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Specialized chips for energy-efficient AI

To Get AI in Everyday Gadgets, Engineers Go to Specialized Hardware

Thanks to an artificial intelligence technique called deep learning, computers can now beat humans at the Go game, identify melanomas as accurately as dermatologists do, and help autonomous vehicles navigate the world. Now, circuit designers are working on hardware they hope will lead to the democratization of deep learning, bringing the powerful method to the chips inside smart phones, wearables, and other consumer electronics.

Mobile phones, for example, will do a better job of understanding our individual accents and linguistic quirks. (This will save many of us from being constantly upset with a daft digital assistant. Right,Siri?) And home security systems will respond to the sound of a burglar breaking a window, but know not to alert the police when someone is clumsily emptying the dishwasher.

To that end, last week at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco, academic and industry engineers showed how they have built on work presented at last year’s conference to produce specialized, energy efficient deep-learning processors. This dedicated hardware will give electronic devices a new level of smarts because, unlike traditional software, it relies on high-level abstraction like the human brain. What’s more, it won’t drain the gadgets’ batteries. “We’re beginning to see that there is a need to develop more specialized hardware to get both performance and energy efficiency,” says Mahesh Mehendale, TI Fellow at Texas Instruments in Bangalore. He co-chaired the conference session with Takashi Hashimoto, chief engineer in the technology development laboratory at Panasonic.

The first step to widespread adoption of deep learning is for companies to start marketing dedicated, low-power chips. For that reason, says Mehendale, the session’s entry from STMicroelectronics is significant. Like many projects of this sort, the company’s chip uses an architecture that brings memory and processing closer together. Compared to other algorithms, neural networks require frequent fetching of data; shortening the distance this data has to travel saves energy. Guiseppi Desoli, a researcher at STM’s Cornaredo, Italy, outpost, presented a neural network processor that can perform 2.9 trillion operations per second (teraops) per watt.

STMicroelectronics’ processor is designed to run algorithms called convolutional neural networks, which are used for image recognition. During his presentation, Desoli said the company believes neural networks can be incorporated into the Internet of Things—if designers can get power use down. “A normal battery will only last a few hours” when powering a deep-learning processor that can perform only a few teraops per watt, he said.

Hoi-Jun Yoo’s group at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon, described a chip that pulls off a different feat. Not only is it more energy efficient than the one from STMicroelectronics (performing 8.1 teraops per watt), it can also run two kinds of neural networks. One, a convolutional neural network, is best for image recognition, because such networks excel at understanding information in photographs and other static images. The other, a recurrent neural network, can grapple with a sequence of information, because it remembers the previous input. Such networks are used for tasks like decoding speech; whether you’re listening or talking, you have to remember what was said a few seconds ago for a conversation to make sense.

Yoo’s group demonstrated a second deep-learning processor paired with an image sensor. The resulting gadget: a low-power, wearable badge that recognizes faces. This device relies on a specialized architecture that runs a convolutional neural network at 620 microwatts. That trickle of power is small enough for a coin cell battery to keep it running for more than 10 hours. In one demo, the KAIST system labeled photos with “Julia Roberts” and “pizza.” It can also spot Matt Damon, should the wearer ever come across him in person.

Another issue engineers delved into at ISSC was systems-level design. One way to save energy is to use low-power circuits to make initial decisions, then, when necessary, wake up relatively more power-hungry neural networks to do the heavy lifting. Anantha Chandrakasan’s lab at MIT presented a chip that uses a circuit to distinguish speech from other sounds. This circuit gates a neural network that can then recognize words. The MIT chip can perform tasks requiring a vocabulary of up to 145,000 words. It makes about one-fourth the number of word errors on a standardized test compared with the previous state-of-the-art system, while using about just one-third of the power of its predecessor.

The new chips presented last week, says Mehendale, show that “customized hardware is more efficient” for running neural networks. Training neural networks is another matter. Today, it must still be done on powerful computers. In coming years—perhaps next year—researchers will develop dedicated hardware for the deep learning training process, which will make that energy intensive process more efficient, says Panasonic’s Hashimoto.

