Learning & Development, Technology

Pros and Cons of Using Free Training Resources

Technology has made the lives of many businesspeople easier than ever, which is clearly a good thing, especially in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. For learning and development (L&D) professionals, one of the challenges of a remote work environment is continuing to offer employees the training resources they need.

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But there’s a related opportunity, as well: Because employees have more time on their hands due to being closer to home, many are choosing to explore new learning opportunities of both personal and professional interest.

A wide range of options exist—many at low or no cost. In many cases, these options and opportunities can have significant benefits to employees, L&D professionals, and the organizations they work for. Here, we take a look at some pros, cons, and best practices when leveraging free training resources.

The Pros

Cost—free or low cost—is obviously one big benefit of a wide range of online training resources. The sheer volume and types of training offerings are another benefit.

Steve Beauchamp, CEO of Paylocity, says his company supports a culture where training and learning happen every day, anywhere, and by anyone. “We encourage our employees to use all resources at their disposal to help them learn and develop various skills, whether it’s to grow professionally, solve an immediate work problem, or just be better at their jobs.”

Paylocity has its own learning management system (LMS) system, says Beauchamp, but employees are also encouraged to use other platforms like LinkedIn Learning. With 50% of the workforce working remotely during the pandemic, he says, “We value creating a culture of learning experiences and fostering learning in all forms—in person, virtual, social sharing and through technology.”

A great benefit is that employees can find online training options for just about any interest they might have. The downfall of online training options, though, is how well those offerings can support a company’s L&D strategy and goals. In most cases, they don’t offer the specificity to meet company needs.

The Cons

While free training sources can be beneficial, Beauchamp says they are most beneficial when dealing with training for general soft or technical skills, like communication and problem-solving or coding and Excel®.

However, he says, “As we adapt to a new way of working in a remote environment, it’s important to have L&D programs focused on what employees and customers need now, to better utilize and engage with their workforce.” 

Because free online courses are developed to address general needs, the material may not be as specific as employees—or L&D pros—might hope. “Since Coursera is free, some courses might not be as interactive as employees would like,” says Grant Aldrich, founder and CEO of OnlineDegree.com. Therefore, he says, “It’s also good to provide supplemental materials so that employees can engage in the content and retain it better.”

A good way to get more out of these courses, he says, is to form discussion groups. “For instance, employees can have video calls and discuss what they’ve learned and ask questions each week. This can make the course learning more hands-on and memorable.”

A Hybrid Approach

Because of the inherent benefit and expanded access to training options, most feel that, despite some downfalls, the benefit of online offerings is definitely there and worth exploring, with some minor adjustments.

For instance, Gina Curtis, trainer/career coach for Employment BOOST and executive recruiting manager for JMJ Phillip Executive Search, notes that although free online training might be more generic than what your employees might need to meet organizational needs, it can provide a starting point or serve another purpose.

“Our company constantly uses free recruiter training videos to help our new hires to get a better understanding of the industry,” Curtis says. “This has been great to help give them a first glimpse into recruiting and help form an idea of what industry standards look like across the board. We then conduct follow up trainings to modify how our organization does things.”

A Case in Point

Right now, these offerings have particular advantages for organizations, says Johannes Heinlein, chief commercial officer at edX, a Coursera competitor. “As Americans increasingly worry about job security due to the COVID-19 pandemic, offering free training and development resources, including online courses, can help employees future-proof their careers as the market gets more competitive.”

Heinlein points to a survey that edX conducted last year, which indicated that one-third of respondents had experienced a lack of proficiency in at least one new skill or subject area of a position they’ve held. Perhaps not surprisingly, these employees indicated they felt their employers were responsible for providing this training.

Postmates is one example of a company that has partnered with edX to offer training to a specific part of its workforce: its Fleet members, a workforce of independent contractors who deliver on behalf of Postmates. The company began working with edX in August 2019 but scaled the program during COVID-19 and has seen increased participation. 

“We have received extremely positive feedback from our Fleet members about these course offerings,” says Rachel Kamen, community engagement coordinator for Postmates. “Not only are these courses helping Fleet members find jobs, but many have mentioned the positive impact this benefit has had on their lives overall.”

Best Practices

L&D professionals certainly can’t just abdicate their training responsibilities or replace their offerings with online options. However, they can leverage these options to help meet individual employee interests (both professional and personal) and augment their own offerings.

L&D pros should also carefully consider the value and incentive being offered to employees for enrolling in any type of training. Drew Remiker, director of learning experience design at NovoEd, says, “There’s nothing more frustrating to a learner than investing time and effort in learning new skills and not being able to apply them because what they learned is not relevant to their job. And for employers, critical business initiatives can be thrown off if employees are sent off to learn and they come back with the wrong skills.”

Working in concert with their managers, HR, and L&D professionals, employees can strategically consider the best option to meet all needs—both cost-effectively and from an organizational impact standpoint.

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