How COVID-19 is ending the stigma of online learning

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Daphne Kis, Chief Executive Officer, WorldQuant University


  • COVID-19 led to the largest boost in online learning participation.
  • As nearly 100% of new graduates entering the job market this year completed their degree at least partially online, traditional candidate evaluation criteria must be revisited.
  • Online learning can offer better preparation for the new work-life normal, including “soft” skills and “cross-functional” skills.

Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, brick-and-mortar schools around the globe scrambled to bring their courses online.

The result wasn’t just an overnight transformation for traditional institutions – it was the single largest boost in online learning participation.

In 2018, only 7 million postsecondary students were enrolled in distance learning courses in the US. Only 17% of students that year were enrolled in exclusively online courses.

Percentage distribution of colleges, by control, level, and distance education (DE) offerings of college: Academic year 2018–19
In 2018, 7 million postsecondary students in the U.S. were enrolled in distance learning courses. Image: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

Fast forward to 2020, and many more students found themselves learning primarily online. The sudden shift to online is often characterized as a necessity, not a choice. But the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows declines in enrollment across nearly all categories of institutions in the last two semesters, while predominantly online institutions experienced quite the opposite: “At primarily online institutions (POIs), where more than 90% of students enrolled exclusively online prior to the pandemic, both undergraduate and graduate enrollments increased more than the pre-pandemic rate of growth.”

A recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education found remarkable growth for prominent online programs: “At Arizona State University, online enrollment of undergraduate and graduate students from fall 2019 to fall 2020 increased by more than 20%; at Southern New Hampshire, it was up by 18%; and at Western Governors University, it was up by nearly 7%.”

At WorldQuant University, which is a not-for-profit advancing global education in data sciences and providing students globally with online and entirely free offerings, we saw our MSc applications nearly double from April to May of 2020, right as lockdowns set in. From May to June, applications doubled once again.

From an employer perspective, the picture is coming into focus: nearly 100% of candidates applying for jobs after graduation from an undergraduate program this year will have completed their degree at least partially online.

A year into this pandemic, employers have no choice but to seriously consider applicants with degrees and other credentials from online programs. To do this effectively, traditional candidate evaluation criteria will need to be revisited.

Brick-and-Mortar Bias

Historically, a degree from a brick-and-mortar university was used by some employers as a proxy assessment of a candidate’s potential and capabilities, not necessarily their skills. Many online learning programs, by contrast, have relentlessly focused on teaching directly applicable skills.

The focus was worth it. A 2018 Northeastern University survey found that “61% of HR leaders firmly believe that online learning is of equal or greater quality to more traditional methods.”

Consider that 58% of US employers “believe that an institution’s brand and reputation is the main driver of a credential’s value, regardless of whether or not it was earned online,” according to the same Northeastern University survey. In fact, most employers don’t seem to care if a credential was earned online or in-person, so long as it came from a recognized, historically brick-and-mortar institution. One SHRM study also found that “92% of employers view online degrees from brick-and-mortar schools as favorable, while only 42% would consider a candidate with an online degree from a university that operates solely online, despite any accreditation.”

While many employers are no longer distinguishing between online and in-person learning, they are still committed to using proxy assessments of potential and capability rather than finding ways to identify real skills. Most problematically, they’re assessing the quality of new online-only offerings based on the legacy of in-person programs.

Paradoxically, employers are simultaneously voicing concern about skills gaps and shortages across all sectors of the global economy. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report quantifies the scope and pace of the challenge employers face: “40% of workers will require reskilling of six months or less and 94% of business leaders report that they expect employees to pick up new skills on the job, a sharp uptake from 65% in 2018.”

While shortages may very well exist, evaluation processes based on university brand reputations surely is making it more difficult to hire people with the right skills, even in areas without shortages.

The Skills Advantage and Legitimacy of Online Learning

The good news is that online learning can offer better preparation for the new work-life normal than brick-and-mortar programs. Hybrid and remote work arrangements are here to stay not only because of COVID-19 – they’ve been on the rise for years. Employers are quickly changing their posture towards online-native institutions as a result.

Adding to the perception change is the continued enhancement and innovation in online learning, which is increasingly validated by accreditors with specialized expertise in distance learning. Having recently received accreditation at WorldQuant University, we had to thoroughly demonstrate the rigor of our offerings. Throughout that process, we emphasized our method for assessing our students’ work, which is often completed in collaborative groups, but always virtually.

The High Demand for Durable Skills
Employers demand durable skills. Image: AmericaSucceeds

Due to the nature of the immersive online learning experience, we’re able to assess not just hard skills, but also soft skills developed and demonstrated when collaborating with classmates in a realistic, business-like environment. Our students learn how to thrive as members of globally distributed teams with a diversity of backgrounds, experience and skill levels.

It’s no surprise that we’re seeing surging demand for soft, or “durable,” skills. One recent study found that soft skills are four times more likely to be listed in job postings than hard skills.

But soft skills take different shapes online and offline. Brick-and-mortar schools surely have the conditions necessary for students to develop these skills in person, but students don’t typically have the opportunity to practice those skills online, just as they would use them at work.

Even amidst the rising stock of soft skills, we’re hearing more about what leaders are calling “cross-functional skills,” where a discipline and a specific domain intersect. For example, financial engineering – the subject of our MSc at WorldQuant University – is the intersection of the discipline of data science and the domain of finance.

The skills needed in the job market continue to change rapidly as technology disrupts all industries. The practical business reality has finally revealed this stigma to be antiquated and unsustainable. Supply and demand in labor markets are coming into closer alignment. Employers are shifting to skills-based evaluation criteria because traditional methods have not always sufficed, and workers are investing in lifelong learning and upskilling because their careers very clearly depend on it.

This an opportunity for businesses and workers to be more open minded. We can cast off presumptuous, misaligned assumptions about education, objectively focus on skills and solve one of the most pervasive economic challenges of our time.

The benefit of lifelong learning has never been more aligned for all parties. With access to and incentive to pursue affordable, global and robust online learning opportunities, the workforce of the future will be agile, cross-functional and high performing.

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