A NIST employee in a safety vest examines a wireless experiment inside of a steam generation plant.

Factory Owners Are Reluctant to Embrace Wireless

If you think it’s hard to get a reliable Wi-Fi signal in your home, just imagine how tough it must be grab one atop an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, or on the noisy floor of an auto factory in Detroit. Those places are full of heat, vibration, and metallic surfaces that can weaken, reflect, and block signals. As a result, factories and industrial facilities have been slow to adopt new wireless equipment and devices that would otherwise save both time and money.

Many wireless engineers and factory owners know this, but it has been difficult for anyone to improve the situation. The impact of industrial settings on wireless performance hasn’t been studied in any systematic way, so it’s often impossible to predict how a new piece of equipment will perform on, say, a manufacturing line until you actually put it there.

To make it easier for factories to integrate new wireless technologies, U.S. federal government employees took it upon themselves to measure the performance of radiofrequency signals in three factory settings: an auto transmission assembly facility, a steam generation plant, and a small machine shop. They recently published their results as part of an ongoing $5.75 million project aimed at improving industrial wireless led by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

For factory owners, there are many potential advantages to switching to wireless. They can avoid the costs and hassle of installing wires, and more easily reconfigure their facilities in the future. Wireless setups may also be safer, because employees won’t trip over bundles of cords. That’s why companies including GM, Ford, Chevron, Boeing, and Phoenix Contact (a company that specializes in industrial technologies) have all expressed interest in incorporating more wireless into these facilities.

“Right now I know that people are interested, but what they're worried about are the impacts to productivity or to the operation,” says Richard Candell, the project lead for the five-year NIST project, which is scheduled to conclude in late 2018. “They want to know that if they're going to use wireless, it's going to work just as well as the wired solution.”

Justin Shade, who focuses on wireless products for Phoenix Contact, says there’s no shortage of ways in which wireless could make factories and their workers more efficient. For example, manufacturers could use it to incorporate robotic arms into assembly lines. Today, robotic arms are often hooked up to control panels by flexible cables. Wind turbines rely on similar cables to maintain contact between the hub of the turbine and each individual blade. But these cables frequently break. In both cases, replacing them with wireless controls could save money and time.

Unfortunately, factories are also full of processes and materials that block or weaken wireless signals. For now, wireless technicians play it safe when installing new equipment by setting up redundancies, keeping wireless devices within close range with clear line of sight to their targets, and performing extensive testing prior to industrial installations.

Given the circumstances, Shade says it’s hard to fault factory owners and their technicians for being cautious. “If you're on the manufacturing line and a car door doesn't get made correctly, you're losing hundreds of thousands of dollars an hour, so the adoption has been a little slower in the industrial world,” he says.

Candell at NIST hopes their latest research can help industry operators predict how new systems will perform before they are installed. To take their measurements, the team visited an auto transmission assembly plant in Detroit, Mich., a steam generation plant at the NIST campus in Boulder, Colo., and a small machine shop that specializes in metalworking for NIST at their facilities in Gaithersburg, Md.

The group tested wireless signal propagation at two frequencies: 2.25 gigahertz and 5.4 GHz. These frequencies are reserved for the U.S. government, but fall close to the popular unlicensed 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands commonly used in wireless devices. Performance at these frequencies can therefore be considered comparable to what can be expected for wireless gadgets the rest of us use.

From their measurements, the researchers concluded that industrial settings have strong multipath characteristics, which means that signals tend to reflect many more times before they reach the receiver than they would under normal conditions. The practical impact of these reflections can be positive or negative, depending on the technology and how it is configured.

To dig deeper, the group used a metric to measure wireless performance called the K factor. It compares the combined power of all the reflected signals to the power of a line-of-sight signal with no reflections. A higher K factor means there is less fading due to reflections. In an open outdoor area, the K factor would typically be between 6 decibels and 30 dB. In the group's industrial measurements, they found lower average K factors of -5 dB to 6 dB.

