(Photo by Tony Alter/Flickr)
By Erik Harbison
It is hard to ignore the rise of online courses. From the increasing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) to professional certificates offered at the university level, students and young professionals are embracing this popular way to learn.
As reported by Forbes, a recent Babson Survey Group reports that from 2003 to 2009, growth rates of participation were in the 20-percent range. While those annual growth rates may have slowed to single digits in recent years, the percentage of academic leaders who have labeled online learning as “critical to their institution’s long-term strategy” is at an all-time high of 70.8 percent.
You can now expand your knowledge base on any topic from the comfort of your home. One obvious benefit of this type of learning is that you’re able to prepare yourself for some level of personal or professional advancement, from preparing for that very first career role or promotion, to simply being a better communicator with colleagues or clients.
The sense of gaining new information that can help you on your career journey often overshadows one of the other key values from this learning structure: building your network.
Any online course is providing the inherent value of strengthening a network to three “interaction groups.” These interaction groups often take these opportunities for granted because there’s a primary focus on the academic outcomes of the course. Students want to pass. Instructors want to see a high percentage of passing grades. Universities want a successful execution and a positive experience for all involved.
Academic success should be the primary focus for anyone involved in an online course. However, that focus can overshadow the compounded value of making a relevant connection with a student peer or instructor. These network connections can help open doors as both students and instructors continue their respective career journeys.
Networking Opportunities Between Instructors and Students
Sure, the instructors are the ones to share the experiences, examples, and case studies. But beyond the content of the curriculum, the instructors have the opportunity to be a knowledgeable sounding board, extra set of eyes, or independent opinion for whatever the student/professional is dealing with at the time of the course.
Instructors should be seen as open resources. They can offer insights and opinions that can challenge you further or help you make a connection within their network. Instructors often hold positions, or are connected to others looking to hire in the near future. Building a connection during the course could equate to a career opportunity later.
Plus, instructors are also looking to learn from the students. Online learning emphasizes sharing of your opinions, thoughts, and solutions to certain challenges. Remember, instructors don’t always have all the answers.
Students should see any instructor they interact with as an immediate career connection. With the power of LinkedIn, there’s a chance that one of your instructors is connected, or can connect you, with a direct or indirect influencer to your career journey.
Personally, I have happily fielded requests for interviewing tips, introductions to connections in my network, recommendations on former colleagues, or companies that I’ve interacted with when a student was pursuing an opportunity. Some of these requests came months after the course ended. So don’t feel like all your networking will have to occur within the timeframe of the course.
Networking Opportunities Between Students
Students have a tendency to operate in a silo, even though they are tasked with interacting via discussion boards and chats. Even if your online course does not include any group projects, you can still connect with a wide variety of backgrounds, locations, and experiences that other students bring to the course.
The beauty of an online course is that you have the opportunity to have your personal career journey intersect with others who may be on the same trajectory, introduce you to a passion you’d never considered, or be able to support your passion with a connection of their own. Keep in mind that one of those other students could be your future co-founder in the next startup that you’ve been thinking about launching.
Most online courses have expectations for high levels of student-to-student interaction, but this doesn’t mean you have to find your new best friend. It means that you should always seek feedback (on your weekly assignment, your introduction, your resume) from others participating in your online course. In most cases, they are in a similar state of their journey or have been in your situation before.
The nature of online courses does make it easy to be a passive participant. However, for the investment you’re making, it’s much more fulfilling to be the catalyst to maximize your networking opportunities.
Ready to take an online course? Challenge yourself to make at least 10 new connections. Your future self will thank you.
Erik Harbison is CMO at AWeber.com, an email technology targeting small businesses, where he oversees marketing operations and strategy for the company’s content, CRM, PR, business development, and sales disciplines. He is the lead instructor for the UVM Digital Marketing Fundamentals certificate program.