I am a big fan of Udacity. I’ve learned a lot from Udacity over the years, having taken several of the company’s courses and Nanodegrees. However, my most recent experience with Udacity was far from ideal. My experience shows how hard it is to maintain quality online courses, particularly in the fast-moving fields that are Udacity’s specialty.
First, some background. I enrolled in the Udacity Digital Marketing Nanodegree late in 2020 and completed it in early 2021. When I enrolled, Udacity was offering huge discounts on its Nanodegrees (perhaps they were looking to finish 2020 strong). I chose the program hoping to learn more about the strange universe of digital marketing and thinking that these skills and knowledge might be useful for my consulting business.
Based on my past experiences with Udacity – particularly my experience in their Full Stack Web Developer Nanodegree program – I expected to work hard and learn a lot. To give credit where it is due, in spite of the challenges I encountered that I delineate in this post, I did complete the program and I learned quite a bit about digital marketing in the process. All of Udacity’s Nanodegrees are built around projects: this is hands-on, applied learning, not theory. The projects are my favorite thing about the Udacity learning model because they deeply engage learners in building practical skills. Moreover, most projects are thoughtfully designed and implemented: they don’t feel like busywork. Every project is reviewed by a real person using a rubric; Udacity has developed a sophisticated system that queues projects to ensure a quick turnaround time on these reviews. With its project review process, Udacity maximizes what humans do well (provide rich, contextual feedback) with a lot of automation and support from computers.
While projects may be Udacity’s greatest strength, they also are the source of almost every problem I encountered in the Digital Marketing Nanodegree. I’ve classified these as problems of currency, consistency, and complexity. I provide brief examples of a problem in each of these areas below.
Some elements of the projects are simply out-of-date. The most glaring example of this appears in a project on search engine optimization. Learners have to test a website (such as the website that hosts this blog) using a web-based tool. But there’s a problem: this tool doesn’t work any longer. Udacity asks learners to include a screenshot from the tool, which shows – no joke – “NA” as the output! Learners and reviewers openly discuss this in the course forums. Call me crazy, but when I pay for a course, I expect to learn how to use tools that actually work.
A few of the projects in the digital marketing Nanodegree require learners to calculate ROI. Unfortunately, the definition of ROI shifts from one project to the next. In one case, learners are told to calculate ROI as a ratio (a number greater than one is a positive ROI), whereas in another project, learners are told to calculate absolute ROI (a number greater than zero is a positive ROI). I don’t mind that these differences exist, and though I’m no accounting expert, they both seem like valid ways to calculate ROI. What bothers me is that Udacity doesn’t give learners a chance to acknowledge and understand these important differences. The result was confusing: I had to dig back through the materials, identify the different definitions, and then reconcile them myself. It didn’t ruin the experience, but it did make the experience more befuddling.
Many of the projects in this course require students to sign up for user accounts on different digital marketing platforms; some of these platforms have associated costs. To get around this, Udacity grants learners access to free accounts or links learners’ personal accounts to an account funded by Udacity. In theory, all the learner has to do is fill out a Google form to be granted access. In practice, it isn’t that simple. I tried to sign up for two different platforms using this mechanism. In one case, Udacity never followed up! I simply didn’t get the access I requested. I ultimately signed up for – and immediately canceled – a “free” 30-day trial in order to complete the project. In the other case, I had to submit two different tickets to Udacity support in order to finally get functioning access to a third-party digital marketing platform. I wouldn’t call this a seamless experience.
How Udacity Can Improve
Individually, these problems are annoyances, not fatal flaws. Cumulatively, this was a pretty frustrating learning experience. On more than one occasion, I considered giving up and asking for a refund. My experience speaks to the inherent challenges that crop up with programs that teach cutting-edge tools and skills. Digital marketing is a fast-moving field and any associated materials need to be updated regularly. In trying to give its learners applied and actionable learning experiences, Udacity has created complex online programs that have a lot of moving parts.
Here’s how I think Udacity could improve.
- Conduct regular audits. It would be straightforward to go through the program every year or so to update content and root out inconsistencies. Udacity has troves of information to guide the audit process. In particular, students are submitting feedback all of the time, and reviewers must be aware of the points at which students are struggling or getting confused. Udacity could use these data to target its audit to the most problematic areas of each course.
- Listen to learners. I initially tried to raise some of the issues I encountered with Udacity customer support. Their response was to encourage me to use the “send feedback” feature in the course itself. I sent feedback using this mechanism a few times but I never heard anything back. Moreover, I never noticed any updates to the issues I flagged. This gradually eroded my faith that Udacity had any interest in acting upon the issues I flagged. Udacity needs to listen to its learners and do more to show learners that it is listening.
- Update and streamline processes. Some degree of complexity is unavoidable in a program like this. There is great value in giving learners access to external tools that provide hands-on experience with digital marketing. Unfortunately, the process of getting enrolled in these external tools was just messy. That said, the project review process is fast and seamless: Udacity needs to build similar processes for all of the other components of the learning experience.
I don’t believe Udacity has lost its way…at least not yet. As Udacity’s portfolio of Nanodegrees ages, I expect that these problems will get worse. The company needs to regularly review, refresh, revise, and re-build its offerings. Udacity can and should do better!