Online learning can help your career, but degrees are here to stay

Nov 14, 2013 by

Some say Moocs will replace university education, but degrees still have a value. Perhaps there is space for both

“University wasn’t for me,” says Rachel Stiles. “I wasn’t ready for it at the time; I wasn’t mature enough.”

Stiles quit her course and found a job instead. But she realised that qualifications would be essential for her dream career in medicine. With her goals in mind, she kept her job and enrolled on a distance learning degree in molecular science at the Open University.

She says: “I really enjoyed being able to earn a living, while also studying to further my career. I enjoyed being able to come home in the evenings and having something else to focus on that I was really interested in.”

Like thousands of students each year, Stiles found that distance learning meant she could top-up her education at any time – and it looked good for employers.

“It seems like employers are putting more emphasis on experience and personal characteristics than they are on your actual degree. So if you can show to employer that you’ve worked and also studied for a degree at the same time, it says much more about you as a person.

“If anybody of any age wants to further themselves, or to learn something, it’s such an easy way of doing it.”

But with so many different types of online courses – ranging from accredited degrees like Stiles’s, to unaccredited short courses – it can be tricky to tell the difference between them.

Many Moocs and other online courses that have emerged aim to use new technology as a platform for education. Some argue this has often meant that the quality of teaching and assessment has come second to the way courses are provided.

But although the quality of teaching can vary hugely, supplementing your learning can almost always help your career – even in a small way.

For Teodora Beleaga, what began as an interest quickly gave her career a boost. She started a Mooc course on infographics and data visualisation for fun, but soon found the online lessons came in handy at work.

She says: “At the time I was working within the data and insights department of my company, so I was able to apply what I was studying, while I was studying. I quickly became the person of reference for our department’s data visualisations.”

Extra education and qualifications have always helped people’s careers, but with a fiercely competitive jobs market, Moocs are helping people to “top-up” their education. So will Moocs take over and make conventional degrees redundant, as some have asked?

“Unlikely,” says Helen Lentell, university fellow in distance learning at the University of Leicester.

“They work when they’re short. But it’s not going to work for a long term study process where you need proper support. The bubble around Moocs will burst in the end, but it’s still in full flow at the moment.

“If it’s done well then distance learning is brilliant. But a lot of the time student services aren’t provided. They often don’t give the kind of support that makes distance learning work. It should all be about learning, not about the technology.”

For students, the key is to read the small print and understand what the course is offering you – whatever type of distance learning course you’re taking.

“Feedback is the critical aspect of learning,” says Lentell. “Students need to know how much contact time they’re going to get with a human being who’s going to give them feedback, and what the quality of that feedback is going to be.”

Whatever happens to conventional degrees, people of all ages, from all around the world will carry on turning to online learning to further their careers.

Judy Wivell, a senior lecturer in social science in New Zealand, was in her early 60s when she became a student again, taking a postgraduate certificate in clinical supervision at Derby University.

She says: “I wanted a supervision qualification to support my work, where I regularly supervise students,” she says.

“The online programme worked well for me: it allowed me to complete a supervision qualification without juggling work and attendance at a course.”

Ten years ago, the collapse of UKeU – a national online university – showed how distance learning can go badly wrong. It hoped to attract hundreds of thousands of students, but only 900 signed up and was labelled an “absolute disaster“.

Today, online courses still vary a great deal, in quality, cost and qualifications. Online degree courses can offer similar experiences to conventional universities, but Moocs are not about to take over the role of universities. They can serve another purpose though: they can help you take your career to the next level, on your terms.

via Online learning can help your career, but degrees are here to stay | Education |

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