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Sebastian Thrun: Lifelong Learning and Trustworthy Credentials

Growing need for lifelong learning and credentials
Sebastian Thrun’s essay “Credentials that work,” published in McKinsey on Society in May 2014, discusses the 21st-century workforce’s growing need for lifelong education and credentials. 

McKinsey estimates that by 2020, there will be demand for 40 million high skilled workers. Sebastian Thrun believes that online education can help to bridge the gap between skills, trustworthy credentials, and jobs. 

Read on for his thoughts:

There is a growing mismatch between the skills most people have and the skills they need to land a job. At a time when the world is experiencing record levels of youth unemployment, the number of vacant positions is steadily increasing. McKinsey estimates that by 2020, the global economy could face a shortfall of up to 40 million college-educated workers, or 13 percent of total demand for such workers.

Developing economies could experience a shortage of 45 million workers with secondary educations and vocational training. At the same time, McKinsey predicts a global surplus of up to 95 million low-skill workers, meaning those who lack college training in advanced economies and those without secondary education in developing economies.

While technological innovations are changing the nature of work, they’re also providing innovative solutions for education and skills training. To keep pace with the demands of a high-tech job market, we need new models of education that can fill the skills gap by training employees on demand and creating a workforce of lifelong learners.

A number of entrepreneurial start-ups, including Coursera, Udemy, and, are experimenting with technology-driven models for both academic and vocational education. 

My own company, Udacity, partners with tech giants like Google, Facebook,, and AT&T to offer programming and technology curricula for the vast population of working adults who must keep mastering new skills to advance in their careers. We are shedding the classroom setting in favor of on-demand delivery methods that work with the schedules of these lifelong learners.

Technological disruption

Technology is changing education and society at an accelerating pace. In the information-technology industry, nearly all technologies become obsolete within ten years. 

As a result, education expires much faster than it did a few decades ago. This is not just true for the tech industry. Because digital technology permeates all industries, no field of employment is spared the pressure of accelerated innovation. Medicine, law, education, finance, and even government are heavily affected.

As a result, the very pattern of employment is changing. A few generations ago, a single job often lasted for a lifetime. In 2012, the average job tenure was a mere 4.6 years, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. These changes are only the beginning. Tech start-ups like Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber are using freelance employment models to disrupt hospitality, transportation, and many other industries. As a result, workers are under increasing pressure to keep their skills current. This has enormous implications for the educational needs of the global population.

21st-century learners

The basic problem we face is that 19th-century rules for education and employment no longer apply in the 21st century. This means that our tradition-bound higher-education system must adapt. We need to transition from a one-time education society to a lifelong education society. As educators, we should stop fighting new media and instead use them to deliver new forms of education.

The standard credentialing system in higher education is archaic and fails to meet the needs of a 21st-century workforce. In the United States, bachelor degrees formally require four years of training, yet fewer than 60 percent of students complete their degrees within six years. Such time scales cannot be the solution for lifelong learners. We need new degrees that are focused, efficient, and stackable over a lifetime of learning. Just as modern media increasingly emphasize short-form communication, educators should offer degrees that can be completed in months rather than years.

Moreover, joining a campus community as a resident college student is a luxury that fewer and fewer people can afford. According to a recent New York Times article,1 college tuition rates have increased by almost 1,200 percent in the last 35 years. Total tuition costs for an undergraduate degree from many four-year private colleges and out-of-state public universities now exceed $250,000.

As a result, students are incurring unprecedented levels of college debt. In response, a few institutions are exploring ways to cut tuition. Georgia Tech, in collaboration with AT&T and Udacity, recently announced a fully accredited online master’s degree in computer science that will cost $6,600, versus $45,000 for the equivalent campus-based program. We need more universities to follow this example.

Elements of a solution

Students are busier than ever, splitting attention among family, work, and education. We need environments that set up harried online learners for success. This involves rethinking the basic learning experience, the underlying pedagogy, and the curricula, as well as the media we use to deliver these courses. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium is the message.

At Udacity, we’re offering online education that bridges the gap between academic and real-world skills, taught by tech-industry veterans. Our introductory courses provide a solid foundation in computer science, or in specialized topics like object-oriented programming, data mining, or cloud services. More advanced courses cover such topics as mobile web development and artificial intelligence for robotics. As part of their coursework, students complete a hands-on project writing code for a real-world opportunity like creating a search engine or building a social network.

We also need to make lifelong learning affordable for everyone. There are many ways to do this. Some online-education companies, like, sell monthly subscriptions. Udacity offers individual courses at $150 a month. Students work at their own pace, but most of our courses can be completed in one to three months.

Lastly, we need trustworthy credentials that work for both employers and prospective employees. We need the modern-day equivalent of the traditional college degree, designed for working people who must upgrade their skills every few years to advance in their careers. The key, of course, is to provide certificates that employers will accept as proof that the applicant possesses a given skill set. All the major digital education companies are working on this problem. To obtain a Udacity certificate, students must first complete their final projects successfully. Then they confirm their identities via live exit interviews during which they must show government-issued identification and chat with one of our project evaluators to verify that the final project was their own independent work.

Education has been the driving force behind the economic success of the United States and many other countries. Yet the way we think about education has not changed in generations. As society changes, our educational approaches must also change. 

Technology is driving these changes and will also be a part of the solution to the challenges that we face. We are just starting to create education that is accessible, affordable, and effective for lifelong learners. It is early and will take time. Yet imagine how this new education might affect not only our world today but also our children and their children.

Perhaps we can prove McKinsey’s estimates wrong over the next six years. My hope is that by 2020 there won’t be any open jobs, because everyone will be able to acquire the skills needed for success in the 21st century. Now that would be (a)udacious.

  1. Steve Cohen, “A quick way to cut college costs,” New York Times, March 20, 2014,

For more on Udacity’s mission to bridge the skills gap, visit Udacity and check out the course catalog, which features courses in programming, data science, and more.