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Uptick in South Africa’s digital skills proficiency, report shows

Read time 6min 30sec

South Africans are not only heeding the call to become more proficient in digital skills, they are doing so by learning on mobile.

This is according Anthony Tattersall, vice-president of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Coursera, remarking on the “interesting” way in which local users are tapping into course material on the global online learning platform.

Tattersall spoke to ITWeb ahead of today’s release of Coursera’s Global Skills Report 2021, which draws on performance data since the pandemic's onset from more than 77 million learners on the platform, to benchmark skills proficiency across business, technology and data science for over 100 countries.

The insights in this year’s report are based on Coursera’s platform data and research from the first quarter of 2020 to quarter one of 2021.

In SA, Coursera counts close to half-a-million users registered for a range of courses, including machine learning from Stanford University, the science of well-being, and learning how to learn, which according to Tattersall, is among the platform’s most popular courses globally.

He says 55% of SA’s user-base is learning these courses on mobile, which is “very high” compared to the rest of Africa. “It’s interesting to see how much learning is taking place on mobile because the challenges in Africa are often the cost of bandwidth, the availability of a strong WiFi connection, etc. We are obviously seeing a lot of mobile usage taking place, which is great.”

Upskilling a nation

The Global Skills Report found that when compared to the rest of the globe, African nations have an advantage in terms of data visualisation, with SA leading the pack. SA has a global score of 94% proficiency in data visualisation.

Data visualisation is a skill that falls under the data science domain, and is said to involve the creation and study of visual representations of data to communicate information clearly and efficiently.

It’s about creating insight from data that can lead to better business decisions, says Tattersall, adding that SA’s proficiency around data visualisation is very well ranked, scoring well-above many of the countries in Europe; for example, Germany was at 79% and the UK at 64%.

In 2020, the global data visualisation market was valued at $2.99 billion, and is expected to reach $5.17 billion by 2026, the report reveals.

SA appears to be increasingly competitive in digital skills, specifically in skills proficiency for cloud computing, which is at 54%, machine learning at 51% and software engineering at 50%.

In addition, the report hails the country’s Web development proficiency, which has reached 77% skills proficiency, and security engineering at 71%.

Anthony Tattersall, vice-president of EMEA at Coursera.
Anthony Tattersall, vice-president of EMEA at Coursera.

Turning to artificial intelligence (AI), Tattersall pointed to witnessing some “very high” growth rates in AI hiring across the country.

“I think there is a lot of focus on AI in South Africa,” he notes. “South Africa is already at a good level of proficiency in such skills, but there is clearly opportunity to improve that further and really make it something that’s a competitive-edge for the country.”

In the past, industry commentators have noted South African companies have the intention to embrace AI, but are often held back by the perception of high cost and, more importantly, the shortage of skills.

According to Tattersall, everybody and anybody should participate in pushing AI adoption, but the three major components are business, government and the education sector.

He believes the rising AI hiring across the country can be attributed to a combination of factors. “We know that AI is becoming much more commonly utilised by almost all organisations around the world, and obviously in South Africa specifically. We’ve seen many companies now are focused on building out their tech teams and resources.

“If you look at the jobs that have the most increasing demand, we’re seeing data analysts, AI and machine learning specialists, and big data specialists – these are the top three. There is much greater focus on these areas and if you look at most companies…the ability for a company to have competitive advantage is fundamentally down to the skills of its people and its ability to effectively utilise technology, of which AI, of course, forms a part.

“AI is a really critical area of competence and it’s an area that different countries are investing in across different levels. SA right now is in a very strong position, relative to the rest of the continent, in AI, and has the ability, if it continues to progress in its AI focus, to be a strong proponent of it and be able to utilise its capabilities around AI to its advantage.”

Female power

This year’s Global Skills Report shows that women account for 45% of South African learners actively upskilling themselves and accessing learning programmes on Coursera.

There has also been an increase in enrolments in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses by local women on the platform, states Tattersall.

For female learners, 36% of enrolments have been in STEM disciplines over the past year, compared to 33% in 2018/2019.

“We’re seeing more people engaging with online, more people engaging with mobile forms of learning, more female participants coming into learning and more women embracing what has historically been seen as male-oriented disciplines. I think is really positive for SA in broadening diversity of the workforce opportunity.”

Filling the digital gap

Tattersall notes there are some fantastic initiatives taking place on the continent, and in turn SA, to bridge the digital divide − which would be a huge prize for all involved.

However, there is definitely room for more to be done and all stakeholders have a role to play, he emphasises.

“We have to recognise the pace of technological change is accelerating; it’s very unlikely to slowdown. Some of the initiatives we are seeing are really exciting and with many, either South Africa focused or continent focused, there is a sense of community. It’s not enough but there is some really great work that is being done.

“For educational institutions, they get to improve the employability outcomes of their students, their ranking on the global stage and it allows them to prosper within the educational system.

“For governments, if they have individuals that are going to be on unemployment benefits or supported by the state because they don’t have the skillsets that employers need, it’s a huge cost to the state. The cost of reskilling is far less than the cost of supporting people for life. It’s an obvious sensible return on investment to get people into work through reskilling.

“For organisations, if they don’t invest in their people, they are going to work for somebody else and they may not even work for an institution in SA. If you focus on giving people the opportunity to learn and develop, you are also giving them the ability to contribute to the company in terms of improved business outcomes. By investing in people, you are much more likely to retain them and be a brand that people want to work for.”

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