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

The hidden costs of free learning

Kai Wong


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.

The free conundrum

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.

Organization: The secret sauce

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…



Kai Wong

7xTop writer in UX Design. UX, Data Viz, and Data. Author of Data-Informed UX Design: Substack: