By Megha Merani
Every course on online education provider Coursera is taught by top instructors from the world's finest educational institutions
From the likes of Microsoft, IBM and Nokia venturing into Dubai Internet City back in the 2000s, to giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook setting up regional offices, and even Amazon making significant investments in the UAE and wider Gulf countries, the UAE has long been the scene of major expansion announcements from global brands, venturing into the emirates to establish a base targeting local and regional emerging markets.
But for California-based online education company Coursera, the UAE was not on the radar. Not yet anyway.
“It was a little bit more for the future to tell you the truth,” Coursera’s CEO Jeff Maggioncalda tells Arabian Business during an interview in Dubai.
“Because Arabic is a tricky language – and most of our courses are in English. It takes money to translate them and also to have the right-to-left (interface) takes some technology work.”
But when Coursera was contacted by the Abu Dhabi School of Government (ADSG), the company pivoted to enter the market sooner rather than later.
The Mountain View-headquartered company, founded in 2012 by two Stanford University professors, has partnered with 170 of the world’s top universities and industry leaders to offer over 3,000 courses, 300 specialisations and 13 degrees. Coursera says it is now the world’s largest online learning programme for higher education with some 38 million learners around the world taking courses on its platform. It already has about 2 million students in the Middle East, of which 170,000 are from the UAE.
The partnership with the ADSG aims to train 60,000 Abu Dhabi government employees on cutting-edge skills including data science, artificial intelligence (AI) and digital transformation.
Making the courses available to the government’s employees and the wider community of jobseekers in the emirate is part of a larger plan to build a merit-competency-based civil service as the Gulf nation continues to diversify its economy and shift away from reliance on oil.
“We knew that we were going to be doing this [coming to the UAE] at some point,” Maggioncalda says. “We knew that there were learners in the Middle East who know English so we thought ‘well okay, we’re still serving them [until then]’. But when the ADSG came to us, we said this is a good time to make the investment in translating courses and in reprogramming our mobile app so it could be localised to the Arabic language… so it accelerated our timetable.”
The partnership with ADSG is Coursera’s largest government partnership to date, and comes soon after the company launched its enterprise business, designed to help both governments and corporations build the workforce of the future.
Launched in 2017, the programmes train government employees and upskill employees across the US, Singapore, Philippines, India, Australia, France, Colombia, Egypt, Pakistan and Kazakhstan. The company has translated 100 courses across a wide range of subjects just for ADSG, of which 70 courses are offered with Arabic subtitles and 30 fully translated. It already offers courses in Spanish, Russian and Chinese.
Coursera’s programme with the ADSG has already been met with eagerness and a lot of enthusiasm.
“We currently have 1,000 people in 48 hours who have started enrolling in classes,” Leah Belsky, Vice President of Enterprise at Coursera says.
Others, who were part of the pilot programme over the past couple of weeks, have even completed courses.
“I met a woman who said she has already completed 15 courses,” Belsky adds. “She said when she goes home now, rather than watching TV and Netflix, she learns. She said she has actually partnered with a couple of friends who are also working for the government and they’re competing with each other on who can complete the more courses. I’m sure that’s an exceptional case but it does show the appetite.”
The UAE has an enormous opportunity to leapfrog some of the infrastructure and the mistakes of the West
UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan first announced the creation of ADSG in Law No. 15 of 2018, establishing the organisation as an educational and professional training initiative specifically aimed at advancing the capabilities of government employees across Abu Dhabi.
“We have a (Coursera) license for all the government employees for all the courses for free to the employees,” says Solveig Nicklos, dean of the Abu Dhabi School of Government.
Nicklos adds: “We are opening it up to jobseekers and other parts of the community. So hopefully, in Abu Dhabi, it will be available to those who want it.”
Figures from the Abu Dhabi Competitiveness Report in 2016 showed that young people made up 16 percent of Abu Dhabi’s overall population but accounted for 37 percent of its unemployed population, with “mismatch of graduates” cited as the main driver for this unemployment.
