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There are three things I know for sure about the relationship between higher education and Covid-19. First, regardless of what each college/university decides to do this fall, online education is going to be an important part of that solution. Whether it’s the only option because campuses don’t open or it’s an alternative to returning to an open campus when students don’t feel safe doing so, it’s going to be a big part of higher education for the coming year. Next, I do not envy administrators who must make impossible decisions from a big bunch of bad options. Third, moving to online courses in the fall is something that students can use to their advantage in preparing for the work world and in marketing themselves after graduation. I want to focus on this latter contention.

Actually, there’s another thing I know: This post is going to be a little long. But bear with me. This is your future we’re talking about. And you need to make these important decisions with as much information as possible. So hang in there and keep reading. I think this discussion will be useful for you.

I understand that first-year students are disappointed with the prospect of not being on campus in the fall. The truth is that your faculty and staff are disappointed, too. We go into higher education because helping students learn and succeed is our calling. It brings us joy. And so we’re going to miss welcoming you on campus as much as you’re going to miss being there.

I hear some students talking about gap years as a result of the need to postpone going back to physical campuses and although I can understand that response, I want to push back against it here. There are obvious questions that arise from that decision. What are you going to do instead? Get a job? If so, how should you weigh risking infection versus the kinds of work that will be available to you with a high school diploma? Thinking about an internship? With such high rates of unemployment, how likely an option is that and again, how competitive are you with that high school diploma?

I get it. There are no great options. But there is one option that keeps you moving forward toward your goal of a college degree and can help prepare you to reach your career goals with some important preparation for employment–starting your college career online. Let me explain.

Earlier this year, I co-authored a book called Major Decisions: College, Career, and the Case for the Humanities. Part of the book focused on the core skills and knowledge needed by graduates who want to thrive in our high-tech, global economy. We used data from various studies and media interviews to make and support our claims about how these core skills and knowledge are a regular part of a humanities curriculum (I talk about some of that here and use some of that discussion in this post, too). Yearly studies done by associations linked to higher education, as well as observations from captains of industry and titans of technology, gave us excellent insight into what skills and knowledge college students need to succeed after graduation. This research also gives us insight into how students can benefit from learning to successfully navigate college online during Covid-19 when being on campus just isn’t a great idea. So, let’s talk about why going online this fall can be a good idea for many of you.

I won’t belabor all of the research we consulted when writing our book, but suffice it to say that college graduates who want to succeed in the high-tech, global economy will need some very specific core skills and knowledge in addition to some key behavioral traits. Some of these include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Written communication
  • Oral communication
  • Collaboration
  • Problem-solving
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Technological competence and technological literacy
  • Understanding diversity, inclusivity, and equality
  • Understanding globalization and having a global perspective
  • Agility and flexibility of thinking/action
  • Strong work ethic/self-discipline
  • Strategic planning skills/prioritization
  • Risk-taking
  • Tactfulness
  • Comfort dealing with ambiguity
  • Good judgement
  • Ability to adapt to changing contexts
  • Time management

You’d be reading all day if I discussed in detail how each skill, knowledge set, or trait on this list could be linked to online learning, so I’ll briefly discuss these links here, merging some of them, in hopes that I can convince you to consider starting college online this fall. As I said before, there are no perfect solutions to the problems we face, but starting online this fall can be a solid choice. So, here we go!

Critical thinking/good judgment/time management/work ethic: Based on their 2013 research study in the American Journal of Sociology on the relationships between skills and salary, Liu and Grusky claim, “the defining feature . . . of the last 30 years has been a precipitous increase in the wage payoff to jobs requiring synthesis, critical thinking, and deductive and inductive reasoning.” They call it the “analytic revolution.” This is critical thinking. Learning online means making some critical decisions for yourself in terms of both your work with course content and your decisions about what to do and when. Starting online this fall gives you the opportunity to not just begin learning course content, which often requires you to analyze, synthesize, and organize information, but it also gives you the opportunity to start forming the positive habits of exhibiting good judgement, time management, and excellent work ethic.

Your faculty member will not be in the room with you, reminding you and urging you face-to-face to get X and Y accomplished or to plan accordingly. You will have to make decisions about how you will move through your courses. You will have to manage your time effectively and learn that one type of exercise may take longer than others and then plan accordingly. You will learn to think critically in your coursework, but you will also have to apply critical thinking to your decision-making about the course and its workoad. Explanations of how you managed your time and exercised good judgement during the time of Covid-19 as a first-year student can go a long way in impressing a prospective employer.

