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Online degrees and courses are becoming more common, with top-ranked schools now offering students the chance to hit the books, electronically, from anywhere.

For busy professionals traveling the globe, studying online can be a convenient way to obtain the education level typically now required for a career in international development. And this is even more true for those living in developing countries, where school options can be more limited, or for those seeking highly specialized courses only offered at a handful of universities.

But will an online qualification actually help your career? Devex spoke to three global development recruiters to find out what they really think about online degrees.

For some recruiters, online degrees are part of the education evolution made possible by advances in technology, which brick and mortar institutions are vying to keep up with.

This is the view of Gary Lazor, talent acquisition manager at SSG Advisors, who said he is positive about distance learning courses as long as they come from “accredited” schools.  

“In our industry, we owe it to our donors to validate the credentials of the staff we are hiring,” he said.

In the development sector, where nearly everyone needs a master’s or some form of higher education, it is often more feasible for staff to take online courses, he said. Taking classes online offers the flexibility to keep working as opposed to taking out two years midcareer to attend classes, he said.

Furthermore, Lazor said the ability to hold down a job while studying shows “good discipline” and the ability to balance one’s time effectively, and so could improve a candidate’s chances of getting hired.

Laura Wigglesworth, who specializes in recruiting executives in the global health field, has a slightly different view of online schools. Where Lazor sees online programs as potentially offering students more face-to-face time with faculty, thanks to platforms such as Skype and webinars, Wigglesworth thinks studying online lowers the quality and rigor of the program.

“I don’t have that much faith in online-only programs, typically the programs aren’t as rigorous, the faculty are adjunct and you don’t have opportunities to take classes in other subjects,” she said.

She is also suspicious of for-profit online schools, which she described as offering “fly-by-night” programs which enable students to “essentially purchase their degree,” and like Lazar, thinks accreditation is key.

However, while a candidate who has been resident at a brick and mortar institution is preferable, Wigglesworth said she would be unlikely to ask a candidate from an established school whether they took classes online or in person.

“It’s never occurred to ask whether someone got their degree online,” she said.

According to the recruiter, in today’s international development job market, “everyone has a master’s degree,” and unless that degree is from one of the top schools, it’s simply a case of a box ticked. This is a “sobering and disappointing fact” for many students, she admitted.

Experience is the key determining factor, according to Wigglesworth, and so she encourages people interested in working in the sector to take on internships and consultancies while they get their degree. This point of experience was echoed by Ryan Noll, chief people officer at Results for Development, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

In many cases, a person’s experience is more important than their qualifications, whether taken online or offline, Noll said.

He added he would be “open-minded” when reviewing a resume that included online qualifications, especially if the candidate was from a low-income country where there are fewer options when it comes to getting quality degrees.

“If someone has figured out how to make it happen in less than ideal circumstances and that means studying online, then we would absolutely not hold that against them,” he said.

For more coverage on professional development, visit the Skills for Tomorrow site here.

This article was last updated on 2 November 2018

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.