Next, the NIST team used their measurements to estimate the average delay spread for the industrial facilities. Delay spread is the time it takes for all of a signal’s reflections to reach the receiver. They found an average delay spread below 500 nanoseconds. The group suggests this delay may not noticeably impact devices operating at 256 kilobits per second but could affect those that run at faster bit rates.

Another part of their analysis examined wireless performance in “metal canyons,” which are common in factories. A metal canyon is an area with metal surfaces (such as walls or large pieces of equipment) on at least two sides and a concrete floor below. In these areas, the group measured path loss, which describes the attenuation of wireless signals, and found that it is 80 dB, at a minimum, in metal canyons. For comparison, the path loss in an open area would be perhaps 40 dB after a signal at these frequencies traveled approximately one meter.

Candell says that, in practical terms, this means a wireless signal could reliably travel about 200 or 300 meters outdoors, whereas, in a metal canyon, a user would probably start to notice some issues with the signal at just 30 meters away. 

With the results of their measurement campaigns, the NIST staff also built a software simulation of a chemical reactor and a wireless test bed that can replicate other industrial settings at their campus in Boulder, Colo. Candell wants to use these tools to generate hypothetical changes in performance and cost related to installing new wireless schemes in factories or other facilities.

“Ultimately, at the end of our five-year project [which is scheduled to conclude in late 2018], I want to actually produce industry guidelines to help people select and deploy these wireless devices effectively in their factories,” says Candell.

A hiker in a yellow jack looks at her smartphone.

Controversial Satellite-Messaging Startup Higher Ground Cleared for Takeoff

In the face of concerted industry opposition, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has given the go-ahead for a controversial smartphone accessory that uses microwaves to send text messages and email via geostationary satellites.

Startup Higher Ground now has permission to deploy up to 50,000 SatPaq devices across the United States, promising isolated communities, hikers, and farmers a cheap, reliable messaging service far from cellphone towers. However, it is a move that some telecoms companies think could also interfere with their services, interrupt life-saving emergency calls and even cause outages nationwide. The roll-out will be a key test of the FCC’s ability to manage spectrum sharing, an innovation it is counting on to enable future 5G wireless and Internet of Things technologies.

The SatPaq devices, first revealed in Spectrum last year, connect to a smartphone messaging app via Bluetooth. The device uses a flip-up antenna that communicates with Intelsat Galaxy satellites in geostationary orbits. These are nearly 50 times further out than the Iridium satellites used by today’s satphones, so the SatPaq needs a powerful signal to connect.

It’s that strong signal—smack in the middle of the C-band microwave spectrum used for voice and data communications in rural areas and for national networks—that has many telecoms companies worried. In a submission to the FCC, CenturyLink called Higher Grounds’ plans “a recipe for disaster” and a “potential interference to each and every…link of the [microwave] network throughout the country.”

Its concerns were echoed by a dozen telecoms industry bodies and cities and states that rely heavily on point-to-point microwave stations for communications and emergency services. The state of Hawaii even wrote, “If this type of application is granted, the FCC itself becomes irrelevant. Commercial entities can simply do whatever pleases themselves.”

For its part, Higher Ground claims a robust system of ‘self-coordination’ that makes the chance of interference almost negligible. The SatPaq app starts by comparing the phone’s GPS coordinates with a database of the locations of all the terrestrial microwave stations in the country. It then selects a non-interfering frequency within its 5925 to 6425 MHz uplink band.

The app then uses the phone’s compass to ensure that the flip-up antenna is pointed directly at the satellite, and not towards a fixed station. If the system cannot find a safe combination of frequency and direction, it will not transmit. When the SatPaq does connect to the satellite, it will download any changes to its station database before transmitting its own data.

Last summer, Higher Ground conducted outdoor demonstrations of a live SatPaq embedded in a smartphone case to FCC officials and some of the telecoms companies, showing both the interference mitigation technology and the messaging service in action.

On 18 January, just 48 hours before the start of the new Presidential administration, the FCC ruled in Higher Ground’s favor. “We…find that Higher Ground’s proposed system and operations…would further the Commission’s interest in ensuring the highest public benefit is derived from this finite spectrum resource,” wrote the Commissioners. “We [also] find that Higher Ground has demonstrated that its proposed system should prevent or minimize the risk of harmful interference to [fixed service] operators.”

