Online Courses: Why professionals and 67-year-olds are enrolling

Online courses are often associated with the digitally savvy — and by extension, the young. While schools and even kindergartens are jumping on the IT skills train, businesses and senior communities are slower to adopt. Universities are increasingly bringing their lecture halls online, from recording lectures to offering full online degrees, but most are aimed at school leavers.

But this idea – that edtech is reserved for the young – ignores the untapped potential for the education and training of a larger group of students: professionals and seniors.

There is a demand from these population groups. In aging populations like China, courses at universities like Shanghai University for the Elderly are reported to sell out within seconds of being announced. According to a Chinese Association of Senior Educators, more than eight million students are currently enrolled in China’s more than 70,000 senior universities.

The average age at Shanghai University for the Elderly is 65 to 70 years. Source: Facebook/@Saad Bsata

A Merrill Lynch study found that nearly three in five working retirees said retirement was an opportunity to move into a different field of work. For these adults, they don’t want education to stop in their 20s, but well into their golden years.

According to Sheryl Lim, an advisor at JobStreet Education, going to school isn’t just attractive to older students in developed economies. The online platform is a “one-stop solution” for students, professionals and retirees, connecting JobStreet advisors with their partner universities and institutions that offer online educational opportunities.

These include courses in Project Management, Digital Marketing, Business Administration, Finance, Big Data, etc. from universities such as INTI University College Malaysia, Digital Marketing Institute in USA, EdX, Chartered Institute of Management Accounting and London Examination Board.

While many US universities have some form of continuing education programs, the debate is shifting towards bringing more older students into the campus, but Malaysia’s higher education landscape is different. For adult learners, the focus is more on online learning, where higher education institutions offer a wide range of full-time and part-time e-learning opportunities as they offer more flexibility and greater autonomy.

“They love it slowly because of the flexibility in timing [it offers]. Working adults don’t like to travel, especially after work. Imagine work finishes at 6:00 p.m. and class starts at 7:00 p.m. – do you really think you can make it to class in that one-hour time span?” Lim said.

These are factors that are very attractive to their client base, which consists primarily of working professionals but also includes seniors for whom returning to university for a full-fledged degree would likely be daunting or difficult.

Her oldest client is a 67-year-old man who has successfully retired as managing director. Although he was not employed, he enrolled in an online accounting course to further his education.

“They want to learn, they don’t want to live their lives pointlessly,” adds Lim.

But there’s another more pressing reason why there should be more quality online courses for adult learners: the future of work.

Robots like the iPal® robot could take on jobs like educators. social attendants and security monitors. Source: AFP/Justin Sullivan

A JobStreet survey released last week found that 96 percent of employers believe the digital economy and the advent of Industrial Revolution 4.0 will transform their hiring plans over the next three years. The top 5 digital skills employers wanted were: Digital Marketing, Software & Application Development, E-Commerce, Big Data & Analytics and Databases.

Gone are the days when workers didn’t have to be lifelong learners. We all know how technology will disrupt industries and make many jobs obsolete – to stay relevant in the job market you need to have the skills that current and future employers need.

And as social and labor protections for workers are eroded in the new features of the digital economy through things like zero-hour contracts or informal gig economies, relevant skills seem to be the only insurance to keep workers dry .

“Many of the key drivers of transformation currently affecting global industries are expected to have significant impacts on jobs, ranging from significant job creation to job displacement, and from increased labor productivity to growing skills gaps,” das said World Economic Forum.

“In many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specializations did not exist ten or five years ago, and the pace of change will accelerate.”

“To thrive in such a labor market, workers must be lifelong learners, agile, comfortable with continuous adaptation, and willing to move across industries. When one profession becomes obsolete – a change that can happen virtually overnight – workers need to be able to switch quickly to another,” the WEF said in another article entitled: To thrive in a changing labor market, we must embrace lifelong learning.

While JobStreet’s report revealed that employers will be looking for digital skills in the near future, it might be foolish of us to flock to the programs that provide such skills. Subjects like humanities, which have been sidelined by the global surge in STEM skills, are of even greater importance now and in the future.

Mr. Gan Bock Herm, Country Manager of JobStreet.com Malaysia, reports on the rapid adoption of digitalization in various work sectors in Malaysia during the JobStreet.com HR Networking Event (HRNE) 2019. Source: JobStreet.com

South of Malaysia, countries like Singapore finally seem to see the urgency.

Long criticized for her fixation on exams and memorization, she founded her sixth public university – the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) – in 2017, which focuses on quality education for adult learners as well as social science subjects. Its partners include SkillsFuture, a national movement to promote lifelong learning among Singaporeans. Studying at SUSS is government-subsidized and the programs use technology and online courses to better support working students.

“Most of them (adult students) want to study in order to develop professionally or to make a change. The university offers them a flexible way to work and study at the same time,” says SUSS President Cheong Hee Kiat.

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