Coursera reveals most popular courses in Middle East as it leans into machine learning

The platform recorded a sevenfold increase in enrolments as it positions itself for the future of education

Powered by automated translation

Coursera's enrolment numbers are up sevenfold in the Middle East compared to a year ago, exceeding the global average as the company positions itself to reap the benefits of a huge uptake in online learning.

Covid-19, coding language Python and mental health management were the three most popular subjects in the Middle East on one of the world's biggest online learning platforms, the California company told The National.

There were several reasons for the increase in online learning, Shravan Goli, the California company’s chief product officer, said.

There was “the bigger picture” of the 1.5 billion students Unesco estimated to have had their education disrupted by the global pandemic and now placed into “a forced period of experimentation” for learning.

Then there were those in the workforce, anxious to re-skill in a precarious global economy. This year, economies in the Middle East and Central Asia were forecast to shrink on average by 3.1 per cent, representing a loss of output of $425 billion, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“This has created a lot of uncertainty, fear and anxiety about the potential for job disruption and job loss,” Mr Goli said. “A lot of people are turning to education, and online education especially, to continue to learn”.

In addition to those two factors, comparing March 2020 to the same time last year, there was a more than 750 per cent increase in enrolments for “soft skill” disciplines like social science, the arts, and personal development content among learners in the Middle East on Coursera.

In 2020 so far, Yale University's The Science of Well-Being is the most popular course, both in the Middle East and globally, which is taught as a series of challenges designed to increase happiness and build more productive habits.

“There’s real thirst for information and knowledge that people are feeling safe and healthy from a mental health standpoint, and taking care of their own families as well,” Mr Goli said.

The nine-year-old company, founded by two Stanford University computer science professors, has 55 million users worldwide, 2.8 million of whom are in the Middle East, primarily in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to Mr Goli.

Coursera is now setting itself up to play a major role in the future of education after Covid-19.

What started as a short-term response to this crisis will become an enduring long-term transformation of higher education.

As schools worldwide cobbled together remote learning curriculums, Coursera rolled out its Coronavirus Response Initiative in March, providing free access to the Coursera course catalogue through Coursera for Campus.

Universities were able to sign up and give their enrolled students access to some 4,000 courses from Coursera's 200 university and industry partners, which include University of London, University of Pennsylvania, Google and IBM.

So far, 2,600 programmes have been launched for universities and colleges, Mr Goli said.

As universities took up Coursera’s offerings, they needed a way to quickly match the courses in their own on-campus catalogues, without having to pour over thousands of courses.

To address this, the company’s data science team developed CourseMatch, and rolled it out in about a month. The solution uses natural language processing to find similarities between Coursera and university courses, generating up to five recommendations on Coursera for each on-campus course, along with a “relevance score”.

CourseMatch can generate recommendations for course catalogues in 100 languages, matching them to the most relevant courses into English or any of more than 50 other languages. If an institution’s catalogue is not yet among the 1,800 available, it can send the information directly to Coursera that will turn around results within two days, according to the company.

Mr Goli predicted that students will return to campus “no matter what”, but education will be a hybrid of classroom and online learning.

“What started as a short-term response to this crisis will become an enduring long-term transformation of higher education.”