Learning Re-Imagined

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Throw back Thursday: Is free training effective?

We receive so much valuable content from our customers, partners and internal subject-matter experts. On Thursdays, we thought it would be fun to do a “throw back” and bring back an older post that was valuable to our audience. Today’s throw back addresses the debate on free content.


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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