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4 Ways Online Universities Can Support Workforce Development

To prepare students for the job market of the future, online institutions must equip them with interpersonal skills such as leadership, communication and management. Here are four strategies for prioritizing the human connection.

online network of people

Human-to-human connections are becoming increasingly difficult and less frequent as technology continues to disrupt our lives. While at times it may seem that technology is all-consuming, both personally and professionally, connecting and interacting with real people is becoming more and more valuable. In fact, in the job market of the future, the skills with the highest value are those that are uniquely human, such as leadership, effective communication, and management. Those who are more equipped to effectively communicate with other humans, not their technology, will be best prepared for the top jobs of tomorrow.

While human-to-human skills are in high demand, in certain industries, job automation is a real concern. Workers without college degrees are at a particular risk of losing their jobs due to automation. There is also an ongoing national conversation about the skills gap, or the discrepancy between the skills U.S. workers have and the skills required by U.S. businesses to remain globally competitive, and the fact that the future workforce may not be prepared for what's to come. Combined, these concerns make for an uncertain future when it comes to those entering the workforce.

Moreover, one-third of students will soon expect to study online, in part because of the flexibility and affordability of online programs. This presents a unique challenge for higher ed institutions as they prepare their students for the future of work. Consider these four strategies that student-centered online universities are following to keep human connection strong and support better workforce development.

1) Ensure faculty engagement through mentoring and resource-sharing.

When students work toward degree completion online, peer and professor interaction often takes place behind a screen — a sharp contrast to the traditional university setting. This may leave students feeling isolated from their peers and distant from their professors. Personalized instruction and customized programs and assessments are vital to maximize students' career potential. Faculty play a critical role in their students' success, and their responsibility goes far beyond teaching. Online faculty should be accessible to their students and provide mentorship on an individual basis. It is a professor's responsibility to provide educational and professional resources and have a continuous presence throughout a student's education. Frequent check-ins can make students feel seen and heard. Sharing experiences and encouraging students to communicate their stories will foster stronger connections and build students' confidence, assuring them that others are invested in their success.

2) Encourage collaboration and community by providing opportunities for student-to-peer connection.

When it comes to healthy human connection, feeling part of a community and having a support system is essential. For students who study online, human connection may be strong in their personal and professional lives outside of the university. However, it's also important for online students to connect with their peers to create that sense of community and support. While completing a program, online students need the opportunity to interact with others who may have similar challenges or successes. Chat rooms, message boards and online learning communities create connection points and open the door for information and resource-sharing. Creating volunteer opportunities for students also gives them a chance to give back and feel a part of the community as well as meet other students with similar interests.

3) Create field experience opportunities by incorporating dynamic training programs.

A unique aspect of online programs is that most students are adult learners who have previous work experience, and many work either full- or part-time while completing their degrees. The flexibility and affordability of online programs is a huge driver for many students. Creating hands-on learning experiences gives students with previous work experience the opportunity to share what they've learned in the workplace and allows all students to interact with peers in the field they are studying. This helps students expand their network as well as gain additional experience while completing their degree. Dynamic training programs allow students to utilize their real-world experience and become a resource to others.

4) Utilize strategic partnerships for student networking.

Strategic partnerships have the ability to empower corporations, school districts, healthcare facilities, associations and other organizations to create new opportunities for their people to pursue. Utilizing partnerships allows students to connect with and learn from potential employers, mentors and colleagues. In a mutually beneficial strategic partnership, if a company or organization has a unique need, the partnership allows them to explore ways for their employees to address those needs and advance their careers.

As technology becomes more advanced and its capability to disrupt becomes more frequent, it is crucial to prioritize human connection. Individual human connections bring us personal happiness and fulfillment. Furthermore, human connection must be kept alive in higher education settings, not only on the individual level, but for the sake of the future workforce and the career advancements of students. Incorporating these four strategies to keep human connection strong at online universities will help students prepare for career success in the future and ultimately contribute to a shrinking skills gap.

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