ASTANA – Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda shared insights into Kazakhstan’s user preferences for online courses, emphasizing the remarkable surge in enrollments and praising Kazakhstan’s unwavering dedication to human capital development in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the Astana International Forum on June 9.
Coursera is an online learning platform that offers more than 5,800 courses and degree programs from top universities worldwide. It provides individuals with the opportunity to access high-quality education, learn new skills, and advance their careers from the comfort of their homes at their own pace. Founded in 2012 by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, Coursera has become one of the leading platforms for online education.
Maggioncalda’s visit to Kazakhstan offers a groundbreaking opportunity for Kazakhstan, a country eager to embrace digital education and cultivate a knowledge-driven society. He met with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during his visit to New York in September last year.
“It really started the relationship between Coursera and the government of Kazakhstan,” said Maggioncalda, who was visiting Kazakhstan for the first time.
The number of registered learners on Coursera is currently 124 million, a 21% increase yearly. Out of them, 450,000 hail from Kazakhstan, which went up by 23% year on year.
In April 2020, Coursera announced the Campus Response Initiative to give students and faculty free access to Coursera for Campus during pandemic-related closures. It is when the number of users from Kazakhstan soared.
“When the schools were shutting down, and the businesses were closing, and people were all learning and working from home, we decided to do something called the Campus Response initiative to basically offer courses to every campus for free. We also did the Workforce Recovery Initiative for governments to help unemployed people. Across the whole world, Kazakhstan just jumped off of all of our tracking monitors as being really interested in learning. So more institutions and more individuals than we would have expected. That was really the beginning of seeing how much appetite there is in Kazakhstan for online learning,” said Maggioncalda, a Stanford graduate who joined Coursera in 2017.
The majority of users are women
As of the first quarter of 2023, courses with the highest demand among Kazakh citizens are in cyber security, programming and English language, which Maggioncalda described as a “wide spectrum.”
“Number one is Programming for Everybody in Python from the University of Michigan. Number two is Leading Teams: Developing as a Leader from the University of Illinois. Three is Entrepreneurship from UPenn, and four is Physics 101 from Rice University. Fifth is Communication in the 21st Century Workplace from the University of California, Irvine. Six is Introduction to Cybersecurity from IBM. Seven is Strategic Innovation. Eight is English for Career Development Course, University of Pennsylvania. Nine is Python Data Structures from the University of Michigan, and 10 is Cybersecurity Roles, Processes & Operating System Security from IBM,” he explained.
The average age of Kazakhstan’s users is 31.
“Overall, it is like 32 or 33 globally. 56% of the learners are women. This is the highest of any country I’ve seen, really, and at least any country that I visited. About 57% are using mobile devices,” said Maggioncalda.
Genuine interest from Kazakhstan in developing human capital
Maggioncalda sees a “real interest” in Kazakhstan to develop human capital. That is where Coursera can be instrumental.
Coursera and the Kazakh government worked out a program under which the Ministry of Science and Higher Education bought 20,000 licenses for 25 universities in Kazakhstan. Courses taken by students count towards their college degrees.
“You know, people talk about technology, but technology is built by people and it is deployed and implemented by people and for people. If you don’t have the technical skills, it’s easy to fall behind. As a country, Kazakhstan has really thought about how the government can facilitate institutions, putting in online skilling so that the people of Kazakhstan have the kinds of skills that lead to great jobs and great economic prosperity,” he said.
Besides the wealth of natural resources, the true resource lies in people.
“I think it’s about 300,000 students in higher education in Kazakhstan, and that’s going to grow to one million by 2030. A lot of young people are getting educated in these digital jobs, where there’s a lot of global interest in Kazakhstan these days, the government is taking a very proactive role in human capital development,” he said.
Maggioncalda sees many talented people in Kazakhstan who are “young, hungry to learn and develop skills.”
“Historically, a lot of the top students who graduated from the top universities in Kazakhstan would leave the country to go get jobs in the United States or in Europe. Increasingly, those jobs can be done remotely. They can get educated here in Kazakhstan and get great jobs, either from employers in Kazakhstan or globally, but stay here. I think that the government sees that this is a huge opportunity for these young population to have access to the best learning in the world. (…) So I would say that the government is really forward-looking in thinking about how to use technology to create human capital development,” he said.
