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How Online Education Helps Career Changers in the Automation Age

What I’ve seen is that more and more students who are older are coming back and getting advanced degrees, certificates, or taking a course . . . A lot of these students are caregivers for parents as well as having children of their own, so the online option is really convenient.

Vickie Cook, PhD, Executive Director of Online Professional and Engaged Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS)

The mention of artificial intelligence (AI) elicits varying reactions. We have seen sensational headlines for years about its potential, typically propagating two extreme outcomes: a doomsday in which AI turns against humanity or a utopian future where the hardships and drudgery of the pre-automation days are distant memories.

With the growing adoption of AI across the globe, we can see that the truth is somewhere in the middle. So far, there are no Blade Runner androids wreaking havoc on society, but we are seeing how AI impacts economies and international supply chains.

Some of the most significant applications of AI so far have been in the business realm. They can be classified into physical and mental work—the former referring to tasks like sorting packages in warehouse facilities, the latter referring to more cerebral tasks such as analysis.

To the delight of corporations, these technologies allow them to maximize productivity and shrink costs, and require a fraction of the number of employees. While that’s great from a business standpoint, the obvious question emerges: what does that mean for the people that held those jobs?

David Autor explains in a TED Talk that while it can be tempting to fall into the alarmist mindset that AI is going to replace all of our jobs, this is not exactly true.

He gives the example of the implementation of ATMs in the early 1970s. As one would expect, ATMs replaced a lot of teller tasks and as a result, the number of tellers per branch decreased by about one-third. However, with the decreased cost of opening new facilities, the number of branches exploded about 40 percent in the same timeframe. Autor explains, “The net result was more branches and more tellers, but those tellers were doing somewhat different work… they became less like check-out clerks and more like sales people—forging relationships with customers, solving problems, and introducing them to new products. More tellers doing a more cognitively demanding job.”

Autor predicts the aftermath of AI will be similar. There won’t be less jobs, per se, just different higher-quality ones: “As our tools improve, technology magnifies our leverage and increases the importance of our expertise, our judgement, and our creativity.”

Of course, there will be an adjustment period in this new reality. The McKinsey Global Institute recently found that a whopping 16 million to 54 million workers in the United States may need to switch occupations by 2030, learning new skills or increasing their level of education in order to find work. The average of that range is about the same size as the population of California.

“Thanks to automation and the forces of globalization, working life is so impermanent and unpredictable, and will only become more so,” writer Helen Barrett said in her personal account of switching careers in her mid-thirties. “That is daunting, but it is also liberating. We are increasingly willing to take control.”

Depending on a person’s industry, the onset of automation will mean different things, but for many, the best solution will be going back to school to gain new skills.

While a college student over the age of 35 may have been unusual twenty years ago, it is increasingly common in our society for individuals to have more than one career in a lifetime. The National Center of Educational Statistics (NCES) said that between 2001 and 2015, there was a 35 percent increase in college students between ages 25 and 34, and that between 2015 and 2026, enrollment in that age group was projected to increase another 11 percent.

Of course, going back to school is not an easy undertaking because of the substantial investment required, which is not just the cost of tuition, but the inability to work as much (or at all) while attending school in a traditional setting.

Could Online Programs Be a Perfect Solution for Older Students?

As AI becomes more and more prevalent, there’s a parallel digital movement happening in education that is a boon to adult students: online education.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen learning institutions begin to incorporate online elements to curriculum. Platforms like “WebWork” and “Moodle,” among others, have been used in college classrooms in conjunction with in-classroom learning. They offer digital access to coursework and assignments. A handful of universities (Oregon State University, American University, University of Dayton, and University of Illinois, etc.) sought to do more than just incorporate online elements into learning; they wanted to offer fully online programs.

There was some hesitancy from accrediting agencies and the general public to digest the idea of offering fully online bachelor’s and master’s degrees programs, mainly because of the belief that something essential in the learning process will be lost when you subtract in-person classroom interactions. These days, distance-based learning is more widely accepted and offers several unique advantages.

Online education gives students the freedom to fit their school work around their existing obligations. While an older adult may not be able to drop all of their responsibilities to pursue a new degree at a traditional campus, they may very well be able to dedicate time during their off-hours.

In the past few years, we’ve seen fully online bachelor’s and master’s degree programs emerge and gain accreditation in a wide array of subjects. For instance, in 2019, the University of Dayton launched the first Juris Doctor (JD) program that is offered almost fully online—a huge milestone—after a tough fight for approval from the American Bar Association.

Could distance-learning be the perfect avenue for those looking to re-up their skill sets with a less obtrusive commitment? We asked Vickie Cook, executive director of online professional and engaged learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS), to help us weigh the pros and cons of pursuing online learning later on in life.

