07/01/2015 06:37 GMT | Updated 08/03/2015 05:59 GMT

A New Breed of Degree for a Modern Workplace?

Whatever people do make of nanodegrees, I'm pleased to note that very few are using 'online distance learning' itself as a criticism of the concept. I believe this is a reflection of increasing mainstream acceptance of this study mechanism but also an acknowledgement of the changing face of online students.

Why do students study for a degree? For some the question, quite literally, is academic. They study because studying itself is the aim. The pursuit and enjoyment of knowledge is what drives them. For others, the attraction is "the experience" and the sense of independence that studying offers. But for many, while these other factors are important, the ultimate goal is employment - studying for a degree is the first step on the career ladder.

The problem is, it isn't. At least, it is no longer the guaranteed first step it once was. The fact that 'graduates in non-graduate occupations' (GRINGOs) are now so commonplace that they have their own acronym is telling in this respect.

Surely this means there aren't enough opportunities out there; that companies aren't recruiting? Not so. In fact a recent study by the Association of Graduate Recruiters revealed that employers are predicting a 17% increase in graduate entry level jobs - yet nine in ten report that they cannot fill vacancies, despite that fact that (on average) around 39 applicants will apply for a typical graduate position. The reason for this, say employers, is that graduates aren't job ready.

It's a national issue and one that isn't going away. Equipping students with the skills that employers are looking for is the only way forward. It's something I'm passionate about which is why I'm particularly interested in recent discussions concerning 'nanodegrees'.

Nanodegrees refer to a credit-system qualification achieved by taking a series of online, super-focussed modules covering skill-sets specific to a particular entry level (traditionally graduate) role. Taken over the course of 6-12 months, the individual, intense course elements are developed by learning providers in partnership with actual employers.

The concept is a fairly new arrival to the UK - though did make it into the Innovating Pedagogy 2014 report into technical trends that "could revolutionise education". But it is already making significant waves in US education, with Udacity being the main provider flying the nanodegree flag by announcing its new learning programme and employer partners.

Mark Kvamme, a board member of Udacity and also a co-founder of an investment firm, was recently quoted in Forbes magazine as saying that nanodegrees are quite simply aimed at "bridging the gap between what graduates know and what companies actually need".

Unsurprisingly, initial nanodegrees have centred on mainstream IT industry positions, with technology and IT management employers quick to see potential in this particular qualification route. This could be particularly beneficial for the UK IT & telecommunications industry which, according to 'The Graduate Market in 2014' - a report from High Fliers - has almost doubled its graduate recruitment intake in the last seven years.

The concept is naturally not without its criticism, the main one being that such niche courses will only ever appeal to those who have a clear idea of the career progression/profession they want to pursue in the first place. However, I think this criticism is rather simplistic.

Nanodegrees are studied online and are much shorter due to their intense focus. This makes it more affordable (and realistic) to build up a portfolio of knowledge and skills that are known to have workplace relevance. While a three year degree may offer seemingly broader options for those undecided about their future, the significantly larger investment required to study over a longer period is a major drawback.

The finance consideration for students is substantial. With recent research revealing that one in ten undergraduates think they will have to drop out of university before they even complete their course because they can't afford it, 'value for money' balanced against skills learnt is an equation that more and more students will be calculating when choosing their particular learning path.

Interestingly, the concept of nanodegrees is also coming to the fore at a time when 'multi-strand' or 'portfolio careers' has emerged as a growing trend, with graduates choosing to (note 'choosing', not forced to) work two or more part-time positions, sometimes in quite different sectors.

Here too nanodegrees can be more appealing. Online study offers flexibility around work commitments, while the nature of the courses themselves (niche knowledge, lower cost and intense, shorter learning periods) means that the individual can realistically afford to accumulate qualifications to match multiple role requirements - ultimately broadening their prospects, not restricting them.

Whatever people do make of nanodegrees, I'm pleased to note that very few are using 'online distance learning' itself as a criticism of the concept. I believe this is a reflection of increasing mainstream acceptance of this study mechanism but also an acknowledgement of the changing face of online students.

Where once online distance learners were dismissed as 'leisure learners', mainly older individuals looking to scratch a particular learning itch as a hobby, this is no longer the case. Those enrolling on distance learning degree, masters and other online courses are focussed on their future and are often even more career minded than most.

It's certainly a transition we've seen at RDI, with degree courses attracting both career focussed college leavers and those already in specific professions looking to upskill in order to advance. They see value in investing in employability.

For me, this is one of the main reasons that the idea of nanodegrees is so interesting. It has the potential to address a national skills issue while also satisfying a hunger for focussed, flexible education (education linked inextricably to business and industry), that many students now demonstrate.