Digital Learning Delivers Results for Women | Women’s participation in online learning can drive career growth and economic development

Rayna Zhang

Artist Soha Ahmed sculpts emotions—and her large-scale metal installations, interpreting feelings such as love, loss, and isolation, are often as sprawling as the emotions themselves. After graduating from university in 2018, she exhibited her art in several galleries. But when the pandemic shut down arts venues, Soha knew she would have to sculpt a new career for herself. She registered for online courses in graphic design, photography, journalism, and business management—including a class offered by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)—and transitioned into the field of digital marketing. Last year, she cofounded a company to offer her expertise to creative enterprises.

“Online learning gave me the confidence to set up my business,” she says. The artistic community in Egypt values the credentials she earned online because “You need a lot of knowledge in this field, which isn’t always available locally.” Her earnings now equal what she made from art exhibits, and she feels like the financial stability has helped her maintain her quality of life.

Online learning can offer educational options and professional opportunities to many women in emerging economies who, like Soha, would otherwise face limited choices.  Women learners in Egypt, India, Mexico, and Nigeria who were surveyed by Coursera, the open online course provider, confirmed that online learning is seen as more accessible than in-person education.

Online post-secondary education benefits women—and society. Digital education that responds to the needs and circumstances of women in emerging markets “promotes gender equality and offers opportunities to address development and humanitarian challenges,” according to the United Nations’ “Gender Snapshot” report.  This is especially true when education leads to employment, because narrowing the gender gap among workers can increase GDP by an average of 35 percent.)

New research from IFC, developed in partnership with Coursera and the European Commission, shows that digitally-enabled learning can offer specific benefits to women in emerging economies—women like Soha, who sought out courses that were not available locally.  “Digitalization is redefining education and employment for all learners, especially in a post-pandemic world,” says Makhtar Diop, Managing Director of IFC.  “For women, online education has the potential to drive economic development, raise standards of equality, and create resilience in the face of rapidly changing economic circumstances.”

A market “poised to grow”
Online learning allowed Ana Lilia Ramos Jacques to launch a career in an entirely new field after she was laid off from her job as a chemical engineer during a national economic downturn in Mexico, where she lives. Browsing the Internet during the pandemic, she discovered an online course from Stanford University in scientific writing.  She was taking care of her young son full-time at home, but since the course didn’t require her to log in at specific times, she signed up.

The course “pushed my career forward a lot [by] opening up new options for me,” she says. She is now a freelance writer and editor of scientific textbooks. Working remotely allows her to accept assignments from employers across Mexico without having to travel, and earnings from the freelance work now constitute most of Ana’s income.
Her experience reflects Coursera’s broader findings. Since the onset of the pandemic, about 44 percent of all online learners surveyed by Coursera in Mexico found a new job, set up a business, or improved their job or business performance after taking online courses.

Like Ana, many other women logged on to online learning platforms during the pandemic. Globally, women’s participation in online learning globally jumped from an average of 39 percent in the previous three years to 45 percent in 2020 and 2021.

Overall, the EdTech sector is experiencing a rapid increase that is reflected in funding for EdTech, which is now three times pre-pandemic levels.  The market for adult online learning is expected to more than double by 2026, IFC’s study suggests.  This creates a $14 billion per annum revenue opportunity for EdTech solutions providers.

“Online education platforms that are aligned with the needs of the market are poised to grow,” according to William Sonneborn, Global Director, Disruptive Technologies and Funds at IFC. “Companies that respond to women’s participation challenges through product design using a gender lens can increase the size of their addressable market while also driving greater development impact.”

Increasing gender parity

Women can be shut out of traditional in-person learning for many different and overlapping reasons, including geographic isolation, domestic circumstances, safety concerns, lack of income, natural disasters, and public health crises such as the pandemic.  For some, it may be the only way forward. “Online education could open a door for some women and girls [who] are pulled out of education because of fears of assault or for women who are pulled into marriage without having had a chance to complete schooling,” says Linda Scott, Emeritus DP World Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Oxford.

