Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) has shown its softer side lately -- a fascinating evolution for a company historically known for its ruthless business sense. The company's newest touchy-feely innovation: giving its employees a helping hand in higher education.

The retail behemoth will team up with for-profit online educator American Public University to offer some Wal-Mart associates 15% price cuts on tuition. Wal-Mart will also shell out $50 million over three years in other forms of tuition assistance. Intriguingly, Wal-Mart employees will be able to earn some class credits simply by doing their daily jobs.

The megaretailer's new perk may reflect an intriguing trend. With the economy in the dumps, and more unemployed (or employed but nervous) workers in need of additional skills, online universities are gaining more acceptance among employers and society at large. Studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education have also illustrated that online classes are just as conducive to learning as their physical counterparts.

American Public University, owned by American Public Education (Nasdaq: APEI) isn't the best-known name in online education. Apollo Group's (Nasdaq: APOL) University of Phoenix and DeVry (NYSE: DV) both jump more readily to mind. However, Wal-Mart's partnership could be a boon to American Public Education, which was originally formed to help military students with distance learning; like Wal-Mart, the educator specializes in low prices.

Many large companies offer some kind of employee benefit to encourage additional learning. Among others, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) offers tuition reimbursement, and a company called MITRE actually pays its employees one-time bonuses to go back to school for masters' degrees or Ph.Ds.

An educated workforce is a competitive advantage, as are employees who are eager to evolve their skills. Meanwhile, employers' willingness to help employees with personal and professional growth helps create happier workers. Wal-Mart's massive size can be a force for good; in this case, it might encourage other companies to do more to educate their own workforces, further legitimize affordable online universities, and disrupt traditional higher education.

Do you have any thoughts on Wal-Mart's most recent move to provide better benefits to its workers? Educate us in the comments box below.

Apollo Group and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Google is a Rule Breakers pick. The Fool owns shares of American Public Education. Try any of our Foolish newsletters free for 30 days.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy.