Coursera leads revolution, integrating industry credentials into college programs

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The history of MOOCs (massive open online courses) began from North American universities where professors threw open some of their courses to students from all over the world using online tools and providing a richer learning experience than what the traditional teaching methods would allow.

Coursera was started 10 years ago with two Stanford University Professors of Computer Science, Andrew Ng, and Daphne Koller. They were teaching a very popular course on Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and found they could not fit all the students into their class. So they decided to put their course online, and not just for Stanford students, but for anyone in the world. Over 100,000 students from all over the world took the course.

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Clearly, there was demand for high quality education. Andrew and Daphne realized, and concluded that they should make this available online.

So that was how Coursera was launched in 2012 partnering with five top US universities – Stanford, Michigan, Penn, Yale, and Duke – offering MOOCs. They continued to add more universities.

“We think of Coursera as an ecosystem with a mission to provide universal access to world-class learning,” said Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera, in an interview with Al Arabiya English in Dubai. “Originally, Coursera just made the courses available online, and in 2014, in addition to working with universities, “we started bringing in industry partners like Google, and Microsoft among others.”

So the first part of Coursera’s journey was bringing in universities and industry partners and delivering those courses straight to learners. “Today, there are about 175 universities publishing on Coursera and about 100 industry partners who are also publishing their courses and making it available to the 107 million learners. We have around 6,000 courses that are now available online,” the CEO said.

Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO, Coursera. (Supplied)
Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO, Coursera. (Supplied)

Then in 2015, Coursera started offering courses not just to individuals but also to institutions. It started with Coursera for Business, basically allowing businesses to use courses on Coursera to upskill and reskill their employees, usually in Computer Science, Data Science, and Business and Leadership.

Some of Coursera’s top business partners in the Middle East include Coca Cola (in Turkey), STC, Saudi Cement, Gasco (Saudi Arabia), G42, FAB, Chaloub Group (UAE) – some of the biggest employers in the region. “And the reason they are doing this is because businesses are changing so quickly. It is really driven by technology and by globalization, by them really having to create more experience for their customers that are digital, and they are doing more of the digital work in the cloud, and also integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI),” Maggioncalda said. “What is really driving that change are: customers who are becoming more digital, computing that is happening in the cloud, and data that is powering the AI and predictive algorithms. It is really changing almost everything.”

Later in 2015, Coursera for Government was launched for governments who are trying to upskill their civil service workers.

“The biggest relationship with any government entity we have is with the Abu Dhabi School of Government (ADSG). We have this relationship for the past four years, and we have trained 60,000 government employees, and they have done more than million hours of learning online on Coursera. They are learning Business, Technology, and Data Science.”

Abu Dhabi's skyline featuring some of the city's most prominent hotels. (WAM)
Abu Dhabi's skyline featuring some of the city's most prominent hotels. (WAM)

A few months ago, Coursera came out with the Global Skills Report wherein it was found that the UAE ranks number one in Business Skills in the world. “Among learners on Coursera, the ability in business skills of those in the UAE are really very high when compared to other countries,” Maggioncalda said.

Then in 2019, Coursera for Campus was launched. And this is a version of Coursera that is available to universities -- not to publish, but to subscribe to the content. “And the real gamechanger here has been COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Maggioncalda recalled that they launched Coursera for Campus in October 2019 – four months before the pandemic broke out. “We had 30 customers in February 2020. We gave away Coursera for Campus free for seven months. We said any university in the world could use Coursera for Campus for free during that time, because everything had shut down due to the pandemic, and this was an online resource. We went from 30 to 4,000 universities in seven months.”

“And as everybody knows, we all got to experience – for good and for bad – online learning. Now that campuses have opened up, online learning is not going away,” observed Maggioncalda.

“People -- like working adults -- are still studying online without going to campus. But also, students on campus are learning online. And the big reason they are studying online is because universities and colleges are being asked by employers to have their graduates be better skilled for the workforce. These skills are mainly in Computer Science, Data Science, and Communications,” he said.

“And students, especially in private colleges, are looking for good jobs and are choosing institutions that are better able to train them for these jobs. Then the question is how do you help a school train students to be more ready for the workforce.”

Interesting survey

Coursera did a survey of 2, 400 students and over 1,000 employers about industry micro credentials -- which are kind of online job training programs which have a certificate. Ninety percent of students said they believed that earning a professional certificate while they were in college or after college would help them stand out and get a job.

“So the student’s perspective is that they want more industry and job-related skills and want to earn these professional certificates. And then we asked the employers who said that they would really love to have graduates have these industry micro credentials.”

Very big trend

Maggioncalda said that Coursera is now offering these professional certificates to universities to offer to their students. “And this is becoming a very, very big trend. I am calling this Higher Education 2.0 -- which is integrating industry credentials into college degree programs.”

Palm trees grow inside of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) near the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (File photo: Reuters)
Palm trees grow inside of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) near the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (File photo: Reuters)

The universities from the Middle East that are authoring courses and putting them online on Coursera are: King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) (Jeddah), Al Faisal University (Riyadh), Khalifa University (Abu Dhabi), and Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST).

Maggioncalda said that private universities, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), are driving a lot of this adoption of these industry micro credentials in higher education.”

These are the industry certificates that are available today: Google has a professional certificate in IT Support, Meta has five certificates in backend developer, frontend developer, database developer, data analyst, data science.

These certificates have four things in common: One, these jobs are in high demand; which also means it pays well.

Two, a question that arises is where are the jobs? There are so many people in the workforce who don’t have a college degree but want access to good paying jobs. These jobs that are in high demand, the we identified in a study with the help of McKinsey, can be done without a college degree.

Third, these are entry-level jobs. So you don’t need to have prior work experience. So many people are disqualified because they don’t have a college degree and don’t have the experience. These jobs don’t require a college degree, and you don’t need work experience.

And the fourth one -- which is very important, -- you can learn these skills online. So, if you are a working professional, and cannot afford to quit your job and go to some university, you can earn these credentials from your home or your workplace, and these will help you to transition to higher-paying, flexible jobs.

Coursera was also pushing ahead working with accreditation agencies, especially in the US and also in other parts of the world. So in the US these certificates are reviewed and accredited by the American Council on Education. “What this means is that in the US, if you earn the Meta Certificate in Social Media Marketing, it can help one to be qualified for a job in Social Media Marketing, and it can also count as credit towards a college degree. So in addition to having a pathway to a career, it can also be a pathway to a college degree,” said Maggioncalda.

At the GITEX 2022 in Dubai, Maggioncalda said he was in talks with a number of industry partners from the Middle East region and he anticipated that these industry partners could have a big role to play, “especially in domains and in industries where there is a real expertise here.”

Maggioncalda has been with Coursera for the last five-and-a-half years, and according to him, what he has been really pushing for is on the industry partners to come online.

“And I really wanted to push Coursera for Campus. I just felt like we cannot only work with the most elite universities, but I wanted to work with all the colleges and universities.”

The most in demand skills are Data Science and Computer Science. Those are the areas with the most sought-after jobs. School, according to Maggioncalda, have trouble affording faculty who are experts in Data Science and Computer Science. “Coursera is a way for universities to bring to the students advanced courses in Computer Science and Data Science at very lost cost and high quality.”

And then the final thing is linking the learners to the jobs.” We are really pushing on that. One of the things we recently launched was Career Academy. What this allows the university to do, is to brand the micro credentials in the Career Academy with their own university. They can integrate these micro credentials from the leading companies in the world. The students can actually filter and find the different jobs in Data Science, in Business, in Sales and Marketing. These are the high paying, entry-level jobs that are available to people who are starting their career. When they click on it, the students can see what skills they need to learn, and then they can take these certificate programs. They can also actually build projects, using tools used by data analysts, or used UX designers. So that they can learn not just the concepts, but they can also learn the tools. When they build these projects, it’s great because they can learn hands on, how to use the tools, but they are also building a portfolio of work that they can show to an employer,” said Maggioncalda .

He said next year, Coursera will launching an facility for employers to look at students who have finished these micro-credentials. An example is each student will have their own profile that shows which skills they have learnt on Coursera, and like the Global Skills Report, this will be a Personal Skills Report. Learners can show their skill level in Data Visualization, or in Python etc. And the employer can see, even if the students does not have a college degree, what their skill levels are. And then, if they click the project portfolio, they can see the project that the student created. Not only can they see the projects, they can see a video of the student presenting the project so that they can get a sense of their communication skills, the critical thinking skills, and their analytical skills. It is like a video resume showing how you build the project.”

“And so as we enter this new world of digital training, digital jobs, learning these skills, and demonstrating these skills is a whole new world. I think what is nice about this you can be anywhere in the world and take these courses. You can film this from your bedroom, and the company in a different country can watch your work, and if you are smart and can really show your command of the tools and a command of your ability to explain it, your ability to get a job and work remotely will be much better than before.”

When it comes to the GCC countries, Maggioncalda said, they have the resources to really invest in human capital. “When I visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE, what I found there is a huge focus on investing in young people, and investing in human capital. The countries have already built up the infrastructure with 5G, and they are upgrading their universities, but part of what that means is not just hiring better faculty, it is also bring in these new ways of teaching young people, these new skills to get these new jobs. And so, what I see about the GCC that is so interesting is that there are many young people and there are resources to educate them. And nowadays there are mechanisms using technology to provide educational opportunities.”

That is why across the Middle East and North Africa (mainly Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Morocco), Coursera supports the skills development of more than 6.2 million learners as of June 2022, he said. “This includes over 320,000 new registered Coursera learners across the region in the second quarter of 2022.”

Speaking about MENA, he said the learner growth is very high, and we are working with more and more businesses, we are working with more and more universities to publish, more universities who subscribe, and we are also working with increased numbers of government agencies as well.

In Saudi Arabia, “we have a really big relationship with the National E-Learning Center (NELC), which is offering courses in Coursera many ministries and agencies, and also to schools, and to individual Saudi nationals as well. They have a platform called FutureX platform where Coursera is integrated. So it is a Saudi version of Coursera, and is translated into Arabic, teaches all the skills and job-related tools. There are 2,700 courses that are translated Arabic at present,” Maggioncalda said.

Coursera Summit MENA 2022

In the Middle East, Coursera is very much aligned to support the region in its talent transformation journey, as evidenced by the recently held first edition of its summit in MENA, which took place in Dubai under the theme “The Future of Learning and Work.”

The Coursera Summit MENA 2022 discussed two key issues: the urgent requirement for skill development, and unlocking opportunities for the region’s next generation of talent. Those attending included leaders from higher education, business, and government to discuss and debate on the future of learning and work in MENA.

Recent LinkedIn data shows that the skill sets for jobs have changed by around 25 percent since 2015 –- and by 2027 that number is expected to double.

With the acceleration of digitalization and the rapidly changing global work realm, the need for skill development at scale has never been more pressing; fortunately, it has also never been more achievable.

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