Endless line of school busses

One of the questions I’m asked most as an instructor at the University of San Francisco Online’s Advanced Social Media course is, “Do I need to take a course in [insert popular digital marketing specialty]?” The answer is an unreserved maybe.

If you’re a motivated self-learner who needs knowledge, the answer is generally no. Motivated self-learners who can put puzzles together out of varying information sources can get everything they need and then some out of reading blogs, doing plenty of Googling, trying things out, and seeing what works. Learning this way ensures that you have the latest, greatest, and most effective knowledge.

If you’re a learner who needs a lot more structure, a more traditional classroom-like setting, and someone to kick your butt every now and again in order to stay on track, then a course of some kind may be the answer. It doesn’t have to be from a university – there are plenty of great organizations like SEOMoz that offer professional courses.

If you’re someone who needs a piece of paper for the wall or for your resume, then yes, a course through an accredited university is the way to go, because that looks the most legitimate to prospective employers. When you go this route, you’re effectively paying for the use of someone’s brand and logo on your resume, which is why online courses like the one I teach are so expensive compared to other options. Courses through accredited universities aren’t necessarily better than other courses – they just have the backing of someone else’s presumably prestigious logo and brand.

No matter what route you take, once you’ve gotten a strong base of knowledge, two things are mandatory to keep you fresh. First, you have to put into play what you’ve learned. There’s no other way to become effective than to do what you’ve learned, and unused knowledge decays quickly. Second, you have to become the motivated self-learner no matter which path you choose, because digital marketing knowledge expires faster than pop music hits.

Finally, no matter what avenue you take, find yourself a study buddy or study group, others in your field who are looking at the same challenges. That could be a LinkedIn group, a friend or two, or even something as simple as a public scheduled chat. Having a strong learning community is one of the three secrets to powerful, enduring education.

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