Last week I got an announcement for LinkedIn’s “Week of Learning”: thousands of courses were offered at no charge for a week. In the middle of the week, I got a reminder from LinkedIn that I had “four days left to learn for free.” I’ll admit it, the aggressive marketing had me wondering (for a moment!) whether I should drop everything and audit courses for the next few days.
We are at moment of learning overload. Many sites offer free or fairly low cost learning opportunities. How do we evaluate the value of these opportunities against our own time and money, which is our most valuable resource? Based on my knowledge of learning processes, here are some considerations:
- Models or templates can be valuable
As a consultant, I create a scope of work for each project. When I do a project that is significantly different from one I’ve done before, it is helpful to look at models or templates of how to structure the work. These models help me to think about what steps are involved, the time and cost for each and other considerations.
Online courses that lay out a step-by-step process for a skill—anything from project management to personal finance to meditation—can be valuable. These courses give us starting points to begin our learning.
- Learning demands practice
Imagine receiving an announcement for an online course that teaches how to play soccer…what would your response be? An online course might teach the rules of soccer, but could not teach us how to get out of the field and kick a ball. For that, we’d need to get on a field, have a ball, and start kicking it!
More effective online courses provide the opportunity to practice the thing we’re learning about. By practicing, we start to see the complexity involved, and that we need to make the right choices to be good at something. Courses that do not provide opportunities for practice are unlikely to impact our behavior too significantly…and deep learning involves behavior change.
- Learning demands feedback
Once we got out on the soccer field and started kicking the ball, we would see that certain kinds of kicks are more effective at moving the ball down the field. But we’d start getting a lot better if we had a coach to watch our form and critique it.
I have audited several online courses course with high quality content. But I often find myself unclear about how to apply the processes they describe to complex, real-life situations. For that, I work with a coach who is experienced enough to get into the nuances of improvement and learning.
- Takeaway: Consider Learning Goals
The value of online courses is connected to our own learning goals. If we don’t know anything about soccer, an online course on soccer could provide some high-level knowledge and enable us to hold an intelligent conversation about the rules. And it is unlikely to make us soccer stars!
Similarly: many online courses provide the opportunity to explore a topic or skill and know something about that topic or skill. If our goal is to become an expert in that area, we need practice and feedback from an online instructor or a real-life coach or mentor.