CourseraEmbedding data skills in South African universities’ curricula to boost employability

Embedding data skills in South African universities’ curricula to boost employability

Data skills are becoming a must-have, but students and staff in South Africa still lack the training to take full advantage of the shift

South Africa’s universities are working to embed data skills in their curricula to make students more attractive to employers, although training for both staff and students remains a to-do task.

That was the main conclusion of a round table titled “How can institutions ensure that learners are equipped with the key data skills that employers in South Africa currently require?”. The session was held by Times Higher Education in partnership with Coursera for Campus.

Frances Quirke, partnerships director at Coursera, highlighted how universities in South Africa are yet to fully train their staff on data skills, a necessary step prior to implementing digital transformation at institutions.

“Right now, 1.74 million people in South Africa are learning in our platform. Fascinatingly, 193,000 of them declare themselves as students. The key interests are, not surprisingly, in three areas: data, business, and technology,” Quirke said.

The panel agreed that the blended learning approach of the future, in which digital plays a key role, will require universities to step up their efforts to offer up-to-date data skills training.

David Kabwa, president of the Student Representative Council at the University of Pretoria, warned of the fast-changing nature of such skills. “A huge concern we see is the technology skills have a shelf life of two or three years, yet we are creating a huge amount of content in those spaces. It’s terrifying to think that the work you did three years ago is gone,” he said.

Kabwa added that if 193,000 students were using Coursera’s platform in South Africa, there was an opportunity for universities to blend that content into the curriculum.

Francis Petersen, vice-chancellor at the University of the Free State, said it was key for universities to bring in experts from outside academia to improve their programmes. “We have established a series of programmes which bring people from outside – [from] the private sector, but from government as well – to tell us what skills students need and question why they are not in the curriculum. Then we took a step forward, asking them to come and work with us and co-create programmes. We are expanding this.”

Loretta Feris, former deputy vice-chancellor for transformation at the University of Cape Town, said staff need to sharpen their tracking of data, as well as their engagement. “Even though we provided our students with laptops and data [for the emergency remote learning brought about by the pandemic], many simply were in remote areas where connection is poor, and that’s part of the reality of South Africa,” she said. “We asked our academics to track students’ participation, the levels of engagement, etcetera. [These are] elements of data for which we have not trained our academics to engage with.”

Shaun Pather, chair of the department of information systems at the University of the Western Cape, said understanding data will become a key skill required by employers. “Data has always been around, but now it’s in electronic form and much more easily available,” Pather said. “Average workplaces expect graduates to understand the notion of data, how to access, organise, and use it for any decision-making that is particular to a specific domain.”

The panel:

  • Loretta Feris, former deputy-vice-chancellor for transformation, University of Cape Town
  • David Kabwa, Student Representative Council president, University of Pretoria
  • Alistair Lawrence, special projects editor, Times Higher Education (chair)
  • Shaun Pather, chair of the department of information systems, University of the Western Cape
  • Francis Petersen, vice-chancellor, University of the Free State
  • Frances Quirke, partnerships director, Coursera

Watch the round table on demand above or on the THE Connect YouTube channel.

Find out more about Coursera for Campus.

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