Online education’s potential in Latin America starting to be tapped

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Law student at Catholic University of Peru, Jean Franco Gutierrez Quevedo studies at the library in Lima, Peru on June 27, 2013. Photo © World Bank/Dominic Chavez

Four years ago, while sitting on a plane heading for a business development trip to Asia, a colleague asked me if I had heard of a new course from Stanford University in which more than 100,000 students enrolled after it was put online. A nascent company called Coursera was behind the initiative, he told me. My interest piqued, I contacted Coursera founders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. A few short months later, the IFC decided to invest, the start of a relationship that continues to blossom.

Now Coursera is an IFC investment client. The World Bank Group also works with several other providers of Massive Open Online Courses.

Last September, Coursera made a concerted push to extend its reach into Latin America. Holding twin events in Bogota and Mexico City, it unveiled an online platform comprising 150 new courses in Spanish on topics such as how to develop iOS applications or become an expert in social media marketing.

Breaking the conventional mold of translating content from English, Coursera partnered with acclaimed Spanish-speaking universities to produce original content in Spanish. It also launched a mobile app in Spanish for Android and iOS devices, a wise move at a time when an increasing share of its users are accessing content via mobile devices. One third of Coursera’s users in Latin America are mobile, a significantly higher rate than the 16 percent for the rest of the world

Online education has evolved a great deal from the clunky era of ‘distance education’ when universities dispatched packages of materials in the mail. Companies are experimenting with new business models: enrolments for online courses are usually free with revenues generated in other ways such as by levying fees for receiving credentials, or charging corporate customers who want tailor-made courses for their workers.

We have entered the era of the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. With 18 million learners, 1,849 courses, and 142 university partners in twenty countries, Coursera is the biggest player in the MOOC market. Other major companies include edX, Udacity and NovoEd. 

To the surprise of some, the surge in online education has not come at the expense of on-campus enrolment. A recent Financial Times report surmised that online courses are serving as appetizers for on-campus courses, with universities seeing them as outreach tools to put themselves on the radar of a wider public. 

Personally, I would not trade my on-campus experience as it gave me things an online course cannot: stimulating debates with professors and classmates, the possibility to randomly bump into someone in the library, and ‘soft skills’ like punctuality and respect for different opinions. These on-campus experiences are unique and valuable.

But as a Colombian working to raise education standards in Latin America, I appreciate the enormous potential that online education offers. This is a region where so many either cannot afford university, lack the base skills necessary to gain admission, or are forced to find a job immediately to support their family.

Since September’s launch, Coursera has experienced rapid growth in Latin America, which has become the company’s fastest growing region, with Colombia and Mexico representing almost half the region’s users. For instance, in a single week earlier this year, registrations from Mexico exceeded those from all of the United States, Coursera’s largest market. Meanwhile, a partnership launched in Chile in April 2015 has led to a 100 percent increase in registrations there. Argentina, with high internet connectivity and higher-than-average educational attainment, is a further frontier that Coursera is setting its sights on.

Employers are beginning to recognize the value of an online education, although it is still early days, as the Financial Times reported. MOOCs can help them bridge chronic skills gaps by making jobs-oriented courses like business English and public speaking more accessible.

Some employers may retain a pro-campus education bias and this is understandable - and even justifiable in certain cases. Imagine two candidates competing for a job, one with a traditional degree, the other with various online courses completed. The high motivation displayed by the online student should impress the employer for sure. But they might prefer to hire the other candidate with on-campus degree, especially if it is from a top-tier university.

Survey data from Coursera has found that 26 percent of enrollees who completed their courses reported that it helped them find a new job, while 43 percent said that it enhanced their candidacy for a new job. One potential cause for concern is that the same survey found that only 4 percent of those who enrolled in an online course completed it, an obviously low percentage, even if the numbers completing courses are still in the thousands given the very high volumes who enroll. We need to learn more about whether the 96 percent who started but did not finish a course got career, personal or education benefits from their experience.

Whatever obstacles lie ahead, one thing is clear: with more than 25 million people having enrolled in MOOCs since 2012, and interest in them continuing to soar, this is a space we should all be watching. Coursera’s impressive success in expanding its user base in Latin America underscores the power of having local partners and the imperative of making courses relevant locally.

Follow the World Bank Group education team @wbg_education


Juliana Guaqueta Ospina

Education specialist at IFC

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