But the FCC did place conditions on Higher Ground’s operations. The company had to accept that existing microwave stations might interfere with its new messaging service, and is required to maintain remote control of all the SatPaqs in the country. If any interference comes to light, Higher Ground must be able to immediately override or shut down any or all interfering SatPaqs. The company also has to keep logs of every single SatPaq transmission for at least a year, and make that data available to the FCC and fixed service operators on request. Higher Ground also has to update its database of terrestrial microwave stations every day.

Finally, the FCC noted that “a cautious approach is warranted, considering that a self-coordination system like Higher Ground's does not have a track record of wide-scale, generalized deployment.” For the first year following authorization, Higher Ground can deploy only 5000 SatPaqs, and the FCC reserves the right to shut them down if they cause harmful interference.

“This is a prudent move for a unique technology,” says Steve Crowley, a consulting wireless engineer. “The phased rollout is an additional measure in case of unintended consequences. It’s easier to get a handle on 5,000 radios than 50,000.”

But Higher Ground’s battles may not be over just yet. The Enterprise Wireless Alliance, a national trade association for business wireless users, is considering filing a last-ditch appeal.

“At its core, this is an engineering matter and I think those engineering matters have been resolved to a reasonable level,” says Crowley. “But the Order was issued just before the start of the current FCC and only one of its three signers holds the same position as they did on January 18. A petitioner whose arguments didn’t prevail with the previous FCC might try again with this one.”

Higher Ground declined to comment on the FCC Order or any plans it might have to start selling SatPaqs. Its website, which previously suggested that SatPaqs would sell for US $139, with pay-as-you-go texts and emails, is currently offline.

5 Things You Missed This Week at IEEE Spectrum: Nanorods for Li-Fi Displays, Health Apps Could Make People Sicker, and More

1. Nanorods Emit and Detect Light, Could Lead to Displays That Communicate via Li-Fi

In recent years, the hot application for quantum dots has been as a replacement for light-emitting diodes (LEDs) as a backlight source for liquid crystal displays. But now, an international team of researchers has produced engineered nanorods that each feature a quantum dot capable of emitting and absorbing visible light. With this advance, quantum dots could someday yield mobile phones that can “see” without the need of a camera lens or communicate with each other using Light Fidelity (Li-Fi) technology.

 

2. Could Mobile Health Apps and Wearables Actually Make People Sicker?

A recent opinion piece about wearable tech for infants pulls no punches: “There is no evidence that consumer infant physiologic monitors are life-saving, and there is potential for harm if parents choose to use them.” That wasn’t just any random person’s judgement. The article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and was authored by two pediatricians and an expert from the ECRI Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the rigorous evaluation of medical procedures and devices. 

 

3. Medtronic's CardioInsight Electrode Vest Maps Heart's Electrical System

The 252-electrode device could help doctors pinpoint the locations of electrical malfunctions in the heart that cause irregular heartbeats.

 

4. New Terahertz Transmitter Shines With Ultra-Fast Data Speeds

The tiny CMOS-based transmitter can send data packets wirelessly at rates as high as 105 gigabits per second.

 

5. Millimeter-Scale Computers: Now With Deep Learning Neural Networks on Board

University of Michigan micro-mote computers—tiny, energy efficient computing sensors that can do analysis on board—aim to make the Internet of Things smarter without consuming more power.

A millimeter-scale computer looks like a stack of chips

Millimeter-Scale Computers: Now With Deep-Learning Neural Networks on Board

Computer scientist David Blaauw pulls a small plastic box from his bag. He carefully uses his fingernail to pick up the tiny black speck inside and place it on the hotel café table. At 1 cubic millimeter, this is one of a line of the world’s smallest computers. I had to be careful not to cough or sneeze lest it blow away and be swept into the trash.