A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Arab Human Development Report in 2016 stated that young people between the age of 15 and 29 make up nearly a third of the region’s population – a “demographic momentum” that will last for at least the next two decades, offering a “historic opportunity which Arab countries must seize”.
The report added that a key challenge in the region remains that the youth continue to receive an education that does not reflect the needs of labour markets.
The 2018 edition of the Arab Youth Survey showed that youth unemployment in the region has been “a dangerous constant” over the past decade, stubbornly holding at 25 percent since 2008. The report said 85 million adults in the Middle East are illiterate.
Making courses available to unemployed youth through government partnerships is a model that has already been successful in other parts of the region, according to Coursera’s Belsky.
“On the topic of unemployed youth (in Abu Dhabi), through government partnerships, we are going to make the platform available to unemployed people through specific government agencies,” Belsky says. “We already have a major partnership in Egypt, with the Youth Ministry, that is specifically making the platform available to unemployed youth who actually have to apply to the programme and then if they don’t complete their courses, they need to pay. We have seen tremendous completion rates – 90 percent of the young learners in Egypt are learning.”
As part of the Coursera-ADSG partnership, subjects including communications and leadership have been translated into Arabic, while topics such as data analytics, AI, digital marketing, project management, finance and innovation are subtitled. The University of Pennsylvania, University of Illinois, Johns Hopkins, Duke and Stanford University are among the providers on Coursera, across subjects ranging from business to technology, data science, social sciences and humanities. The platform also has courses from industry partners including Google, Amazon, IBM and Cisco.
Our mandate is to create a learning and developing ecosystem within the Abu Dhabi government across all the entities and across all levels
Citing research by LinkedIn, ADSG’s Nicklos says more than half of students today are going to be in jobs that don’t currently exist, making the on-demand learning model crucial especially in the public sector.
“The learning with government employees leverages change faster than any other group of people because we impact society and every part of the economy,” she says.
“Our mandate is to create a learning and developing ecosystem within the Abu Dhabi government across all the entities and across all levels, and try to build a merit-competency-based civil service for the future growth of Abu Dhabi, the diversification of the economy, and continuing to upskill and uplift the government.”
She adds: “The UAE is a young country and it is evolving rapidly. It has an enormous opportunity to leapfrog some of the infrastructure and the mistakes of the West quite frankly, and so I view it as an inflection point, a point in time in history where it can make some very strategic decisions.”
Coursera’s Belsky adds that many companies in the region are having trouble finding talent, leading them to recognise that they need to invest in upskilling their workforces.
“They might first think that they can hire and fire but it’s actually not that easy to do so and it’s very costly to do so as well,” she says, adding that it costs about a third of a salary to replace an employee.
The urgency is evident in the fact that companies have been proactively approaching Coursera.
“We never had any people in the region. We weren’t doing any marketing. We didn’t have any salespeople who were calling them. They reached out to us.”
Insights from Coursera’s learning performance data also show that employees in the UAE lag behind in data science subjects in comparison to global learners.
“If you look across data science competencies, we see that there is significant room for improvement. If this region truly wants to lead to build data driven companies in the future, there’s a lot of learning needed,” Belsky says.
The learning with government employees leverages change faster... because we impact society and every part of the economy
In addition to ADSG, the company’s enterprise platform ‘Coursera for Business’ has also partnered with leading government and private entities including Dewa, Etihad Airways, Tecom Group and Dubai Asset Management. Pricing of the enterprise platform costs approximately $400 per learner per year, she says.
Maggioncalda says Coursera will also be opening an office in Abu Dhabi, but says the company – backed by leading venture capital firms such as Kleiner Perkins, New Enterprise Associates, GSV Capital, and Learn Capital – has not set any regional targets just yet.
“We don’t have any particular goals for how quickly we scale up the region,” the CEO says.
“In terms of the population, it’s not the largest, most populated region [for us], but I think the need for what we do is as high in the Middle East as anywhere. The company was founded by two professors who really wanted to make a difference in the world. So part of the importance of the region is not necessarily financial. Part of it is very mission-driven… when you have a region where the economies have been largely driven by natural resources and that landscape might change, the importance of making sure that people have the skills and the educational system to deliver those skills are critical.”