Last updated: 24.03.16

Is free learning for staff better than paid?

With so much free staff training available does it really pay to learn online?

The past decade has seen huge social, technological and behavioural changes when it comes to e-learning. You can get almost anything for free online thanks to revenue generated by adverts - and people are increasingly expecting to be able to access online services, including training, free of charge.

YouTube could be described as the biggest online training company in the world. You can acquire many skills - from contouring your makeup to using a camera - just by watching bite-sized videos. Meanwhile, people having a debate in the pub over, for example, the year a film was released, will these days head straight for Google.

So, with the amount of online training content being almost overwhelming, what’s the point of paying for training? In this blog we’ll look at the characteristics and benefits of both free and paid-for training, and I’ll explain why in some situations one is preferable over the other.

What is free e-learning?

There are two types of free e-learning: free and freemium. While free online training is cost-free for the learner, freemium services are free to begin with but offer upgrades for premium services. Free courses can generate a lot of engagement, and have a significant impact on the ground. Thus they should not be ruled out on the basis that they are free!

Three main categories of free online training:

     1. YouTube and Google

As discussed above, there are plenty of services online that offer training for free, instead generating revenue from advertising. This type of training is almost always instant and usually leaner-led, as in people will seek out an answer to a specific question. Furthermore, it tends to be bite-sized, with the learning potentially taking as little as 30 seconds, although this can obviously vary.

     2. MOOCS (Massive open online course)

These usually tackle broader levels of learning that are based on theory rather than being practical. They often take a sizeable investment in time when it comes to the learner. In addition they are usually associated with established learning brands, with enrolments often hitting the hundreds of thousands or even reaching up into the millions.

    3. VOOC (Vocational open online course)

VOOCs are often designed to convey both theory and practical knowledge, and are usually focussed on a particular subject, meaning they can provide a useful insight into that sector. 

What are the benefits of free courses?

They’re free, convenient and easy to enrol on. Learners tend to have instant access to materials, and are often taking part in the course for fun so they want to learn. They can also be considered somewhat egalitarian, given that they are open and all people need to learn is internet access. What’s more, free online courses can be quite social thanks to virtual classrooms and YouTube comments sections. Furthermore - there’s no risk of losing money if you quit, so the stakes are low and people are more likely to just try these courses out.

When it comes to the benefits of free e-learning courses for organisations, the obvious benefit is that it doesn’t impact on your budget. They can also create a more rounded workforce and expand training opportunities for organisations with tight training budgets.

Why is Dark Learning important?

Dark learning is the term used to describe experiences where training is not quality controlled, recorded or audited. This means that staff are learning and building up their skills and expertise, but training co-ordinators will not be aware that they are doing so. Consequently, companies cannot capitalise on or further develop these new skills.

With regards to free courses dark learning can be an issue when it comes to quality control and maintenance. Traditionally this type of learning also has quite low completion rates as there is no real pressure to see courses through to the end.

It is also important to note that free online courses are never actually free. The cost of learners’ time is often the most expensive part of training. Furthermore, someone, somewhere has provided and paid for the training, whether this is through sponsorship, investment or crowd funding.

When is a paid-for solution more appropriate?

While free online training options have plenty of benefits, there are many cases in which an organisation should opt for paid-for services.

Compliance training is one of these instances. When it comes to the health and wellbeing of employees and/or customers, you don’t want to take chances with a course that could potentially be low quality. Businesses will also want to ensure that everyone who needs to take the course has completed it, and this demands a solid tracking system.

In cases of professional qualifications and CPD, learners may need a recognised qualification at the end and these usually require a paid-for course.

When it comes to bespoke, niche and business-specific courses, organisations are likely to have to pay someone to develop the training for them.

Furthermore, if you need to record completion of a course, this is likely to involve some form of payment, whether this means buying a whole course or just a tracking system.

What are the benefits of paid-for learning?

For learners, the benefits include that the course is quality-assured and therefore more likely to be recognised and worth something. There is often more choice in this area too, given that the course developers are being funded. The fact that it costs something also means that learners are likely to be more committed to seeing the training through to completion.

While paid-for courses will make a dent in an organisation’s budget, there are also plenty of benefits for the company purchasing the training. Again, quality assurance means that the training will be of a good standard, and you’re not wasting employees’ time on a course that won’t be of any help.

Centralised reporting means completion is easy to track, and companies’ learning and development teams can ensure that people are doing the learning they want them to do.

Businesses are also able to align the courses closely with their needs, goals and strategic aims, ensuring that learners are getting what they need to best maximise organisational potential.

By Judith Clarkson, Health and Social Care Director