You can’t rely on your college education to suffice for the rest of your career. If you want to stay at the peak of your earning potential, you will need to continue your education throughout your career. This can be done in a formal or informal setting. Informal education is very important. It may never show up on your resume, but it helps you stay up-to-date. Formal education has the added benefit of letting you work toward some type of recognition (degree or certificate) that employers are likely to reward. In some jobs, you can move to a higher pay-scale by adding a degree.

In this article we are going to look at some tips and methods for both formal and informal education. It is by no means exhaustive, but it may give you a few ideas about how to continue your education that you may have overlooked in the past.

Formal Education
  1. Community College
    Many people overlook their local community college as a great source of additional education. Community colleges are often set up to work around the needs of non-traditional students. If you already have a four-year degree, don’t overlook the value of taking some additional classes to brush up on areas that you might not have studied in your previous college career. A class on statistics, technical writing, a programing language or computer security could give you a stronger foundation in areas you haven’t formally studied, but use on a regular basis.
  2. Online Courses
    Many colleges offer some classes online even if they don’t offer an entire degree program to internet-based students. The beauty of online courses is that you have the ability to to select an institution anywhere in the world. Make sure you understand how the courses will be conducted. Just because a course is online doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your learning style. Here are some of the ways courses are conducted online:
    • Online Videos – Sometimes the online course is just a different section of a course that takes place physically on campus. This is usually an ideal arrangement because it makes sure that the course isn’t being taught as an after-thought.
    • Correspondence Course – Some “online” courses are just reworked correspondence courses using the Internet instead of postal mail. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you like learning by reading a book and filling out a study guide or writing essays.
    • Written Lecture – This style attempts to create an online experience without mimicking an actual classroom. Teachers post a “lecture” which is often a document with many links to additional reading. Usually this type of class will require a lot of participation in message boards.
    • Message Boards - This usually requires students to comment on the topic of a lecture and then respond to other’s comments. This can be very effective if you have a highly engaged group of people–especially if they have real world experience with the topic being discussed.
    • Interactive Training - This can be very expensive to set up, but there are some colleges using it. Instead of a lecture, you go through a series of “slides” with interactive components. The idea is to make sure you are engaged in the subject. This can be done successfully but it requires a very high level of commitment from the people designing the courses.
  3. Degree and Certificate Programs
    If you are looking to add a degree or certificate, you will want to make sure the educational institution offers that before signing up. A certificate is kind of like a mini-degree. It usually requires much less effort and it allows you to show people that you completed a course of study on a certain topic.When looking at degree and certificate programs, make sure you understand all the requirements. For example, Harvard‘s Extension School requires one semester of residency on-site. There are also requirements as to what order you can take classes in. For the software engineering track, you have to take one of the theory-based courses as one of your first three classes. Here is a very short list of some programs worth investigating from well known schools:
  4. Degrees for Non-Traditional Students
    A number of colleges have created degree programs that are designed with the needs of students with full-time careers. Most of the study is done remotely, but you meet with other members of your class every other weekend for 4 to 6 hours. These types of degrees usually try to get everyone to share their work experience as part of the coursework. Depending on the other people in the class, this could be extremely valuable. These types of degrees seem particularly well suited for people who didn’t finish their bachelors degrees in their early 20s and can’t afford to go back to school full time. I have heard of some MBA programs that work like this as well.
  5. Online Universities
    There are several online universities that are designed around online studies. University of Phoenix is an example, although UoP has in person classes as well. Their online classes don’t usually have a live counterpart and there isn’t a central school with traditional students that you can go visit. Capella is another example of this type of school. Personally, I think you are better off trying to get a degree from an established school. These aren’t diploma mills, but their degrees are likely to carry less weight than something from a well known and well recognized university. If these schools charged a low tuition rate, it might make them attractive. However, last time I checked, they actually cost a bit per credit hour than the online classes from major universities. With a high cost, it is questionable why someone would choose them over an online education from a well-known, traditional institution. This has caused many people to assume that people must choose them because the classes are easier. I don’t know if that is the case, but regardless, there is a perception that the educational quality is lower.

    I know that several large companies have agreements with Capella that allow their employees to work toward PhDs. If you work for one of these companies, then this might be worth considering because of the cost savings to you. They may also be a good option when there are no other options available due to requirements at major universities (residency, etc.).

    If you have any personal experience with these types of schools, I’d love to hear your comments.

  6. Diploma Mills
    These are institutions that you want to avoid. I have heard UoP and Capella referred to as diploma mills, but I don’t think that is accurate. Usually a diploma mill is not accredited by a regional accrediting association. If a university says it is accredited, but it is accredited by some organization in the Bahamas, it isn’t a good sign. One trick that some places do is creating two companies. One company is an online university. The other is a non-profit organization that appears to accredit academic institutions. So they are basically accrediting themselves. A good way to check for this is see what other institutions are accredited by the accrediting organization. And don’t just look for who they say they accredit–look for well known schools that say they are accredited by that organization. Another good test is to call a few state universities and ask if they will accept transfers from the school in question. Also, if a school doesn’t have a .edu extension, then it is unlikely to be accredited.

    Another warning sign is advertising that they will give you experience for “life experience”. Reputable universities kind of do this through their honorary doctorates, but it isn’t something you can pay money to get.

Informal Education
  1. Books
    Never underestimate the value of a regular reading program. One of the biggest mistakes people make in reading is reading voraciously for 2 months and then stopping for a year, then reading like mad for 1 month and stopping for 6 months. For the best results, you need to regularly read at a sustainable pace on a consistent basis.
  2. Podcasts
    The convenience of the medium allows you to listen while you to other things that you have to do anyway. Podcasts are an excellent way to turn your commute into productive learning time.
  3. Hobby Projects
    Picking a hobby that will help you learn a new skill gives you a chance to learn and relax at the same time. For example, a hobby of helping out with developing open source software can give you exposure to development techniques that you might not encounter at work. A hobby of astronomy can expose you to mathematics that might improve your skills at your day job.
  4. Conversations
    Learning from conversations is simple. Find smart people and talk to them. To be successful at this you may have to consciously seek out the smart people you work with and offer to take them to lunch. Don’t overlook people who may be a lot younger than you. I’ve learned a lot by taking an intern out to lunch and letting him tell me what technology he is interested in playing with.
  5. Topic Groups
    Creating a group of your peers can be a very valuable way to learn. When I was the IT director for a mega-church, I contacted a number of IT directors from other large churches. We’d get together every few months and talk about the different projects we were working on. It was a simple interaction, but everyone learned a great deal from everyone else.
  6. Email Lists
    Joining or starting an email list around a particular topic is a great way to learn from your peers. For example, you could start a small email group with college friends to discuss personal finance. People contribute by posting a message saying “I’m thinking about doing XYZ. What do you think?” and everyone reaps the benefits of the responses.
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