Forty-five percent of women and 60 percent of women caregivers said they would have had to postpone or stop studies if online learning weren’t an option, according to IFC’s report. Women also said they confronted more restrictions that limited how and where they learn, but online learning provided an opportunity for them to achieve their goals.

In societies where women may face stigma for learning certain subjects—such as stereotypes that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects and careers are better suited for boys—the anonymity of online classes can be empowering.

For Sukhmani Gill, an engineer from Chandigarh, India, who takes online courses while working full-time, online learning in STEM subjects is preferable because “you worry less about the fact that you’re the only woman. It’s not visible.”  Seeing just a last name on screen, others “take you more seriously.”

Gender gaps are substantially smaller in online enrollment than in traditional education, Coursera research shows. In online ICT (information and communications technology) training, for example, gender parity increased between 2019 and 2021.  Training women in ICT and STEM subjects has profound implications for parity in a rapidly changing job market. According to UNESCO, on average only 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women, and less than a third of female students in higher education opt for fields such as mathematics and engineering.

Online in Africa
Confidence Vandu, a data analyst and aspiring genomic data scientist from Adamawa, Nigeria, pursued online learning with a specific career goal in mind. After her degree in Biological Sciences, she set her sights on a professional certificate to develop her data analytics and data science skills.  She turned to online coursework that was “rigorous and intense”—and gave her exactly what she needed to get hired.

“Pursuing the data analytics professional certificate track helped me develop job-relevant skills that were helped me find a job after a long stretch of unemployment,” she says.

“If there was ever a tool that can support inclusion in education, it is EdTech.”

“If there was ever a tool that can support inclusion in education, it is EdTech,” says Precious Imuwahen Ajoonu, Transformation Director, Edo State Government, Nigeria. “The beauty of online learning is its ability to deliver the same quality across the world.”

The possibilities of online learning are especially relevant in Africa, where there are concerns about universities’ capacity to serve Africa’s growing population.  An analysis by Quartz Africa shows that there are only 740 universities in the continent’s most populated countries, serving 600 million people. By comparison, in the United States there are 5,300 institutions serving 323 million people.

Rates of tertiary education (education beyond secondary school) are already low throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where only nine percent of college-age learners of both genders continue from secondary to tertiary education. Despite doubling access to tertiary education between 2000 and 2018, sub-Saharan Africa had the slowest increase in tertiary education participation rates during this period.

This is a pressing issue because access to higher education is an important driver of development, according to the World Bank. The economic returns for tertiary education graduates in sub-Saharan Africa are higher than the global average, at an estimated 21 percent increase in earning for tertiary education graduates.

Logging in for life

As more online learning is linked to professional opportunities and career outcomes, EdTech platforms are partnering with businesses, governments, and universities to make sure students and workers have the skills and credentials they need to be employable.

“Technology is creating new career opportunities, but students and workers need access to flexible, affordable, and fast-tracked learning and career pathways to transition into well-paying jobs of the future,” according to Jeff Maggioncalda, Coursera’s CEO.  “It will require significant collaboration from both the public and the private sector [to] build competitive, equitable, and sustainable workforces amid rapid transformation.”

Making this transition successfully is particularly important for women, whose jobs in traditional service sectors are likely to be disproportionately impacted by changes in technology due to the routine nature of the tasks they perform. Online learning can offer women “a foundation for more equal access to economic opportunity in our post-pandemic future,” he says.

For Mai Abbas, a mother of four, the opportunity has already arrived. Abbas, who lives near Cairo and works as a journalist and translator, says that online classes on parenting helped her write and publish a book about parenting styles. Other online courses helped her create a podcast on economic challenges faced by women in the Arab world.  The digital learning experiences boosted her confidence and allowed her to transition from individual job assignments to a full-time job.

Mai now sees ongoing online learning as a career necessity—and a source of great pleasure. “Anything you are uncertain about or do not know, you can find a course about it online,” she says.  “I have the freedom to learn about anything, anytime. Freedom in learning—this is the best feeling.”

Research, data, and interviews in this story draw from Women and Online Learning in Emerging Marketsan IFC report developed in partnership with Coursera and the European Commission.

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