Issue Briefs

Following is an article in a recent MSPB publication covering considerations for choosing among online training and education options.


It is well recognized that enhancing one’s credentials through training and education can pay large dividends in terms of salary, responsibility, advancement, and marketability. Now, many employees may be looking to online education as a career-builder, driven by the need to “socially distance” and the savings in commute time due to more remote work. However, not all programs are created equal, so we chatted with Dr. Karlease Kelly— former Provost of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Virtual University—to obtain her perspective about continuing education. When in operation, USDA’s Virtual University was a global training entity focused on preparing department employees and student interns for professional excellence and career advancement. Dr. Kelly believes that education and training not only give employees a competitive edge when applying for jobs but also help improve their decision-making abilities and quality of thinking.

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These advantages, combined with additional time at home, has many employees choosing to avail themselves of an explosion of online education/training opportunities. However, these programs vary widely in their quality, duration, and cost, and choosing the right one for you may be difficult. Based on our review of the literature and advice from Dr. Kelly, we present the following eight questions to ask yourself when considering whether or not to pursue a new educational opportunity:

1. Am I genuinely interested in the topic, and can I maintain my interest and motivation (time and energy) to complete and perform well in the program? If your motives are not strong or are based on passing fads or financial considerations alone, then sustaining the effort may be difficult over the long haul.

2. Do I anticipate life or work events that will distract me from completing the program? Often, online programs have strict deadlines for assignments. If your work or personal life may unexpectedly take you away from the course, find out how, or even if, this can be accommodated.

3. Do I have the foundational knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform well in the program? The promotional literature for many programs often does not properly address important background knowledge required for success. For example, the popular subject of data science generally requires facility in existing statistical methods and programming tools. It is important to ensure that you have the foundational skills needed for the program.

4. Do I have the opportunity to practice what I am learning and to receive feedback? Learning transfer is best supported when the program has many hands-on projects and practicums that provide the opportunity to apply new learning. For instance, Dr. Kelly encourages online learners to consider Open Opportunities (https://openopps. usajobs.gov), a Governmentwide program that offers project-based professional development opportunities to current Federal employees and internships to students.

5. Will my employer pay for the program? If not, am I prepared to? Dr. Kelly points out that employees should not presume that their agency can or will pay for training. Organizational budget constraints can limit training approval and potentially make disapproval an expedient default.

6. If I am paying for the program, are there additional funding sources or discounts available? Dr. Kelly recommends that prospective students consult the Federal Academic Alliance (https://www.opm.gov/wiki/training/ Federal-Governmentwide-Academic-Alliances.ashx), an OPM partnership that offers Federal employees discounted tuition rates and/or scholarships.

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7. If I intend to complete the training on Government time, do I have approval from my supervisor? According to Dr. Kelly, online learners who wish to pursue a program of education or training should be prepared to show how such a program supports the agency or organizational mission and obtain approval before devoting work time to the activity.

8. Does the instructional format meet my needs? Education can come in many instructional formats, such as online, face-to-face, or a blended approach that uses a mix of both. The literature suggests that instruction combining online and face-to-face elements offer students an advantage over purely face-to-face or online instruction. Dr. Kelly agreed, advising that hybrid programs often work better than online learning alone because of the increased social context. Also, online instruction is best for learners who are self-disciplined, motivated, and well organized. Your answers to the questions above will help determine if the program is worth the effort, time, and cost you will need to put into it. If you decide to proceed, then the next question is how legitimate the program is that you are considering. The legitimacy of educational programs is all about accreditation—a formal process for establishing a program’s credibility by an external organization to ensure that the program meets specific standards of quality.

To assess the accreditation of the program you are considering, we suggest the following steps:

• Go to the school website and search for and verify the accreditation. Note that both the school and the specific programs of education may have separate accreditations and having one does not guarantee the other.

• Make sure that whatever accrediting agency the school claims awarded their accreditation is listed with the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Institutional Accrediting Agencies or the Council of Higher Education Accreditation which lists reputable accrediting agencies. The accreditation may be granted at the regional or national level, so look for the school’s online accreditation information for both, including complaint history, if any.

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• Be familiar with the types of “programmatic” accreditations required to practice. Many education programs, especially those requiring licensure, are also accredited by various boards and organizations. For example, many organizations require that clinical and counseling psychology training programs be approved by the American Psychological Association in order for graduates to practice.

• Prospective students should also research online and ask practitioners and faculty in the field about the quality of particular programs and the types of programmatic accreditation needed. In addition, Dr. Kelly advises employees embarking on an education program that they should contact their chief learning or organizational training officer. They will be knowledgeable about other valuable resources. Employees should carefully evaluate such programs and know where to look for virtual but legitimate opportunities to further their education and improve their skill sets.