Challenging Economy? Online Learning is the Answer

Challenging Economy? Online Learning is the Answer

Recent news articles and job surveys indicate that job prospects are improving for college graduates, with a 4% increase in jobs overall this year. These reports don’t make a distinction between graduates of traditional or online schools, and more importantly, there isn’t a separate category for college graduates who are new to the workforce and those who are already working while they earn a degree. Online learning typically attracts the non-traditional student or a student who is already in the workforce and seeking new or improved career options. This is one of the reasons why online learning is the right answer for a challenging economy – you can continue to work as you earn your degree. In addition, you will acquire knowledge and develop skill sets that are immediately relevant and applicable to your career.

National trends for college graduates

A new year is upon us and a recent survey projects that the employment rate for college graduates (for the class of 2012) will be up by 9.5% compared to the previous year. There is also an expected increase in starting salary. What’s significant about the study is the indication that “many of the openings for the class of 2012 are for ‘replacement hires,’ new employees brought in to fill the roles of existing employees who are leaving.” If you have existing career skills and experience, along with a college degree, you are going to find more job opportunities. This is very good news for non-traditional students.

Non-traditional students

What is the difference between a traditional and a non-traditional student? A traditional student is typically defined as someone who attends college after completing high school and takes classes to prepare them for a career. The National Center for Educational Statistics indicates that 73% of students no longer fit this traditional definition of a student. The U.S. Department of Education has provided characteristics of a non-traditional student and it includes: “delayed enrollment after high school, attending part time, working full time, raising children, or is a single parent.” Non-traditional students consist of adults (of all ages) who have varying careers, experiences, needs, and existing knowledge. They often pursue non-traditional forms of education, such as online classes, because of their specialized needs. 

The growth of online or distance learning courses and degree programs has contributed to the changing definition of students because education is being made more accessible. Non-traditional students are sometimes referred to as working adults because they have career needs or plans and are seeking professional development, skills, and knowledge. The non-traditional student wants to be involved in the class so they can use the knowledge acquired in their career or professional goals, which means that assignments become building blocks and discussions serve as a springboard for learning. This is a perfect match to online learning because students are not just reading about theory; they are taking the course materials and applying it to real-world issues, problems, and scenarios.
Benefits of online learning

A study in 2006 found that “60 percent of adults who have returned to school after age 25 say that the benefits of higher education outweigh the time, money, and energy invested.” There are a number of skills that students develop through their work as an online student and the most important skills are the development of advanced cognitive functions (which includes critical thinking), along with reading comprehension, time management, communication, and writing skills. In addition to these skill sets, as an online instructor I’ve watched students develop greater self-motivation and self-confidence through their active engagement in the class.

There are several phrases that are used within organizations that are often talked about but never really understood and include “thinking outside of the box,” “employee empowerment,” and the need to be a “team player.” At the heart of these terms is the ability for employees to think for themselves or take information, process it, and reach a logical conclusion through critical reflection and analysis. This is the type of thinking and work product that students are encouraged to produce with their performance in online classes because the courses are designed for non-traditional, working adults.

How employers view online learning 

The good news for students is that employers’ acceptance of online degrees is increasing, which means there is a greater emphasis placed on the knowledge acquired and the skills developed. The 2010 Job Outlook, an annual National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) publication, has provided a list of characteristics that employers look for in college graduates and these are listed “in order of importance as communication skills, analytical skills, teamwork skills, technical skills (as related to major), and a strong work ethic.” You will be able to demonstrate all of those skills (and many more) through the completion of your online degree – taking the emphasis off of how you earned your degree. Online learning is not only convenient; it is relevant for today’s challenging economy and students who graduate from an online school are likely to be better prepared for their career than students who graduate from a traditional school. 

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Ocean/Corbis

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