A lifeline to Africa’s unemployed and unskilled youth

The COVID-19 pandemic economy has created a complex landscape that could leave graduates and millions of workers ill-equipped for the digital future. But there is hope for recent graduates and mid-career changers wanting to develop entry-level, digital job skills in a few learning hours per week through various education platforms.

Even someone without a degree or technology experience can become job-ready in 80 to 240 hours (or two to six months, with 10 learning hours per week) via Coursera, an education platform launched nine years ago by two Stanford computer science professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, to provide universal access to world-class learning.

Coursera has since become a prominent online learning platform in the world with 82 million registered learners, partnering with more than 200 leading university and industry partners, to offer a broad range of subjects.

In addition to short courses, specialisations and certificates, Coursera also offers bachelor and masters degrees. More than 6,000 institutions have used Coursera to upskill and reskill their employees, citizens and students, particularly in high-demand fields such as data science, technology and business.

In November 2020, Ingressive for Good (I4G), a non-profit organisation that is helping to equip young Africans with technology skills so that they can contribute to the development of Africa, launched a joint programme with Coursera to upskill 5,000 African youth in soft and technical skills.

This programme is part of I4G’s goal to train one million African youth in tech free of charge and to bridge the tech skills and opportunities gap in Africa. More than 20,000 youth applied to join the programme in the first month, more than 5,000 citizens enrolled in courses, and about 100 young people have been placed in jobs.

The Commonwealth of Learning, the learning and development organisation for 54 Commonwealth member nations across Africa, the Caribbean, and the Asia Pacific, has also partnered with Coursera to offer free skills training to unemployed and displaced workers.

An estimated 128,000 learners have enrolled in a record 1 million courses to learn new business and technology skills.

Slow uptake in South Africa

While South Africa has been slow on the uptake, with just 446,000 registered learners in the country, through a few universities, Africa has led the way with 2.4 million users of the platform from the continent. The average age of a learner is 33, while the breakdown of students has been 45% female and 55% male.

The most popular courses in 2020-21 among South African learners were the science of wellbeing (Yale University); machine learning (Stanford), learning how to learn (McMaster University and University of California, San Diego), financial markets (Yale) and COVID-19 contact tracing (Johns Hopkins).

Annually, Coursera publishes the Global Skills Index, an in-depth look at the state of skills throughout the world, this year finding that, as a result of the pandemic, there was a unique opportunity to build more inclusive, modern and scalable education systems.

The survey found that unequal access to the internet has turned into unequal access to school and learning, as well as skills development, at a time when new knowledge and skills were most needed.

Due to learning losses and increases in dropout rates, this generation of students stands to lose an estimated US$10 trillion in earnings, or almost 10% of global GDP.

Remote working opportunities

Out of the challenging pandemic and an increase in automation, there lies opportunity, according to Jeff Maggioncalda, the chief executive officer of Coursera, who told University World News in a Zoom interview that students throughout South Africa and Africa could see immediate benefits from entry-level skills via programmes on its learning platform.

They could get an income from digital jobs abroad that can be done remotely.

Maggioncalda said the availability of jobs and the availability of learning are going to be far more accessible than before the pandemic.

When the world of work opens up after the pandemic, remote work would provide great opportunities, because not everybody is going to go back to the office, resulting in more people working remotely, he added.

“This (remote working) opportunity will be very important for South Africans, who can learn from Yale or Stanford or Johns Hopkins, universities that are not in their country, and can also get jobs with employers who are not in their country,” he said.

In 2019, Coursera for universities was launched and there has been good uptake from the tertiary sector, including a partnership with Covenant University in Nigeria.

Fighting youth unemployment

Dr Chantelle Murray, the head of the human resource development unit at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, said the global movement away from traditional contact-based training has been in motion for some years.

“Aside from the impact of COVID-19 and the resultant (even more pressing) need to provide flexible, high calibre and ‘safe’ learning opportunities, the world of online learning opens doors to top-notch provider partners,” she said.

“The statistics are impressive: more than 65 million learners worldwide make use of Coursera; and they work with more than 200 of the world’s top university and industry partners to offer a vast menu of more than 7,000 quality learning courses,” she said.

Elijah Moholola, the spokesperson for the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa, said it also partners with Coursera to host courses created by UCT academics for public open enrolment.

There are 19 courses created by UCT currently hosted on Coursera and UCT does not pay Coursera to secure licences for students and staff to take courses.

He said Coursera-like courses are often referred to as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The UCT MOOCs project set out in 2014 to create a portfolio of open online courses that would reach a global audience and showcase the work of the university.

In recent years, Moholola said, Coursera introduced programmes to support new modes of remote teaching for universities.

South Africa’s Ministry of Communications and Digital Technologies confirmed that it is partnering with Coursera to offer free courses to young people as part of efforts to fight youth unemployment.

The National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa, a digital skills training institute entity of the department, will coordinate and facilitate the registration process for these courses.

“Our intention as the government is to remove as many barriers as possible and enable young people to fulfil their dreams and career aspirations. We, therefore, encourage them to take up these opportunities,” said Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams in a statement.