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New York’s Online Learning Opportunity Could Leave Some Workers Behind

Patti Singer

New York is offering online courses to help people improve their skills, but the digital divide could pose a barrier. Photo adapted from New York state Department of Labor web site.

New York state is offering a free way for unemployed and underemployed residents to learn or brush up on skills in high-demand industries.

However, taking advantage of the opportunity requires access to a computer and the internet, which may leave some people staring across the digital divide.

“This is wonderful thing for people who can use it,” said former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, a co-chair of the city-county Racial and Structural Equity (RASE) Commission. “There are too many people who probably won’t be able to use it. How do we close that gap for them?”

In mid-November, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a partnership between the state Department of Labor and the online learning platform Coursera. Residents would have access to nearly 4,000 programs, many in fields such as advanced manufacturing, technology and health care.

Specific courses include business writing, introduction to mechanical engineering design and manufacturing machine learning, medical neuroscience, Facebook social media marketing, entrepreneurship, introduction to game development, cybersecurity, marketing in a digital world and financial markets.

According to the news release on launch, “Many of these programs provide a pathway to professional certificates and other certifications that can help New Yorkers elevate their careers or compete in a new industry.”

Residents can learn more and register at the Department of Labor site.

Coursera has been offering online courses for several years. The partnership with New York is part of the Coursera Workforce Recovery Initiative launched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the news release, more than 1 million workers in the U.S. and other countries have taken courses.

While the announcement proclaimed the benefits of the Coursera program, it lacked specifics about how it will help people who’ve been left behind in other online initiatives. The issue is about equity as much as it is enhancing skills and becoming employable.

“Just like any other online option or course work, it doesn’t itself address the digital divide,” said Lee Koslow, technical assistance and training manager at RochesterWorks. “That’s something that needs to be done. It isn’t going to happen through online course work but hopefully as a community, different organizations that are performing work with workforce development, education and training can get together to address those issues.”

Koslow said local workforce organizations were not involved in the development or rollout of the Coursera partnership and as of late November they were awaiting word on how they could assist their clients. He said one way would be to have those agencies or organizations curate the courses to help clients choose and then set up ways to monitor their progress.

But that would assume an individual has the equipment to take the course, a stable internet connection and enough technical ability to do basic troubleshooting if things go wrong.

The state Department of Labor declined to make anyone available for an interview about how the Coursera initiative will help people without access to computers and the internet.

The department did send a statement “on background”, which was not attributed to anyone. It read:

  • Coursera can be accessed on a mobile friendly platform for individuals who don’t have access to a computer or laptop.
  • Coursera has courses available in over 17 languages including English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese (Simplified, Traditional), French, Portuguese (Brazil), Japanese, Arabic, Turkish, and German, with some subtitles in over 45 languages including Vietnamese, Korean, Greek, Romanian and Italian.
  • We continue to add additional resources for all New Yorkers.

Told of that response, Johnson replied, “They didn’t answer the question. Here is the story — the fact that they think this has somehow lessened the digital divide. That’s a problem.”

Johnson said the Coursera option is a wonderful concept but it needs more work to make sure it gives people an opportunity to improve their skills.

Johnson said it’s as though the state bestowed a gift without asking what the recipient needed. He gave the analogy of giving someone canned food or uncooked meat when they don’t have a can opener and the stove doesn’t work.

“You think you’re feeding a family without inquiring did they have the means to utilize what you gave them,” he said.