[Online] Certificate, Diploma or Degree?

This week I had a discussion with a friend – she’s is a mature professional who wanted to upskill. While chatting, she said, “Some people may be intimidated if they have to do a whole course at once. I know it was indicated that single courses can be had. For me personally I’d prefer to start small. Certificate first…especially in courses like psychology.” As I listened to her expressed concern, I realised that, especially as she is new to online learning, searching for the most suitable programme is a challenge because she is trying to decide which to do – a Certificate, a Diploma or a Degree?

She is not alone.

In March 2020, The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), reported that โ€œan unprecedented number of children, youth and adults are not attending schools or universities because of COVID-19,โ€ with governments in 100 countries having announced or implemented closures. In 85 countries, schools nationwide have been closed, affecting more than 776.7 million children.

Over 776 MILLION! Wow!

This number accounts for those already attending school, however, as COVID-19 triggered an increase in unemployment (and the restructuring of businesses), there has been a surge in the need for many individuals in the working class to either upskill or retool. I think that it’s safe to assume that the amount of “students” that are not “in a school” is way more than 776 million. Get what I’m, saying?

Also, just like my friend, more people are considering enrolling in programmes to learn a new skill or enhance their professional resumes. I see the number increasing even more now.

If you are new to online learning read this: 5 Tips for New Online Learners

That got me thinking about how many people are experiencing the same dilemma. This must be quite the anxiety-inducing pickle to be in. So in order to help persons, like my friend, make an informed decision I decided to present some information that I believe would be helpful.

Certificate, Diploma or Degree? Let’s define them first with some explanations for each.

What is a Certificate?

Insert name and course *smile emoji*

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a certificate as:

  1. “an official document that states that the information on it is true, e.g. a birth/marriage/death certificate or a doctor’s/medical certificate”, or
  2. “the qualification that you receive when you are successful in an exam”, e.g. a Certificate in Plumbing.

We’ll move ahead with definition #2, of course. Certificates are attained through short courses or programmes which have varying timeframes:

  • A few hours e.g. a Certificate of Participation in a music workshop.
  • A day – you know, like that one time your boss sent the department to learn High Impact Business Writing and you didn’t want to go and then you were glad you went, but you probably still don’t use it because the office has templates *slaps forehead*.
  • A few weeks (usually about 6-8 weeks) e.g. a certificate in Social Media Management.
  • A few months e.g. a Certificate in Cosmetology.

A certificate is cost-efficient and focuses on a specific area or skill. This way you can gain that particular skill without years of schooling. It’s also great if you’re looking to make a career shift. However, its main limitation is that you may not be able to make any move outside of the chosen discipline; unless you do additional certificates.

What is a Diploma?

Your entry to another career.

The Macmillan Dictionary clearly explains a diploma as:

  1. “a course of study at a college or university in  vocational subject (one that prepares you for a particular job) e.g. a Diploma in Psychology.”
  2. “a course of study at a college or university in an academic subject that people sometimes do after getting a degree.” 

Diplomas (or career diplomas) are more comprehensive than certificates and take a bit longer to get, but can be obtained in a year or two. Diplomas are field-specific and are mostly offered in technical and vocational areas like massage therapy and Information Technology.

Diplomas cost less than degrees and have minimal, if any, prerequisites. They concentrate on the skills necessary for the field. The limitation of a Diploma is that it’s just that, a Diploma. You may end up feeling like you’re in limbo and not quite at the finish line with your new certification; it’s above a certificate and just below a degree – get what I mean?

What is a Degree?

You’ll be proud, and relieved, when you’re done.

The definition given by Britannica is as follows:

Degree, also called academic degree, in education, any of several titles conferred by colleges and universities to indicate the completion of a course of study or the extent of academic achievement.”

Study.com pulls out all the stops to give us the full overview of this type of “certification”:

You can read more about what each entails by clicking here.

