To be a successful entrepreneur and business leader, you must be intellectually curious. And it’s true for investing as well. The most successful investors are the ones who do their research and understand the companies they invest in.
That’s why I spend several hours every day reading and learning, whether it’s the latest research on blockchain or an online organic chemistry lesson at MIT. It’s fascinating—both the chemistry and the fact that I’m able to sign up and take college-level courses (or learn just about anything else that strikes me) from my tablet, phone, or laptop.
While online learning may be new in some places, it’s been around for a long time in others. For example, Udemy has over 100,000 courses on varying topics. And prestigious universities like MIT, as I mentioned above, are offering ways for people to learn wherever they are. Businesses have also used online corporate training courses for the past few decades (to varying levels of success). YouTube (founded 2005) has tutorials for everything from fixing a toilet to investing in stocks.
Just a few years ago, if you wanted to hit the reset button and switch careers, you’d go to business school and get your MBA. Now, you can start with online learning. What’s more, MBA programs are limited to a few options—like corporate finance, accounting, or marketing. But with online learning, you can take courses in everything from organic chemistry to computer programming, social media marketing, and more. And for career transitioners, online learning makes updating skillsets, adding to resumes, and even earning course completion badges to display on your LinkedIn profile relatively easy and affordable.
Online learning has also had a substantial part to play in The Great Resignation. The prospect of changing careers and even industries without going back to college (or without going back in person) by getting certifications and gaining skillsets online is tempting. Online bootcamps for things like coding, finance, and graphic design, can give you the certifications, basic knowledge, and portfolios that would otherwise take full college semesters to achieve. And they are usually available for free or at a fraction of the cost of traditional in-person courses.
The pros of this new wave of online learning include:
- Education is more accessible. Those who may not necessarily have the opportunity to go to college (or back to college) or complete advanced degrees can very likely do so at their own pace online. Some libraries (1, 2) are even breaking down the paywall for online courses like those on Skillshare and Coursera so that anyone with a library card can access educational courses.
- With more accessibility comes more diversity. About 52% of online students through Coursera were women in 2020 (as compared to 47% in the year prior). With more flexibility and more choices, learning gaps that are thought to be caused or impacted by defining features like gender, race, religion, and so on are more easily overcome.
- Higher Ed is changing too. With LinkedIn, Google, Skillshare, Udemy, and more creating their own certification programs and so forth, traditional universities are taking notice and offering courses and certifications—which are often accredited and can count toward college credits. MIT, Stanford, and Harvard all offer online courses that don’t require more commitment than a few hours a week for a month or two. These certificates can help you get ahead in your current role and make you more competitive when applying to new ones. Because these types of programs and tools are more readily available and affordable, people are more likely to engage them, knowing there will be a positive benefit at the other end. For many, the point is to reboot and get a new job or career. But even if you can’t get a new job with these certifications, taking the courses and becoming certified enables you to satiate your intellectual curiosity.
Some of the cons include:
- It may be less thorough. People are questioning whether online learning can be as rich and effective as in-person classes. Although there are no statistics for that specific question for adult learners, we can extrapolate from the stats we do have. Recent test scores indicate a profound learning loss occurred during 2020 and into 2021. The most significant decline in test scores seems to come from regions with less access to in-person learning. If we can note a decline in learning in students, it stands to reason that the same decline may be present among adult professionals who choose online learning over standard in-person education.
An element of the educational experience is certainly lost when coursework is done online (and, in many cases, asynchronously). You miss out on real-time, in-person discussion and the learning that comes from it. While many courses involve real-time video sessions via Zoom or GoogleMeet, no communication modality is as effective as in-person communication. In-person learning also allows people to debate and challenge one another in real-time. This plays a huge part in helping people learn. You have to really think through what you believe in order to speak up and engage someone else in a healthy debate. It isn’t that this doesn’t happen remotely—it just isn’t happening as much as it does in person.
- It’s hard to judge the value of each course or certification. Can we trust someone’s proficiency in a specific skill or vocation based on a certification from Udemy? Without a set of standards by which all courses need to adhere (like a credentialing agency), how can employers accurately and adequately understand their candidates’ abilities?
What Does This Mean for Entrepreneurs?
We have never had more access to education than we do right now. As people begin educating themselves through these various pathways—be it coding boot camps or YouTube tutorials—our workforce will change. As our workforce becomes more educated and adept at various skills, leaders need to ensure that they, too, are stepping up their intellectual game—and there’s no excuse not to. Online learning is accessible from every device you own—mobile phone, laptop, tablet, etc. Learning on the go is the de facto style. You may not become an expert through online learning, but you can undoubtedly advance your skillset, knowledge set, and therefore more quickly understand the context for your investments. Need to know something about a specific subject or industry? Start with a Google search and branch out from there.
At the end of the day, there are other ways to go about learning (versus the four-year collegiate model), which means there has to be another way to go about rebooting your career. The data shows that if you engage in certifications and online learning models, you’re on the fast track to switching careers—or at least finding a job you’re excited about.