Google wants to make it faster and easier for the next-generation of hackers to become Android developers. It has partnered with the online education centre Udacity to produce an program that promises to help you “learn to develop for Android and transform your career outlook” over the course of 6-12 months.
Called the Android Nanodegree, the program offers free video content, along with the option of personal help, tuition and feedback for $200 a month. It’s aimed at established or intermediate developers who want to jump to Android or improve their general skills. Tying together other Android learning programs into a structured whole, the new nanodegree is developed and taught by expert Google instructors, and covers everything from UX design to integration with Google Play services.
Google and Udacity are both keen to promote the new course and get students enrolled (you can sign up online at specific times throughout the year). In fact, Google is going to hand-pick 50 Android Nanodegree graduates to attend a hackathon in Mountain View in the near future. In Google’s words, it’s “an education credential that is designed for busy people to learn new skills and advance their careers in a short amount of time from anywhere at any time”.
For those not familiar with it, Udacity began life in June 2011 as one of the first wave of companies offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), partnering with various education centres to bring free learning courses to anyone over the Web. The Android Nanodegree, produced in partnership with Google, epitomises the new direction Udacity is taking; bringing together existing coding courses to provide a quick and intense path to the top of the Android development tree.
The subscription fee gives you access to tutors who review your code, offer guidance on your work, and answer your questions – plugging some of the gaps in a standard, free MOOC. According to Udacity, Google has invested $4 million and “thousands of hours” of developer time into the project. The course covers Android fundamentals, advanced development skills, integration with Google Play services, Material Design UI and more.
Among the practical projects are a media player with Spotify compatibility and a joke-telling app that relies on Google’s cloud services.
That 9-12 month estimate is based on committing ten hours a week, by the way – if you can devote more time then you might finish sooner.
At the end of the course you get a professionally recognised certification and, as we mentioned earlier, maybe even the chance to go and attend a few Google-sponsored workshops.
To find out how MOOCs in general and the Android Nanodegree in particular are viewed by those outside the walls of Google and Udacity, we spoke to two academics working in more established educational institutions: Peter McKenna, principal lecturer and head of the undergraduate e-learning unit at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Peter Reed, lecturer in Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Liverpool.
“Many MOOCs use fairly old techniques – lecture plus test, drill-and grill – via relatively new technologies,” says McKenna. “On the plus side, the ‘sage on the stage’ can be paused and rewound, and the course is accessible to millions; on the negative side, there is less scope for individual communication. Personalised communication is not just troubleshooting and personal mentoring, it’s part of a cyclical learning process that is intrinsic to deep understanding.”
The potential danger with MOOCs is that you get a one-size-fits-all approach, says McKenna.
“Udacity’s nanodegrees are narrower than traditional degrees, but will demand less of your time and your money. The best MOOCs provide learners with a scaffolded but realistic coding environment where they can interactively enter code and get debugging feedback. Authentic problem-based learning, however, is best experienced in a traditional face-to-face environment, where you can build actual apps for actual clients and develop soft skills that are often missing from online courses.”
McKenna says courses like the Android Nanodegree are ideal for fitting studies around existing commitments, but you have to bring a lot of the motivation and discipline yourself.
Peter Reed, meanwhile, sees both advantages and disadvantages to the new nanodegree. “On the surface, this is an ideal opportunity for budding developers,” he says. “After all, who better to teach Android development than Google? The partnership ensures the content and activities are directly relevant and up-to-date, so participants will build a useful portfolio. The course will also be progressive so activities and projects will increase in complexity over time.”
There are plenty of factors to weigh up in your decision, however. “At this point it’s still unclear as to how employers view this certificate,” says Reed.
“Of course, at $200 per month, they are cheaper than an undergraduate degree, but perhaps it’s not a fair comparison.”
Since summer 2011, more than 1.6 million students have passed through Udacity’s virtual doors. One of those is Dmitry Mina, a Ukrainian coder who switched from Web to Android development using the site’s courses: Mina went through the system before the arrival of the Android Nanodegree, but used some of the other Android sessions to move into apps. “Millions of people use smartphones, and it’s our chance to influence the world through our code,” he says of why he swapped Web coding for app coding. “Udacity provides mentorship and support. Also local group meetings were really helpful. The learning process is well organised.
“Just know that if you start, do not give it up!” he adds. “If you do not understand anything or something does not work, ask a mentor or a fellow student. This happens in real life as well. In the end you will be able to write a working app yourself and that is the biggest reward.”
Today, Dmitry Mina works as an Android developer for Danish studio Ciklum, so he is living proof that a Udacity course can work.
We also spoke to Hayden Lee, originally a mechanical engineering student from the US who used Udacity courses to build up his Web coding skills from scratch. Having tried to build a “video based Wikipedia” on his own for six months, he finally noticed Udacity and took three of the coding courses, gaining confidence along the way.
“The courses were amazing,” he enthuses. “My favourite was the Web development course, taught by [Reddit founder] Steve Huffman. Having a young teacher made it particularly great, as Steve would often give real-world examples from his time at Reddit, which I loved. The most valuable learning resource was the real coding projects they made you do… at the end of the course I had a functioning website rather than some abstract project that I couldn’t show anybody or use.”
Although Lee focused on Web development at Udacity, he now works on a social virtual reality project called Convrge, which involves some Android coding. What advice would he give to prospective students of the Android Nanodegree?
“Be prepared to go all in… set a goal and just do it. Spend time looking up extra Android lessons on YouTube and really get to know the latest happenings in Android development.”
UPDATE 08 July 2015: Udacity will now refund 50% of your tuition fees if you complete the Nanodegree within a year.
For more information on the Android Nanodegree, visit udacity.com This feature appeared in Android Magazine issue 53, which is available in all good shops and for digital download now.