A common goal for many students in higher education is to begin or further their careers. This goal is even more common for online programs, where nearly three quarters of online students are furthering their education for career-related reasons (Aslanian & Clinefelter, 2015). Therefore, it’s important that all students working to obtain a degree are exposed to not only hands-on experience, but also a variety of professional interactions. By providing students with the opportunity to engage in these types of real-world experiences, online programs prepare their students to immediately engage in their field upon graduation. While creating these types of interactions can appear to be a daunting task, programs can encourage students to be professionally prepared in a couple key ways: They can offer a whole course focusing on an authentic opportunity (experiential courses), or they can fold individual assessments into an existing course that focus on these soft skills that the market finds valuable (career-minded assessments).

Experiential Courses

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It isn’t uncommon for some parts on an online program to be more theoretical in nature. Despite this, it remains important for course writers to build in exposure to the professional field in which students will be working. In this respect, students are afforded the opportunity to apply the theoretical knowledge they’ve gained as a student. One of the most common ways of doing this is to include an internship, practicum, or capstone.

Most programs include this sort of experiential course—a course that provides students with career-minded, “real-world” experience—and the role of that particular course should be centered on the professional aspects of the program. These types of courses aren’t just an opportunity to have students working out in the field gaining professional experience and guidance, but to introduce students to the variety of professional experiences available to them while leveraging the convenience of the online environment.

Experiential Courses and Instructional Design

Most experiential courses only include an online tool for recording internship time, reflecting on experience, and submitting signed forms by the organization the student is working for. While these types of activities are a start, students deserve more, and the online classroom lends itself toward tools such as the following to help meet these needs:

  • Online networking opportunities
  • Professional organizations’ websites
  • Career-focused webinars
  • Web-related skills that are used in the workforce (research, communication tools, etc.)

It’s possible to build out complete modules for these courses, too—courses equipped with measurable learning objectives and diverse assessments to measure student performance toward those objectives, all while incorporating the time investment necessary to meet the internship or other course requirements. To do so, consider the tenets of online course design:

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  • What should students be able to do by the conclusion of this course? (Macro-objectives)
  • What subskills can I break these down into for each module? (Micro-objectives)
  • How will students prove that they can perform these skills? (Assessments)
  • What kind of rubric will make my expectations clear? (Assessments)
  • What materials will my course employ to help prepare students to perform these skills? (Instruction)

Simply put, just because an experiential course focuses more on professional preparedness than theoretical content, it doesn’t have to look entirely different. In fact, the relationship is twofold: Just as experiential courses should include a modular structure, theoretical courses in your program should include opportunities for students to practice professional preparedness.

Career-Minded Assessments

Of course, an experiential course such as a capstone or internship shouldn’t be a program’s end-all and be-all when it comes to professional preparedness. Think of it like you’d think about assessment: In the design of most courses, you wouldn’t want to give students a summative assessment until they’ve had a chance to practice and receive feedback through formative assessments. Similarly, students should have an opportunity to practice professional skills in all courses of their program, whether they’re theoretical or experiential in nature. While there are a number of ways to creatively assess students in the online classroom, consider some of the following to help prepare your students for their professional lives:

Personal SWOT Analysis

A SWOT analysis is a tool oftentimes used by companies to assess themselves in comparison to their competition. It stands for:

  • S = Strengths
  • W = Weaknesses
  • O = Opportunities
  • T = Threats

While being able to conduct a SWOT analysis is a valuable tool for a business student, its applications don’t stop there. Reflecting and self-assessing is a critical part of any educational endeavor, not to mention a number of careers, and the SWOT analysis is a simple, relevant tool for encouraging students to do so.

Personal Elevator Pitch

It isn’t a stretch to assume that, at some point, students in experiential courses or nearing graduation will need to convince an employer that they are, in fact, the best candidate for a position. The personal elevator pitch is a 30-second speech that summarizes who you are, what you’re capable of, and why you’re the best candidate for a particular job. By working with students to speak about themselves, their skill sets, and their theoretical knowledge, online courses begin to give students the confidence they need to do so. In this respect, the personal elevator pitch can be used as both a summation of what students have learned as well as a low-stakes environment in which students can practice job interview skills.

Informational Interview With a Professional

One of the key motivators in the online classroom is when students see value in the work they’re performing. By showing students how the tasks you’ve asked them to complete transfer over to their desired careers, you provide them with a tangible, real-life example of this. One easy way to do this is to have students reach out to and interview a professional in their field. In addition to instilling value in your course, it also helps students network with professionals in their area, which can be of assistance when it comes to looking for a job down the road.

Job Opportunity Research

Like some of the aforementioned assignments, researching available job opportunities helps students see the value in what skills you’re teaching. If students are given exposure to job posts that clearly require skills that align with what you’re teaching in your online course, you illustrate to them that what they’re learning has a valuable payoff. In addition, it helps students identify what job-needed skills they’ve developed and what they have left to learn. In this sense, providing students with assignments that require this serves as a self-reflection of sorts. Plus, with free tools such as LinkedIn and Indeed available, it’s a powerful way for students to begin building their professional online Web presence.

Professional Presentations

Because students aren’t physically present in online courses, presentations look different in the online classroom. Despite this, they’re a valuable tool to implement (not to mention one that can be easily used). By requiring students to give presentations using online tools, you acclimate them to skill sets that are required in a growing number of fields. Presentations can even help students build confidence in their public speaking abilities, which, when coupled with the technology exposure, can help prepare them for these types of interactions in their careers.

Conclusion

Ultimately, department chairs and faculty have the responsibility of determining what’s appropriate for the program and the students completing the program. Ideally, though, these activities can be spread across an entire program so that they build on one another and are eventually molded into one larger experiential course or capstone project. Either way, it’s important for each student to engage in experiences in their online program that guide them and coach them for the professional field that awaits them upon graduation.


References

Clinefelter, D. L., & Aslanian, C. B. (2015). Online college students 2015: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.