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How Online Degrees Build Work-Relevant Skills

As technology use increases in the workplace, employers need even more workers with digital and technology skills. Online courses may be the answer.


orkplaces are now more connected, automated and digitized, which means employers increasingly need workers with the technical skills and digital knowledge to thrive in their roles. This applies even to traditional industries such as manufacturing, retail, finance and healthcare. There are fewer truly non-technical roles.

In an analysis of 27 million online job postings, labor market researcher Burning Glass found that 82 percent of middle-skill jobs now require some level of digital skills, and that even positions requiring baseline digital skills (such as productivity software and word processing) pay 17 percent higher wages than non-digital jobs. Nonprofit public policy organization The Brookings Institution reported that between 2002 and 2016, the share of total jobs in the United States requiring digital knowledge rose from 45 percent to 70 percent.

Fortunately, technological innovations in education might just provide the key to equipping more employees with these needed skills. In a survey of education leaders by the Pew Research Center, most experts expected online learning platforms to meet upcoming training needs. From more closely integrating learning and work to breaking down accessibility barriers, the experts cited are optimistic about the ability of online degrees to meet the increased demand for technical skills.

Whether a student is studying history or computer programming, studies by MIT and other institutions have found no significant difference in the amount of content a student learns in an online course versus a traditional face-to-face classroom.

Online degrees in particular can make it easier for workers to obtain these skills. When designed effectively, they make learning critical technology skills more affordable and accessible — particularly for adult and low-income students — and help students develop digital skills above and beyond the content they learn.

How online learning enhances digital skills

While the specific content covered in an online degree doesn’t necessarily differ from what a student would learn in a face-to-face setting, Jerome Rekart, senior director of learning analytics and workforce insights at SNHU, suggests that learning online is situated to addressing soft skills or 21st-century skills.

“What differs is how you have to actually engage with the material and the content,” he said. The way a student extracts information, manipulates that information and collaborates with other classmates and the instructor can enhance the digital and collaborative skills an employee will need in the workplace.

Rekart notes that students in online courses are developing skills such as collaboration, leadership, agility, adaptability, initiative, effective written communication and the ability to vet information sources. “Online degrees in particular situate students in a way that those particular skills are not just uncovered, but also enhanced,” he said.

Additionally, students in online programs are applying those skills and knowledge in online projects, the same medium they increasingly must have mastery of at work.

Imparting the skill of lifelong learning

Along with the above skills, Rekart said self-direction and initiative are critical aptitudes in an environment where technology changes at a much faster pace than employers can hire new talent. That echoes what Shatkin said earlier: The sixth skill is learning strategies.

“One thing we know about online learning research is that a key to success is the development of the student as a self-directed learner,” Rekart said. “Technology changes all the time. The content itself is a component, but it’s also about imbuing students with the ability to understand what to do with the content.”

For example, consider Cori Ard, who is a registered respiratory therapist and an SNHU student with the tuition support of her employer, TriHealth in Cincinnati, Ohio. “I use what I have learned every day at work,” Ard said. “Understanding the complexity of our healthcare system helps me be a better provider.”

Rekart cautions that while online courses have clear benefits, they’re not a silver bullet in and of themselves. “The medium matters less than the nature of how the curriculum is delivered,” he said. Especially when it comes to training workers, the greatest benefit is found in a project-based curriculum designed to help students learn new skills within the context of the workplace.

“When you can actually take your existing knowledge and marry that with something new, you’re not going to just remember it for a test,” he said. “You’re going to use and apply it for the long term.”

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is a private, nonprofit, accredited institution – and one of the fastest growing universities in the nation. Since 1932, we’ve been meeting the needs of our students and the workforce, offering undergraduate, graduate and certificate programs that keep pace with new technologies and professional requirements. Recognized as a “Most Innovative” regional university by U.S. News & World Report, SNHU continues to reinvent affordable, accessible higher education.

SNHU aims to transform lives, partnering with organizations with the same life-changing mission. Through alliances with the military, sports teams and leagues, academic institutions, corporations and more, we’re able to invest in the advancement of people, organizations and communities – across the country and around the world.