A training scheme with a difference started last Wednesday when 350 Singaporeans embarked on a year-long online course to learn about data science.
They are among tens of thousands of working professionals worldwide who have also signed up for it on Coursera, the American specialist offering online courses with unlimited participation.
The 10-module course organised by the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) was oversubscribed. Initially, it had offered 200 places, but since 350 people applied, all were accepted. Each module will take about four weeks to complete.
The students received an 80 per cent subsidy on the US$490 (S$613) fee. They will get a $500 bonus from IDA if they complete the course by next August and attend 12 meet-up sessions with other students and experts.
In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings and problem sets, Coursera, a pioneer in offering this type of massive open online courses, will provide interactive forums.
Coursera product manager Koh Pang Wei said its courses are usually free. "We charge a fee to authenticate that the students are who they say they are and to manage the certification process," he said.
Lecturers from Johns Hopkins University will teach this course and those who complete it will get a certificate from the university. The Singapore students are from the public and private sectors and work in IT, health care, finance and education.
One of them, Mr Chan Chi-Loong, said he does data visualisation work and the course is relevant. "I like the Coursera structure because all the work, like quizzes and coursework, is done online. I can finish the modules in my own time and at my own pace, any time and anywhere," he said.
But given the way the course is designed, he questioned the need for participants to meet, which is tied to the subsidy. Explaining why the meet-ups were added, Mr Koh said: "It's a lot more fun learning with your peers and friends - easier to bounce questions in real time and discuss problems."
Students will meet volunteer data science experts who will guide those who have problems.
IDA executive deputy chairman Steve Leonard said: "We want the participants to not only benefit from a high quality of learning that improves career prospects, we also want participants to network with and learn from like-minded members of the industry."
Data science is regarded as crucial to industry because it offers insightful information on everything from customer satisfaction to ideas for new revenue streams. Data scientists are in such demand that some earn between $140,000 and $190,000 annually. Management consultancy McKinsey predicts a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 data sciences and analytics professionals in the US alone by 2018.