Coronavirus Downtime as Learning Opportunity

Consider learning a new career-boosting skill online, but make sure you pick a worthy program.

Published: Mar 23, 2020

For the last two years, Jane had considered doing an online course in product management. A writer by trade, she knew little about product, but had an interest and felt it could help her be more marketable.

It wasn’t until two weeks ago, when her company ordered everyone to work from home, that she suddenly found herself with ample downtime and decided to sign up. “It feels good to do something good for my career when everything else feels so out of control,” she says.

Look for high rankings across multiple sources to be sure it’s not just family and friends who are providing testimonials.

Indeed, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt daily life, now may be the perfect opportunity for people to pursue career advancement—particularly in tech-related skills that are likely to be in high demand in the future. 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.

But with more than 11,500 courses available online—almost triple the number in 2015—and many offering discounts right now, it isn’t always easy to tell 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 who are 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 to be sure 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.
“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 up 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 you 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; US News & World Report, for example, ranks degree-granting online programs at regionally accredited institutions, and the US Department of Education lists accreditations of certain programs, too.

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