The first thing to note about a Degree is that degrees are often a requirement by employers. They take more than two years to complete and are more all rounded with the courses that are enveloped within the programme. Since degrees include elective courses e.g. a language or an art of some form like public speaking (I think public speaking is an art), you end up gaining more intellectual range which gives you a solid foundation to choose different career paths. I’ll give you a personal example.

I did my Bachelor of Arts Degree in Mass Communication. It took me 6 years to do as a part-time student. I know what you’re thinking, “That’s crazy!” right? Yeah, well, it is usually a 4-year full-time programme. Anywhos -it was the best 6 years of my life. I loved every course. I did history, social media management, speech writing and public speaking, website development, photography, journalism, economics and accounting, Spanish. The list was extensive; as you could imagine. At the end, I specialised in Public Relations. I was able to apply for many types of jobs because of this degree. I never regretted it.

So, how do you choose?

Certificate, Diploma or Degree?

I’ll give you five overarching considerations to help you decide. Please note that, each of these prompters speak directly to the scope of your budget and the urgency you’ve placed on upgrading your credentials. Also know that there will be some overlapping features.

#1 Is it complementing a qualification you already have?

Recommended – Certificate.

A certificate would give you the specialisation you require within a targeted discipline. It’s very good to do if you need to fill a gap, expand your skill-set portfolio or modernise an existing skill to adjust in a timely manner with changing markets. Doing a certificate would signal “adaptability”!

#2 Will it give you access to another, or higher, position within your career?

Recommended Diploma or Degree.

Diplomas are like Associate’s Degrees (which I did not elaborate on, I know). They are more significant than certificates but not as weighty as degrees. Because they cost more and take a longer time to earn, there is a higher level of seriousness that is projected with this qualification. Doing a Diploma is usually the first step in beginning a career change, but it is also a great way to position yourself a specialist in a particular area. It signals “decisiveness”!

#3 Is it an entryway into another field or entrepreneurship?

Recommended – Diploma

As the definition states, diplomas are attained for certain fields and are heavily focused on what is needed for that career, only. If you wish to move on from being an employee and become an entrepreneur, or perhaps you want to consider consultancy in an area you are passionate about, a diploma will open that door for you with a reasonable budget and a shorter time frame. It signals “advancement” or “liberty”!

#4 Does it make you more marketable?

Recommended – Certificate.

If you’re looking to become more marketable, you need to sprinkle a few tokens on your resume. Assess your environment, survey job postings, pay attention to the evolution of business operations. You’ll begin to see what’s missing. More so, you’ll notice which of the missing things you can actually do and you should get on. It signals that you are “forward-thinking”!

Read more about skills you should learn here: 6 skills every student should learn โ€“ or be able to do

#5 Is it a stepping stone for something greater?

Recommended – Degree (or selectively, Diploma).

Are you seeking to meet the market requirement for a stable job? Do you intend to climb the academic ladder within a chosen career path? While a diploma will steer you to where you wish to go, a degree will definitely authorise your arrival. If the degree is an undergraduate degree, it is also an essential qualification to obtain a higher-level degree such as a Master’s, Master of Philosophy (MPhil), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), or a Doctorate. A degree, undoubtedly, takes much longer to earn and costs more; in every way. Both shift your potential for better compensation packages; positively. Of the two, a degree is clearly more formidable. It signals “professional”!

Final thoughts: I hope this information provided enough fodder to make contemplating your next step easier. Any decision to obtain a new qualification should be applauded. It should matter a lot because your name will be on that final, validating, paper and your resume will carry that new qualification. So, decide where you want to be and just begin!

The Graduate Guru will be your silent cheerleader *wink*. Now get to it!

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5 Tips for New Online Learners

In the year 2020, the Novel COVID-19 pandemic prompted a spike in digital communication, interactions and services. The global community deepened its appreciation for the functions of technology and its infinite potential to revolutionize everyday business operations; and daily activities. And what also became apparent, in 2020, was the increase in the promotion of e-learning.