Blaauw and his colleague Dennis Sylvester, both IEEE Fellows and computer scientists at the University of Michigan, were in San Francisco this week to present 10 papers related to these “micromote” computers at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC). They’ve been presenting different variations on the tiny devices for a few years.

Their broader goal is to make smarter, smaller sensors for medical devices and the Internet of Things—sensors that can do more with less energy. Many of the microphones, cameras, and other sensors that make up the eyes and ears of smart devices are always on alert, and frequently beam personal data into the cloud because they can’t analyze it themselves. Some have predicted that by 2035, there will be 1 trillion such devices. “If you’ve got a trillion devices producing readings constantly, we’re going to drown in data,” says Blaauw. By developing tiny, energy-efficient computing sensors that can do analysis on board, Blaauw and Sylvester hope to make these devices more secure, while also saving energy.

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Illustration: iStockphoto

Four Ways to Tackle H-1B Visa Reform

U.S. tech companies love the H-1B visa program. The temporary visa is meant to allow them to bring high-skill foreign workers to fill jobs for which there aren’t enough skilled American workers.

But the program isn’t working. Originally intended to bring the best global talent to fill U.S. labor shortages, it has become a pipeline for a few big companies to hire cheap labor.

Giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, Intel, and Microsoft were all among the top 20 H-1B employers in 2014, according to Ron Hira, professor of political science at Howard University who has testified before Congress on high-skill immigration. The other fifteen—which include IBM but also consulting firms such as Tata Consultancy, Wipro, and Infosys—used the visa program mainly for outsourcing jobs.

Typically, U.S. companies like Disney, FedEx, and Cisco will contract with consulting firms. American workers end up training their foreign counterparts, only to have the U.S. firm replace the American trainers with the H-1B visa holding trainees—who’ll work for below-market wages.

Problems with this setup abound. First, talk of a tech labor shortage in the U.S. might be overblown. Then there’s the issue of quality: More than half of the H-1Bs at a vast majority of the top H-1B employers have bachelors degrees, but not advanced degrees. Hira argues that in many cases such as Disney and Northeast Utilities, the jettisoned American workers were obviously more skilled and knowledgeable than the people who filled those positions, considering the fact that they trained their H-1B replacements.

Plus, the H-1B is a guest-worker program where the employer holds the visa and isn’t required to sponsor the workers for legal permanent residency in the United States. So if the worker loses the job, he or she is legally bound to return to their country of origin. This gives the employer tremendous leverage, and can lead to abuse.

“It’s a lose-lose right now for the country and H-1B workers,” says Vivek Wadhwa, distinguished fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley.

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A tiny terahertz transmitter is mounted under a microscope in a lab at Hiroshima University.

New Terahertz Transmitter Shines With Ultrafast Data Speeds

This week, researchers at Hiroshima University showed off a new terahertz transmitter that is just as powerful as its predecessors, but should ultimately prove more affordable for commercial applications. In a demo at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco, they presented a device capable of delivering data at breathtaking speeds of more than 100 gigabits per second at a frequency of 300 gigahertz.

At its very best, the transmitter can shuttle data at 105 Gb/s, which is 2,100 times faster than the peak cellular speeds of 50 megabits per second available through LTE. After a successful demo, the transmitter could find its way into future wireless applications that require low latency and high bandwidth.

Though other transmitters have achieved speedy data rates in the terahertz range before, the group says theirs is the first to also be based on a CMOS integrated circuit, which means it’s potentially more viable for commercial base stations or devices.

“This is quite a step for this kind of technology, because it relies on something that is freely available and could be easily implemented, compared to all of the other techniques,” says Riccardo DegI’Innocenti, a researcher at the University of Cambridge who was not involved in the work.

Terahertz waves are shorter in length and are broadcast at much higher frequencies than the microwaves used today for smartphones, household devices, or military radar. For example, Wi-Fi devices emit waves that measure about 12 centimeters in length at a frequency of 2.4 GHz. Waves in the terahertz range span less than 1 millimeter and start at 100 GHz.

Other teams have demonstrated competing terahertz transmitters that deliver data at speeds even faster than those shown by the Hiroshima group. However, these systems often relied on technology that was bulky or which could not easily scale.

