Free Online Content Provokes Deep Thoughts on the Cost of Learning

By Sarah Fister Gale

Jun. 29, 2017

Whether you want to learn to code, hone your coaching skills or find a fun new way to use, there is a free online course to teach you. With all this content up for grabs, do companies really need to pay for training any more?

“It’s a debate that is raging right now,” said Bill Pelster, principal with Deloitte Consulting in Seattle. “In the end, it’s not an either/or question.”

Most companies have content that is specific to their products and culture that employees couldn’t possibly learn anywhere else. And in other cases, if a skill is vital to the business, safety or to meet regulations, relying on a homemade course probably isn’t prudent. “If operating a piece of machinery can be deadly, you don’t want employees learning it from a YouTube video,” Pelster said.

But there is a whole lot of quality learning in between that may be easily accessed for free. The trick is figuring out what’s worth using, and how to make sure employees can find it.

John Pitchko, senior adviser for Innovate Calgary, a tech incubation center in Canada, makes choices about free content by first considering what is worth paying for. “To justify paying for training, I expect a high degree of interactivity or applied work to be incorporated into the course.” If a course is purely self-paced training with no coaching or instructor feedback, he won’t buy it but he’s open to useful no-cost learning tools that can bolster employees’ skills. “I always tell my start-up clients to scour the internet for free options before looking to pay.”

It is good advice for small companies with limited resources, said Jen Spencer, vice president of sales and marketing for Allbound Inc., a channel partner software company in Phoenix. The fast-growing start-up relies on free training courses to get new hires up to speed. “We don’t have the time or resources to build or buy content,” she said. “But our people need training.”

Allbound hires most of its staff straight out of college, and they often lack basic sales, technology and customer management skills. To close these gaps, Spencer requires them to complete free courses offered through HubSpot, one of its vendor partners, which provides free inbound marketing and sales certification training. “Having access to these high-quality resources is critical when we have limited dollars but need to on-board employees quickly,” she said. And because the content is publicly accessible, she encourages potential new hires to take the training. “If they enroll before they are hired, it speaks volumes about their dedication and enthusiasm and helps them rise to the top of the list.”

Content Curation: The Hot New Skillset

Free training isn’t only a last-ditch learning option for cash strapped start-ups. With so much quality content available from sites like Coursera, Udacity, HubSpot and YouTube, and the growing number of free university programs including MIT’s OpenCourseWare and HarvardX, it is foolish not to at least consider free training when crafting a content portfolio, Pelster said. The challenge is how to create a process for determining when free content is “good enough,” then to figure out how to track its use and impact on learners.

This free content trend is forcing learning leaders to become content curators, spending more time searching for and assessing course options than creating it themselves. It’s also driving LMS vendors to consider more adaptable tracking options that can organize free, self-generated and paid content into a single platform. Companies such as Degreed, PathGather and even LinkedIn Learning are adding features that let users incorporate content from multiple sources, track their completion rates and build career paths and recommendations using any type of content the company deems relevant.

These tools aren’t just solving administrative tasks. In an era where learners acquire skills through many avenues, this technology can help companies better leverage the skills in their talent pool. For example, if you know an employee learned to develop apps using Coursera or completed a sales certification program at HubSpot, it can influence hiring and promotion decisions and help clarify real skill gaps, Pelster said.

The reality is that employees already do much of their learning outside the structure of formal learning programs, so the more companies know about what they are learning, and the quality of that content the better.

He urged learning leaders to meet with their legal, HR and regulatory experts to develop a content assessment framework that can help them assess and incorporate this content into their learning development strategy. “It is the democratization of knowledge sharing,” he said, “and it is not going away.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in Chicago. Comment below or email

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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