Delivering Online Skills Training in Africa: Three Keys to a Successful Program
The shortage of data science skills is a major challenge for Africa. With relatively few local educational institutions offering dedicated data science degrees, the small contingent of existing Africa-based data scientists tend to have varied backgrounds – and they often acquire their data science skills by piecing together a range of online courses after completing an undergraduate degree. As a result, although the work ethic, ideas and knowledge to create new business models are present, some individuals may not have some of the key skills required.
This leaves them unable to fully participate in Africa’s emerging digital future. On a much smaller scale, it also left them unable to effectively participate in the insight2impact (i2i) programme’s DataHack4FI event – a data and skills competition advancing financial and economic inclusion across 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Initially, the competition intended to focus on leveraging the existing data skills in Africa for financial inclusion – but through feedback from those participating in previous seasons of the competition and those they worked with, it became clear that there were some big differences in skills and ability level across the competition cohort.
After realizing the degree to which data skills were lacking among would-be DataHack4FI participants, i2i partnered with Microsoft and Liquid Telecom to offer Microsoft Professional Program (MSPP) in Data Science to 374 young people across more than seven countries in Africa via Liquid Telecom’s 21CSkills platform. 21CSkills is an online platform that provides skills training and development programmes on the latest technologies for African students, startups and developers. As part of this partnership, Microsoft provided free access to the MSPP in Data Science course for data science enthusiasts who applied to participate in DataHack4FI Season 3, giving participants the chance to earn the course’s internationally accredited certification (valued at US $999). This was the first time this course was being delivered on the 21CSkills platform, so the participants were essentially the test group for this collaboration. The idea was that only individuals who completed the course with a score above 70% would be eligible to participate in the DataHack4FI competition.
An Enthusiastic Response
The results were encouraging – 169 of the 374 individuals who applied to participate in Season 3 of DataHack4FI (45%) completed the 10-module course. And of the 169 that completed all 10 modules, 45 went on to participate in the DataHack4FI competition, each pairing with an emerging technology company and competing to develop the most effective solutions to local financial and economic inclusion challenges. These data science enthusiasts reported that the Microsoft course was especially useful in preparing them for this competition, rating it an average 4.9 out of 5.
These results provided a real boost to the DataHack4FI competition, and when we compared these outcomes to the standard effectiveness of online courses, we realised how fortunate we were to get such an enthusiastic response. Research from Kizilcec et al (2017) and Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente (2019) finds that the majority of individuals who use digital learning platforms like Liquid Telecom’s are formally educated and looking to supplement their knowledge. Yet nevertheless, the completion rates of these online courses are typically low. In fact, our course completion rate was higher than the average completion rate for online courses at universities in more developed countries, like MIT and Harvard – something we attribute to the fact that participants greatly valued the opportunity to earn a certificate.
In achieving these results, i2i generated several learnings that could help other organizations use online training to boost young people’s data skills and better leverage digital learning in Africa. Let’s take a look at a few of these insights:
Incentivise competition and participation – both online and off-line
One of the most interesting things we observed involved the off-line support that emerged organically around these online courses. For example, in Nigeria the local DataHack4FI champion set up a competition, with a leader board for the different Nigerian participants: Participants earned a badge based on the number of courses they had completed, with their names listed on the DataHack4FI website and updated weekly. This brought out their competitive nature, as they vied to be the first to complete all 10 modules and earn the gold badge. In Uganda, the champions hosted pizza parties to incentivise people to come and complete the courses together. Across all the DataHack4FI countries, we observed innovative ways that the communities were organising themselves in physical spaces to support these online courses.
We also did all the typical things to provide online support – e.g. creating Slack channels and Facebook groups to allow for discussion and questions between participants and their peers and experts. But we used these online tools in a locally focused way, helping participants locate and join up with peers from their country, city – and even their specific living and working areas within a city. This gave them the opportunity to connect for in-person study groups with the peers closest to them. So we created the online “rails,” and participants organized themselves to meet and work together. But it was the organic nature of these off-line communities, often driven by a local champion, that sustained individuals’ participation in the course.
Don’t Let Small Technical Issues Undermine Your Incentives
Technical issues are inevitable in online courses – indeed, in online anything. But they should not be ignored, as the Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente research found that formal accreditation was one of the majority drivers of uptake and course completion.
There were a few technical issues in DataHack4FI’s course, with some participants not being able to submit their capstone assignments, preventing them from receiving their formal accreditation. We plan to explore this issue in more detail in the coming months.
Connect with other online skills platforms
Course participants who went on to participate in DataHack4FI flagged the need for more hands-on and practical work on real-life data and problems, to allow them to apply their skills and gain valuable work experience. As with many learning initiatives, the opportunity to test skills in a different, practical context can expedite the learning process.
Making connections between online courses and other online skills platforms – like Zindi, an online data science competition platform – would provide an opportunity for those receiving digital skills training to also test their skills in different online environments, in order to reinforce the learnings they’ve acquired. This is something we plan to explore further in future courses.
For us, the key takeaways from these learnings was that online training is not only about the content and structure of the courses, but also about the context around them. Students needed to reinforce the course content with other activities, whether this involved connecting with other online platforms to test their new skills or expedite their learning, or establishing off-line communities with local champions to create the supportive environment needed to complete the course.
While providing a training opportunity to 374 young Africans is nowhere near the scale needed to address the continent’s broader skills gaps, some of the learnings we generated in the DataHack4FI training could be very valuable for those with larger ambitions to offer digital learning in Africa. The successful digital skills initiatives of the future should keep these key learnings in mind, as they work to effectively balance content and context at scale:
- Tap into local communities and networks that can create the right competitive environment.
- Sweat the small stuff that matters to the course participants – especially on the tech side.
- Create connections across platforms, so individuals can learn and test their skills in different settings.
If you would like to learn more about the our DataHack4FI competition or digital skills initiatives, please reach out Dumisani Dube.
Dumisani Dube is the Head of Applications Lab at Insight2Impact.
Photo courtesy Unsplash.