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Attitudes towards personal and professional development through online learning

We'll be looking at our Future of Learning report we commissioned from YouGov, and analysing attitudes towards personal and professional development through online learning

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The past year has seen many ups and downs, and all around the world we’ve been adjusting to our new realities. We’ve had to navigate through new situations at schools, universities and our careers, and we’ve seen attitudes towards learning, upskilling and career choices changing. But what do these changes mean for the way we approach education, now and in the future?

In 2020, FutureLearn commissioned YouGov to undertake a global study to interrogate and explore the future of learning. The main themes of this study were those of personal development and career aspirations, the power of education and online learning, and expectations for education in the future.

In our last post, we focused on current attitudes towards self-education and online learning, as well as views on the future of education. In this one, we’re going to focus more on the areas of personal and professional development.

The data 

For this study, adults from the UK, US and Australia were surveyed online between the 2nd and 7th of December 2020. Sampling quotas were placed on age, gender and region, (as well as socio-economic status in the UK) to ensure a representative sample size. You can find the full Future of Learning report as a downloadable PDF.

Personal development

When we talk about personal development, we’re talking about any activities that will further a person’s potential, employability and quality of life. It’s about growing as a human being, and working towards goals – though personal development is not career-related.

In this section of our report, we looked at the connection between online learning and personal development, and asked respondents about their reasons for taking courses online.

Most people want to learn something new

We asked our respondents whether they were curious about learning anything new in the next five years, and found that the majority of adults in all countries wanted to learn about something new in the near future. 

When we looked more closely at the reasons why people wanted to learn about new subjects, we found that nearly half of respondents wanted to improve their personal confidence. This isn’t too surprising, as confidence can be the key to success in many areas of life, including achieving aspirations and maintaining positive relationships. 

The second most popular reason for learning something new was to expand hobbies and interests, and this was followed by having a positive impact on the community and then learning to be a more conscientious person. This final point included people wanting to educate themselves on topics such as social justice, diversity and environmental issues, and was listed by just under 30% of respondents.

While the method of learning most favoured by the majority of respondents was on-the-job practical training, online learning was the second most popular way to learn. This suggests that in many cases, people would prefer to learn new skills online rather than in a formal education setting.

Healthcare and mental health courses are the most popular

Now we know the reasons why so many people want to learn something new, it’s time to dig deeper. What are the subjects people are most interested in?

We found that learning about mental health and mindfulness was a priority for people from all surveyed countries, especially Australia, which could be a reaction to the difficult period we’ve all just endured. For many of us, mental health has been at the forefront of our minds, and we’ve tried to pay extra attention to self-care and looking after ourselves during lockdown. 

Our course enrolment data certainly matches up to the survey responses, as our healthcare courses have seen an increase of over 150% since…. This additionally relates to figures from Seek, one of FutureLearn’s shareholders, which show that the second largest industry by job volume in 2020 was healthcare and medicine. In a similar vein, nutrition, diet and physical health also had high job volumes.

Besides mental health, it’s not surprising that other healthcare courses have been popular or that people are showing an interest in learning more about healthcare. We’ve just experienced the biggest global healthcare emergency in our lifetimes, and people want to be better educated on such matters.

Soft skills and creativity are highly sought after

Sometimes, more focus is placed on gaining hard skills, which are technical, measurable skill sets such as programming or language translating. However, the fact that between 33% and 43% of survey respondents wanted to take an online course for the purpose of personal development shows that soft skills and creativity are also highly valued.

The majority of people we surveyed could identify an area where creative skills would be necessary, with ‘starting your own business’ being the most popular answer, followed by ‘media and marketing’ and ‘teaching’. Here, respondents recognise that these career choices require an abundance of soft skills, including communication, teamwork and leadership.

Creativity is also hugely important but often underestimated. Nick Isles, the CEO of Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design suggests that “soft skills, things like performing arts, dance, drama, theater activities, music, all help to create and foster communication, group work, collaboration. These are the key building blocks of learning that we need to foster in terms of the sorts of people that are then going to go into workplaces.” 

Professional development

Contrary to personal development, professional development consists of anything that develops your skills related to your career, helps you earn promotions or enables you to achieve your professional goals.

Online learning is being used to facilitate career development

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest reasons why people want to take online courses is for the purpose of career development. Nearly half of Australian respondents say this is the case, as well as 44% of Americans and 40% of Brits. 

One of the reasons why career development is so important in the current climate is because the idea of having a ‘job for life’ is fast becoming a thing of the past. Most of us want to be able to learn new skills continually so we are able to get the most out of every career opportunity that comes our way. Indeed, 49% of Australian respondents believe that education gives people the power to try different job industries before committing to one career.

Professor Susan Elliott, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Senior Vice-President (Education) of Monash University stated that “the rise of doing additional learning to accelerate or pivot your career has to become more common and also the rise of the laser learner who needs another bite of knowledge, a new skill, a new insight into whatever it is that’s come into their world.”

People expect to work in multiple industries across their lifetimes

Following on from the idea that having a ‘job for life’ is a dying concept, a large proportion of people are expecting to work in many different industries across their lifetimes, particularly those in Generation Z (born 1997-2015). As Professor Josie Fraser from The Open University says, “for kids, every prediction is that they will have multiple careers in their lifetime, that they will retrain, that they will move jobs.”

This is for a great number of reasons, including the fact that we now have so many opportunities to retrain if we don’t like our chosen careers. Approximately a third of respondents who don’t expect to be in the same industry in 2030 suggested that the reason why is because their passions will probably change over time.

Here lies one of the great benefits of lifelong and online education; it helps give people the freedom to step away from careers that don’t bring them personal satisfaction and happiness. In previous times, people felt bound to their initial career choice and didn’t have the skills to step away.

Online learning can be a way of preparing for a career change

For some people, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced them to consider a career change in light of being made redundant – the US had a huge spike in unemployment peaking at 14.8% between March and April of 2020, which has been unprecedented since World War II. 

Alternatively, furlough has given some people more time to think about changing careers and the best way to make that happen. In the UK, approximately 11.4 million people were furloughed as part of the government’s job retention scheme, and nearly one sixth of non-retired people in Australia and the USA report that the pandemic has led them to re- evaluate their career path.

People who have lost their jobs or have had to change careers as a result of the pandemic have said they require a new skill set or are entering a brand new industry, which demonstrates the important part that online education could play in aiding people going through a transition. Having soft, transferable skills would also be advantageous to people making an unexpected career change.

Out of the survey respondents who said they wanted to take online courses to aid career development, nearly 40% of Americans said they would use online learning to change careers. This decreases to 35% for Australia, and 18% for the UK. People are also happy to spend personal time or money to learn skills for a carer move – this number is 31% for Australians but significantly less for those from the UK and the US.

Dylan Williams from Droga 5 suggests that “lifelong learning has to be a philosophy we all live by”, and it’s true that changing our perspectives on education will make these transitions even smoother. This perspective encourages us not to settle on the first thing we try in our professional careers, and keep adapting until we find our true passions.

Final thoughts

The future of education is undoubtedly going to push us to work on personal and professional development, and make it easier for us upskill or change careers. We’re excited about the part that FutureLearn can play in making sure that everyone can access resources that can help them through any transition period.

 Whether you want to seek out your true potential, or are in need of a boost after struggling to find employment, we have courses and advice that will help you find success in the future.


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