Technology

How Udacity Could Return to Its Higher Ed Roots

Udacity is one of the few edtech companies to gain “unicorn” status, meaning it is valued by investors at over $1 billion. But describing it precisely may be as difficult as finding the mythical creature itself. Is the company a new kind of (unaccredited) university? A publisher? A provider of content to traditional colleges?

These days the company does a little bit of all those things, but it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories. It has also recently gone through a period of change and restructuring that included big layoffs and new leadership. So where is it headed now?

EdSurge recently connected with the company’s new CEO, Gabriel Dalporto, who joined the company after eight years at LendingTree, an online lender. He described the company’s focus as refining its process for developing Nanodegree programs, the company’s name for short-term online courses for tech professionals that mix videos with project-based assignments.

EdSurge: Udacity rode the wave of hype around MOOCs, massive open online courses, when the company started back in 2011. But more recently, the company’s co-founder, Sebastian Thrun, has insisted that Udacity is not a MOOC company. How do the so-called Nanodegrees that Udacity delivers differ?

Gabriel Dalporto: Our mission is to deliver practitioner-level skills—the ability to actually do something,, whether that is crunching through an artificial intelligence algorithm, delivering code for a website, or building some other technologically advanced output.

We do that by partnering with industry. We partner with Amazon, Google, Facebook and many others to develop the content and decide, in a real-world career setting, what is important? What do people need to know, and how do they actually develop those skills?

Then there’s project-based learning. We think about learning not as watching a bunch of videos, though we do have video content. But we think about learning and developing those skills as being a process of working through real-world projects and delivering [on them]. If you get stuck, we also have mentors who can answer your questions and help you get unstuck. So, it’s not just watching a bunch of videos.

Udacity got a lot of attention for the low-cost computer science master’s degree it is doing with Georgia Tech. Do you see the company doing more of that type of partnership, where you’re working with traditional colleges?

We’ve been getting a lot of interest from other universities [about the] Georgia Tech program. It continues today, and we look forward to continuing to work with them. We’re also working with Western Governors University, which is a really neat and innovative online university that just didn’t have the expertise to move into deeper analytics, machine learning, AI, and things like that. So a significant portion of one of their degree programs is really our Nanodegree courses, and we have interest from quite a few other universities.

I do believe that we will be partnering with universities because we can provide the specialization in a lot of areas that universities just aren’t prepared to teach.

There’s a lot of talk these days about OPMs, or online program managers. They’re companies like 2U that help universities launch and run online degrees. Do you see Udacity moving into that space in any way?

I don’t think we want to be 2U. I don’t think we want to just take an existing program and bring it online and become the marketing partner of record. I don’t think that’s really who we are. I think what we’re really uniquely good at is focusing on these newer kinds of leading-edge areas, and developing world-class, in-house content [to help students] develop practitioner-level and employable skills.

If we can partner with universities to deliver to their students the real-world, employable skills that they don’t necessarily have expertise in-house, that’s a good place for us to be. But I don’t think we want to just be kind of a platform to take what they have and bring it online and market it for them.

Do you face any resistance from universities? After all, Sebastian Thrun got in trouble a few years ago when he was quoted in WIRED magazine saying that in 50 years, there would only be 10 universities left in the world, and Udacity would be one of them. That made a lot of universities feel like, “Well, this isn’t somebody who wants to be a partner. This is a university killer.” Does that still give you any trouble these days?

No, I don’t think we’re hearing anything like that. I think he was just trying to be provocative in terms of thinking about the future. There is a great role for universities to play, but I think there’s also a good role for us to help them accelerate the rate of change within their infrastructures.

You’ve said you hope to increase the number of Nanodegrees that Udacity starts each year. What are you changing that lets that process be more efficient that wasn’t there before, and how do you keep up quality as you’re doing that?

You can think about content production in terms of a factory. You can produce a whole lot of high-quality Mercedes-Benzes very efficiently, repeatedly, if you have a good manufacturing process and process orientation. We’re just trying to get a lot more effective there. That probably means when we have an instructor we work with who is high quality and has high student satisfaction, we need to work with them a second, third, fourth, fifth time instead of recruiting new instructors each time.

We need to get very tight on how we develop curriculum, how we develop projects. But it really is a manufacturing process in my mind, and what we need to do is just take every stage of that process and get the extra efficiencies, so that it’s not ad hoc every time. Then, also put quality control and checks in place very early in the process so you don’t get late into a program and realize, “Oh, well, we missed this, or we kind of missed a leading indicator of student satisfaction.” So, we’re doing all of that.

Do you view Udacity as kind of a publisher? It’s hard to say how you fit into the traditional higher-ed kind of food chain, so to speak.

I don’t know if I think of myself as a publisher as much as I think of Udacity as a company that has the opportunity to upskill the world’s workforce. There’s a few statistics from the World Economic Forum and McKinsey. World Economic Forum data shows about 800 million people are going to lose their jobs over the next 10 years due to AI, machine learning, and automation.

We’re not a publisher. We’re a company that is going to help universities and governments around the world retrain the world’s workforce in an extremely cost-effective way. It’s not just putting courses online. It’s project-based learning. It’s practitioner-level skills.

Do you think Udacity will move beyond tech fields?

I think ultimately we will to some extent. How broadly is to be determined. But if you think of us as focusing on the careers of the future, the kind of technology-proof careers that require deep-level immersive learning, I think that’s a good place to start. But [it’s to be determined] exactly how broad that becomes.

I understand that at LendingTree, you led many acquisitions. Is that something you think you might see in the future for Udacity?

I don’t think we’re interested in any acquisitions in the next 12 months. We’ve got so much opportunity just focusing on our internal operations. Once we pull our heads up and start to look around, and once we get more clarity on our long-term vision and strategy … [then there will be] more clarity on what we’re good at, what we’re not good at, and where we can supplement that capability through acquisitions.

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