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Universities award degrees for life, but in an era of rapid technology change and potential job displacement “one education will no longer last a lifetime,” says Sebastian Thrun, the co-founder of online education company, Udacity.
The Stanford University professor, who also founded X, Google’s experimental technology lab, proposes a new model where skills are acquired throughout a person’s career, rather than in one go at the start.
He believes online learning is an effective way for people already in employment to acquire specialist skills they did not learn at university. The majority of the 10m people who have registered for Udacity’s courses have a degree, according to Mr Thrun.
He sees a “huge vacuum of people who could massively benefit from education but who are currently excluded” because they cannot quit their jobs to return to full-time study.
Mr Thrun is not alone in his thinking. Several online learning companies that specialise in short, targeted courses have emerged over the past few years.
One example is Udemy, an online learning platform where instructors can charge students to access their courses. Founded in 2010, Udemy today has 30m students, 42,000 instructors and courses in more than 50 languages.
For students, online courses can bring an array of benefits, including a career change, promotion, pay rise or further study at university.
During 2018, James Cuggy, 47, took a number of online courses on topics including marketing and entrepreneurship. At the time, he had a full-time job in customer services at the UK insurer Prudential, alongside working as a sales and marketing consultant for a software start-up.
Mr Cuggy says the online courses taught him new skills — such as how to generate new leads through social media — that have made him much more valuable to the start-up. He paid for the courses, which cost £30-£50 each. But many companies are willing to pay for employees to develop their expertise and knowledge in new areas, according to Leah Belsky, vice-president of enterprise at digital learning platform Coursera.
In 2016 it launched Coursera for Business, which enables organisations to pay for employees to take courses provided by the world’s top universities in subjects ranging from design thinking to negotiation.
Coursera then shares revenues generated by clients including L’Oréal, AXA and Pfizer, with the universities that created the courses.
Ms Belsky says the advantage for companies is attracting and retaining talent in areas prone to skills shortages. It also helps organisations that operate in economies with high levels of employment, such as the US, where competition for talent is fierce.
Coursera’s courses for businesses start at $400 a year for each learner. Ms Belsky says this expense compares favourably with the cost of replacing an employee, which can be significant. “For many firms, training workers is mission critical as they can’t find them on the job market,” says Ms Belsky.
In 2016, aerospace company Airbus started putting staff through “nanodegrees” on data science. These online courses are built by Udacity in collaboration with companies to develop job-specific abilities.
Data science skills, which are in short supply, are essential to Airbus, for example, as it develops its digital services, says Veronika Eckstein, the company’s head of corporate governance academy.
“The trainees are . . . improving decision-making, and instantly applying what they learn in the workplace,” says Ms Eckstein.
Silvia Mouronte Arcones, 32, is among the Airbus employees to have completed the data science nanodegree. She says the course enabled her to move from a technical engineering role into data analytics.
Ms Mouronte Arcones, who already has a bachelors and a masters degree in engineering, studied for around 10 hours every week for six months.
“The challenge of balancing work and study is huge, but so are the benefits,” she says. “You learn new skills and ways of working, and create new networks of people from other business areas.”
Universities also want to provide “life-long learning” to reflect longer working lives and more frequent career changes among their former students. The Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley offers its alumni free access to some degree programme modules and webinars, for example on product management.
The idea is to entice new applications for executive education using the short courses as a try-before-you-buy taster, says Kevin Wong, the school’s associate director of digital strategy.
The pressure to adjust the model has been intensified by a reduced take-up of its full-time MBA, says Mr Wong. There was a 7.5 per cent drop in applications for its 2018 on-campus MBA.
Specialist online courses are not a substitute for a degree like an MBA, notes David Lefevre, director of the Edtech Lab at London’s Imperial College Business School.
They can, however, help people to top up their skills as business changes and new trends, such as artificial intelligence, emerge. “Online learning fills that skills gap,” he says.
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