In contrast, the new transmitter has a 2-by-3-mm footprint, and was created using a 40-nanometer CMOS process. “There are many ways also to build a terahertz wireless system,” says DegI’Innocenti. “However, this is still progress because the CMOS technology was sort of lagging behind.”

Minoru Fujishima, a professor at Hiroshima University and a member of the team that developed the transmitter, says the primary advantage of fabricating the device with CMOS is that it will allow manufacturers to sell it at a competitive price if it is commercialized. However, the first run was still rather expensive. The tiny transmitter he demonstrated cost US $100,000 to build.

Fujishima’s group hopes their transmitter can be used in satellite communications, or to set up a wireless link between cellular base stations. “I think that is a very promising application because space cannot be linked by fiber optics,” he says.

Elsewhere, companies and researchers have developed extra-sensitive receivers to reliably detect terahertz waves, which are quickly absorbed as they travel through the atmosphere.

Thomas Küerner, who has worked at TU Braunschweig in Germany on projects in which terahertz transmitters have been developed, calls the new research “quite a milestone.” Alongside Iwao Hosako, who is a coauthor with Fujishima, Küerner is leading the IEEE 802.15 Task Group 3d; the group’s mission is to develop a standard for devices that will operate in the 300-GHz band.

Küerner says the task group is considering four primary applications for 300-GHz devices. One is as a replacement for the wires inside devices with high-speed terahertz links that can send data from one part of the device to another. The second is using terahertz waves to enable the creation of wireless kiosks in retail stores that will let customers instantly download films to their devices instead of having to take a DVD home with them. The third, says Küerner, is to create wireless connections for data centers that can replace fiber optic cables. And the final application is to use terahertz waves for fronthaul or backhaul in cellular networks.

A self-destruct mechanism based on an expanding polymer layer can destroy a silicon chip within 10 seconds

Self-Destructing Gadgets Made Not So Mission Impossible

Self-destruct options from the Mission: Impossible movies could become a reality for even the most common smartphones and laptops used by government officials or corporate employees. A new self-destruct mechanism can destroy electronics within 10 seconds through wireless commands or the triggering of certain sensors.

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Can a Bitcoin-enabled browser be the publishing industry's savior?

Can Brave's Bitcoin Payment Platform Save Online Publishing?

Last year, Brendan Eich, former CEO of the Mozilla corporation and designer the Javascript programming language, launched Brave, a Web browser that blocks advertisements by default. Now Eich is rolling out a new Bitcoin payment platform, integrated right into the browser, that he hopes will provide an alternative revenue stream for publishers. He views it as a replacement the one Brave takes away, which he argues is dysfunctional and on the verge of collapse.

As of September, people using Brave have the option of creating a wallet in the browser, loading it with bitcoins, and sending small payments to publishers based on the anonymized metering of their Web traffic. For now, Brave plays a central role in facilitating the transactions, although it has sought to do so in a way that protects the privacy of Brave users.

When you create a wallet with Brave, you actually share it with a company called BitGo, meaning that you and BitGo each own one key for the wallet, both of which need to be present in order for a payment to go through. After loading bitcoins into this wallet, you specify the total amount of money you would like to spend on your Web browsing. Then, after a month goes by (measured by the days you actually spend using the Brave browser), bitcoin transactions signed by both you and BitGo trigger the disbursement of that money into a Brave settlement wallet.

Before a website operator can collect the funds, it must go through a verification process with Brave to prove that it’s running a legitimate business. In return for providing this service, Brave takes five percent of all the donations that come through.

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Job training and MOOCs

Why Your Next Job Training Course May Be a MOOC

This is part of a series on MOOC and online learning

Over the past two decades, the great Internet wave that swept through industry and revolutionized everything in its wake—including manufacturing, product development, supply-chain management, marketing, financial transactions, and customer service—likewise transformed on-the-job training. Companies eager to cut costs saw the overwhelming economic advantage of online instruction over the conventional classroom, and so they shuttered lavish country-club-style training parks and canceled employee travel to professional development courses in exotic locales. These days, most workers tend to receive their training at their desks, the better to maintain productivity.

