Online career-oriented programs fit into busy lives

Marisol Martinez works as a custodian for the Clark County School District and, like many Southern Nevadans, is interested in broadening her collection of job skills.

So, Martinez, a native of Mexico, signed up for an online course in writing designed for people who speak English as a second language.

"In my work, I sometimes need to leave a message," she explained. "So I have to use good writing."

The writing course "helped me a lot," Martinez said. As a result, she signed up for another online course, an introduction to Microsoft Windows.

"Everything is in the computer now," Martinez said. "I need to know how the computer works."

Now, Martinez is taking her third online course, an intermediate computer course. And while the new skills are helping in her current job, Martinez said she hopes they'll also help to build a foundation for other career options in the future

"I want to improve everything," Martinez said.

It's a sentiment shared by many Southern Nevadans seeking to advance in their jobs or even prepare for an entirely new career. Although Martinez, 46, is divorced with no kids, she does have a large extended family here. And, like Martinez, many Southern Nevadans are finding that online courses -- which enable workers to take vocational classes at their own speed and on their own schedule, in some cases without ever leaving the house -- can help to make job training mesh with the demands of job and family.

The College of Southern Nevada, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Vegas PBS all provide online job training classes to Southern Nevadans. CSN and UNLV offer nondegree vocational training courses in addition to online courses taken by students working toward degrees, while Vegas PBS kicked off its career-focused work force training initiative last summer.

"The No. 1 priority in our community right now is putting people back to work," explained Debra Solt, Vegas PBS' director of work force training and economic development. Many of the work-related courses it offers online -- which focus on such fields as casino management and in such jobs as travel agent, bookkeeper and wedding planner -- are designed to give workers skills they can use in starting a new career.

Terry Norris, CSN's director of eLearning, said the most popular online courses at the college -- introductory English and psychology, for instance -- are for degree-seeking students out to fulfill their general education requirements.

"When you look at courses that are more career-oriented or potentially career-oriented, a lot of them are going to be in the computer field," such as web design and programming languages, Norris noted. These "can help you in getting a new job."

UNLV's Division of Educational Outreach offers online vocational training programs to augment the certification and job training programs it offers on-campus.

The online courses -- both UNLV and Vegas PBS partner with a company called ed2go, which designs the curricula -- "supplement courses that we don't offer in a traditional setting," said Kyle Yahiro-Okino, program coordinator in the university's continuing education department. "So most of the online courses that we offer do not directly compete with our traditional sort of offerings."

At UNLV, the vocational-oriented online courses that garner the most interest are in the health care and medical fields, Yahiro-Okino said, "things like medical billing and coding, medical transcription, medical terminology."

Online vocational training courses can cost from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on their complexity and the number of hours required to complete them. And, they have a variety of aims.

Some -- say, a course in Microsoft Word -- are designed to teach additional skills a student may use in a current or future job. Others enable a student to earn certification at the course's completion. Still others prepare students for national licensing exams after the course.

While some online vocational courses can be taken completely online, others require in-field work or an unpaid internship. For instance, Solt said, students in a pharmacy technician course offered through Vegas PBS also work an unpaid internship with a local pharmacist.

Some programs, UNLV's Yahiro-Okino noted, are "hard to convert to a 100 percent online setting. It still requires some face-to-face."

Typically, online courses enable students to access lessons 24/7. Teachers post lessons and assignments at specific times, and homework and assignments must be returned electronically by specific due dates. Students may post questions to a teacher or participate in online discussions. And, the student must complete the course within a specified period of time.

Most students cite the 24/7, stay-at-home nature of online learning as the reason why they prefer online classes over on-campus classes. Martinez said online classes mesh well with the demands of her job.

"I like to take (courses) online because I don't want to spend time in travel. For me, online is perfect," she added.

According to Solt, when students in Vegas PBS' online program were asked why they chose an online course instead of an on-campus course, 84 percent called it "more convenient" and about 73 percent said it "fit better into (their) schedule."

The survey also said 55 percent preferred to continue learning in an online, rather than an on-campus, learning environment.

"There are many reasons people take online courses," CSN's Norris said, including holding current jobs that prevent them from getting away to attend classes and odd work schedules that make taking on-campus classes impossible. Single mothers, he said, also cite the cost of providing for child care while they're attending an on-campus class.

However, virtual education isn't for everybody. Online students "need to be highly motivated," Norris said. "It's not where you can skip a couple of weeks and come back. They have to be there every week, doing the reading and submitting the assignments."

Also, Solt said, "some people need that one-on-one. They need to see (an instructor) eyeball to eyeball. For some people, online instruction is not compatible with how they learn best."

Before enrolling in an online class, prospective students should understand a course's objectives (learning a new job skill, receiving a certification, preparing for a licensing exam) and its requirements (whether all the work can be done online or whether a field experience or internship also is required).

Patrice Ross, president of the Southern Nevada Human Resources Association, said a student who is considering taking a course to enhance his job skills should ask a supervisor or his company's human resources department whether the course would be considered useful.

"If you're looking to benefit in a job or organization, it's got to be something that's relevant," she said.

Then, Ross said, "if you can locate the instructor, ask them (about) what are my goals and will this help me meet them."

Students who are considering taking an online course to change careers also might ask a few potential employers what they think about an online program.

Then, investigate the outlook for jobs in the new career. "If they're changing careers," Ross said, "make sure there's a market for it."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ or 702-383-0280.