Openi2i conversations – a mentor’s experience on DataHack4FI and the Microsoft Professional Program in Data Science

Openi2i conversations – a mentor’s experience on DataHack4FI and the Microsoft Professional Program in Data Science

January 22, 2020    

Have you had a look at insight2impact’s Openi2i series yet? Openi2i is an initiative of Cenfri and Finmark Trust focused on sharing some of the programmatic learnings we’ve discovered from the last five years of jointly implementing the insight2impact programme. For Openi2i, we’ve partnered with NextBillion to document and explore our journey from the start to end of this programme while considering what has contributed to our successes and failures. You can read all posts in the growing Openi2i series here. And we’d love to hear from you around your experiences linked to the learnings we’re sharing that can inform organisations pursuing similar initiatives. So, we’re encouraging people to join the #Openi2i conversation and share their learnings and experiences.

In November 2019, we shared an Openi2i piece on our learnings from the Microsoft Professional Program in Data Science that formed part of our DataHack4FI competition. We’re excited to share a Q&A with one of the course mentors on his experience of online learning in general and with the Microsoft Program. 

Q: How did you first come across online courses?

Chika Obuah: When I was 15, my parents sent me to a computer training school and I was hooked. I became obsessed with computers. It started with simple applications like Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Corel Draw, Word Perfect, Lotus 123 and then COBOL, Fortran and dBase. I found out that Microsoft Certifications were the best way to show proficiency, so I also became obsessed with becoming Microsoft Certified. At the time, it was a big challenge because my Dad – an aircraft engineer at Nigeria Airways – had just been laid off and my Mum – a caterer (chef de partie) at Sheraton Hotel – was overloaded. There were so many hurdles, but I was determined. I was consumed by it. Somehow, things came together; my dad got a consulting job with a new airline and provided the funds for the training and exams. And after one year, seven difficult exams and many sleepless nights I became a Microsoft Certified Professional, Microsoft Certified Database Administrator and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCP, MCDBA, MCSE) in 2002, at the age of about 16. I later learned I was one of the youngest ever to achieve this.

Fast-forward to 2019, the world has really changed, we now have Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). A MOOC is a model for delivering learning content online for any person who wants to take a course, with no limit on attendance. That’s it. You can learn almost anything now for free, anywhere, at any time of your choosing. And it’s a very big deal.

Q: And you’ve gone on to leverage this exposure to MOOCs in working with insight2impact. What role did you play in the online course component of DataHack4FI?

CO: I had the privilege of exploring the potential of MOOCs as a mentor on the DataHack4FI innovation competition – an initiative of insight2impact that aims to unleash the power of data for financial and economic inclusion. During the programme, participants took the Microsoft Professional Program for Data Science (MPPDS) course via the 21cskills.africa online platform, powered by Liquid Telecom. I directly mentored the Nigerian participants and indirectly mentored the rest of Africa over our Facebook community. The programme recorded an impressive performance and completion rate: Out of the 374 enrolments across Africa, 169 (45%) successfully completed all ten course-work modules.

Q: That’s a really high completion rate!

CO: Yes, according to a study conducted by educational researcher Katy Jordan, the average completion rate for a MOOC is around 15%. This raised some interesting questions for me. Why was the performance on the DataHack4FI program significantly better? What did we do right? Was it the course content? Was it the delivery method (i.e. user interface and experience)? Was it the quality of the participants? Was it the tools available to the participants? There are a few factors I believe led to our outstanding performance.

Q: What are some of the key factors that helped achieve these great results that you saw during DataHack4FI?

CO: Well, key ones were peer support and mentorship, but the tools we had access to as part of the course and the user experience in the 21C Skills platform also contributed a lot.

Q: Can you tell me a bit more about how you saw mentorship and peer support helping the participants?

CO: Mentoring is important not only because of the knowledge and skills students can learn from mentors but also because it provides professional socialisation and personal support to facilitate success during the MOOC and beyond. During my time mentoring the participants, I received lots of messages from them letting me know my support was a crucial factor in them completing the course. It was extremely fulfilling, and I have formed strong friendships with a lot of them.

The Nigerian participants, aside from the mentorship support I gave, had amazing peer group support on WhatsApp. And it was a great boost. I saw first-hand how it reduced fear of judgement and increased confidence in many participants.

Q: And the user experience, how did this assist the participants in engaging and achieving?

CO: The content, design, and functionality of the web or mobile app which host the MOOC are crucial aspects of the user interface (UI). While the UI deals with the navigation, ease of use, efficiency, and giving users a positive experience overall. A good user interface is important because it makes it easier for participants to clearly see features without ambiguity. It attracts more learners and allows better interaction with the system.

The 21cskills.africa has a simple interface that uses a clear language and avoids inessential elements. It maintained consistency by using common UI elements that users are familiar with. This ensured things got done fast and guaranteed user comfort and gratification. Its page layouts are smart and purposeful and focus on the most important aspects of the application. Colours and textures were appropriately used to draw attention to a particular component.

Q: And the tools?

CO: When I started working on data science projects about 12 years ago, propriety tools were the order of the day. If you weren’t using MATLAB, you were on Wolfram Mathematica, Mathcad, SPSS, Stata etc. That often meant to share your work and collaborate, your colleagues would have to have the specific expensive software you have. Times have changed. Today we have a plethora of free tools; programming languages (e.g. R and Python), frameworks, libraries, hubs for sample models etc. that make life much easier. The tools were in no small way equally responsible for our amazing result. Microsoft also provided a trial/free version and their products (Azure, Power BI) to test some of the amazing content participants were learning. Having access to the right tools is crucial.

Q: A lot needed to come together to enable the participants to succeed. And it sounds like it did. Despite so many things going right, there must have been aspects that didn’t work or could have been improved. What were the key challenges that you experienced during the course?

CO: Well, as with almost any e-learning system today, there were a few glitches. Some of the questions in the quiz had wrong or ambiguous answers, incorrect final score reporting, and there were these periods of long waits because of platform interoperability issues. So there definitely were technical challenges, but again having a good mentor and experienced people managing the program went a long way to reduce the impact of these issues.

Q: If you had to choose one key takeaway from your experience of mentoring on the course, what would it be?

CO: I cannot overstate the importance of persistence, consistency and having a strong work ethic. The course was not a walk in the park; it was long and required a lot of thinking and going over the content again and again. I found the most promising participants were very optimistic and motivated; from the very beginning they were positive they will complete the program and had very strong motivations. For some it was enhanced career prospects, for others the opportunity to change industries. But their optimism and motivation were obvious and contagious! We had the good fortune of outstanding participants.


If you did the MSPP in Data Science, or another MOOC, we’d love to hear your thoughts too! What helped you succeed? What did you learn through the process? Join the conversation on #Openi2i.

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