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Are You Putting Limits on Learning? The Truth About “Free” L&D!

Patrick Burns 

August 21, 2019

I’ll always remember Christmas 1996. After endless, painful months of waiting, my brother and I finally received the gift we’d been longing for.

That morning, we got our hands on a brand new PlayStation. And it felt like life would never be the same again.

A Glimpse of the Future

What a moment! Suddenly, we had the power to play incredibly good computer games without having to leave our living room. No longer did we have to listen enviously to stories of our friends’ on-screen adventures. Now we had the cutting-edge kit: a vast built-in memory, CD-quality music, 3D graphics…

For once in life, the reality more than lived up to the expectation.

The only problem was, we couldn’t afford any games. Even if we pooled our allowances, it would take us months to save up for anything new.

Playing for Free

But what we did have was “Demo One.” This was the CD that came in the PlayStation box, containing sample versions of about 20 games. And it was great. If you ask anyone from my generation, there’s a good chance they’ll go glassy-eyed when they reminisce about their “Demo One” disk.

I genuinely loved the variety and potential offered by those scaled-down games. They kept my brother and me engaged and excited for months.

Thankfully, we did get hold of new, full-version games eventually, and we saw what our PlayStation could really do!

But I’ll always remember “Demo One.” And I often think about it when I’m talking to prospective clients – particularly if they mention Learning Experience Platforms (LXPs), or say that their people can just search for what they need online.

Because both of those approaches tell me that they’re limiting themselves to cut-down, disconnected, “demo disk” learning.

Free L&D?

“Free” L&D can – like my beloved “Demo One” – be extremely appealing. It beckons to the battle-weary HR leader, sick of being criticized for falling engagement levels and underused resources. On offer: a very modern-looking technology solution from Silicon Valley. (It likely has a cool logo, too.)

But if that leader looks a little closer, they’ll soon see why they’re not paying much for this stuff – if anything. In L&D, as in the rest of the life, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

So, how do these “bargain bucket” providers do it? They use five key techniques – all of which come with warnings attached:

1. Open Source Content

When an LXP takes you into the farthest reaches of the internet, or scoops up user-generated content to share around, who’s testing its quality?

Everyone who uses it should try to check it for accuracy, authority and relevance. But we all know that’s not going to happen.

And when the learners in your organization don’t know what they’re going to get, or how good it is when it arrives, they’ll struggle to engage. As a result, there’s very little chance of them building up the cohesive body of knowledge and skills they need.

2. Advertising

If a company can create content that achieves good SEO traffic, it can make its money from advertising. Unfortunately for readers, the adverts are likely to become more and more intrusive – which is a particular problem when you’re trying to learn.

Ads can also devalue the text they sit in. Serious, relevant subject matter quickly loses its credibility when seen alongside gaudy, flippant advertising.

Some sites even interrupt you with ads mid-flow. “Sorry to bother you, but would you mind answering a few questions from our sponsor?”

For me, personalized ads are the most distracting of all. If I’m investing time to develop myself and my career, I really don’t want to be reminded about the car, holiday or cleaning product I searched for six months ago!

3. Donations

However politely you’re asked to contribute, and however worthy the cause, this is another approach that just doesn’t support good learning.

It’s hard to commit fully to a service that keeps telling you it needs more money to stay in business.

Donation requests can disrupt your train of thought – especially when you’re already pushed for time.

They’re also constant reminders that your company hasn’t provided you with a high-quality, properly paid-for resource.

4. Paywalls

Some L&D sites tempt you in with free material, then shut you out just when things are getting interesting! That’s fair enough if you’re a public consumer – but not if it’s your company providing you with such limited access to learning.

It dampens your enthusiasm and disrupts your plans. Every time you hit the paywall, you feel like you’re banging your head against a… well, you get the idea!

5. Partners

Be wary of content that’s only free if you agree to receive marketing messages – not just from the learning provider, but also from their myriad commercial partners. In my book, L&D shouldn’t feel like a shopping trip!

Once again, high-quality learning will be hampered if you’re constantly being prodded to look, reply – and buy – elsewhere.

Demand More!

Thinking back to 1996, my brother and I were remarkably understanding. We knew that our parents had pushed themselves to buy the PlayStation, and we patiently stuck with our sample disk until we finally got the “real thing.”

However, the people in your organization probably won’t be so forgiving!

LXPs are still in their infancy. New sources of free content are springing up all the time. Maybe people need to play “Demo One” a bit longer before the message fully hits home.

But, leave it too long, and I’m convinced that the problems caused by cut-price learning will take their toll.

Short Term Gain, Long Term Pain

It’s something I’m passionate about. It’s also an increasingly regular conversation point with clients. Money’s tight, targets are tough. They’re under pressure to help everyone to learn and grow. But they can just point their people toward the cool logo, and the free resources, can’t they?

No, is my answer, loud and clear. You can do so much better – for all the reasons above, and based on everything else I’ve learned, from my PlayStation days onward.

You may be saving cash by providing entry-level access to learning. But, in the long run, you and your people will pay the price of sticking with “demo disk” L&D.

Patrick Burns is Mind Tools’ Enterprise Accounts Manager for North America.

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