Earning a master’s degree online can seem daunting. Prospective students often wonder, “Is the experience online the same as on-campus?” and, “Will the format fit my lifestyle?” Roughly 6.3 million students in the United States are now enrolled in at least one online course, though, and that number is growing due to the flexibility and benefits of virtual learning.
Today’s workforce is moving online. Forty-six percent of organizations recently surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) said they use virtual teams. With that, the number of professionals who regularly work from home has increased 159 percent over the last decade, with more than 4.7 million employees working remotely at least half the time.
It’s clear, then, that learning online helps prepare professionals for this shift toward online work. Below, explore what online courses entail, explore seven key benefits, and get the advice you need to determine if online courses are right for you.
What Are Online Courses Like?
An online course requires just as much work as an on-ground format, and the amount of time you dedicate is also about the same. However, the online format—just as a virtual workplace—affords you more flexibility. As long as you meet your deadlines and communicate with your instructor and peers, it doesn’t matter where or when you fulfill the requirements.
Each week, your instructor typically expects you to take the following actions yourself:
- Review the learning objectives
- Complete the assigned readings
- Submit assignments
- Go through the lecture materials
- Participate in the discussion boards
You are probably experienced at independently completing the first three actions from previous in-person courses. Learning from an online lecture is different, but you can also do it wherever and whenever.
Learn More: How to Be a Successful Online Learner
Adjusting to an online learning model could be a challenge at first, but once you adapt to the format, there are numerous benefits to be realized. No matter the reason you choose to pursue an online education, earning an online degree can help prepare you for career advancement and demonstrate key skills to potential employers. Here’s a look at seven top benefits of online learning.
Seven Benefits of Online Learning
1. Added Flexibility and Self-Paced Learning
Not many people have the ability to take time off from work to commit to a full-time graduate program, and others often travel for work. For those who still need to juggle working and going back to school, the flexibility of an online program provides individuals with the opportunity to learn while still working and growing professionally.
By earning your master’s degree online, you can learn on your own schedule. Rather than leave the office early or skip family dinner to commute to campus, you’re logging on when it’s convenient for you—at a time that doesn’t interfere with other commitments. That flexibility allows you to more easily balance work, life, and graduate school.
Additionally, students don’t always feel comfortable asking professors to repeat a point they made in their last lecture or dive into deeper detail on a specific topic. When learning online, you can revisit past material or stop the lecture to perform additional research or organize your notes. You can work through the lesson plan at your own pace to ensure you’re really mastering the material before moving on to the next section. This added flexibility allows online learners to move through the course work at their own speed and get the most out of the degree program.
2. Better Time Management
Juggling work, family, and school isn’t an easy thing to do. Employers recognize this and admire the time management skills it takes to balance all three. Because there are no set classroom times within an online degree program, and students have the flexibility to create their own schedules, it’s up to the student to proactively reach out to faculty, complete assignments on time, and plan ahead.
One of the things we know employers expect is that we manage our time effectively. It’s never enough to be at your desk on time in the morning and stay through the end of the day; most of us are expected to get more projects done in less time. Online classes keep you on a regular schedule of making and meeting deadlines, allowing you to practice managing your time and staying productive week-to-week. Employers often appreciate the time management skills needed to complete an online degree program and view these skills as a valuable asset in potential employees.
Melanie Kasparian, associate director of assessment at Northeastern College of Professional Studies, shares tips on how to be a successful online learner, recommending students work consistently throughout the week. A sample schedule, she says, may look similar to this:
- Monday: Begin required readings and multimedia.
- Tuesday: Continue reviewing materials.
- Wednesday: Post to the discussion forum and begin assignments.
- Thursday: Continue posting and working on assignments.
- Friday: Read and respond to posts and work on assignments.
- Saturday: Read and respond to posts and finish assignments.
- Sunday: Check your work and submit assignments.
Kasparian says, “Working on the train, during a lunch break, or in the morning—there’s really no right time to study, as long as it fits your life.”
3. Demonstrated Self-Motivation
By successfully earning your master’s degree online, you’re demonstrating that you can practice time management and are self-motivated, which are among the top 10 employability skills employers want to see in new hires. By succeeding in earning an online degree, you prove that you can tackle multiple tasks, set priorities, and adapt to changing work conditions.
