Can online learning really prepare you for a career change?

Last updated April 17, 2020

Online courses may be a great way to learn about Ancient Greece or Japanese literature, but can a fully online learning experience really prepare you for a new career? Today, more than 40 percent of all undergraduate students take at least one course that is offered purely online; 11 percent – including 12 percent of those in bachelor’s degree programs – study entirely online.

As competition between MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) becomes more intense, students are left wondering if online learning can really teach them the tech skills needed to secure a job in a technology role. One online bootcamp, CareerFoundry, believes so wholeheartedly that online learning can prepare you for a career change that they have a job guarantee. If graduates of their career change courses in UX, UI, and Web Development don’t find a job within six months, CareerFoundry refunds their tuition costs.

Even a job guarantee, though, doesn’t necessarily address the deeper question: can online learning really prepare you for a career change? It’s not just about finding a job, but going from zero technical skills to a job in the technical field you studied. Digging into the longer answer, it depends on how the course is built.

Speaking with CourseCompare, CareerFoundry’s Director of Product, and its Curriculum Lead, explain how they built an online learning platform they are so confident in that it comes with a money-back guarantee.

Begin with the end in mind   

Hilary Baker is CareerFoundry’s Curriculum Lead, and she brings her experience as someone with a PhD – and as a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania – to the role. She explained that different types of online courses are made for different types of learning – and not all will power a career change.

“If you look into MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] audiences, they tend to be lifelong learners who are looking for ways to continue learning or upskilling in their current positions,” said Baker. “In contrast, changing your career… requires a great degree of commitment from the learner and a lot of dedicated learning if people want to get enough experience in the field to be able to show a hiring manager what they can do.”

Director of Product Megan Mulholland said that, in building the CareerFoundry platform, it was necessary to look at the skills listed in job descriptions they want graduates to get – UX designer or web developer, for instance – and work backwards. They also made sure the platform was structured in a way that lets students learn the smaller skills that make up the big skills listed on the job description.

Since the goal is career change, not just a single point solution, the platform must be created in a way that considers both how people learn and the overall career change journey. While learning a single skill can be done on willpower alone, changing careers requires a different incentive structure and guidance beyond learning a skillset into other things like how to actually search for and land a great job.

“There are two major pieces of learning theory,” said Mulholland. “One is consistency, which plays a huge part in helping online learners feel less anxious and more motivated – if they know what to expect from the interface and from each lesson, they can focus their mental effort on knowledge acquisition instead of on figuring out what they’re supposed to be doing. The other is having a tangible outcome, which is important in helping adult learners keep motivated.”

Human connection and feedback

One of the biggest strengths of in-person learning is the opportunity for teachers and peers to see when someone is excelling or struggling, and either learn from them or assist them as needed. To build that into online learning, Mulholland ensured that Baker’s outcome-focused curriculum had clear rubrics for students on the platform. That way, she said, there’s clarity for everyone on what the learning goals are.

When students are given clear learning outcomes, they are better able to ask for help because they can see where they are supposed to be going versus where they are. And that’s where the style of messaging comes in. Tutors and mentors, for example, frequently message students about “what learners like to do, how their study plans are working out, and how their weeks are going,” said Mulholland. 


Mulholland noted that online learning can feel isolating, leading to disengagement. To combat this, the CareerFoundry team built in multiple kinds of support: advisors, mentors, tutors, and career specialists. All of this, said Mulholland, is inspired by adult learning theory which says learners need different kinds of support and human connection depending on the problem they are facing.

Adding features into the platform like video chat, for example, gives students direct access to support in a way that feels similarly intimate to office hours with a professor. Further, the one-to-one nature of mentor-student relationships encourages a stronger connection than large lectures could.

Different learning styles – and knowing when online isn’t right for you

With an end goal of practical application of knowledge, any platform that helps with a career change must be able to deliver lessons in the way the lesson is best absorbed. Pushing back against the idea that some people can only learn in a certain way, Baker said that it’s not about the person, but the topic at hand.

“People don’t really tend to be one type of learner or another,” said Baker. “Different circumstances and different types of materials may be better absorbed through one medium or another. For example, it’s a lot harder to learn a language without hearing it or to learn to make a piece of pottery without experiencing it yourself.”

That said, there’s also potential that online learning may not work for you. Even though the platforms can be developed in different ways to empower a career change, there’s a lot about an in-person classroom that can’t be replicated.

“[A] myth is that learning online is easier than on-site learning, and that’s also not true,” said Baker. “It requires a lot of self-efficacy – the ability to motivate yourself and take initiative about planning your time.”


And, as obvious as it may sound, online learners need to both be familiar with technology and not require external motivation or pressure to succeed. Despite the fact that platforms are getting more intuitive and digital incentive structures getting more effective, students will still have to navigate a technological platform by themselves to be successful.

“It … sometimes requires an adjustment in thinking for people who are used to the older model of learning that many of us came across in school, in which a lecturer tells you all the info you need to know and then you do something with it or even just repeat that information back to them,” said Baker. “[Online learning] requires students to be much more proactive in their learning.”

Although online learning may not be for everyone, it can certainly help you change your career. When you’re choosing a platform to help you, make sure you pay attention to how it works, and how successfully it integrates human feedback and live interaction. If you’re able to take all the best parts of the in-person experience, like mentorship and human feedback, and merge them with the best technology has to offer, like access to vast digital resources, you can learn a new skill from scratch. More than that, though, you gain the knowledge and skills needed to put yourself on a new career path.

Interested in learning UX, UI or Web Development online? Check out CareerFoundry’s current course offerings. 

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios is a freelance writer and entrepreneur based in Toronto.

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