Online education is crucial to reskilling and upskilling the global workforce, and it can be a transformational experience for students.
The flexibility and low-cost nature of online learning makes it easy for people to continuously learn at a pace and time that suits them, rather than having to take time out of their busy lives to come back to campus.
“In the past, alumni were tethered to a location. Now, universities can put out material unbounded by geography,” says Peter Rodriguez, dean of Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.
The school in Texas is one of many business schools that offer “lifelong learning” options for alumni of its Online MBA and other programs. This mostly takes the form of reduced prices for open-enrollment executive education courses, as well as career coaching, the chance to audit classes or attend virtual conferences.
Other schools are designing more novel models of lifelong learning that see students dip into education at various points in their lives: the “Netflixisation” of business education.
Rodriguez highlights the benefits: “Access to content can sharpen existing skills for our alumni and it also introduces the opportunity to stay on top of new developments that may have come to the forefront of the business world since the alum was last in a classroom.”
Preparing for those crucial career transitions
The motivation of alumni who come back for more is often to switch careers or cope with change in their current role, or to prepare for a promotion. Alumni from every institution are grappling with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (Vuca).
Artificial intelligence and other automotive technologies are already seeping into our working lives. Disruption is inevitable and is also deeply feared: economists foretell that millions of jobs could be lost, even highly skilled white-collar work.
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Workers will need to learn to transcend technology and adapt to the “new normal” in order to thrive. In 2017, McKinsey forecast that as many as 375 million people would need to switch occupations and acquire new skills by 2030.
“For some time, we have lived in a world where the only constant is change,” says Bradley Staats, associate dean for MBA programs at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. The school in North Carolina offers discounts for Online MBA alumni to attend executive education courses and for coaching sessions.
Staats says that such provision should factored into the choice of school by prospective MBA students. “An MBA degree is a key step in an individual’s learning journey, but one should look for a university that provides resources to support ongoing development,” he says.
Changing how people view education will be essential. Previously, graduate degrees such as MBAs, taken mid-career, have been prioritized. In the era of robotics and rapid change, however, we will all need to become lifelong learners.
“The fundamentals of a degree can certainly last a lifetime,” says Steve Muylle, academic director of the Online MBA at Vlerick Business School in Belgium. But alumni certainly want to continue learning and upskilling after they’ve graduated, he says.
Lifelong learning after an Online MBA
The upsides are obvious: education can be a powerful career accelerator. Online learning, especially, has long been associated with immediate advancement in the workplace. Employers once had misgivings over the interactivity of online programs, but these notions have been quashed by the development of technology, which has enriched the online learning experience.
“We believe that students can learn effectively both online and in person,” says Caitlin Johnson, director of alumni engagement at Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. The school launched an Online MBA program in the fall of 2019. All Ross alumni will have the chance to select executive education courses for free, through the school’s Alumni Advantage program.
“Learning does not stop after graduation,” says Johnson. “As the business world evolves, lifelong learning helps alums stay ahead of the curve.”
One of the biggest barriers to the adoption of lifelong learning is finance. It can be a big commitment of money, time and energy to return to business school to study, even part-time.
Technology, though, can lower the barrier to entry. Vlerick, for example, hosts a virtual education platform for alumni. It’s a subscription service that Muylle likens to Spotify, with graduates signing up to access unlimited video content created or curated by their alma mater.
“Our 23,000 alumni can subscribe to this platform upon graduating to allow themselves to constantly update their knowledge with the new and innovative content posted on the site, which MBA students currently are learning,” Muylle says.
This can also be a virtuous circle, he adds: “If alumni really value their experience, as they go further up their career ladders, they may come back to Vlerick for more programs, or send executives from their companies to learn and grow too.”
Many alumni are already signing up to stay connected and to expand their networks – the lifeblood of professional advancement. But online learning has not yet created the strong bonds that in-person teaching does.