By Eilif Trondsen, PhD., Chair, Entrepreneurship and Learning SIG


Time off from writing on Silicon Valley Innovation Outposts—at least for a little while! (But perhaps not for long—as a friend and I are exploring writing another piece on the topic). But right now, at least, I want to explore some issues around a theme that has been a passion of mine for at least the last 15-20 years: Education, learning, competencies, and the role of technology—especially in a corporate learning context, but also vis-à-vis emerging changes in universities and colleges.

One event in particular triggered my decision to write at least a blog post on this topic: The reaction of a friend of mine (an academic) to an article I sent him about a recent “pivot” of Udacity (more on this below), one of the major Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) providers. His reaction was (to what Udacity is now doing with nano-degrees to meet fast changing corporate skill needs) was along the lines of: Oh no! I was afraid this was coming! I was a bit surprised, at least at first, but after reflecting a bit on it, I guess his reaction—especially from where he sits—was not so surprising after all. I then decided that I had to sit down and write a blog post that would describe some of the interesting changes going on around corporate learning, especially around MOOCs, or MOOC-like offerings, and what this might mean for companies, both large and small, as well as institutions of higher learning.

Udacity’s New Direction

So, first of all, what specifically are the elements of Udacity’s new strategy and offering that caused my friend’s reaction? I think the most recent pivot of Sebatian Thun and colleagues are making is not only interesting, but could potentially become an important piece in a much larger, ongoing trend towards meeting today’s and tomorrow’s growing workforce competency needs . In the bullets below, I will summarize some of the main elements of the new Udacity strategy (and you want to read the article, you can find it here). Then, I will provide a few other interesting examples of what organizations are doing on the supply and demand side of the market, that also point to new approaches and models for corporate learning.

  • Udacity has worked with a number of tech companies (like Google, Facebook and Salesforce) for a while, basically offering “corporate MOOCs” (but not necesssarily always “massive”), especially in technical areas. They are now building classes in six credentialed, project-focused programs—front-end web developer, Android developer, data analyst, iOS developer, full-stack developer, or intro to programming—and are working with tech companies that help design the curriculum.
  • These six so-called “nano-degree programs” will now expand and Udacity hopes to offer 11 such degrees by the end of 2015 and as many as 35 by end of 2016, including one in Entrepreneurship, so they are therefore moving beyond narrow, technical fields.
  • According to the article “Although all classes are still available individually for free, nano-degree students pay about $200 a month for between six to nine months to work through a program in which they'll get one-on-one project feedback (if they complete the program fully, they can get half of that tuition back). For example, someone who takes the Android developer nano-degree will actually build products that integrate with Google code and fulfill criteria that Google has told Udacity it's looking for. Each completed project gets reviewed by one of Udacity's 400 global code reviewers.”
  • Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, and former Research Director at Google, feels that the code reviewer program is a major part of the company’s secret sauce, and finding such reviewers—who are now making from $3,000 to $17,000 per month, according to Udacity—in the new nano-degree areas will therefore be a key requirement for their longer term success.

I suspect that my academic friend’s reaction was due to two concerns he saw with this new development:

  • Growing competition for universities, especially as some students who are reluctant to invest a number of years in academia, sometimes—especially in the US—with the likely result of ending up with a massive student debt and still not able to find jobs. Since Udacity’s nano-degrees will take a lot less time to acquire, and since the curriculum is designed by tech companies that are looking for workers with certain competencies, students are perhaps more likely to get employed—not a trivial consideration these days.
  • I know my friend also feels that students, even in highly technical areas of science and engineering, should take courses in non-technical fields, taking at least introductory courses in the humanities and social sciences. Therefore, the trend towards more narrowly focused nano-degree domains will potentially have negative repercussions, especially long term, by resulting in a future workforce that will have a less diverse educational background, and thus perhaps not be as able to innovate across multi-disciplinary boundaries. [Interestingly, a recent article in Forbes had the following title: That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree has become Tech’s Hottest Ticket]

It is too early to say how popular and successful Udacity’s new strategy and a widening set of nano-degrees will be, but Thrun reports strong growth in demand so far. And clearly, many traditional academic institutions, companies (especially in the tech industry) that have trouble finding potential employees with the skills and competencies they need, or students who are not happy with traditional degree programs, are now increasingly looking for alternatives ways to acquire needed competencies, even if this means not gaining access to broader social science and humanities knowledge. The so-called “disruptive innovation” that we see in many industries may therefore start to finally impact higher education as well.

