In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of people have found themselves in the position of either needing to upskill or having the extra time to pursue learning opportunities. As someone with an undergraduate degree, two graduate certificates, and a Master’s degree, it would probably not surprise you to know that I am a huge proponent of lifelong learning. Where I think many people go wrong is in their definition of “lifelong learning.” There is an underlying assumption in the term that implies that formalized education is expected. But it really depends on why you want to learn something new in the first place.
Research supports the idea that Paint Nites, brewery tours, cooking, karaoke, haunted village walks can all provide much-needed brain stimulation. A study published in JAMA Neurology in 2014 noted that cognitive development in mid to late life is associated with less cognitive decline overall. Aiming to learn something new in your 50s or 60s will challenge your brain to develop more cognitive strength and flexibility to promote mental longevity. More to the point, the researchers weren’t just talking about taking night classes or doing your daily Sudoku. They highlighted things like volunteering at a local school or getting involved in a social environment to develop new skills. Turns out, joining a bowling league or a knitting group has the same cognitive benefits as brain games on your iPhone or taking French classes.
Obviously, options in this direction are more restricted as many activities are still off-limits as we wait for the pandemic to end. But taking time now to look at options for the future might be well worth it. Many in-person activities have also moved online, which may present an opportunity to try a new activity for a lower fee or to get to know members of the group before you commit to joining.
To be, or not to be (work-related)
I officially graduated with my MA in Interdisciplinary Studies in October 2018. As I neared the end, it seemed like everyone was asking me what job I was applying for, or what opportunity I would go after next. While there can definitely be some professional upsides, I would say generally that it’s a mistake to pursue any kind of educational experience for the sole purpose of a career promotion. For one thing, you can miss out on some seriously interesting stuff if you’re only pursuing what you’re “supposed” to learn, and for another, there may be no obvious link between your knowledge or skill set and the opportunities available at the moment – especially in the wake of a pandemic and an unemployment rate sitting over 10% in Canada.
What a credential can do for you professionally is so much more than simply learning the subject matter. One, it can introduce you to strange and wonderful ideas. Let’s say you develop an interest and skill in something completely unexpected. If you pull that door open a little wider, you may find that interesting projects lie behind it, either at work or elsewhere. Perhaps you start a part-time side hustle, or you are invited to deliver keynote speeches on your newfound expertise. Two, you will expand your professional circle, possibly by leaps and bounds, depending on your learning program of choice. Some estimates indicate that as many as 85% of jobs are filled through networking. And getting to know others through a common interest makes for pretty easy networking.
Show me the money
Finances and time are quoted as major barriers for a lot of people who want to pursue new learning opportunities. Whether you want a Ph.D. or to join the local pickleball league, it’s going to cost money and require that you carve out time for it. When it comes to both, the important thing here is to do your homework.
If your learning goals are aligned with getting ahead at work, ask around to find out exactly what it is you will need. A trend that’s emerged in the past few years is that more workplaces are looking for useable skills over formalized credentials. Sites such as Coursera, Udemy, and LinkedIn Learning all offer one-off courses at low costs. If you want the knowledge, but don’t need a credential, you might consider auditing a college or university course for free (check with the Registrar’s office at your local institution to find out more about this). Meetup or other local group-oriented opportunities are an inexpensive or free way to develop a skill in a collaborative environment – particularly since most of them are meeting online and skipping the commutes and requests to purchase something from the host venue.
Another recent trend is the rise in the prevalence of micro-credentials. Offered through a number of different venues, including a wide range of colleges and universities, a micro-credential might be a terrific addition, particularly if you are already in possession of a full post-secondary credential. The difference between a micro-credential and a one-off course is that it typically includes more than just one course, and will also provide you with a digital marker – a badge – that you can add to an online profile. That badge contains information for potential employers that verifies your skillset. Click on the badge and up come the details.
If you do need a formal credential, can you achieve it through a local community college, school board, or industry association? Check with your current employer on tuition breaks or available professional development money, and be sure to find out what your options are with bursaries, scholarships, and student awards. You’d be surprised at what organizations offer money for school, and what the criteria are (hint: many have nothing to do with grades). Investigate HigherEdPoints.com as you can use anyone’s loyalty points to fund tuition.
What if I don’t have time?
Plenty of colleges and universities offer online and flexible delivery formats to help people work around full-time jobs and family responsibilities. You can often piecemeal a full program together by taking one or two courses at a time, and not have to quit work to go back to school. And of course, since almost every institution you’ve ever heard of moved operations online practically overnight, they now have the infrastructure to continue to deliver courses in this way. Missing academic pre-requisites? That might not be a problem, as many schools offer flexible admission formats that consider your work and volunteer experience. There are also opportunities to gain credit for the experience if you don’t want to waste time taking classes on areas you’ve mastered in a professional environment, known as PLAR (Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition).
If time is a real concern for you, consider this perspective from Neil Pasricha on splitting your week into three 56-hour buckets. His book, The Happiness Equation, is a lovely read and has some additional tips on how to divide time efficiently. At the end of the day, lifelong learning is really about curiosity. You only get so much time on this planet, so why not use some of it to grow your intellect, your spirit, and your sense of community? Sure beats another scroll through Facebook.
This article was written by Devon Turcotte from careerified. Devon is working to change career conversations through careerified, a career and education coaching practice based in the GTA. Prior to starting her business, Devon worked with a number of teens, parents, and educators through the Career Development and Student Recruitment offices at Durham College, and as a Liaison Officer at Skills Ontario. Visit https://careerified.ca for more information.