5 Ways Online Learning Prepares Graduates for Real World Challenges

Two working men

By all accounts, the popularity of online college degrees and online courses seems to grow exponentially every year. Every day, more and more students opt for online courses for part or even all of their higher education. In fact, by 2010 more than six million students in the United States enrolled in at least one online course, according to a study by Babson College. As an online courses provider ourselves (check out our courses here), we can tell you the same explosive growth is also going on right here in Australia.

It seems that every time I pick up a college catalog, more and more of the courses are offered online. Online courses are here to stay.

But some education critics and employers have expressed concerns about the level of rigor and academic standards at many online schools, and worry that online education does not prepare graduates to be effective employees in real world situations. Stories of diploma mills and financial fraud at some online colleges in the United States fed into this belief, and even led to a federal investigation and the institution of more stringent regulations on the practices of online schools.

On the positive side, all the investigation and negative attention focused on online colleges has led to positive reform. Now, students can evaluate for themselves the schools they are interested in through the Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Education, which was endorsed by the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving online education.

Employers Can Trust Online Degrees

The new credibility of online courses means that employers and recruiters can also rest easy when considering a job applicant who has earned an online degree. According to TalentManagement.com, today’s workforce requires different skills. Employers want students to possess “the four C’s”: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. This makes the workplace a changed environment:

Proficiency in reading, writing and arithmetic has traditionally been the entry-level threshold to the job market, but the new workplace requires more from its employees. Employees need to think critically, solve problems, innovate, collaborate and communicate more effectively — and at every level within an organization.

Given these new requirements, online students, in many ways, may therefore be better prepared for today’s workplace challenges than job applicants with degrees from traditional face-to-face (F2F) courses. There are two main reasons for this:

The content in online courses is the same as those in F2F courses. Many online courses are created by the same faculty and course designers employed to work with F2F students at their college or university, so that there is consistency between both formats in which courses are offered at a university. Similarly, if the courses are specifically focused on individual career paths, they are often created according to the requirements of professional organizations that offer career licenses.

In many cases, the same faculty teach both F2F and online.

The structure of online courses employs many of the same practices used in the modern working world. Students who enroll in online courses are required to participate in interactive online activities, such as communicate through email, instant message, hold discussion sessions, and complete online assignments.

Many companies now use online formats for the majority of their in-house communication. By the time an online student graduates, they will have several years experience learning different computer formats and technologies, which will enable them to transition into many interactive work environments more easily.

5 Professional Skills Online Students Develop

Specifically, online courses allow students to develop many of the most desired talents and professional skills for today’s demanding and competitive workplace. These five crucial skills can make the difference between nabbing a highly sought-after job in today’s competitive job market, and online students develop them without even realizing it:

1. Communication skills: How many times have misunderstood emails created problems for people? Everyone, including me, has tales of woe about painful misunderstandings between friends caused by a poorly chosen word or misinterpreted “tone.” I also wonder how many times an errant e-mail, mistaken “reply all” command, or hastily –written email has caused problems between businesses and their clients. It’s such a problem that Forbes even published a list of the “10 Emails That Could Cost You Your Job,” pointing out that “people do or say things via email that they would never do in person.

They’d never upstage a higher up in a meeting, but in email there’s this disconnected feeling of not having to look anyone in the eye that emboldens people to act in competitive or even arrogant ways.”

Yet online students learn early how to use appropriate email etiquette and broker communication between multiple parties, a challenge for many employees. In many cases, attention to effective communication practices has a direct bearing on the final grade, so students learn to pay more attention to the vocabulary they choose, and are more thoughtful about the different ways their comments, especially in discussion forums and blogs, may be interpreted by readers.

2. Good Writing Skills: Online students have more opportunities to develop their writing abilities than students in traditional college courses because the nature of online courses relies on writing more than speaking as the primary way that students communicate and interact with faculty and fellow students. Big Think reminds us that job applicants need to know that “you don’t have to be an English major to need to learn how to write.

Everything from your resume to inter-office memos will be closely scrutinized for errors, so be sure you know how to communicate in written form.”  The amount of writing experience online students get is greater than in traditional F2f courses with only a few writing assignments, so online students become more comfortable when asked to write.

This comfort level and experience translates well into the writing tasks of their workplace, including memos, business letters, proposals, white papers, business plans, etc. An online student is a good hire for a position that involves a lot of writing.

3. Computer literacy: The modern workplace is all about computers. Joyette Fabien’s Formula for Success for Young People says it best:

Computer literacy is not an option in today’s world; it is essential! – to getting a job, to keeping the job, to beating your competitors. Think of it; if you are a bygone day’s mechanic who knows nothing about computerized engines you are out of the job race!

If you are a contractor who can’t follow digitally designed plans you will soon be out of the job market and again, if you are tendering for a contract, you will find that inability to prepare and submit estimates electronically is a major setback. Clearly, certification in computer skills will enhance your academic qualifications and make you more marketable/successful.

Online students are a step ahead of the game with this required professional skill because their entire educational experience is rooted in many different computer formats. From word processing to programming, students in distance programs develop widely varied computer literacies along with a comfort level that will enable them to figure out many of the challenging new programs they may encounter in their professional positions.

4. Multi-tasking: While multi-tasking has been under scrutiny for some time (it appears to make people feel good even though they’re not actually doing a good job at it, according to a recent study by researchers at Ohio State University) , it’s also a common demand of many workplaces. For example, a medical receptionist must answer the telephone, take messages, handle the waiting room, check in patients, balance the schedule, file medical records, and communicate with physicians.

That’s a significant amount of stressful multi-tasking—and one that online students will be familiar with. Online students must maintain their course reading and complete assignments such as essays and exams, as well as maintain an active presence in the online discussion threads and emails between themselves and everyone else in the course.

Completion of an online course or degree is proof that a potential new hire can multi-task effectively, a common challenge in today’s workforce.

5. Teamwork: One of the biggest challenges facing any work environment is the need for teamwork, and all too often the same challenge is the course of a great deal of workplace rancor and conflict. Online students will be old hands at teamwork, because most online courses are all about collaboration, as students work together to create constructive discussions, useful blogs, etc.

Companies that have multiple locations around the country or the world can rely on the ability of graduates from online colleges to come up with creative solutions to the real-world problems that occur in collaborative endeavors.

Online students develop many other skills that will help them meet both professional and personal real world challenges, such as initiative, self-discipline, and independence. In other words, online courses provide students with the opportunity to develop the valuable skills and knowledge necessary to successfully meet many of the challenges they may face in the future.

Image by Seattle Municipal Archives

About

Andrianes Pinantoan is InformED's editor and part of the marketing team behind Open Colleges. When not working, he can be found reading about two of his favourite subjects: education and psychology. You can find him on Google+ or @andreispsyched.

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