What are the five big problems with ‘free’ content?

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There are many hidden costs to using free content as part of your business’s learning solution - see the five key ones below.

Most of us take advantage of freely-available resources on a regular basis – whether it’s taking a quick refresher on uploading an image to a Word document or a step-by-step guide on how to change a tyre.

While on the one hand I acknowledge just how helpful this freely available content can be in the moment of need, choosing freely-available content as a suitable wholesale solution for enterprise-wide learning programmes can be a costly mistake for an organisation in today’s context. Why is this the case?

There are many reasons, but I’ll concentrate on just five:

#1 The need for careful curation

Curation is essential to the success of any learning programme. It ensures not only that the learner’s and the organisation’s development goals are in harmony but, importantly, that they are being adequately addressed through learning plans.

When organisations use free content as their primary pedagogical tool, there is a heavy demand on internal curation competency and resources. The curation responsibility will end up falling to either the learner or the L&D professional.

Learners view curation as burdensome. They are forced to use precious time (which has a significant opportunity cost) to sift through a mountain of freely-available material in order to find that one resource that truly addresses the learning need.

And given that employees have 1% of a typical working week available to focus on training and development, this “misuse” of their scarce time has negative consequences on the amount of learning that can occur.

Curation is also time intensive for L&D teams and the more free content an organisation leverages, the more resources and time must be dedicated by L&D to the activity of curation. In fact, in the 2015 Bersin by Deloitte Corporate Learning Factbook, curation was named as the fifth highest allocation of time. The heavy use of free content significantly adds to this already heavy burden.

#2 Content rigor and relevance

The skills crisis is a very real and global concern. A recent study from PwC called ‘Redefining Business Success in a Changing World’ found that 72% of CEOs are concerned about the availability of key skills.

To tackle this very serious workforce development challenge, HR cannot afford to rely primarily upon free, ‘unregulated’ content over content sourced from a trusted provider of training and development solutions. Free content is not guaranteed to be rigorous, relevant, accurate, objective, free of bias and up-to-date.

Free content is unlikely to meet the accessibility standards that most companies mandate.

Training and development content providers need to be able to guarantee that their material is all of those things. Such providers collaborate with experienced and credentialed subject matter experts who continually perform thorough and unbiased research on their selected topic/s, thereby ensuring that learners are getting the most authoritative and up–to-date content.

This ensures that they receive the proper training and development that is so critical for acquisition of the skills so desperately needed in today’s workplace.

#3 Lack of effective instructional design

Neuroscientists are now able to use fMRI and EEG imaging techniques to advance our understanding of how the brain operates when learning from training and development content. This research can heavily influence how to design and develop training content that maximises the absorption, retention and application of material that has been learned.

What this research is highlighting is the importance of specific assessment regimens, unique instructional design approaches and the inclusion of application tools such as job aids. Without the incorporation of these elements, it’s less likely that learning will actually stick and then be applied on the job.

Free content often lacks any form of assessment, does not optimise on instructional design and most of the time has few, if any, supplementary resources for reinforcement.

#4 Job-alignment and other requirements including localisation and accessibility

A corporate-wide learning programme needs to be aligned to employees’ goals and requirements, cultural objectives, and the corporate strategy – and do so in a consistent and effective way.

International organisations need to provide consistent training across the globe and that content must often be localised in multiple languages. A montage of free resources all in English will not meet this need, and free content is unlikely to meet the accessibility standards that most companies mandate.

Free content that is available today may not be there the next time a learner needs to access it.

Moreover, free content is harder to align with consistency to specific job roles or desired competencies, which might ultimately have a detrimental effect on employee performance and, ultimately, business execution against critical objectives.

Given the large number of job roles and competencies that exist in any organisation, it is an impossible challenge to find freely available content that is consistent across all those roles and competencies, with respect to content coverage, depth, degree of contextualisation, quality and instructional technique.

#5 Ongoing maintenance

Finally, free content that is available today may not be there the next time a learner needs to access it. Even if L&D departments take the time to curate free content for employees, there is no guarantee that that content will be available in the future.

L&D teams cannot directly control the source of the free material. This ‘availability problem’ can lead to hours of work lost when an essential piece of content is unpublished or removed without notice and advanced notice is rarely provided, resulting in learners feeling caught by surprise and without a solution in a moment of need.

Most L&D departments have constrained resources and do not have the time to check the ongoing validity of web links to every learning asset on a daily basis. Also if employees continually attempt to access free materials that have been removed or altered unexpectedly, they may give up using learning resources altogether, which has huge costs to the organisation.

It is true that the ‘free’ of leveraging free content for training and development is tempting. However, for areas such as leadership, business skills, compliance and IT, and when development programmes and solutions need to be delivered comprehensively and consistently to an entire organisation, free just doesn't cut it.

When you add up all the hidden costs of ‘free’ – including curation resource requirements, the inability to align development content effectively to job roles and competencies, a lack of assessment and other elements that ensure retention and application – free starts to look pretty expensive to the organisation.

About Heide Abelli

Heide Abelli

Heidi Abelli, Senior Vice President of Content Product Management at Skillsoft 

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26th May 2018 04:13

Great, nice reading! I have visited Skillsoft and learn a bit about it. I do agree with you. But if it's only for personal learning materials, free content is good by the way. However, searching really good free content on the internet takes time.

I'm going to find out more what Skillsoft is and wot it's really good for improving talents in an organization or company. Can you tell me more about how should a good content for human resource in a company?

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15th May 2018 21:35

Nice article with some key points around using free content. Thank you.

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