By Will Trevor, assistant dean and director of online programs
Data from the Department of Labor (DOL) suggest that people change careers three to seven times during their lives. This precise number has been disputed, with some commentators believing it may be overstated. What is not disputed, however, is that in today’s world individuals need to be prepared to re-skill, up-skill, and gain new knowledge and competencies during their working lives. Not just once, but maybe multiple times before reaching retirement!
Committing to lifelong learning, and making the decision to return to learn, can be a daunting task. When there is already so much that commands your attention during the working day, whether that is your home life, family life, or work life, trying to set valuable time aside to acquire new skills and knowledge can be a big ask. But with careful planning and preparation, it doesn’t have to be something to put aside.
Some studies put the number of Americans pursuing an online education at more than six million. And that figure is rising. Online learning provides a flexible and affordable way to return to learn, and with COVID-19 still present within our communities, it also provides a safe option for students concerned about exposure to the virus. But the successful online learner needs to follow a few basic rules to gain the most from the experience:
Don’t set unrealistic expectations of yourself that you know you will be unable to keep, such as pledging to “spend all day Sunday studying.” Instead, set aside time slots when you know you can study without distraction.
Get to know your limits, so if you realize that your attention starts to wander after 30 minutes, then get up and walk about, or read a book, until you feel you can concentrate again. Often the best approach is one of “little and often” rather than setting a blockbuster schedule.
Plan your time carefully. When you receive your course schedule, try to put the important deadlines into your calendar straight away, so that you can plan for the important assessed work. Be sure that you are completing regular tasks, such as the weekly discussion forums, but don’t lose sight of the bigger objectives, such as the final project, for which you can start planning ahead of time.
Use the Eisenhower Decision Principle to differentiate between tasks that are important/unimportant and urgent/ non-urgent. So, if you have a task that is important and urgent, such as an impending assignment deadline, you should do it now! If you have something that is important but non-urgent, plan a time when you will do it, but be sure to complete the more important tasks first. If the task is neither important nor urgent—such as the procrastinator’s favorite activity of desk-tidying—consider whether you should even be doing it.
Finally, enjoy yourself! As the adage goes, “If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day in your life.” You have a unique opportunity to spend time immersing yourself in a topic that you are interested in, so be sure to savor the chance to take a deeper dive in the company of like-minded individuals, with the support and guidance of your instructor. While you have important deadlines to meet, don’t forget to take the time for some of the things that you find most interesting and take a more leisurely approach when the pressure is off.
Online learning presents many opportunities for individuals to return to learn in a more flexible and convenient way. While it does require careful planning in terms of the multiple demands upon your time, it can provide an important pathway to gain the skills and knowledge to advance your career, particularly during the current time and the unique challenges presented by COVID-19.