Written communication: In his book, You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education, George Anders quotes Liz Kirschner, head of talent acquisition at a Chicago investment-research firm, who emphasizes the importance of already knowing how to write upon graduation: “It’s easier to hire people who can write—and teach them how to read financial statements—rather than hire accountants in hopes of teaching them to be strong writers.” Whether its extensive practice in writing ideas you might normally discuss face-to-face, engaging with faculty and students over discussion boards, or emailing a faculty member for further guidance, online courses can help you sharpen your written communication skills because you will likely be writing a lot more than if you were in a face-to-face class. You can learn how to succinctly and effectively communicate for a number of different purposes via writing.

Oral communication and tactfulness: According to Burning Glass Technology’s 2015 report, The Human Factor: The Hard Time Employers Have Finding Soft Skills, oral communication ability is recognized as one of the skills with the largest gaps between employer demand and the supply of workers with those skills. And Deming’s research shows that while the share of tasks requiring social skills grew by 24 percent from 1980 to 2012, the market for math-intensive tasks grew only 11 percent, and other jobs “characterized by routine work” have continued to decline.” Measuring data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Deming finds a correlation between higher social skills (such as oral communication) and earning more money, even after controlling for education, standardized test scores, and job type.

Learning how to successfully navigate online conversations via Zoom in a hybrid class is something we all learned a lot about this spring. An online class with some synchronous class time via Zoom can help you sharpen those skills. And the inevitable miscues and miscommunication that happen in these spaces are an excellent place for you to practice being tactful, as well as providing examples to future employers about how you learned and implemented better communication and managed conflict and concerns tactfully your first semester of college.

Collaboration: In their 2016 essay, Cross, Rebele, and Grant note that time spent by both managers and employees in collaborative work increased 50 percent from 1996-2016. In the high-tech, global economy disparate groups are often working together to bring products to the marketplace. Collaboration is not only regularly at the top of the “what employers want” lists, it’s also more and more common in a variety of workplaces and careers. As the global economy expands and companies all over the world begin to work together to create products and solve the world’s most wicked problems, collaboration via online platforms is more and more common each day. Starting college online this fall will allow you to start honing those online collaboration skills from day one!

Problem-solving/strategic planning skills: While problems have always been abundant in the workplace, the nature of problems has become more complex in the fast-paced, global knowledge economy. In addition, like collaborating, more and more problem-solving is happening in online environments and online courses give you a chance to practice problem-solving in that context. Strategic planning is about having a vision and setting up the time tables and processes by which you will achieve your vision. You must plan and make decisions about goals, including actions needed to reach those goals and the timing of those actions. The key to successful online education, in my experience, has been excellence in planning, whether it’s planning how to solve a particular problem from coursework or planning a schedule to juggle multiple responsibilities while taking online courses. These are skills you’ll need to succeed in any educational or work context.

Creativity and innovation: Tracy Carlson, a leading consultant and author on branding and marketing writes that organizations need people who bring a healthy skepticism to projects as a means of finding “fresh ways to explore and reframe the issues, illuminate hypotheses, and challenge assumptions.” Innovation isn’t defined by rules or steps to follow or specific practices and there are no means of copying the successful work of others as an innovative thinker. And what is shifting from an in-person first semester of college to an online first semester of college if not a chance for all of us to innovate? Faculty will innovate their courses and how and what they teach. And students will be innovative in thinking about how to work, solve problems, and learn in a wholly different environment than expected.

When we quickly moved to online courses this spring, it broke my heart to no longer meet up with my Rhetoric of American Horror Film students. Finishing online meant that students also had to shift plans for their final projects. At the beginning of the semester, one group of students planned on creating a horror film influenced by course concepts. The shift to an online course meant they had to innovate. No longer allowed to operate in groups face-to-face, they shifted their story and its requisite filming to their current cultural context–Covid-19. Driven by the need to innovate they created an excellent short film that used the fear we were all feeling this spring to create a film asking us to think about what the pandemic meant to us. That story will be an excellent selling point for those three students as they interview for jobs. Curious? Watch their short film here.

