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Returning to school through online learning: The benefits, opportunities and challenges

Working people often decide to go back to school and get a degree to advance in their careers, switch fields or simply enhance their skills to stay relevant. One effective way to get a certification without taking a sabbatical is through online learning.

Nowadays, there are several online education and upskilling platforms that offer a wide range of full-fledged degree and certification courses to help adult learners give a boost to their careers.
However, it’s important for individuals to know the advantages, success rate and challenges that they might encounter as returning students before committing to any course. They should also know how online learning is faring.

According to Coursera’s Advancing Higher Education with Industry Micro-Credential Survey 2023, learners and professionals are increasingly leveraging courses and micro-credentials offered by online learning platforms to advance their skillsets or to learn new skills for a career switch, says Raghav Gupta, Managing Director-India and APAC, Coursera.

Some of the key findings of the survey are:
  • 96% of Indian students agree that earning a professional certificate will help them secure the job they desire
  • 91% of students in India strongly agree that a professional certificate will help them succeed at their job
  • 82% of students in India are more likely to enrol in a degree programme that offers industry micro-credentials

The popularity of micro-credentials and professional certificates is evident as Coursera has seen a 49% YoY increase in enrolments in India, he adds.

Online education as a powerful tool for returning learners
The choice to go back to school or upskill signifies a commitment professionals make towards their career development, and online courses are one of the best options to facilitate this journey, says Ambrish Sinha, CEO, UNext Learning, an upskilling platform.

The flexibility offered by these courses is not limited to the mode of content consumption, but also extends to when to consume it and write exams. Learners can schedule slots for online AI-proctored exams based on their work schedules and preferences. Moreover, he clarifies that as these online degrees are recognised on a par with on-campus degrees and valued by organisations for higher education, they ensure career growth.

Online education, unlike traditional education, has an edge when it comes to tackling the challenge of skill obsolescence, especially after a career hiatus, says Akshay Munjal, Founder & CEO, Hero Vired, an online learning platform. Like Sinha, he also says that personalised experience — which is about tailoring not just the content but also the pace and style of learning — is the key advantage.

In other words, edtech platforms are emerging as dependable tools for career advancement or transitioning to new fields, owing to their flexibility, affordability and an extensive array of course options, he opines.

How to pick the right platform and course
With numerous options available, choosing the right online education and upskilling platform can be a strenuous task. This is why before applying to an online course, a learner should find out about the reputation of the platform, its academic partners, and whether existing learners are happy with it, suggests Sinha.

Features such as a user-friendly interface, engaging bite-sized content, and personalised learning pathways are major factors that should influence the decision. Opportunities to interact with instructors or peers will be an additional advantage to build a robust network; so these must be taken into consideration, according to him.

Coming to the right way to select an online course, he says it mostly depends on personal needs and learning objectives. While full-fledged online degree programmes provide comprehensive knowledge, certifications and boot camps cater to specific skill requirements and ensure the student gets an edge in a rapidly evolving job market.

Deciding between an online degree, certification and short-term upskilling programme boils down to how each option aligns with personal and professional factors, ensuring a focused and impactful learning experience, says Munjal. While it should begin with a self-assessment of your goals and constraints, career aspirations and current industry trends should also guide your choice, he says.

Also, take into account your work experience to select a programme that complements your skills and gives you career advancement. Most importantly, determine whether your learning objective is acquiring a new skill or deepening knowledge in your field, he adds.

Possible challenges of returning to education through online mode
Though online education has numerous benefits, both Sinha and Munjal say there are some challenges that individuals might encounter while upskilling themselves.

To begin with, the absence of a traditional classroom environment can sometimes lead to a dip in motivation, making it harder to track progress and stay engaged. Next, balancing the online course with other commitments like work and family can be challenging. Initially, it can be a tad difficult to assess how much time must be allocated to attend live classes, complete assignments, and prepare for exams amid work schedules.

Having said that, they say such issues are temporary and can be tackled effectively by staying motivated, focused and seeking the support services of these platforms.

The success stories after online upskilling
Unext, in collaboration with MAHE (Manipal Academy of Higher Education), has launched several online degree programmes to help professionals widen their spectrum of knowledge. Sinha recalls an anecdote of one such individual, identified only as Suraj R, who pursued an online master's degree in data science from MAHE. The degree enabled him to apply his knowledge on deep learning and big data analytics practically to his current job as a senior compliance analyst at Amazon.

Munjal says he is aware of a student called Anubha Bhardwaj. She was five months pregnant when she enrolled in a finance course at Hero Vired. She balanced her health, family responsibilities and studies without letting her circumstances deter her academic ambitions, and eventually secured a job with Gallagher & Mohan, he adds.

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