Meet the Expert: Dr. Vickie Cook of the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS)

Dr. Vickie Cook

Dr. Vickie Cook is the executive director of online professional and engaged learning, as well as a research professor in the College of Education at UIS. She holds a PhD in higher education administration and an MS in adult education. She has provided consulting and faculty development services for more than 40 educational institutions across North America to help them expand or evaluate their online learning programs leadership. She is also a peer reviewer for six of the top journals in the field of online learning. More than 30 of her journal articles and book chapters have been published in national educational publications.
UIS has been a major player in premiering online programs since the beginning, launching its first programs in the late 90s. Its menu of degrees has expanded to cover subjects ranging from environmental sustainability to aerospace engineering. Now, it offers more than 90 online degrees, certificates, and endorsement programs.

In the case of the UIS, the NCES’s claim that more older adults are going back to school is palpable: “What I’ve seen is that more and more students who are older are coming back and getting advanced degrees, certificates, or taking a course, “Cook said. “A lot of these students are caregivers for parents, as well as having children of their own, so the online option is really convenient,” she said, adding that she believes there is “more acceptance by employers today for students who have been in the workforce for a while and want to go back to school.”

How Online Students Are Revamping Their Skills

Author and technology consultant, Daniel Araya, puts it succinctly: “The future workforce needs to have the skills to do the jobs that AI cannot.” This means that computer literacy will be necessary, but individuals with qualities like leadership skills and creativity will also be highly sought after.

Dr. Cook says that the UIS online computer science and management information systems tracks are especially popular because they help students hone these cognitive skills and appeal to individuals from a wide range of backgrounds.

“You might have someone that owns a small business or a mom-and-pop shop that needs computer science skills, or maybe wants to understand programming,” she continued, “but then we have students working for large corporations—a lot that work in insurance,” which she noted is a prominent industry in Illinois.

“I know a student who is working for a small animal hospital and wanted some skills for analyzing data, so she’s taking the MIS degree. You just never know what industry people are coming from.”

Challenges Adults Face in Online Programs

Of course, there are some hurdles for adults who haven’t been in an educational program for years. Learning how to navigate the university’s classroom software platform (which is used for all interactions, such as finding assignments, tuning into live lectures via webcam, engaging with fellow students, and taking exams) is a common challenge for older students.

“Sometimes it’s that they don’t really have the right tools,” Cook said. “Maybe they’re trying to utilize a Chrome book and it doesn’t have the power or software they need—it’s just getting them to understand what is needed from the beginning.” She noted that UIS has support services to assist students with these adjustments.

These speed bumps are hardly a reason for older students not to choose an online program. On the contrary, for those who are returning to school in order to modernize their skills, facing the challenge of mastering a new software platform underpins the effort to gain technology skills, by proxy.

“The thing we do see is that our older students are very responsible and very cognizant of what they need,” Cook added. “They’re usually very good about communicating those needs.”

How to Determine If Online Education is the Right Choice for You

Returning to school can be the ticket to growth and prosperity for adult students looking for a catalyst into a new career. Bachelor’s degree holders earn an average of $62,296 per year, while going back to get your master’s degree earns you another $12,000 a year on average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the financial investment required should be considered substantially before any decisions are made. The potential income boost is not the same across the board; it depends on your area of study.

“I think it should never be a quick decision,” Cook said, adding that most individuals take four to six months to decide. “I think it’s important to begin with the end in mind.”

Degree programs generally cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. Cook stressed the importance of calculating what your earning potential will be and making sure it is worth the investment.

If you already have a sense of what discipline you want to study, “First look at how many graduates are coming out of that programs and the statistics of them becoming employed,” Cook said. “A lot of those statistics are on the [university] websites.” But if the school doesn’t provide this information, you can also go to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) to determine if a certain occupation is in high demand.

For students who are unsure of where to begin, Cook says to utilize universities’ career development centers for advice. “It’s a good idea just to have a phone conversation with an expert there to determine, ‘Do I want to stay in the same basic field? Or do I want a complete career change?’”

Later, once you’ve narrowed your options down to one or two programs that you’re interested in applying to, “Have conversation with a financial aid officer—it’s really critical,” Cook said. “Public and private universities both have scholarships available for returning students.” Fastweb is an online scholarship database that helps individuals find this kind of funding.

Besides the practical, financial considerations, Cook had some final words of advice for adults debating whether or not they want to take the plunge: “The thing I would like to encourage people who are considering coming back to school is not to consider it from an age perspective, but ask yourself, are you ready to learn something new? Are you open to learning new perspectives—and are you ready for the challenge that will be part of the learning process? Think about what it is you want to accomplish and then acknowledge the successes you have along the way.”

Nina Chamlou

Nina Chamlou is an avid freelance writer from Portland, OR. She writes about economic trends, business, technology, digitization, supply chain, healthcare, education, aviation, and travel. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, or traveling abroad, studying the locale from behind her MacBook. Visit her website at