The other day I was listening to a podcast when I heard the speaker mention offhandedly “you can get a degree online just by watching YouTube.” In context, the speaker meant you can teach yourself a lot about web design by watching others on YouTube and by Googling things you don’t know. I agreed with him in the overall context, as there is a lot you can teach yourself by watching videos or taking online classes, especially if you’re curious and motivated.
However, earlier that day I also read the comments on an article where someone wrote “we don’t even need college-educated journalists. A high school blogger is better than most journalists nowadays.” I strongly disagreed with that statement: a high school blogger might be a great writer, especially when writing about topics related to high school, but they’re incomparable to trained, professional journalists.
It’s easy to see why many people feel you don’t need a “traditional” degree anymore in order to be an expert (or pseudo-expert). After all, many people in the social media field didn’t take classes in college on social media but rather learned on their own through trial and error. Some highly respected bloggers don’t necessarily have degrees in what they write about, although most do have training or experience in what they cover.
In the overall scheme of things, online classes and degrees are becoming ever more popular for a variety of reasons. Online classes are typically cheaper, can be completed anywhere with an Internet connection, and can be done in between job(s). However, do you get the same quality of education with an online course and, if you don’t, does it matter very much?
Popularity of Online Courses
Traditional education, whether it’s from a private or public university, is getting more expensive. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to work part-time to pay for your full-time education as your parents or grandparents may have. Most people who don’t receive many scholarships, assistance from parents, and who want to finish in four years do take on some amount of debt.
Online classes, however, even the playing field quite a bit. With massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, you have the ability to take almost an unlimited number of online classes. The only thing that will hinder you is your eventual need for sleep, as all of these classes are free and open to anyone with an Internet connection.
The four major MOOC providers are Coursera, edX, Udacity and Udemy, and many prestigious colleges work with these MOOCs to provide free access to online classes. If you want to take Harvard classes, for example, just sign up with edX and browse Harvard’s offerings.
While you’re not able to get a full, accredited degree from online class providers, they still are extremely beneficial. For example, I took a few marketing classes from Coursera that I found tremendously useful. You can brush up on old skills you learned a while ago, or take a course on new software to get ahead in the job market.
Another reason why many people love online classes is flexibility. For many of us who work full-time but want or need to keep our skills sharp, online classes offer the ability to get ahead and not sacrifice work. Many universities now offer degrees you can complete entirely online, and communication with professors and classmates is all done via the Internet.
With so many opportunities offered online, whether it’s brushing up on skills with MOOCs or getting a degree online, more people should be going this route in order to improve their skills and gain additional training. Or should they not?
Pitfalls of Online Classes and Degrees
I mentioned that I took some online marketing classes on Coursera. However, typical of many people who take classes online, I didn’t finish the majority of those classes. Quartz reported that more than 90% of people who start online classes don’t finish them, which means I’m not an anomaly.
While I’m not proud of it, online classes are incredibly easy to just give up on. If you’re not paying for your classes or aren’t being required to take them for job advancement, it’s very easy to let your online coursework slide. After all, you’re not accountable to anyone, or your wallet, and there are always other things you could be doing.
In addition, MOOCs don’t offer degree programs, only certificates of completion. For many Human Resources representatives, certificates of completion are not enough. If you’re taking classes for personal benefit, this might not be a problem, but if you want to be able to show an employer you have the required skills, they may want to see more than a certificate from Coursera.
On the other hand, you can obtain a degree online if you’re willing to put in the work and pay for it. Online degrees are offered by many traditional brick-and-mortar universities and, while they’re likely to be more expensive than places like University of Phoenix, they do offer the same flexibility along with an accredited degree.
Online degrees do suffer from similar problems as online classes: having the willpower to finish each class. While online degrees make a lot of sense for busy people with full-time jobs, they typically lack the face-time and feedback offered by traditional classes. In addition, depending on which college you go to for your online degree, you may face more challenges. Private for-profit colleges only have a 32% graduation rate, compared to 58% for public colleges.
Taking Online Courses for Professional Advancement
If getting your degree is a requirement for career advancement, or is a personal goal, taking online classes for a degree can be worth it. Knowing the challenges associated with taking online classes, you may have to be more tenacious to complete your degree than those who are taking in-person classes. That said, online classes for a degree can be extremely beneficial for professional advancement, as you can take classes while working full- or part-time.
For those of us who are looking at taking online classes for professional or personal advancement, but aren’t looking for a degree and aren’t required to take classes, we will have to be a little more diligent. After all, if classes are free and participation is voluntary, it’s a lot easier to shirk our classes and tell ourselves we’ll get back to them.
I still don’t think we can replace professionally trained people, like journalists or web designers, with our YouTube or online classes, nor do I think we’d want to. Dedicated journalists and web designers have their places and, even if you’d rather do your own web design yourself, there are people who’d rather hire professionals.
However, teaching yourself new skills or improving current skills is always a good idea if you have the interest. Whether for personal interest or to enhance your side hustle, it’s never a waste of time to improve your skills. In fact, I’ve just signed up for a free online writing class with Udemy. I’ll have to pencil… I mean pen… some time in to take it!
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Have you ever taken online classes, and what was your opinion of them? Did you finish your courses? Did you find them harder or easier than face-to-face classes?