

A low-cost, online “NanoDegree” earned in six to 12 months could revolutionize higher education, writes Eduardo Porter in the New York Times.

AT&T created the new credential with Udacity, the online education company founded by Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun.

For $200 a month, it is intended to teach anyone with a mastery of high school math the kind of basic programming skills needed to qualify for an entry-level position at AT&T as a data analyst, iOS applications designer or the like.

. . . “We are trying to widen the pipeline,” said Charlene Lake, an AT&T spokeswoman. “This is designed by business for the specific skills that are needed in business.”

“It is like a university built by industry,” said Thrun.

The NanoDegree is designed to be a flexible, efficient and stackable job credential for people who don’t want to spend two or four years in college to qualify for an entry-level technical job.

But, so far, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, aren’t closing the opportunity gap, writes Porter. Those who do best with MOOCs tend to be college graduates who want to learn new skills. In a Penn study, fewer than 10 percent of MOOC enrollees completed the course. Most lost interest in a few weeks.

Most community college students don’t have the literacy or drive necessary to succeed in courses that offer little or no face-to-face interaction, concluded a study by Teachers College, Columbia researchers. MOOCs are for the self motivated.

However, online education that’s directly tied to a job “may do better in giving low-income students a leg up,” writes Porter. “And companies, rather than colleges, may be best suited to shape the curriculum.”

AT&T will accept the NanoDegree as a credential for entry-level jobs and plans to hire 100 interns with the degree. Udacity is creating NanoDegrees with other companies. “It’s a more focused education with less time wasted,” Mr. Thrun told me. “They can get a degree quickly, get a job and then maybe do it again.”

Gamers grow up to be developers

Students who’ve grown up playing video games are flocking to game development programs that teach programming and design, reports Community College Daily.

More than 200 students are enrolled in the game development department at Johnson County Community College in Kansas. Many dream of launching their own mobile app companies, says Russ Hanna, who runs the program.

Designing games is a lot harder than playing them, Hanna notes. The technical track requires physics, calculus, logic and philosophy: Half of the technical-track students quit after the first semester.

Not all games are pure entertainment. A “serious game design” class teaches students how to create educational and training games, “such as simulations for teaching surgery or games aimed at improving the memory of Alzheimer’s patients.”

Several JCCC students are developing a game about building a pioneer community for the Johnson County Museum.

Many students plan to earn a bachelor’s degree. It’s difficult to land a job without one, Hanna says. “If you have a good portfolio and can show you can build a game, that’s a really strong statement.”

With many game companies in town, Austin Community College (ACC) in Texas started teaching game development about 10 years ago. ACC’s Game Development Institute, enrolls 180 students and graduates 30 to 50 every year.

In recent years, game companies were hiring students before they graduated, but that has leveled off, and the program’s completion rate has increased, says Garry Gaber, a professor of visual communications.

Game development students at ACC can specialize in art, design, programming or 3D animation. Teams with students from all those branches come together to create a game as a final capstone project. Students specializing in design develop the concept, programmers help with the scriptwriting, students in visual arts create the look of the characters and animators apply animation to the art assets, Gaber said.

“Learning how to work on a team is at least as important as learning how to create those assets,” he said.

Several community colleges plan to use GG Interactive‘s game-development curriculum, which was developed for high schools. Students learn programming skills they can apply in other areas, says CEO Eric Preisz. The company also is working on games that teach customer service, criminal justice and career development.

Regulators threaten coding academies

“Coding academies,” which offer intensive, short-term training in programming skills, don’t rely on state or federal financial aid.  But California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education is threatening to shut down “coding academies” and other training providers unless they apply for state licensing.

The startups — which include places like App Academy, Dev Bootcamp, General Assembly, Hack Reactor, Hackbright Academy and Zipfian Academy —  typically charge between $8,000 and $12,000 for a six- to 10-week course, reports Inside Higher Ed.

