Learning Re-Imagined

Skillsoft Blog

Is free training actually effective?

By John Ambrose

Since the dawn of the web, “free” has been a seductive concept.  Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine has made a career touting the “free” model.  Yet, Wired magazine is not free, nor are Chris’ speaking fees.

The latest “free” craze is university curricula as well-known universities declare their intentions to post some or all of their courses on the web.  How will this affect corporate learning departments?

It won’t.

“Free” is not new.  In fact, MIT had been making its courses available online for nearly a decade now.  While free university content will appeal to some individuals, it is no substitute for the highly sophisticated and organizationally aligned learning & development models that have evolved over the past decade.

Relevance Matters.

Think about the extreme for a moment.  What if every university put every course online for free.  Users would then have everything they need at their fingertips, why bother with corporate training of any kind, right?

First, this sounds like the same argument when web search engines like Google first appeared.  That simply having access to content − is somehow equivalent to doing something useful with it.

Second, there would be massive redundancy.  Most university curricula are differentiated by instructor and approach, not topic or objectives.  Users would face a dizzying array of options (not unlike how we feel with a typical Google search) and corporate trainers would face a daunting task of alignment.

Third is inherent mission conflict.  We all now know that the mission of search engine content is simple: Drive page clicks that generate advertising revenue.  The mission behind putting university curricula online is not altruism, but self-preservation. Clay Christensen’s book, Disrupting Class, was a wake-up call to all universities because their business model is no longer sustainable. Higher Education costs have risen even faster in the US over the past decade than health care costs! Tuitions are no longer affordable and with the balloon of student loan debt, universities are scrambling to find replacement revenue fast.


Universities are on a mission to generate incremental online revenue from individuals for the identical course that is offered as part of the degreed curriculum. It’s simply monetizing an existing asset to a larger pool of payers at a much lower price and without (it is hoped) “tarnishing the brand.”  Revenue will come from non-matriculated individuals who will pay out of pocket for a “certificate of completion” in exchange for successfully finishing a rigorous 20+ hour online university course. They may cascade these courses into a low cost online certificate or degree, such as Harvard and other universities have offered for years as “Extension” programs.

Even before the current buzz around online universities, the market was awash in “free” and “freemium” learning content, whether it be traditional courseware, videos, simulations or other modalities.  While there are rare nuggets of quality, much of what exists is marketing palaver that is more rooted in ecommerce than education.

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