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How Lesser-Known Online Programs Are Revolutionizing Adult Learning

When educational content is ubiquitous and affordable, it can be hard to find which ones are worth your time. What’s needed is guidance, community, personalized offerings and accessibility.

As a business consultant who spent over a decade advising universities on launching programs for adult learners, I was frequently a secret shopper for both traditional educational programs and influential alternative providers. But when I decided to pivot my own career, I embarked on a journey to discover a wealth of lesser-known online programs that not only helped me chart a new course but also offered a fresh perspective on the newest strategies to support adult learning and professional development.

Like many midlife career changers, I opted for a portfolio career with multiple professional activities instead of a single job or track. Finding the right support wasn’t as straightforward as shifting into data science or cybersecurity, with a plethora of certificate programs, boot camps and master’s degrees. Instead, my journey exposed me to a wealth of nontraditional options that many traditional higher ed institutions aren’t familiar with. I’m eager to share the insights I’ve gained from exploring these programs, with the hope that traditional colleges and universities can apply these strategies to design effective programs for midlife career changers in any field.

The Speaker Lab—Multiple Modalities for Online Learning 

Focused on supporting professionals in building successful speaking businesses, The Speaker Lab expertly combines both asynchronous and synchronous learning. I attended a series of cohort-based live courses, which helped build community and momentum while also benefiting from self-paced online modules. But what impressed me most was how the program blended educational content with other services to support career changers, especially coaching.

My program offered three types of coaching. First, I was prompted to schedule a one-on-one appointment with a coach to discuss each major homework assignment in the self-paced section. The coaches aren’t typical success coaches, focused only on accountability. Instead, they guide students toward outcomes while being program graduates themselves with content mastery. I was able to try a few and find the coach whose style best matched mine. Second, asynchronous coaching was available through Voxer (a voice and text messaging app) for a specified number of months with one of their most successful graduates. Being able to leave quick voice messages back and forth was incredibly helpful when I had to apply what I had learned to real situations. Third, weekly group coaching calls provided the opportunity to learn from what others were facing.

Recognized in the Inc. 5000 as one of the fastest-growing companies of 2022, The Speaker Lab’s approach represents a broader trend and threat in higher education: how first-mover online brands can build national scale and invest back in differentiated services. However, any educational provider can learn from The Speaker Lab by considering the various forms that coaching can take. Additionally, the other career services provided by The Speaker Lab programs, such as demo video editing, likely have equivalent needs in other fields, and partnering with service providers to include or offer discounts on these services could benefit both students and alumni providers.

Ellevate Network — The Hot Seat and Structured Peer Coaching 

Ellevate is a networking community for professional women. While not an online course or program, my membership provided instructive lessons for any cohort-based online offering that seeks to offer deeper peer-to-peer community and support. One of Ellevate’s signature offerings is called Ellevate Squads, which are offered twice a year. These are groups of 6 to 8 women who meet for 12 weeks, 30 minutes each week. Most of the weeks are structured using a format called Hot Seat, where each member brings a career question or challenge they’re grappling with and asks the others for advice. Ellevate provides a rough set of templates and creates the groups, but everything is organized by volunteer facilitators.

As a member of an entrepreneur squad, I found a support network of other solopreneurs whom I might have otherwise turned to a course or program to find. For traditional educational programs looking to add value in any career changer field, a model like this can create a way for current students or alumni to support one another with relatively little administrative intervention.

Roadmap Writers—Try-Before-You-Buy Done Right 

In fields with plenty of free or low-cost offerings, content can feel like a commodity. The differentiator for prospects is often the level of personalized support and community. However, free or low-cost try-before-you-buy offerings are often focused only on content (such as webinars, articles and podcasts).

Screenwriting is a craft that takes years to perfect, and the industry is notorious for its predatory programs. Roadmap Writers differentiates itself through a try-before-you-buy offering that focuses on showcasing their unique community and personalized support. As a finalist in one of their screenwriting contests, I received a free month of their On-Ramp Program, which is currently priced at $89/month ($69 with a subscription). In addition to asynchronous and synchronous content webinars, it included a significant number of one-on-one and group sessions to refine my pitch and other materials. I was also able to attend a few cohort-based webinars from their higher-cost offerings, which are also sold on a monthly membership model. This gave me a sense of both the content and the quality of peer interaction.

Colleges and universities can similarly consider how prospects can experience not just the content but also the community and support. For instance, an instructor or accomplished former graduate could spend a day doing 10-minute expert consultations for a particular topic. Or, instead of free events designed solely for prospects, a portion of a current class could include prospects.

Common Thread: Navigating NonLinear Career Changes 

All three programs, along with a half dozen others I’ve benefited from across the last few years, have several commonalities. They all recognize the value of coaching and provide personalized support to help students achieve their goals. They all recognize that community is essential success and a critical differentiator when free or low-cost content is so readily available.

Lastly, these programs recognize that career changes are seldom a straightforward process, and a switch cannot be flipped to launch students into a new career, especially for midlife career-changers. These programs are either structured explicitly as membership programs or contain several elements of a membership model, acknowledging that transitions can take months or years, and students’ participation in a program and need for support may need to scale up and down over time. 

It’s time for traditional educational providers to recognize that midlife career changes require new and innovative support structures. Let’s create programs that meet each individual career-changer’s needs, providing the necessary resources and community for success.