Career transition becomes a norm
The past few years have shown how rapidly the job market is changing and how important it becomes for people to be flexible and adaptable to all changes. The transition from one profession to another becomes a norm.
“It can feel overwhelming to people because they don’t often know what jobs are available, they don’t often know what skills they need, and they don’t often know how do you get those skills. But Coursera is trying to make it a lot easier and working with governments who can make these programs available through universities,” he said.
Professional certificates are one of the most popular programs at Coursera, offering job training programs and hands-on experience for career transition.
Among Kazakhstan’s users, the most in-demand certificates, growing 160% yearly in enrollments, are Google project management, Google Data Analytics, Meta Front-End Developer, IBM Cybersecurity Analyst, and Google UX Design.
Long-term implications of COVID-19
While the pandemic is officially over, its impact on global learning processes continues to have lasting implications but in different ways for different age groups.
“For younger children, it wasn’t so good. For adults, it was pretty good – more flexible, more affordable, and more relevant to the job. I think what we’ve seen is that adults liked the flexibility of online learning. They want more of it. Even kids on campus want to be able to take whatever courses they want, whenever they want. They don’t want to get up early on Friday morning, even if they’re on campus. But especially if you’re not on campus and you want to learn a new skill, you’re quitting your job and moving to campus. It’s just too much. Flexibility is something that people really like,” he said.
The pandemic also opened up opportunities for people to get jobs worldwide.
In a February 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center, more workers say they work from home more by choice rather than necessity.
Maggioncalda said before the pandemic, he was “old-fashined,” preferring to come to work personally. That all changed when people had no choice but to work from home, and he acknowledged it brought about surprising outcomes.
“We saw tremendous productivity, not in every domain. You can be very productive when you know what you need to be working on. I call it transactional productivity. But when you’re trying to create something brand new with a lot of other people, it’s really hard to do that on Zoom. I do believe that there are things that are hard to do on Zoom associated with novel collaborative creativity and innovation,” he said.
Coursera keeps its offices but does not require workers to come to an office.
“I don’t think we’re going to change that. Even though we know we need people to come together, we’re saying, look, you don’t have to come together at this office. You can join forces to work in various places, so it is in person, but it doesn’t have to be three days a week, and it doesn’t have to be in the same office,” he said.
One of the benefits of work from home policy for Coursera is that the company can recruit workers from all over the world, including Kazakhstan.
“I think that we will have to figure out how to help people work together when they need to. But for me, the benefit of being able to attract the best talent in the whole world, whether we have an office or not, outweighs the challenge of making sure that people can get together when they need to be really creative,” he said.
AI impacts on the job market
In its mission to make learning tailored to all needs, Coursera used AI to create even more personalization along the learning process.
“We have something called Coach, which is basically a Chat GPT trained on Coursera courses. You have your own personal tutor helping you through this. It is very cool. We’re rolling it out now. We also have translated lots of courses. No matter what language you speak, the content is going to become much more accessible,” said Maggioncalda.
The downside risks of growing AI use stem from how it will impact jobs. Because of that, people will need to learn new skills and tools to adapt.
Future lies in data, said Maggioncalda. “Everybody needs to be fluent in data because we make decisions using data and we communicate using data. If you don’t know data, it’s hard to make good decisions,” he said.
According to him, media jobs will be under the most considerable strain from AI. But Maggioncalda is optimistic because “good journalism is not going to be so much at risk.”
“Because GPT doesn’t know how to find good stories and sit down and talk with somebody, figure out where the story really is by probing around here and there,” he said.
Thoughts about Kazakhstan
The focus of Maggioncalda’s visit to Kazakhstan was discussing human capital development. He also visited Almaty to meet with officials. Yet, Maggioncalda was particularly excited about the cultural part of his trip.
“I’m really interested in history. This is my first trip, so this is brand new to me. I’m really just excited to go out to dinners, meet the people and learn about the culture. There’s apparently a museum of nomadic history in the sphere [referring to Nur Alem museum]. I really would love to go see that. It’s just such a fascinating and ancient part of the world. I think some of the beginnings of civilization happened right around here, between India and the steppes of Asia,” he said.