Trying to learn online for free? Make sure you have these 3 things

The hidden costs of free learning

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Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

I failed to learn a skill I strongly wanted and needed to by my set deadline.

Why? Because I tried to do it for free.

The consensus around online learning is that it’s almost always worth it to pay for courses given the relative value you get.

But I didn’t know how much harder it would be trying to do it for free.

So here are the extra costs you will incur if you’re trying to learn for free, and what you can do about them.

Students who paid for their online courses were 11 times more likely to complete them.

That was the result of two studies done by MIT and Harvard in 2015 and 2017.

After looking at hundreds of thousands of students and completion rates, they basically broke the students into 3 groups: Non-payers, Intenders, and Payers.

Non-payers, students who did not pay for courses, tended to have around a 5% completion rate.

Intenders, non-paying students that stated having a strong intention to finish the course, still only had around a 24% completion rate.

Payers, on the other hand, tended to have around a 59% completion rate.

Why? The generally held belief is that paying money means that you have skin in the game, and as a result, you want to extract that much more value from the course.

But I had just finished paying hundreds of dollars on another course to learn a related (but different) skill at the time, and I wasn’t as excited about that skill as I was about this one.

So I thought my interest would make me among the Intenders and I’d have a good shot at learning this skill. But it was trickier than it looks.

I likely failed because of 3 reasons: Organization, Structured challenges, and transformation.

There’s a quote that I heard about using Tableau (the program I wanted to learn) that I didn’t discover until I had invested hours into a useless dataset:

“Find data that’s like the type of data you work with on a regular basis to start with…”

Something as simple as that, a throwaway line that you would have found in a course, was something that would’ve helped me immensely. Which is indicative of the larger problem.

With a lot of paid resources, they’re taught by experts who know the subject matter for many years and in great detail.

This results in organizing classes in a way that allows the student to learn one concept at a time and in a manner that builds off of previously learned concepts.

As a result, there’s a structure that allows many of us to climb the steps of knowledge towards learning a skill.

This is one of the downsides to free content: an entire world of free resources and unstructured content is available to you. The problem is that often, it’s too much.

Search for an answer to a question, and you might get a dozen slightly different answers.

Sometimes, it’s not the basic, general, or beginner-friendly answer that’s at the top: sometimes it’s the answer using the hot new program or tool, especially in fields involving coding.

As a result, if you’re learning from Google, you might get a mish-mash of answers that may not guide you consistently towards learning a skill.

And that can be dangerous, as you’re starting to apply knowledge to solve problems.

One of the secondary effects of taking an organized course is that the assignments that you undertake have been thought out to be beginner-friendly.

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Part of the problem with learning with the free resources available is that you have no idea whether the problem you’re attempting to solve is something that you could do as a beginner.

This was one of the issues that compounded from disorganization. One of the things that I was trying to do required a different dataset, as it was tricky to try and do when missing certain values. But I didn’t realize that until I had invested far too much time and energy into the current problem, which burned me out on learning.

And searching through the internet for solutions that work is a poor long-term strategy.

Lastly, even if I had been able to figure out the problems that I was trying to solve, I’m not sure it would have had the impact that I had wanted to have.

One of my main motivations for online learning, like many people, was to level up my career. But that sort of transformation largely occurs when you’re not just able to complete one problem, but apply those skills to real-life issues as well.

So if you’re not getting any sort of certification for the course, you need to be able to show that you’ve been able to transform whatever information you’ve read into a method that you can use to create things or solve problems.

And while exploration is a great way to delve into many problems in-depth, it may not be the best way to create a standardized workflow for work purposes.

The studies that companies such as eDX, Coursera, and MIT Openware show that people are more likely to complete the courses if they pay for certification.

And it’s true, that there are multiple sources (and lots of data) to suggest that this sort of monetary investment is totally worth it.

But at the same time, not everyone can afford it, especially if you’re trying to learn multiple things at once.

So if you want to learn for free, the first step is usually to try and audit an online course or have external motivators (such as learning as part of a larger group).

Also, try to have some method of making sure that you have skin in the game. If you’re not paying for the course, perhaps set aside some money that you can’t touch until you complete the course. Or, have an accountability buddy that you have to summarize the course with.

If motivators such as skin in the game are the advantage that paying for course certificates, then take the chance to give yourself every advantage to complete courses.

Written by

Healthcare-focused UX designer and researcher. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning:

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