Microsoft MOOC for Sales Training

In April of this year, I was invited to a seminar at Symantec where Sam Herring, CEO of Intrepid was giving a seminar for the Bay Area Executive Development Network (BAEDN) on a recent project he had worked on for Microsoft, where Intrepid teamed up with content experts from INSEAD, a well-known French business school. The project—Transforming Sales Force Training to increase Seller Engagement—was led by Microsoft’s Center of Excellence for Virtual Learning (CoEVL), which is part of the company’s larger Learning Readiness organization (which has 130 persons spread around the company). The CoEVL worked closely with Intrepid, leveraging its MOOC-like learning platform, and the content experts from INSEAD (who createf video lectures and other materials for the course curriculum).

The project illustrates corporate learning innovations that growing numbers of organizations are now either considering, or are in the process of implementing, as they seek more effective and more engaging learning options that also reach larger number of employees (often spread across multiple geographies). Here are a few of the key features of the Microsoft-Intrepid-INSEAD project:

  • According to an eLearning Guild report on the project, INSEAD took a flexible approach to pricing (for its content and providing content experts/lecturers) by “flipping the traditional cost model on its head” by moving away from per student per semester pricing model, which would not have met the cost targets of Microsoft.
  • The course took design inspiration from a Yale University MOOC of Robert Schiller and included the following design elements that helped make the course successful:
    • Learners not only watched videos but shared their own real-life experiences and addressed real work issues related to Microsoft’s new cloud/mobile solutions
    • The eLearning Guild report noted another interesting design element: “Learners would be given a ‘progressive reveal’ of upcoming content in order to provide more flexibility than in a traditional MOOC. For each new week of content, learners were also given two weeks to consume the content.”
    • As in many other MOOCs, the course used a peer-to-peer grading approach—which may also have helped raise student engagement—by having each class cohort evaluate and grade the customer plans of other class members.

The project team faced challenges that included quality, speed, agility, and scalability requirements for the course, as well as questions of how to structure the course—to meet the engagement objectives—and include lectures, discussion forums, assessments and study assignment. The Intrepid platform enabled learner engagement by using forms of gamification, badging, integrated social features, and consumer-grade user experience design.

Although many MOOC skeptics, especially in academia, have been very dismissive of the likely role of MOOCs in corporate learning (or in academia, for that matter), the results of the Microsoft-Intrepid-INSEAD project may point to a more positive future. Some of the lessons learned include:

  • Customize to specific needs. Let the work and learning objectives drive the project, including the choice of providers of the platform and content, and design of the structure and curriculum to meet the specific work context.
  • Create some degree of exclusivity. Microsoft made it clear to employees that this would not be available to all of the company’s sales staff, so that those who were invited to take the course felt special and might therefore have been incented to show high participation and engagement.
  • Design for high student engagement. Learning experience designers need to think carefully about what are the key engagement elements, including social student interactions, and how students can communicate and collaborate, as part of the learning experience—which must go far beyond just a “course” (and lecture).
  • Align learning design with work objectives and processes. According to the eLearning Guild report, “850 out of the 1,000 salespeople who participated in the MOOC pilot successfully produced a customer sales plan that exactly followed the template and rubrics required for their jobs.”

Northeastern University in Silicon Valley: Another “Signal of Change”?

Another example of how corporate learning might change in the future—as result of either new learning and teaching approaches (including MOOCs) or as traditional educational institutions change their ways of operating--is a new programs introduced into Silicon Valley by Northeastern University. In an article in Inside Higher Education on March 30 of this year, it was noted that “Northeastern University on Monday officially unveiled its latest branch campus, adding to its locations in Charlotte, N.C., and Seattle. Unlike those campuses, which are free-standing, the university’s Silicon Valley branch will be hosted at multiple hubs in the Bay Area, sharing space with the region’s tech companies (My italics),” including Integrated Device Technology (I.D.T). The university has made it clear that they plan to offer what they refer to as “hybrid certificate and degree programs” in the Bay Area, using only “light infrastructure” that the host companies will provide (and thus cutting the cost, as well as making the programs very convenient to students of the host companies).

Northeastern’s hub at I.D.T. will offer a master’s degree program in engineering management and two “stackable certificates in data science and technology project management.” This fall, those programs will be open to anyone. As the program evolves, the university also hopes to build a “research ecosystem” connecting employees and faculty members at its future hubs, where corporate leaders may serve as adjunct instructors.