App Academy is free — until graduates of the nine-week course find a job. Then they pay 15 percent of their first-year’s pay, which averages more $80,000 a year, says co-founder Kush Patel.

The BPPE sent a letter telling coding academies to cease operations immediately or face fines of $50,000. But spokesman Russ Heimerich told Inside Higher Ed that bureau officials neither “believe these schools are unscrupulous” nor aim to run them out of business. “If you’re making a good-faith effort to come into compliance, it’s not like we’re going to move to shut you down,” he said.

General Assembly and Dev Bootcamp began the process of applying for California licensure before the letter was sent, founders say.

Dev Bootcamp’s Shereef Bishay says he understands the need to protect against shady education providers, but “the regulation was written without a new sector like ours in mind.”

The rules require, for instance, that all instructors must have three years of teaching experience, and while Dev Bootcamp’s instructors average 7-10 years of experience in their industries, where they have mentored employees and trained apprentices at companies like Google and Apple, many of them have little formal teaching experience.

. . . Similarly, the BPPE regulations state that a provider must run any change in curriculum by the agency, and that approval may take up to six months. “We change our curriculum every three weeks, and we can’t teach technology that’s six months old,” Bishay said. 

. . . “Instead of telling me how to educate them, how to track them, and how often my curriculum can change, make sure my alumni are succeeding and that I’m not defrauding my customers. I support that 110 percent.”

Jake Schwartz, CEO and co-founder of General Assembly, hopes regulators will crack down on any providers that are “ripping people off.”  His company has a 96 percent job placement rate, he said. 

Hack Reactor, which charges $17,000, claims a 99 percent placement rate, reports Venture Beat.


Keep it real, says top math prof

robert chaneyThe top community college professor of the year is Robert Chaney, a professor of mathematics at Sinclair Community College in Dayton. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching presented awards to four professors at different levels of higher education.

Chaney’s students use math to “study a personal hobby, program a robot or start a mock company,” reports Inside Higher Ed. “I want them to look at real-world problems and be able to see math as something that is helpful and useful,” said Chaney, who teaches algebra and trigonometry courses, as well as business statistics and math for engineering students.

Chaney uses a blend of traditional teaching, real-world examples and activities. The goal is to help students understand the math they’ll need for future courses and apply math skills to solve problems.

 In one class, students use algebraic functions to program a calculator-controlled robot called SAM (which stands for “science and math”).

“They see algebra working right before them and it puts meaning and definition behind the algebra,” Chaney said.

Through his work with Math Machines, a nonprofit he started with a colleague, Chaney is helping educators at high schools and community colleges create control devices, like SAM, and build lesson plans for science, math and technology courses.

Also honored for teaching were: Gintaras Duda (for master’s universities and colleges), an associate professor of physics at Creighton University, in Omaha; Steven Pollock (for doctoral and research universities), a professor of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Ann Williams (for baccalaureate institutions), a professor of French at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Programming students design mobile apps

At Volunteer State Community College (Tennessee), students are developing applications for Android mobile phones in an introductory programming class, reports Community College Times.

“With Google App Inventor all you have to do is have the correct thought process,” said Dan Arena, an associate professor at the college. “It’s cool. Within a couple of weeks students were writing programs for app development.”

Two student projects are available as free downloads: “Donut Text” lets texters send automatic replies while driving and have the text read aloud; “EchoTxt” lets texters speak and send a reply text simply by shaking the phone.

“I was the group leader for EchoTxt. It was my first time being in charge,” said student Casey Meador. “It was really fun but also frustrating at times. We would get in and do something and it wouldn’t work. Then we would all get together and work out a solution. That was cool.”

“There are certain fundamental aspects of programing that App Inventor allows you to do, without knowing a lot of programming, said Henry Forson, a software engineer for Toshiba who worked with the Donut Text team. “Historically in introductory programming classes about half of the students don’t complete. We didn’t have that.”