Instructors expect students to be independent, to learn on their own, and to engage with the material that they are teaching. It’s the same thing in the workforce; employers want you to be self-motivated, go after things that interest you, and seek new opportunities and ways of doing things. The more you put your heart into it—whether it’s learning online or working for your employer—the more you’ll succeed.
4. Improved Virtual Communication and Collaboration
Learning to work with others in a virtual environment can make you a more effective leader. You’ll develop critical leadership skills by utilizing specialized knowledge, creating efficient processes, and making decisions about best communication practices, such as what should be discussed in-person or electronically.
In an online program, you’ll also participate in discussion boards with your classmates, communicate with professors via email, and collaborate through various software programs. As the program progresses, you’ll get better at pitching your ideas and making strong, succinct, professional arguments through text.
Participating in discussion boards is a lot like participating in a virtual team. Communicating your ideas clearly, getting responses, and projecting a professional image are necessary skills in a virtual workplace. Instructors, just like managers, expect you to write respectful, thoughtful, and polite communications, respond to different perspectives, and build a rapport with your peers. Luckily, in an online program, you’ll refine this skill quickly— post after post, week after week, course after course.
5. A Broader, Global Perspective
Students in online programs come from across the U.S. and all over the world. Because of the ability to log on from any location, class discussions feature a broader range of perspectives, helping you enhance your own cross-cultural understanding. Students then not only have the opportunity to network with people from around the globe, but can also broaden their perspective and become more culturally aware.
Businesses are looking for employees who can innovate, and innovation often comes from outside your immediate world. If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, for example, hearing how other countries adopt certain technologies or approach specific industries can inspire new ideas or improve an existing concept you’ve been developing.
Being exposed to new ideas from professionals in other countries may spark creativity of your own—creativity that can turn out to be valuable for your organization.
6. Refined Critical-thinking Skills
Online learning facilitates the ability to think critically about what you do every day. The goal in the classroom is to challenge you to think differently, and employers want you to do that, too–to think critically in your role at work. Mastering this skill is what will set you apart as a student, and as an employee.
Critical thinking plays a role in any type of education; however, online learning forces you to develop your critical thinking skills in ways that you might not have practiced in an in-person classroom setting. This sort of self-paced and self-motivated learning demonstrates to future employers that you have the ability to think critically and overcome any obstacles that might stand in your way.
7. New Technical Skills
Your online degree also equates to strong technical skills, a definite plus for any job seeker. As part of your coursework, you will likely need to utilize digital learning materials, get familiar with new tools and software, and troubleshoot common issues. After a program’s worth of technical hurdles, big and small, an employer could trust that you are versed in common collaboration tools, content management systems, and basic troubleshooting.
With more companies using virtual teams, it’s important to learn how to collaborate remotely. Your classmates will likely live in different time zones, which you need to learn how to adapt to and schedule around.
Embracing technology is also crucial. When you’re working on a group project, sharing files or status updates can become difficult via email, so you might need to utilize project management and communication tools such as:
- Skype: The video conferencing software lets you speak face-to-face with your peers.
- Dropbox: Share documents with your group and keep work in one place using the file hosting service.
- Slack: The messaging platform is helpful if you need to instant message in real-time or break off into smaller groups to work on a specific part of the project.
- Trello: The project management tool enables you and your team to create, assign, track, and prioritize to-dos.
- Basecamp: Another, slightly more robust, project management tool you can use to share messages and upload files.
Most companies today are using some combination of the software above or other programs similar. Being able to state you have project management experience and are familiar with software like Basecamp can bolster your resumé. With an online degree experience, your future employer will know you’re comfortable learning new technologies, building a rapport virtually, tackling tasks proactively and independently, and knowing your way around a computer and virtual workspace.
Is an Online Degree Right for You?
If you are considering whether an online graduate degree is the right choice for you, be sure to consider the benefits online learning has to offer. For students who are faced with the challenge of balancing work, family, and education, an online master’s degree can be an ideal solution. Further, pursuing an online degree can prepare students for career advancement and showcase key skills to potential employers.
By earning a master’s degree—no matter the format—you set yourself up to earn significantly more in your lifetime than bachelor’s degree holders. You’ll also gain access to more job options, given that by 2022, 18 percent of jobs will require a master’s degree. Learning online builds on those benefits and helps prepare you for today’s globalized workforce.
Are you interested in earning your master’s degree online? Explore Northeastern’s online master’s programs and start advancing your career today.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in April of 2016. It has since been updated for relevance and accuracy.