Web instruction has also helped companies expand internationally because they can easily circulate self-learning modules to a geographically dispersed labor force at relatively low cost. As Australian scholar Paul Nicholson observed, “E-learning in business and training [is] driven by notions of improved productivity and cost reduction, especially in an increasingly globalized business environment.”

Over the past decade, employee enrollment in online programs has grown 20 times faster than has student enrollment at traditional colleges and universities. By 2020, 60 percent of workers receiving tuition reimbursement will be enrolled in online programs, according to EdAssist, a corporate tuition-assistance consulting firm.

Yet despite the corporate romance with online training for employees, companies have had a more troubled relationship with the virtual education offered by colleges and universities. When digital university programs first became available in the mid-1990s, many companies simply ignored them, refusing to provide tuition assistance to employees who enrolled in digital degree programs. Later, when it became apparent that some of the nation’s most selective schools actually offered high-quality online master’s degrees, especially in fields that paralleled industry needs, businesses grew more accepting. 

To be sure, not every program offered a high-quality education, and a number of companies unwittingly allowed their employees to enroll in for-profit online schools that turned out to be scams. “For a time, companies were not as serious about vetting universities as they are today,” says Allan Weisberg, former chief learning officer at Johnson & Johnson. “When we finally looked into some for-profits, we discovered they were scams, and turned them down.”

A number of Fortune 500 companies responded by setting stricter rules on their tuition-reimbursement programs to prevent unsuspecting employees from throwing away money—the company’s as well as their own—on discredited programs at for-profits and other substandard schools. Other companies sensibly steered their workers toward approved universities, which must be ABET-accredited, perform serious research that parallels the firm’s own research interests, and employ significant numbers of the school’s own alumni. “Today, wise companies invest their tuition dollars in established non-profit and public schools,” says Weisberg. “With stricter polices, companies want to make sure that tuition assistance is valuable to all parties—employees, corporations, and universities.”

Ideally, online training should give personnel the chance to acquire new and valuable skills, perhaps in emerging fields like cyber security or data science. Such training helps the company, of course, and it also gives workers an edge in a tricky economy. Earning a degree online is also a huge convenience for workers, whose days are already filled as it is. A mid-career engineer with job, family, and travel responsibilities can more easily study online at his or her own pace—at 10 at night after the kids are in bed—than commute to campus.

Given that the switch to online job training was largely a cost-cutting move, it’s only natural that when MOOCs—massive open online courses—came on the scene in 2011, companies were curious. Because they’re designed to reach hundreds or thousands of students at once, MOOCs benefit from economies of scale that smaller online programs don’t share.

Google and Instagram are experimenting with MOOC provider Coursera’s “Specializations,” which are groups of related courses in key areas of interest to industry. The fee for a Coursera Specialization runs from $150 to $500 for anywhere from three to ten courses, plus a capstone project. The most popular offerings include data science (from Johns Hopkins University), Python (from the University of Michigan), and machine learning (from the University of Washington). Compared to the thousands of dollars for a more conventional training program, MOOCs are a relative bargain. And if a company’s aim is for workers to quickly acquire in-demand skills, rather than earning an accredited degree that may take a year or more to complete, a set of focused MOOCs may be the way to go. This skills-centered approach, known in education circles as competency-based education, is a growing trend at U.S. schools.

But before companies jump on the MOOC bandwagon, they might consider whether their ideal employee is someone with up-to-date skills in a narrow specialty, or a truly thoughtful professional who is prepared to go beyond his or her defined tasks and can adapt flexibly to new conditions and new markets. Ultimately, industry must decide who will fill the labor pipeline: an army of MOOC-trained workers or deeply talented personnel who’ve earned richly complex degrees from the nation’s best universities.

About the Author:

Robert Ubell is Vice Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. A collection of his essays on digital education, Going Online: Perspectives on Digital Learning, was recently published by Routledge. He can be reached at bobubell@gmail.comThis is the last in a series on MOOCs and online learning.

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