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The mentorship model at Udacity

It is now over a year ago that I got the confirmation message to join the “Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree” from Udacity. It is now about three months ago that I graduated — but I’m still very active in the community: I mentor the next generation.

When I first heard about Udacity, Nanodegrees were a bit different than they are now: Entirely self-paced packages of courses, with some cool projects in between. Awesome thing: These projects were reviewed by real humans! Even though they were already very high-quality courses, they had the same problem as every MOOC as well: A very short student life-cycle.

Scaling the Reviews

I remember reading this article about “How Udacity scales” when I did my first course with them. TL;DR: Udacity ran into a scaling issue — they had more than 2'000 paying students, but could only afford about 15 people to review projects. Since the projects were self-paced and open to anyone, the rate that students solved projects was changing a lot — but the number of reviewers stayed the same.

The solution: Graduates or people that did the project could apply for a freelance reviewer position and got paid on a “per-review” basis. When there were more project submissions, people got paid more. No need to hire more full-time people. It also helped to keep students connected to Udacity after they graduated.

The “Self-Driving Car Engineer” Nanodegree was the first — or at least one of the first — to also feature mentors. This set Udacity apart from all other MOOCs; Students now had a single point of contact for advice, help and guidance throughout all of their Nanodegree experience — but where did the mentors come from?

From Student to Mentor

I was greeted by my mentor when I first logged in to the Udacity classroom. He was a nice and experienced Machine Learning Engineer, who told me that he mentors a lot of people. He didn’t want to give me specific numbers — but it was likely 100+. This also meant that he didn’t have a lot of time for me and so I didn’t use the offer very much because of the long response times.

This was also the case for a lot of other students, so when I started the second term as part of the first cohort ever, we were asked to apply to become mentors ourselves for the new students. This meant that single mentors had to advise fewer students (I started with 30) and they also had hands-on experience for all the projects of the previous terms. Mentors could also use this to get part of their tuition back, which was relatively high for a MOOC.

It had also a nice side-effect: Grads like me stayed in the community. Even though I graduated and I got a new job because of it, and I don’t feel the need to start another Nanodegree (even though the flying car one looks awesome), I’m still looking over the numerous Slack channels and write with some of the Udacity staff from time to time.

The student life-cycle

It got pretty obvious to me that Udacity wants to change the student life-cycle of MOOCs. When I do a course at Udemy, I pay for the course, watch all the videos, do the project and then leave. That is the case for most MOOCs.

At Udacity however, I might do one of their Foundation Nanodegrees, before moving on to the Advanced one, then I could become a reviewer, classroom mentor or a moderator in the forums. In the past, I could also become a part of Udacity Blitz and start freelancing work for them — but this got discontinued lately. I might browse their career boards after that — and then maybe even start the next Nanodegree. This extension of the default student life-cycle is a win-win situation for Udacity, but also for the students and might be one of the reasons why Udacity is one of the most successful MOOCs out there.

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