By Jonathan Gerhardson
A new program available to Massachusetts residents promises free online job training to help those who have become unemployed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dubbed the Coursera for Workforce Recovery Initiative (C4WR), a partnership between MassHire and the online learning company lets unemployed workers enroll in a curated selection of courses through November 30th. MassHire is the newly-rebranded career services arm of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development (EOLWD).
Massachusetts joins 290 other national, state, and local governments who have partnered with Coursera. According to the company’s own 2020 Impact Report, [PDF] the initiative aims to “assist countries, states, and cities [to] reskill their unemployed workers to re-enter the workforce.” To this end it has made 90% of its course material available to participants free of charge until December 31, 2020.
The value of job training available through Coursera however is tenuous. For starters, Coursera is not on the list of Massachusetts’ Eligible Training Providers, nor is it a bona fide government program (despite the similarities in name it shares with programs like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act). What this means is that government funds are prohibited from being spent on Coursera courses. Enrollees are operating solely under the graces of the corporation, which set the terms for its initiative unilaterally.
For both governments and individual learners this generosity ends promptly at the end of the year. After December 31st it will be up to either government agencies or the individual to pay for continued access to the coursework, at a cost of between $50 and $80 dollars per month. Notably, the curriculums for many of the “curated” certifications and specializations extend well past this cut off. A professional certificate titled “Google IT Support Specialist,” for instance, takes 3-6 months to complete. A specialization for beginners to learn Python—which recently surpassed Java as the world’s most popular programming language—is split into five separate 7 week courses. (A Python course identical to Coursera’s offering is available for free at www.py4e.com.)
Furthermore, only the coursework is available without charge under the program. Certification is not. For this privilege, one must still pay, even if the course is completed before the cut off, according to representatives from MassHire. For the above referenced Google IT Support Specialist this costs $304 [PDF]. The cost of certification for an individual course ranges from $29 to $158 [PDF]. No mention is made of these fees in any course description I could find, nor anywhere on MassHire. The website for the Holyoke branch even says they are free. This is in direct opposition to information offered to me from MassHire representatives. Katie Smith, Director of Counselling Services for MassHire Holyoke told The Shoestring, “If you are able to complete the coursework, and if a professional certification is available – you would be responsible for the cost of the certification.” Similarly, Charles Pearce, Director of Communications for the EOLWD said, “Each course provides information whether or not the certificate is free or offered through another entity.” A representative from Coursera could not be reached for comment.
It’s curious that a program supposedly meant to provide job training free of charge, to those made economically vulnerable by the COVID-19 pandemic would not be free, and that the true costs are seemingly obscured from learners. While temporary access to coursework may be worthwhile for those looking to simply learn more about a particular topic, the Coursera for Workforce Recovery Initiative does not make good on its promises. Even if one were able to complete their coursework at an accelerated pace, it would still cost hundreds of dollars to be able to show proof of their newly acquired skills to potential employers.
This of course assumes that a Coursera certification holds any value to jobseekers anyways. But for those looking to enter a new field, a MOOC on the resume might not make much difference. As Carolyn Mcintyre, founder and CEO of MoocLab—an online learning directory and forum—points out, “having a “verified” certificate doesn’t necessarily imply that you have gone through the course assessments, nor learned anything at all for that matter.” But for more specialized and technically advanced fields, the knowledge gained may prove valuable. Nick Lothian, founder and CEO of the artificial intelligence company Tyto.AI stated in 2016, “If you are a software developer who has done the Coursera ML [machine learning] course and/or a Kaggle then your resume gets read,” with the caveat that, “the paid certs aren’t much better than the unpaid.” In a follow up email Lothian said that he stood by the statement, but in 2020 recommends the machine learning course offered by fast.ai, which is free of charge.
A more accurate name for the program might be Coursera for Government: Trial Edition. With hidden costs, a limited trial period, and questionable value to job seekers, it is hard to see how the Coursera for Workforce Recovery Initiative actually helps workers at all. But the benefits for Coursera are numerous. Under the guise of a philanthropic endeavor it has managed to get its foot in the door of 290 government agencies world wide, harnessing the labor of these government employees to net 480,000 new subscribers. That’s a sizable conversion funnel, and a potentially hefty payout if governments choose to buy in to online learning in the long-term. And since the C4WR excludes any human support, the cost is practically nothing — electricity for the servers.
With a recent valuation of $2.5 billion amidst rumors of an IPO, Coursera’s true intentions during this pandemic seem to be “growth hacking” its way to a big payoff.
Jonathan Gerhardson is a writer living in western Massachusetts. He’s available to work! Send inquiries and general chit chat to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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