Don Kilburn is the CEO of UMass Online, the online arm of the University of Massachusetts.
I hope we are, particularly in light of recent events, well past the stage where the value of online learning as a modality is in any doubt. Yes, there can be a stupefying spectrum of quality of online learning programs, ranging from the shoddy to the world class, but that same spectrum applies to face-to-face learning.
Rather than engaging in a conversation about whether online learning is "worth it," we need a more evolved debate that examines the nuances of strong online programs and how we can make them work better for today's students, particularly those already in the workforce.
As we've all seen, the needs of today's learners and workers are dramatically changing in response to the pandemic and a host of other current-day issues. As a general rule, people are overstretched, are overworked and their financial situation is tenuous. They don't have a lot of time to invest in educational programs that may or may not help them on the job. That applies equally to the 38-year-old who needs to upskill for a promotion and the 18-year-old leaving high school. In 2022 America, things are moving fast, and higher education needs to adapt.
In many of the hastily designed programs that popped up mid-pandemic, online learning is nothing more than, as Harvard Business Review states, "simple 'remote learning' via live Zoom classes, a method little evolved from video conferencing from the late-1990s." But, the best-designed online learning programs are indeed worth the investment because they truly prepare people, even in the midst of a crisis, to prove their readiness to employers.
So what does excellent online learning for working adults look like? The past decade has seen so much innovation in this space, and it's helpful to break down that innovation into two distinct areas that matter most to today's working adult students.
Relevance. This is the most important area of innovation and where so much work has taken place in the best online programs. One question is crucial: "How can we more closely tie our students' educational experience to their workplace experiences?" When established leaders of industry and higher education join forces around the common goal of creating stronger, faster, more efficient pathways from education to work, people will earn the credentials and develop the skills that result in better job opportunities and a richer talent pipeline.
One such alliance has been established between the University of Massachusetts and the commonwealth's largest private employer, Mass General Brigham. Together, we've developed a certificate and degree completion pathway for healthcare professionals, allowing them to earn an online bachelor's degree in business administration as part of Mass General Brigham's workforce development strategy.
The program directly relates to what people in the healthcare field need to know right now. In this online program, Mass General Brigham's employees take classes through the hospital system's educational assistance program, build their skills and position themselves to advance within the healthcare industry, whose occupations are projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow by 16% — or 2.6 million jobs — from 2020 to 2030.
Here, the immediate relevance of what students learn is worth its weight in gold for the employee and the employer.
Flexibility. For any learning design, sound pedagogy and strong industry partnerships to mean anything, students first need to access the educational experience in a way that fits their lives. Except for the rare students who are very financially independent, the days when students could drop everything to pursue higher education are rapidly drawing to a close.
Realistic and flexible scheduling must be part of the deal for working adults, and that often looks like an asynchronous learning environment, one that students can dip in and out of as their schedule permits. We see this kind of flexibility built into many of the online degree programs now offered by major employers such as Disney, Walmart and AAA. The best among these partnerships also allow employees to leap over some of the hurdles that might typically hinder someone from pursuing a degree.
Through Guild Education, UMass Global is part of a network of universities enabling several major U.S. employers, including Walmart, to offer free college as a workplace benefit.
In the Walmart example, three institutions — UMass Global, the University of Florida, and Bellevue University — removed barriers to entry by aiming to accept anyone from the company who applies. They provided academic coaches and assistance at those critical junctures where a prospective student might get tripped up, such as the times of application, financial aid or degree choice.
Imagine the difference those touchpoints and support systems make for a first-generation college student or a single parent who needs guidance throughout the entire process? Online students deserve to know they aren't just "lucky to be here," as they might experience with some "elite" institutions, but that they are truly welcome to learn and grow alongside their peers.
Only via online learning can someone in rural New Mexico have exactly the same high-quality learning experience as someone sitting on a University of Massachusetts campus. That's the proof of online education's equalizing power.
I'm excited the national dialogue is moving beyond, "Is online as good as face-to-face?" Instead of squabbling over the virtues of online versus in-person learning, let's instead appreciate the power this modality holds, when done right, to help working adults make meaningful changes in their lives, particularly at a time when so many Americans need all the help they can get.