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When to Earn a Smaller Credential With Your Online Degree

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For some students, an online degree alone may not be enough to fully meet their career goals.

This was the case for LaShelle Morrison, a fifth-year student pursuing a doctorate in educational psychology partially online at the University of Iowa.

“I am most interested in teaching and helping others to teach better, whether that be K-12 instructors or even faculty at colleges – so understanding how teaching works the best for various types of people in different populations,” says the 39-year-old.

Beyond her degree program, she has earned two graduate certificates, both of which included some online classes, that she says allowed her to more deeply study subjects not covered in her coursework.

Experts say more online degree students are also concurrently seeking smaller online credentials to supplement their education. These may include online certificates offered through colleges and universities, digital badges or industry certifications.

Companies such as Coursera and edX, in collaboration with universities, create massive open online courses, or MOOCs. These enable students to watch recorded lectures, which they can audit for free; they can also complete assignments to receive grades and earn certificates if they pay, typically between $30 and $150.

Exactly how online students structure their course schedules when juggling multiple credentials can vary. During the terms when she also pursued the certificates, Morrison took fewer doctorate classes, she says.

Getting a smaller online credential makes sense for some online degree students who want to boost or switch their careers; doing so, experts say, can increase their job prospects. Here are five instances when online students may want to pursue additional certifications.

1. They want greater insight into a degree-related topic. Unlike degrees, which often focus more on academic theory, smaller credentials such as undergraduate or graduate certificates usually teach more specific skills or topics.

Earning one alongside an online degree, experts say, allows students to explore particular areas within their discipline while also gaining broader knowledge of a field.

“People are seeing that traditional degrees don’t necessarily cover all of the skills that the modern workplace requires,” says Deanna Raineri, chief academic strategist at Coursera.

Students pursuing an online marketing master’s, for instance, may want to also gain skills in search engine optimization for their current job. One option is to complete a MOOC specialization certificate comprised of several online courses that examine the topic, such as the Coursera MOOC that the University of California—Davis created.

2.Foundational knowledge of other disciplines would benefit their career. To land a job at a certain type of company, some online students may want knowledge of a field unrelated to their online degree.

One example is a student earning an online business degree who wants to learn more about cybersecurity, says Pam Northrup, vice president of research and strategic innovation at the University of West Florida, which offers online degrees and for-credit and noncredit online certificates.

“We have certificates that would be for the nontechie but maybe someone in business that needs to know about cyber,” she says. “People will add those on to their degrees or figure out how to include them within their program of study.”

Raineri says a smaller credential taken in conjunction with an online degree can also teach students soft skills such as communication, problem-solving and organization.

3. Industry certifications would boost their resume. In disciplines such as information technology, students can pursue industry certifications that demonstrate their knowledge of specific products or companies.

Someone working in tech, for example, may obtain one of several possible certifications for Microsoft products by completing online coursework.

And in K-12 education, “there are other areas of licensure or endorsements that school teachers, administrators pursue to either qualify them for a specific position or enable them to apply for higher positions,” says John Neal, dean of the school of education at the online, for-profit Northcentral University.

4. They decide to change career paths. Students who realize during their online program that they want to veer slightly from their initially intended career path can earn a smaller credential to open up other doors in the future, experts say.

Tom Cavanagh, vice provost for digital learning at the University of Central Florida, points to schools that offer engineering master’s programs along with graduate certificate programs in quality assurance or design for usability. Those are related to engineering but can also help students transition to other fields if they decide engineering isn’t for them.

5. The online degree doesn’t cover the latest trends in the field. Technology is constantly advancing, and sometimes an online degree’s curriculum can’t keep up with the latest changes, says Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois—Springfield.

A smaller credential may be a good option to keep skills up-to-date. But he cautions prospective online students not to take on more than they can handle.

“Don’t delay a whole degree because your interest has been deferred to a certificate or a MOOC. Get that degree; it still holds huge value in the marketplace,” Schroeder says.


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