Thursday, March 9, 2017

UDACITY – A 1.6 million-user platform for accessing free & high-quality online courses in computer science, programming, and other subject areas


Udacity is the outgrowth of free computer science classes offered in 2011 through Stanford University (Wikipedia, 2017). In a Stanford University experiment, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered their "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence" course online to anyone interested, at no charge and over 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled.  Not much later, Udacity was born.

With headquarters in Mountain View, California, Udacity is a for-profit educational organization, founded by Sebastian Thrun – with David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky. The program offers massive open online courses (MOOCs).  Udacity has partnered with companies such as:  AT&T, Cloudera, Salesforce, Autodesk,  Google, Hack Reactor (a popular and prestigious coding bootcamp), Facebook, and MongoDB. Udacity won’t disclose their earnings. However, Rao (2016), reported that one source previously pegged the company’s annual revenue to be around $24 million, and that Udacity has recently become one of technology's newest unicorns—meaning they recently achieved a value of $1 billion.


The Udacity mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world. They believe that higher education is a basic human right, and they seek to empower their students to advance their education and careers. The program accomplishes their mission by teaching students skills that industry employers are looking for, at a fraction of the cost of traditional schools.


Sebastian Thrun, (the Stanford professor and Google roboticist) who founded Udacity has been referred to as “the Godfather of free online education.”  In November 2012, he won the Smithsonian American Ingenuity in Education Award for his work with Udacity.  His work has a romantic, populist flair and has also been referred to as “arguably the most famous scientist in the world.”  He designed and built robots around human problems, and gave them accessible names. Rhino, part of his thesis project at the University of Bonn, provided guided tours at the local museum. During a stint at Carnegie Mellon University, Thrun developed Pearl, a Jetsons-like “nursebot” with a human-looking face, to assist in elder-care facilities. His greatest achievement was Stanley, the autonomous car that won Stanford a $2 million Defense Department prize and won Thrun the notice of Google cofounder Larry Page.

Udacity's founder Sebastian Thrun stepped down as chief executive officer in April 2016. This  made way for Vishal Makhijani, the company's chief operating officer and a Yahoo executive, to become Udacity's new CEO (Rao, 2016).  Thrun remains as President and Chairman of Udacity and continues to work full-time at Udacity, focusing on innovation.


Thrun initially founded Udacity in 2012 by putting free college courses online to make learning more accessible. However, the college partnerships failed, and the company detoured into offering courses, partnering with Facebook and Google, as well as certifications for workers who want to beef up their technical skills or learn new ones.

“Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather of free online education, changes course”  Max Chafkin (2013).  This article describes Thrun’s change in approach towards mass education as a result of  the continually failing rates of MOOCs students.  Thrun announced that Udacity, which originally focused on offering university-style courses, had a "lousy product" and that the service was pivoting to focus more on vocational courses for professionals and "nanodegrees."


In 2014, Udacity introduced  “Nanodegree,” a paid intensive certification course training people for technical jobs such as software development.  Udacity has expanded this program from the U.S. to India and China.  The "Nanodegree" program was designed to teach programming skills needed to qualify for an entry-level IT position at AT&T.  A Nanodegree, provided by Udacity and AT&T among other partners, is an online certification that you can earn in 6-12 months (10-20 hours/week) for $200/month (Rauch, 2014; Morell, 2015).

Nanodegrees seem to be targeted towards new generations of young programmers who are about to step into college or feel disenfranchised with their college/post-college experience and disappointed with its ROI (return on investment). Furthermore, Udacity also wants students who are already working to earn certificates so they will be happier in their careers.

Since Nanodegrees are produced in collaboration with tech companies, students are expected to be up to date on terms of technologies used.  In 2014 several hundred computer science students around the world began taking classes for an online master’s degree program being jointly offered by Udacity and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Georgia Tech professors taught the courses and handled admissions and accreditation, and students received a Georgia Tech diploma. Udacity hosted the course material, while expenses were covered by AT&T.


