Harold Jarche had a great post If learning was free that raises questions that need to be continually asked by learning and development around the issues of Free.
In the Business of Learning, I compared publishing and learning. Big publishers are having problems as the cost of distribution goes towards zero and as that brings along a ton of competition from the low end. Learning as a publisher of courses, content, etc. is facing the same thing. There's a lot of other content out there.
How differentiated is the content that we produce from all of the Free Learning that's otherwise available? Is our content really that much better?
The typical response of large publishers is that their content is better. And yes, Britannica, New York Times, etc. that have paid, professional editors, writers are better quality than alternatives for the specific content that they cover. But all major publications have limitations in that because of the cost, they have to go after large audiences and they need to stay at higher level topics. They can't afford to go into depth in niche areas because the costs would be too high for the return.
Harold is drawing a parallel with Advertising. When you produce advertising for massive distribution on network TV, you can afford to spend a lot of time and money to produce the ads. However, when you begin to go after small, niche audiences, then low cost production becomes important. Harold tells us:
Anybody see a parallel here with instructional systems design or curriculum development? These processes take time and money and once the investment is made, nobody wants to do it again. Web media can be created quickly and, if designed in an open manner, can change according to the needs of learners and facilitators. For instance, we developed the Work Literacy site in about a week and at no cost. It was added to and modified by the participants. Everyone was an unpaid volunteer. Total cost: zero.
What Harold is raising is that there are going to be lots of free learning that is going to compete with our the more costly paid learning that learning organizations will continue to produce. Free learning can come from groups like Work Literacy that provided a large online learning experience for free, or from LearnTrends that produces amazing content like LearnTrends 2009 for free. It also comes from all the subject matter experts both inside and outside your organization that are continually producing content.
Free Learning may not be as high a quality – although I would claim that LearnTrends and WorkLiteracy filled niches. And sure if we spend time and money to produce courseware, it will be better than the stuff created by a subject matter expert with a rapid elearning tool. And there will continue to be times when the payback for better quality content will justify the cost. But …
The reality is that focusing our attention on publishing higher quality content – being at the high-end of materials – will mean that we are Marginalized. And let's not sugar coat this.
So rather than passing out clubs, we really need to embrace Free Learning:
Pull free learning together and deliver it into the organization. Help people find free learning that you've not yet aggregated. Teach people new learning skills. Leverage the actions that go along with free learning to add value back into the organization.