Online Learning: For Older Students and Professionals

Lesson 5: For Older Students and Professionals


For older students and professionals

When it comes to technology, two of the environments experiencing the greatest shifts are higher education and the workforce. Students and professionals alike are turning their attention to online learning opportunities. Institutions are adapting to meet the demands of the Digital Age–some more quickly than others!

In a sense, the internet is helping to build a society of lifelong learners: people who will continue to learn and to grow over the course of their lifetime.

But what does this look like in the here and now? It’s important to know not only what’s out there, but how you can use online learning in order to carve your own path. Let’s break down how this applies to students pursuing degrees, and how it applies to professionals pursuing new skills.

Note: If you’re interested in courses which are not for credit, skip down to the professional growth section.

Taking college classes online

“Remote” or “distance learning” continues to gain popularity. Two of the main advantages of taking a college course online is that it’s convenient–you don’t need to commute to school–and sometimes it costs less than an in-person one on campus.

Another key benefit is flexibility. If you’re juggling family obligations or have a job, then online classes might fit better into your busy schedule. Be sure to think about which format might work for you (as discussed in Lesson 3: Group-Based Options).  

One disadvantage is running into technical issues–either on your end, such as your internet being down, or issues with the platform itself. This can affect your ability to get your work done. If you plan on taking online courses, make sure that you have a good internet connection at home or somewhere quiet you can work, like a library or cafe. 

Another thing you should take into consideration is time management. If you need to make your own schedule and meet certain deadlines, some students struggle with procrastination. This applies to in-person classes as well, but working remotely requires even more independence and motivation to get things done.

Getting a degree or certificate online

Some schools offer degree and certificate programs through a “hybrid” model, which are completed part in-person and part online. Other programs are 100% remote. 

Sometimes the programs are accelerated–meaning you cover more material in less time–and sometimes they allow you to be a part-time student, whose credits are spread out over a longer period.

These days, more employers are accepting of online degrees–so long as the degree comes from a reputable school that’s accredited. This means that the college or university’s curriculum meets certain standards. The U.S. Department of Education has an accreditation lookup tool on its website.

In addition, community colleges frequently provide fast-track options for some specialized degrees and certificates. By “specialized” we mean programs which focus on a specific area of study. To learn more about career paths which don’t require a traditional four-year degree, check out our Careers without College tutorial.

Note: If you decide to do an online degree, you will need to do some careful research. While there are plenty of legitimate programs out there, it’s crucial to watch out for diploma mills. These are for-profit schools which aren’t accredited.

Professional growth

As technology continues to change the world around us, more people are looking to gain new skills–sometimes referred to as upskilling. This could be for their current role, or skills that will help them move into a new one.

Sometimes your company will offer professional development, or give you an annual stipend to spend on things like conferences, courses, and certificates/certifications. If you find an online learning opportunity that you think will help you in your current role, you can always ask your boss if you can participate and have the company cover the cost.

This isn’t always possible, though, so you might have to pay out-of-pocket and pursue professional development on your own time. Either way, here are five good starting points for figuring out which types of opportunities might be a good fit…

#1. Read up on future trends. If you’re a reader, you can subscribe to an online news source that focuses on your field. For example, MarketWatch is all about financial news, whereas EdWeek is designed for educators. If you’re unsure where to look, Google something like “top news sources about…” and it will generate a list for the topic you filled in.

#2. Listen to podcasts to become more knowledgeable. If you prefer listening to audio, you can check out podcasts about your line of work. The Apple Podcast app is preinstalled on every iPhone and iPad, or you can get a free trial of Spotify. Podcast players allow you to search for specific subjects. Not only will this help you to learn about how your field is changing, but you’ll be able to have meaningful conversations with future employers. 

#3. Take a close look at recent job posts. Today, top job boards include Indeed, LinkedIn, and ZipRecruiter. The posts could be for roles similar to your current one, or a role that you’re thinking of moving into. Are there any requirements or preferred qualifications outside of your skillset? For example, maybe there’s new software you can learn, either through self-directed learning (watching videos and trying it out) or through a course if it’s more complicated. Which leads to the next tip…

#4. Consider taking an online course. We’re referring to the courses that don’t count as credit toward a degree, but that will make you more competitive in the field. For example, some people choose to get a Microsoft certification in Word or Office 365. Grow with Google offers certificates in things like digital marketing and e-commerce, among other fields. Always do your research to make sure the money you’re spending is worth the investment. 

Note: It’s important to know the difference between a certificate and a certification. A certificate simply provides proof that you completed something, like a course. A certification involves passing an exam, and is usually more rigorous.  

#5. Don’t rule out possibilities–including being your own boss! Many people’s career paths are not a straight and narrow path. You might start out doing one thing, and then end up in an entirely different field. The digitally-connected world is not only making it easier to switch jobs, but to carve your own unique career path as well.

For example, more and more people are trying out freelancing. Freelancers do not work for one boss, but take on projects with different employers and set their own prices for services. To learn more about this growing field, check out our tutorial, Freelancing 101

In addition, lots of professionals are trying their hand at starting their own business. There are thousands of videos on YouTube about specific types of entrepreneurship, like running an online store or basic finance. We also have a tutorial on this topic, Entrepreneurship 101.

Neither freelancing nor entrepreneurship is an easy path to success. However, these alternative options give many people the freedom they’re looking for–so they might be worth considering!


  • Benefits of online classes include convenience, flexibility, and (often) a lower price tag. Two potential challenges are managing your time wisely and technical issues.
  • Online degrees are gaining popularity. Sometimes these programs are accelerated or can be completed part-time. Always check for accreditation.
  • More employers/employees are looking to adapt to the demands of the Digital Age. Be on the lookout for professional development opportunities.
  • Keep the pulse on trends in your field through reading the news, listening to podcasts, skimming current job posts, or taking an online course.
  • Online learning is also making it easier for you to carve your own path. More people are choosing to be their own boss through pathways like freelancing and entrepreneurship.