Technological competence and literacy: So, I think the technological competency link to online education in the fall is pretty self-evident. You’re going to learn how to use of lot of different technology in your courses. But what is technological literacy? This is the ability to distinguish the best information from that which is less credible. The critical evaluation of digital source material is key when web sources can contain content created by humans, bots, hyperlinks, and sponsored text. Critical assessment of information and data is crucial to effectively using these tools in the workplace. Your online semester will thus not only equip you with competence in a number of programs you might not otherwise engage, but you will also be able to provide clear and interesting examples to prospective employers about what you learned about being a smart user of technology and technology’s impact on society.

Understanding diversity, inclusivity, and equality: There may be no concept here that I under-explain more than these next two. They are complex concepts that require entire blog posts of their own. But I’ll do what I can to explain. Diverse and inclusive organizations are more innovative, smarter, productive, and generate higher revenues. Studies indicate that businesses see a 35 percent increase in return on investment for ethnically diverse companies and a 15 percent return for gender-diverse companies. While diversity makes teams smarter, good results may not accrue from simply putting diverse people together, given the complexities of inequities and bias. People need to be skilled at working with others different than themselves. Online learning means engaging with many different people that may be dissimilar to you in myriad ways. Being exposed to multiple viewpoints and learning to recognize your own biases and those of others can prepare you to be even more effective in an increasingly diverse workplace.

Understanding globalization and having a global perspective: From every corner of the globe, we are all part of an interconnected network and intercultural competence is necessary at all levels of business. Whether one sets foot in another country or not, the Society for Human Resource Management notes that a global mindset is necessary because “employees work virtually across borders via technology” and “interact with a globally dispersed customer base.” Employees must know how to cope with cultural differences and be open to others’ ideas, aware that attitudes, policies, leadership styles, and communication vary from culture to culture. As noted above, online learning this fall can give you a head start in learning the competencies required to succeed in an increasingly global economy.

Agile and flexible thinking/risk-taking/dealing with ambiguity/ability to adapt: This seems somewhat obvious to me, but you are nothing if not an agile, flexible, adaptable, risk-taker comfortable with ambiguity if you decide to go ahead and start college online when being on-campus isn’t an option. The titans of technology and captains of industry we cite in our book consistently talk about the growing importance of these traits. There is no doubt that attending a college or university online this fall is not what many 2020 graduates planned, but here we are. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic that doesn’t care about our schedules or our beloved campuses. And we have to adapt. Imagine graduating and being asked about your flexibility and your willingness to take risks. You’ll be able to tell the story of how and why you decided to forge ahead with college in Fall 2020, in spite of less-than-ideal conditions. Add to that story all of the skills and traits listed above that you learned and you have a fascinating, remarkable, and impressive story to tell!

And hey, look around. Look at how many of us are now working from home. Our ideas about work and workplaces are going to shift as a result. So be prepared for those shifts and be able to talk about the ways that you shifted with them.

Before I end I want to make a few caveats to what I’ve said here. First, when you decide to go ahead and start college online, think carefully about classes. Not all classes transfer as well to online environments. So think about those choices and talk to others already engaged in online learning or teaching who can perhaps help you with those choices.

Second, remember that in an increasingly global economy the job market is very competitive. If you choose to start college online in the fall, use this experience to market yourselves to employers once you graduate or once you’re back on campus and gunning for that great internship! Learning about and developing these skills, knowledge, and traits in the online environment gives you a chance to have more practice with these things in the more forgiving environment of education rather than in the less forgiving context of work.

Finally, while I think it’s a good idea for most people to start college this fall online rather than begin a gap year or semester, I know that it’s not an option for everyone for a lot of different reasons. If you can do it, I encourage you to do it. If you cannot, we hope to see you on campus soon.

Like I said at the beginning of this short novel, there are no great answers here. But given the options we have, I hope you’ll consider seeing this challenge as an opportunity to grow and develop some important skills, knowledge, and traits that will set you apart from many others when you graduate. Not every online experience will be perfect or even good, perhaps. But the faculty I know will work hard to do a great job and to get you on the path to an excellent education. If we can show each other some grace and work together, we’ll get through it. And if nothing else, when we are back on campus some day, maybe we won’t take higher education for granted anymore and we’ll better appreciate the privilege to be on campus and learning.

Best wishes for a successful Fall, whatever your choice about starting college may be.