I realized for some time that technology began to morph the education system. Through digital education (all online educational practices), teachers and students have access to a digital toolbox full of engaging technological gadgets, digital textbooks and e-material, and online courses.

How serious is it?

“In fall 2017, there were 6,651,536 students enrolled in any distance education courses at degree-granting post-secondary institutions.”

(Source: National Center for Education Statistics)

There are thousands of online courses available for you to enhance your academic portfolio. If you have never done an online course before, the concept of online learning may be a bit foreign to you. I know, because, it was strange for me.

I decided to give you a “heads up” to help you prepare for a new version of learning. There’s no need to be nervous or sceptical, be excited.

Here is a list of important things, like a starter kit of sorts, that you need to know, or have, before you begin to explore online learning.

So let’s begin.

#1: Be clear about what you want to do

Of course this comes first, right?
Do you need to get a specialized certificate for a another position at work? Perhaps you just want to learn a new skill (for personal development). Maybe you need to enhance your profile for your LinkedIn platform. And what about those of you trying to make a career change, but you just don’t have the time to go to “school”.

Well, whatever your reason for considering an online certification, you need to know how much potential it has to bring value to your worth and how suitable it is to your goals. Simply ask yourself, “Where, and how, does this fit into my life’s plans?”

Your “Why?” must be clear. Or you’ll just be wasting time and money.

#2 Be comfortable with online payments

Once it’s online, that’s where you pay. Pretty much all online courses require that you make your payments using a credit card – whether prepaid or secured. Payments are usually accepted directly from your credit card and, can at times, be further filtered through online payment platforms such as PayPal or Stripe.
Online payments are simple, but a word of caution. NEVER save your payment credentials on any device. Digital security must be a foremost priority!

#3 Check the offer out completely.

Firstly, consideration is how the course itself is being offered.

Generally, online courses are offered by cycle or one-off purchases. They promise unlimited access to the material once you’ve confirmed enrollment or purchase.
So, firstly check out whether the course you’re set your eyes on is either a one time purchase, like courses in Udemy, or by cycle, like Coursera? I’ve found that there is flexibility in both options, but for courses I don’t plan to start soon (especially those I catch a promotional offer for), I tend to buy the course and come to it when I have the time.

Another consideration is, what does the completion certificate look like? Well, using the examples of Udemy and Coursera:

Udemy’s certificates look something like this:

And Coursera’s Certificates look something like this:

If you aren’t comfortable with the amount of information the former provides, you may want to use online institutions that frame their certificates like the second. But take note, both have verification codes that validate the school and the authenticity of the course; located at the bottom right or left corner of the certificate.

You should also consider are whether the courses are a part of a series or just a specialized subject. You’d find, however, that they are either presented in groupings e.g. Students who purchased “Course A” also purchased “Course B”, or as a specialization e.g. my Search Engine Optimization Fundamentals course was the second of a six part SEO specialization that ends with a Capstone project.

For either option, the course you choose can be used as a stand-alone certification!

Then, you must find out if the certificate can be sent to you via hard-copy. This is important for those of you that require original certificates to apply for jobs or new positions where the employer asks for such. If you can use the printed online version, however, then you can forgo that cost.

#4 How is the course validated?

To understand this point, these are some examples of questions you should ask:

  • Is the course is being administered by the known professional through an online institution (see the Udemy Certificate)?
  • Is the course being hosted by Professors through a credible university (see the Coursera certificate)?
  • Is the course being offered solely by a professional under their business/enterprise?

Each of these would impact how you view the certificate’s validity. That is completely subjective.

#5 Is the course up-to-date?

Let me tell you. Everyday something in the world changes.

Ergo, even non-trending courses would have had to be upgraded to make the discipline remain relevant. So please, check to see if there are more recent versions of the courses you wish to enroll in. Yes, some content may be evergreen, but (as an example ) even Microsoft Excel would have had updated some functions or added new ones when Office versions changed.

There you have it. There are more, but I think these are specifically important for the distance learning newbies.

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