Each course consists of  video lectures with closed captioning, integrated quizzes (to help students understand concepts and reinforce ideas), as well as follow-up homework which promote a "learn by doing" model. Programming classes use the Python language; programming assignments are graded using an automated grading programs on the Udacity servers.


Udacity has 1.6 million users. Founded in June 2011, by the summer of 2012, Udacity had students in 203 countries - with the greatest number in the United States (42 percent), India (7 percent), Britain (5 percent), and Germany (4 percent).  Udacity students range from 13-year-olds to 80-year-olds. Advanced 13-year-olds are able to complete multiple, higher-level computer science courses.


Featured Programs / Subject Areas

Artificial Intelligence
Building Websites
Data Science
Develop for Mobile
Machine Learning
Develop for Virtual Reality
Self-driving Car Technology
Predictive Analytics
Programming Basics

Courses (173)

Programming (100)
Art & Design (6)
Computer Science (43)
Science (2)
Mathematics (10)
Social Science (1)
Business & Management (10)
Education & Teaching (1)


In 2014, the Georgia Institute of Technology launched the first "massive online open degree" program (MOOD)  in computer science by partnering with Udacity and AT&T - providing a master's degree upon completion.  Fees were substantial–$6,600 for the equivalent of a three-semester course of study–but still less than one-third of what an in-state student would pay at Georgia Tech, and one-seventh of the tuition charged to an out-of-state student.


Udacity students and graduates have shared their views and experiences on Quora (2017). Quora program  allows the student to speak of various topics including “how to access Udacity courses for free:” Students have to pay to take part in a Nanodegree, however,  anyone  can do all the supporting courses at no charge.  A Nanodegree requires the completion of a number of projects (e.g., eight projects for the Android Nanodegree), and for each project, students have to do a number of “Supporting Courses”.All of these courses can be accessed and studied for free.  Thus the material (video lessons and quizzes) for the courses associated with Nanodegree programs are always free. To find out more, go to a given Nanodegree curriculum page (for instance  Front-End Web Developer Nanodegree), scroll down to the "Nanodegree structure" section, click on the courses listed by "Prepare for this project with" and access the free course material from there.

Udacity courses are free, regardless of whether they are part of the Nanodegree curriculum or not! The courses are open to anyone and begin studies at any time.  The challenge is students need instruction (which is not straightforward) to access these materials for free.  First of all, you will need an account. Sign up is very simple by entering an email address and setting a password you have created your account.  The next step is to go through the Nanodegrees and check out their curriculum/syllabus.  The Nanodegrees are simply a combination of smaller courses. You can search for them individually in the catalog of courses.

You can’t access the Nanodegree program as is, but you can access the smaller courses for free here: All Courses and Nanodegree Programs | Udacity .  So, by completing the smaller courses  in a way, you would have completed the Nanodegree. You may then take an overview of the that Nanodegree program from Udacity’sGitHub and complete the projects on your own. You may also compare your project to those of students who have completed that Nanodegree because their projects are available on GitHub.


You may audit one or more Udacity course(s) for free and then do a nanodegree if you are happy with your Udacity experience.  If cost is an issue, just continue auditing courses for free while expanding your technical capability thereby making yourself eligible for higher-level training or a better jobs. 

To explore what Udacity has to offer, please click here.  Check out the “REFERENCES” below to explore the articles referred to in this posting.


Chafkin, Max. 2017. Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course. Available online at:  Retrieved March 1, 2017.

Morell, Chris. 2015. NANODEGREE PROGRAMS - Udacity Nanodegree Reviews: Your Questions Answered. Available online at: .   Retrieved March 1, 2017.

Quora, 2017. How can I access Udacity’s nanodegree courses for free.  Available online at: . Retrieved March 1, 2017.

Rao, Leena. 2016. Sebastian Thrun Steps Down As Udacity’s CEO. Available online at:  .  Retrieved March 1, 2017.

Rauch, Joseph. 2014. FAQ: What is a Udacity Nanodegree? Hype or Hope?

Wikipedia, 2017. Udacity.  Available online at: . Retrieved March 1, 2017.

Posted by Dr. Nat Tuivavalagi

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