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Francesco Ciccolella for Money

Brianna LaSita was not pleased when a professor at Ithaca College told her class that a group project would remain a group project, even after the school closed and the students were scattered.

“We were all like ‘Ugh, how are we going to do this?’,” says LaSita, who just finished her third year of college where she studies occupational therapy. She had never used Zoom before she began remote learning. She had never used the platform Flipgrid, which her group would present their project on, outside of in-person classes.

But her group ran with it, putting together a presentation on early intervention in occupational therapy and presenting it to their class. While sometimes it was hard, it was also an opportunity to flex new muscles, she says.

“I got to learn about my classmates in a different way,” LaSita says. “It was definitely challenging at times because it was just something we’re not used to, but we were able to get it all done.”

College students across the country faced a swift transition to online learning when the spread of the coronavirus caused their schools to abruptly send them home. And while many of them undoubtedly have valid criticisms of their courses quick shifts to online, remote learning can give them a new skill set that they can draw on in the workforce, experts say.

Learning In a Fast-Changing Environment

As students were thrust into the world of distance learning, they had to quickly adjust to new ways of communicating with their professors and classmates and illustrating what they were learning.

Colleges "had no time to really inform students about what their online education would look like,” says Jane Oates, president of WorkingNation, a nonprofit organization focusing on the job skills gap. “These students had to learn it via Youtube or teaching themselves.”

Many of these students are digital natives, having grown up doing everything from ordering their food to buying movie tickets with technology. But they hadn’t relied on it in the way they have to when using it for school, Oates adds.

Technical skills that students are learning — Tableau for data visualization, for example — are increasingly in demand in the workforce. Digitally intensive jobs are rapidly growing and there is a huge demand across job sectors for people who can blend multiple skills that include a digital or technical element, according to a report from Burning Glass, which provides data on the job market.

Students have also shown that they know how to adjust to new, scary situations. From mergers and acquisitions to switch ups in leadership to public relations disasters, companies have to manage change everyday. Students who moved to remote learning during the pandemic can tell future hiring managers that they not only know how to manage change, but that they can do so in a time of crisis, Oates says.

Using Email and Video Calls to Communicate Professionally

When students left campus in droves in March, they suddenly lost access to a benefit they probably thought little about: the ability to pop into professors' office hours or chat after class.

“They of course will have questions for the professor or graduate assistants, and normally they would simply visit the professor and talk face-to-face,” says Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at University of Illinois at Springfield. “Now, they're crafting an email in an intelligent way, representing themselves to the faculty member.”

That practice will come in handy as students graduate: More companies are relying on online digital communication, like email and conference calls, for daily operations. A survey of IT managers and administrators released last year by Mio, which integrates messaging platforms, found that 91% of businesses use at least two messaging apps. Remote work was increasing even before the pandemic, driving up the need for digital communication. Owl Labs’ 2019 report on remote work found that 54% of respondents were working remotely at least once per month and 48% were working remotely at least once per week.

Presenting projects online, like the one LaSita and her classmates put together, can be especially hard for students who have been used to in-person classrooms.

“When you do it in person, you can really rely a lot on the cues that people are giving — the head nodding, the smiling, the laughing,” Oates says. “But when you're doing it online, you have to build that personality into that presentation.”

Communicating virtually also calls for a different set of behaviors that students will need to have professionally, says Stephen Laster, chief product officer at Ellucian, which provides software and services to higher education institutions. Students need to respond to emails promptly, for example, and stick to deadlines without reminders.

Managing Time When No One is Looking After You

Time management has always been critical for college students as they balance classes, extracurriculars, social lives and more. Now, they're doing it under new pressures. On top of losing their normal routine, they may have lost their study spots or have to do more work on their own.

Many professors have opted to give more work outside of the class and spend less time in the virtual classrooms, so students are balancing several tasks on top of losing that in-person accountability, Schroeder says.

“Students have to get weekly assignments done on their own,” he says. “They don't have that nudge of having class three times a week when a professor reminds them.”

Increased time outside of class requires students to plan out their own days, managing downtime without as many scheduled meet ups to work around. Students also need to factor in that they’re not always in academic environments. They may not have a library to work efficiently at, or a dorm room they’ve set up for studying.

The key to capitalizing on these skills is knowing that you can highlight them in future job interviews. Oates predicts interviewers will replace questions like "How did you spend your summer?" with "How were you impacted during the pandemic?"

“They don’t want to hear you learned to bake bread during COVID-19,” Oates says. “They want to hear how you improved yourself, how you got yourself ready for the next phase of your life, how you prepared yourself to enter the workforce.”

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