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How online learning can boost your employability

With furlough ending, we spoke to experts on how you can make the most of online learning to upskill, secure a job or land a promotion.

Recent years have seen an explosion in online learning, which has been turbocharged by the pandemic.

It is a vital tool in the arsenal of anybody seeking work, with courses on just about anything available to help you land your next job.

Or if you’re currently employed, online courses can boost your CV and help you climb the ladder and secure a promotion. But with so many different training providers — from edX to Coursera to Lynda to FutureLearn — it can feel overwhelming and be difficult to know where to start. 

So The Big Issue spoke to experts on how to make the most of online learning.

What are the advantages of online learning?

“Over time, and especially during the pandemic, we’ve seen an emerging culture of lifelong learning, fostered by online access, that has led to better jobs,” Anant Agarwal, founder and chief executive of edX, a provider of massive open online courses (MOOCs), told The Big Issue.

This opens up a score of perks. “One, you’re able to access content on your time, from anywhere,” Agarwal said. “The flexibility of the courses means that students can take classes from all over the world, on their time, and continue to work as you’re expanding your skill set.”

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That means, if you have a job now, you can remain in employment while you learn.

“Two, you can remain focused on the skills that matter most,” he added. Typically, a degree takes two to four years before graduation, but Agarwal said edX’s MicroMasters and MicroBachelors programmes allow people to upskill faster to advance their careers while also providing a pathway to a degree later.

Third, the costs compared to a university degree are drastically reduced, Agarwal said. MOOCs offer a cost-effective way of signalling to an employer you’re ready for the next challenge.

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How effective is online learning?

“What’s great about online learning is that it fits around your schedule. We’ve seen an uptick in online education largely because of issues around access,” Agarwal said. 

He added: “Ninety-one percent of students who have earned the MicroMasters program credential tell us they had a positive career outcome within about three months, such as a pay raise, a promotion or a new job.”

Of course, there may be obstacles that get in the way, so to make your learning experience as effective as possible, try and hold yourself accountable.

“Set goals at the beginning of the course,” said Kirstie Mackey, head of LifeSkills, the online learning hub created by Barclays. “If you’re having trouble holding yourself responsible, pair up with a friend to check in as an accountability partner.”

You might not get it right the first time, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. Just aim for something that is more achievable the second time around.

“When it comes to online classes, you need to have the discipline to sit down and say, ‘I am going to do this,’ as well as actually follow through,” Mackey said.

The great thing is that you can work at your own pace and go back to anything if you need to, she added.

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How do I choose which online courses are right for me?

For anybody considering online learning, choosing the right course can be critical. 

Choose the wrong one and you are likely to become demotivated, uninterested and at risk of losing time, money and energy. 

“Choosing the right online course comes down to what you want to achieve,” edX’s Agarwal said. 

Work out your goals — a new job, a promotion, pivoting to a different role — and ask yourself, what will help me get there?

“The amazing power of online learning is that it is flexible enough to meet any individual learner’s specific goals, be that moving up in a career, or changing paths entirely.”

Some of edX’s top courses in 2021 are a mixture of hard and soft interpersonal skills: cover computer science and coding, analytic skills like data science, foreign languages, and entrepreneurship and business basics.

“This reflects trends that we’ve seen over the past few years where learners are very interested in learning hard skills, like computer and data science, and soft skills to help them in the workplace, like business and communications,” Agarwal said.

How much are online courses?

Many online courses provide a low barrier to enrolment, meaning you can often start to learn for free or very little money.

Many MOOCs are cost-free, including courses from some of the world’s top universities. edX’s MicroMasters are slightly more expensive, for instance $1,212.30 (£876.61) for a MicroMasters in Project Management, but this still represents a fraction of the cost of a university master’s programme.

Matt Stanfield-Jenner, director of learning at training provider FutureLearn, explains free or inexpensive courses can give you the freedom to explore new topics and stick with those that truly resonate. 

“It’s also good to make a habit of signing up to one or two new courses a month,” Stanfield-Jenner said. 

He added: “It might not sound like a lot but to regularly learn something new can open the next door to opportunity.”

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How can you create a positive learning environment?

It’s essential to create a learning environment with space, light, warmth and comfort. This will help you stay on top of what you need to do and put you in the right place to get learning. 

“It’s important to set up a dedicated learning environment for studying,” said Mackey. “Try out different things to discover which type of setting boosts your productivity. Wherever you choose, make sure there’s high-speed internet access so you’re not trying to take an online course over a bad connection. You will also want to select a place with minimal distractions.”

And, according to Stanfield-Jenner, time can be just as important as space. 

“Creating a set time within your schedule – whether it’s half an hour or two – to dedicate to thinking, planning, preparing and reflecting on your learning can all help bring it together and fit it into your life,” he added.

How can I fit online learning into my schedule?

“We’re energized by our learners, who come to edX with busy lives (jobs, families, etc) and make the commitment to taking and succeeding in courses and content,” Agarwal said.

Work out what fosters your concentration. Some of us love nothing more than waking up and getting on with it, while others are night owls and prefer easing into the day.

Good Things Foundation told The Big Issue that learning at a time that suits you is essential. If your brain is clearer in the morning, do your learning early. If you feel more energised in the afternoon, learn then. 

Picking the right time to learn is particularly important for those who might have additional responsibilities, such as childcare.

Where can I get support?

Finding yourself struggling with the world of online learning? The first thing to say is you will not be the only one.

There may be cases where you have to learn before you begin learning — figuring out how to get onto the internet, accessing word processors, and getting things like videos to work.

The Online Centres Network is on hand to help. 

Made up of over 5,000 grassroots organisations, it works to tackle digital and social exclusion by assisting people to access digital technology. You can find your nearest centre on their website for support near you.

What other tips should I know about for online learning?

Make sure it’s fun! Stanfield-Jenner said that exploring new topics is an opportunity to “satisfy your fascination and hobbies”. 

“Turn that short story into a novel, study your diet and become a nutritionist, or broadcast your living room, creating a mindfulness community,” he said. “You can build on this into something more substantial, smaller steps into your passions can become larger leaps into a new life.”

Remember to take regular breaks and spend time thinking about what it is you are learning. It’s also critical to get enough shuteye, as research has found that sleep is proven to help memory and retention. 

Share what you learn. “Connecting with others about what you’re learning on social media is also a fun way to open up discussions and share knowledge,” Stanfield-Jenner added.The Big Issue is also on hand if you would like to share tips on learning or finding new ways to gain skills following the pandemic. You can send us stories and ideas or join our Facebook page.

Have you been affected by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic? The Big Issue is committed to supporting its readers and find ways to help people stay in their jobs and in their homes through our Ride Out Recession Alliance. Send your stories and ideas to to help us support those who need it most.

Career tips and advice from our Jobs and Training series:

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