Home Editor's Pick Guidance from an Online Learning Pioneer: Know That You’re Not Settling
Guidance from an Online Learning Pioneer: Know That You’re Not Settling

Guidance from an Online Learning Pioneer: Know That You’re Not Settling

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online-learning-pioneerBy Kirk R. Gray
Online Learning Tips, Guest Contributor

I’m a veteran of online education. I was taking classes online long before the educational arena was as diverse as it today. I graduated high school in 1992. At that time, the concept of going to school online was unheard of. I spent one semester at a traditional university, and found out the hard way how much I really hate snow and cold climates.

I returned home and continued to take classes at community colleges and major universities before ultimately saying that I couldn’t work full time and go to a school as a traditional student. By 2001 I had all of my credits from my first semester of school, and a few other classes under my belt and found a job that included tuition benefits. That’s when I found online education. The internet was far past its infancy, but online education wasn’t. I didn’t have to mail in my exams and such, but I did have to purchase books, and the classroom for me was Outlook Express. Online education has come a long way since those days…mobile learning platforms, online classrooms within the website environment, YouTube lectures and video conferencing with the course facilitator were unheard of when I was going to school in the online environment.

The school I went to is accredited, and was a member of the organization I worked for at the time (a national college examination not-for-profit), so I had no issue making the case for going to that institution, even though online education was still very new to the higher education world. But I went, and endured the questions and for lack of a better word ridicule.

I got two really bad pieces of advice when I told people I was considering online education. The first (1) it’s not a real education, it’s too easy and (2) you’ll never get a job with that degree.

Let’s start with the first one — it’s not a real education and it’s too easy. This is the biggest misunderstanding about online education that there is. I found the work to be harder, more intense and required more attention than I ever had to put out in a traditional university classroom. I had to participate, I had to engage with others, and I had to read a lot. I’ll be honest; I never cracked a book the whole time — with the exception of math — while I was in the traditional setting. It came easy to me. A professor spouted out the learning points, I wrote them down, and then they stuck. In the online environment, I had to read, develop my own learning points, figure out what was the fluff in the text and what was the test material and in a way develop my own lectures so that it could stick. This was a big shake up for me. Not to mention that as an introverted person (the editors of this blog will disagree with that), I could easily sit in a lecture hall of 75-100 people and absorb. In the online environment, you have to participate, and when I went, not only were you participating, but you were really driving the discussion. Endless strings of conversations in Outlook Express made it so that you had to look at everyone and contribute to keep the learning process from halting. Facilitators weren’t as engaged or innovative as they are today. To steal a line from my favorite show, Myth Busters — “it’s not easier, for me it was a much more intensive and thorough way of learning.”

Second, and my favorite, “You’ll never get a job with that degree”. Guess what folks, you can. I “re-entered” the workplace with not only a fresh “sheepskin” but also 10 years of workplace experience. The degree was the validation of the experience. In fact, two weeks to the day after I graduated, I had a better job lined up with a major dot.com, doing email marketing — or back then, database marketing. The degree wasn’t shunned or looked down on, and frankly I found that recruiters and hiring managers alike were fascinated in the process and what it took and they often said that they never did anything like that in school. Remember, I was doing a paper a week, along with a PowerPoint presentation, and discussion questions. Not to mention a huge “capstone” project at the end of each class. The people who were talking to me did a mid-term and a final at most in the majority of their classes in traditional universities.

From there, I went to another major dot.com, a start-up, and then found my way to American Public University System. Of course I interviewed along that journey with other potential employers, and only once along the way did I encounter someone who laughed at my degree.

I remember him saying; that school is in the back of Rolling Stone isn’t it? And I politely responded with, “No sir they are the reason that your alma mater and where you teach as an adjunct professor is in the process of developing their own online institution and classes. They are filling a need in our education system, and giving people a chance to not only validate their skills and their life learning, but to also educate people in an ever-changing ever-engaged world. I appreciate your time, and I think we’re done here.”

Boy was I cocky, but I was proud of the hard work I did and felt like I needed to defend it. The recruiter called me two hours later, wanting to know how it went….and I said, “how do you think it went?” She said it must have gone well, because he wants to hire you. I was floored, even after I stormed out of his office, he still wanted to hire me, Rolling Stone diploma and all — I actually turned them down based on that question.

With all of that said, here is my advice to those who are considering online education:

  1.  It’s tough, you need to develop a cadence and stick with it. You need to set aside time to not only study, read, discuss and complete your assignments on time, but you also need to think about what you want your “quad to be”. Meaning, you need to take time out, head to the mall, head to the gym…do the things that traditional students do — make the local mall your frat house, and make the gym your field house.
  2. More than likely, you’re in a unique situation — you have real world skills, and you’re learning from experienced faculty with practical experience — don’t wait until the end of the class to apply your education to the real world. Do it while you’re at work, share concepts from your texts with your boss, show the doubting-thomases of the world that you’re not wasting money on a degree that you’ll never get a job with.
  3. Enjoy it. Use the classroom as a way to not only discuss topics but to develop networks and “old college buddies”, you’ll never know who you’ll run into at an interview or on Linkedin.
  4. Bleed your school colors. If you are proud of the work you accomplished and your degree, half of the battle is done. It is difficult to convince someone of the value of your degree when you doubt it too. You committed to getting your degree, proudly hang your diploma in your cube — attend local alumni events.

Take it from me, someone who has done it all when it comes to getting his education — traditional, community college, major universities, online and yes I have even been known to participate in MOOCs, the best way to combat the worst advice you’re going to be given about your decision to go to an online university is proving it wrong. I should know, I have a two bachelor’s (one in business management, the second in marketing), a digital design diploma, and I’m working on a third bachelor’s in web and interactive media design, all from online universities. Thanks to “pioneers” like me, fewer people are going to see your online education as a questionable one, but as a way to get you on the top of the pile — you’re a self-starter, adaptive, responsive and a hard worker. All traits that employers are looking for — well that, and you can Google like no one’s business —kidding.

About the Author

Kirk has been in the field of marketing for more than 15 years, building email marketing programs for web sites, virtual businesses and brick and mortar companies. He is an advocate of online education, with two undergraduate degrees and a digital design diploma, all awarded from online universities. In his spare time he enjoys spending time with his dogs, watching movies, and trying to stay on track at the gym. In addition to his position at APUS, he owns a blog, browserspencer.com, where he shares email marketing tips and personal life experiences.

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