Online Career Education That’s Actually Useful

More than two-thirds of online learners take such courses for career acceleration. Here’s how to distinguish the good programs from the mediocre.

Published: Dec 5, 2019

James wanted to pivot from his role as a marketing manager into a product-manager position at his software company. With no training as a programmer, he decided to enroll in an online software development course to learn how to code and take that next step in his career.

Like James, many professionals are looking to expand their skills to make themselves attractive candidates. In a JobStreet survey, 96% of employers said the digital economy will change how they plan to hire in the next three years, with the top five digital skills including digital marketing, software and application development, e-commerce, and big data and analytics. Thanks to the proliferation of open online courses, anyone can learn some of these skills on their own schedule, without ever going near a lecture hall.

If you ask specific questions, the instructor should respond with meaningful specifics and not vague promises.

But therein lies the problem: in recent years, the focus of online education has turned toward career advancement instead of full-blown degrees, making it difficult to decipher which skills and programs are worthy of your time and money. Last year, 69% of online learners identified themselves as “career accelerators” who want to advance in a field where they already have some experience. But with more than 11,500 courses available online—almost triple the number in 2015—it’s become a convoluted crapshoot as to which certifications and programs can really give you a leg up. Here’s how to suss out your options.

Vet the instructor.

While many universities offer online career education in addition to more traditional bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, there’s also a growing population of independent subject-matter experts selling their own online courses. This means you must do your homework to find out if you can trust such individuals. You can screen these courses by seeing if there’s a detailed overview and agenda that align with your learning objectives and taking note of how quickly the instructor responds to any queries you have, says David Ginchansky, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Also be on the lookout for the hard sell; if you ask specific questions, the instructor should respond with meaningful specifics and not vague promises. Finally, do some digging into the instructor’s past and credentials. Sometimes, offering courses can be an out for a professional who wasn’t talented enough to cut it in their own profession.

Find out what past students have to say.

It’s most likely you’ll run into rave reviews on the course website. But look for high rankings across multiple sources, so that you know it’s not just family and friends who are providing testimonials. And there’s no harm in messaging someone (depending on the platform) to ask follow-up questions. You also can reach out to the course’s creator or school to see what kinds of outcomes past students have had. “If you want to learn new skills online to switch industries and the course provider can only give evidence of students having success in a current job, that may not be the best course for you,” Ginchansky says.

Choose a course that aligns with your learning style.

One major obstacle to completing online courses is the lack of peer support—and peer pressure—that you’d find in a classroom setting. “You’re much more likely to finish a course with an agenda and material that you find engaging,” Ginchansky says. To that end, think about how you like to learn, and filter for the kinds of courses that meet your needs. If you need interactive exercises, take a course that splits its students into groups. If you like to learn on your own, a self-paced study might be best. If you’re a visual learner, look for video modules over text.

Find out which accreditations matter for your job.

Depending on your industry and role, you may or may not need accreditation to back your new skills. If you’re a programmer at a tech company, the person hiring you doesn’t care about educational cred—almost half of programmers are self-taught. But if want to rise through the ranks on the business side of that tech company, accreditation and prestige matter in the degree you choose. Look for reputable organizations and publications that rank programs specific to your industry; U.S. News & World Report, for example, ranks degree-granting online programs at regionally accredited institutions, and the U.S. Department of Education lists accreditations of certain programs, too.    

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