What Lies Ahead?

Jeff Silber, a for-profit higher education analyst for BMO Capital Markets has noted that MOOCs represent a great idea in search of a business model. While this might contain some truth, MOOC providers like Coursers and Udacity now seem to be finding some traction in serving corporate education and learning needs [Also, investors—at least so far—don’t seem to shy away from either companies, as both companies have recently had success in raising more capital for expansion]. While we are still early in this development of applying MOOCs and other innovative approaches to corporate learning, I am intrigued and encouraged by some of the things I have seen over the last few years. The examples described in this blog post represent just a few data points in the continuing evolution of corporate education and learning, and the next few years will tell whether we will see an acceleration of this development.

I am relatively optimistic that we will see a growing number of innovative corporate learning and training programs, not just here in Silicon Valley but elsewhere in the US and, although perhaps to lesser degree, in other parts of the world. Drivers include the need to find new and more appropriate (i.e. cost- and time-effective) solutions that meet the future needs of both companies and students/employees. And, technology platforms—in some cases this will likely include variations of MOOC platforms—will be used as one way of providing more flexible and costs-effective learning options.

Many academics are very concerned about some of these developments, feeling that these new solutions will result in inferior learning options for students and that the learning quality of technology-based solutions will suffer. Yes, this may be the case, at least initially, and the “disruptive innovation models” of Clayton Christensen do indeed show that disruptive players typically offer lower quality and lower cost solutions to meet market demand that has not yet been met. But over time, these solutions improve and may end up displacing/disrupting the incumbents. Whether this is what Udacity and Northeastern are doing, and to what extent they will displace current players, i.e. the higher-cost traditional colleges and universities, remains to be seen. But Silicon Valley is one of the most dynamic innovation ecosystems in the world (including plenty of capital to fund new innovations), and I therefore expect that we will continue to see more experiments appearing. Some analysts/academics watch this with horror, feeling the profit seeking drivers of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors will bring nothing good. I, for one, beg to differ, as I don’t see any harm in greater competition for academic institutions that have mostly failed to innovate fast enough to meet the needs of its customers.

Fortunately, a growing number of universities, including some of the top ranked players, have introduced many significant changes in recent years, including taking online learning much more seriously than before. This is one of the positive impacts of MOOCs--which, by the way, most of the MOOC pessimists fail to see. Today, we have a much more vibrant discussion of the pros and cons of different online options than we have ever had. And even Stanford, a university with more demand for its education than it can possibly meet (from students from around the world), has been exploring alternative models for how Stanford could operate in the future. I am especially intrigued by the “looped education” scenario where students “loop in and out” of Stanford, each time they loop in they get a new set of educational experiences that meet their current job and life contexts, thus helping them update their competencies and knowledge to live more fulfilling lives than they could without using Stanford resources. Perhaps the old, four-year model will soon become much less in demand, even in Ivy League universities?

The educational demand and supply realities around the world are often very different from those in Silicon Valley or in other parts of the US, and the Nordic situation is different due to education being mostly free (except for room and board, etc). But the corporate learning environments are more similar across world regions, and workers need to learn (which can happen in many ways, including more informal, personal learning), and in some cases may need formal training. Some companies have set up Corporate Universities (CUs) inside their organizations, as a way to provide appropriate and company-aligned learning opportunities, but CUs are much less popular today than they used to be, and perhaps MOOCs and some of the other innovative learning options that are now available in the market place can offer more cost-effective solutions for next-generation corporate learning than the old corporate university model and other more traditional forms of corporate training.

Brief Bio

Eilif—a transplanted Norwegian who has spent his whole professional life in Silicon Valley—has led and participated in a number of syndicated research programs and numerous consulting projects during his 35 years at SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute) and Strategic Business Insights (a spin-out from SRI, located on the Menlo Park campus of SRI). He has also been Adjunct Professor of Economics at a number of Bay Area universities. Most of his work has focused on eCommerce, Learning, Innovation, and Virtual Technologies, and in recent years much of his work has focused on the Nordic region, especially Finland and Norway, including projects for Tekes and the Norwegian Research Council, and two projects funded by Nordic Innovation. He has been a Board member of Silicon Vikings for the last 5 years, and have been the Chair of the Special Interest Group on Entrepreneurship and Learning since its beginning.


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