Online Education: Can it Solve the Employment Problem?


It’s a common lament from students (and often, their parents): I’ve spent so much money on a degree, but I can’t find a job.

The coveted college degree costs big bucks these days, but getting a job after graduation has never been harder, and experts point to a skills gap as a contributor to unemployment.

According to a 2013 study from online textbook company Chegg, only 39% of hiring managers say the recent college graduates they’ve interviewed in the past two years were completely or very prepared for a job—even in their field of study. Graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are not faring much better.

A November study from education firm Apollo Lightspeed says 94% of hiring IT/technology hiring managers turned down candidates in part because of skill deficiencies. In fact, the Math and Science Institute reports that if schools continue to turn out graduates who cannot meet the requirements of the workplace, the United States may be short as many as three million high-skill workers by 2018.

To avoid making this prediction a reality, some experts say higher education institutions need to augment the way they deliver education to make classroom learning more geared to workplace requirements. But this is no easy feat, especially because it requires a change to our collective learning mindset.

The idea that we go to school for four years and then work for the next 30-plus years of our lives, is no longer valid, says Rob Wrubel, chief innovation officer at Apollo Education Group, the parent company of the online education provider University of Phoenix. “Learning needs to proliferate so that people become lifelong learners. We need to be learning throughout our careers.”

A college degree is still necessary, but experts say people need to consider different ways of earning it. For example, a blended learning approach that integrates traditional learning in the classroom along with online learning, can not only expose students to more learning styles, but also reduce the price tag of a degree.

The Internet has afforded us tremendous opportunity to gather and disseminate information, says Karen Cator, president and CEO of Digital Promise. “We are learning to harness all those assets to create courses and online classrooms that actually make the best use of the information.”

Technology innovation allows us to bundle lectures with problem sets or simulations and animations of complex concepts that are not accessible in print; form online study groups and create tools and resources that allow deeper exploration of a subject, says Cator. “In fact, we can scale a course to anybody who needs to learn.”

Free Online Course Offerings

Already, universities like Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Cornell, Duke and Harvard are offering classes free through massive open online education courses (MOOCs) like Coursera, edX and Udacity. Frequently, students receive certificates to demonstrate mastery to an employer; they can also audit courses without credit.

These online classes offer a great opportunity for people to enhance their skill set, says Robert Damon executive chairman, Americas, at Korn Ferry. A lot of tech skills can be acquired online and at night, giving workers the flexibility to work, raise families and continue their education.

Beyond tech offerings, graduate schools are stepping into the MOOC arena.  UPenn’s Wharton, for example, is already offering its entire first-year MBA curriculum on Coursera. And soon  Harvard will step into the online MBA arena when it takes its prestigious graduate business program digital as HBX.

The web and social media foster a social component, which is very important to learning, says Cator. For those worried about the lack of personal face time, she says that can happen online just as easily.

In a traditional environment like business or law school, the integration of this flipped teaching model introduces tremendous efficiency, says Brooklyn Law School dean Nicholas Allard. In large, lecture-hall courses, it is not uncommon for students to tune out. But via the web, they can be one-on-one with their PC and more engaged with the subject matter—even able to pause at points they find difficult to rethink and assimilate the material, injecting a personalized pace and style into the learning process.

Alerts also signal a coach or a teacher when an online student is struggling, and students receive immediate help with information packaged differently to increase understanding and confidence and ensure mastery before progressing, says Wrubel.

From an institution perspective, this allows a more efficient deployment of resources, says Allard. The classroom time actually spent with the professor can be more intense, more experiential and more thought-provoking, and therefore of greater benefit to students, who can be far more agile when dealing with the unanticipated problems and new situations that inevitably crop up in the workplace.

Learning isn’t just about acquiring knowledge, says Damon. Mental agility, people agility, change agility, results agility and self-awareness, traits identified by executive search firm Korn Ferry as universal for leadership, can also be fostered online. At Korn Ferry a personal development tool helps employees develop these core competencies through 360-degree feedback/assessment delivered from managers to employees via iPads.

“While you can’t train for innovation,” says Wrubel, “you can encourage ‘deep thinking’ by creating online experiences that stimulate idea flow as workers are encouraged to find solutions through collaboration and competition on the web.”

Here are expert tips for students looking to jump into the world of online learning:

Get onboard. Courses are available to people of all ages, says Cator. Take advantage of the accessibility—to better prepare for college or work, augment a course you’re already taking, or to bolster your skills while working.

Get informed. Information about careers is available online. Sites like can help you identify career paths by understanding the skills required by employers and learn to take the direct path and right courses in a competitive labor market.

Know your numbers. So many people don’t understand online learning which blocks opportunity for education and employment, especially for older adults, says Wrubel.  Online courses with adaptive math engines can help with math readiness, he says. They get you to the starting line without the cost of multiple courses or a tutor, adds Cator.

Take charge. Technology helps us understand how we learn and this empowers us to chart our own learning path, says Cator. Access to free courses enables students who feel anxious about grades or have dropped out of school have the opportunity to augment or resume their learning where or when they need to, making them more competitive and helping them to level the playing field. Self-improvement is an individual responsibility, says Damon “Staying open-minded and wanting to learn makes all the difference.”