30 High-Value Tips and Resources for Learning on the Cheap

Education on a BudgetIn the “new normal” of the global economy, many of us are wondering how best to continue learning without spending a ton of money.

Maybe we want to develop new skills that keep us employed or help us land that next job. Maybe we just want to stay sane and learn for the joy of learning. Either way, if you are like me, you probably don’t feel like you’ve got a lot of spare cash to lay out for expensive courses and conferences, or even things like books and DVDs.

So, with frugality in mind, I sat down and gave myself fifteen minutes to come up with as many ideas as I could for ways to go about learning on the cheap. Some of these have to do with resources, some of them have to do with habits. And most of them don’t cost a dime.

I know the list isn’t anywhere near exhaustive, so I hope you will chime in with your own ideas in the comments.

Here goes, with no particular logic to the order:

1. Search for free webinars and webcasts: Free webinars and webcasts are everywhere these days. The quality can vary greatly from one to the next, but the dedicated learner can usually get something worthwhile even out of the worst of them. For starters, check out Free Webinar News or look for free classes on WizIQ.

2. Take advantage of open educational resources: The amount of free educational content now available from top notch universities is simply astounding. Visit the Open Courseware Consortium site to find universities that offer Open Courseware, or check out FolkSemantic to search for more than 110,000 open education resources.

3. Start a conversation: That’s right – whether on the Web or off, simply having a good conversation can be one of the best ways to learn. Find someone with experience in a topic or skill you care about, or who has simply led an interesting life. Practice asking and listening first, and then practice it again.

4. Check in on offerings at your local community center: The Century Center here in my own native Carrboro, for example, has all sorts of things going on. Anybody up for digital photography on Thursday?

5. Check for talks at local schools, colleges, and universities: It’s amazing who might show up and talk for free. I recently caught the Sound Opinions guys here at UNC-Chapel Hill. If I ever abandon Mission to Learn, it will be to create the second rock n’ roll talk show.

6. Enroll in a community college course. If you have a community college near you, or a university with a continuing education division, check out what they are offering. This is one of the few items on the list that will cost you some money, but in my experience, you can really find some high-value learning experiences.

7. Check on offerings from nonprofits and associations: From your local Red Cross chapter to your local Chamber of Commerce, nonprofits offer some great educational opportunities at little to no cost. And some have caught on to doing it online. Check out a couple of my online favorites: GCF LearnFree and Wildlife University.

8. Spend a night – okay, make that an afternoon – at the museum: If you think museums belong in a …well, museum…think again. I think they are one of the most amazing learning resources going. Not just for exhibits, but often for great speakers, music, and interactive Web resources. Dial in to the big ones, like the Smithsonian, but also make sure you check out local offerings. And if you want learn more about the world of “Museum 2.0,” be sure to visit Nina Simon’s blog.

9. Check in, check out, check in at your local library: If you aren’t a card carrying member of your local library, get down there right now. Books, audio, programs – what’s not to love. And check out the massive digital collection at the Library of Congress site.

10. Watch a child: In the touchy-feely-no-I-wasn’t-at-Woodstock-but-boy-wouldn’t-that-have-been-something realm, just sit back and watch a kid for a bit. Especially one under the age of five. Witness the learning energy at work. You’ll learn something about human beings, and if you really pay attention, you might learn a thing or two about how to learn.

11. Tap into iTunes University: If you have an iPod, iTunes Univerity is really a great thing. For that matter, the general range of free learning content on iTunes, whether or not it is officially in the “university” is a great thing. Check out the podcast library at Open Culture for a wealth of direct links to iTunes podcasts and other podcast options.

12. Explore YouTube and other video sites: Not everyone has an iPod, but anyone with access to a computer and an Internet connection can get to YouTube. The possibilities there may not be endless, but they are moving rapidly in that direction. And don’t confine yourself to just YouTube. Check out sites like eHow, MindBites, Graspr, TeacherTube, Fora.tv, and TED.

13. Learn How to Learn: Before you get yourself lathered up into a frenzy of learning activity, you might want to spend a little time learning more about self-learning. Seems to me that’s one of surest way to make sure you get some bang for your (lack of) bucks. One good staring place is Jamie Littlefield’s Ultimate Self-Education Reading List. Or you may want to check out Study Hacks. It has a college focus, but also offers a lot that applies more broadly.

14. Subscribe to an eNewsletter: E-mail seems to have a bad rep these days, but there are any number of great free newsletters out there by people who want to teach you things. Maybe they want to sell you things, too, but as long as they aren’t pushy about it and provide some actual value in the newsletters, why not give it a shot. In nearly all instances, you can unsubscribe at any time. Naturally, I am a fan of Mission to Learn’s own Learning Monitor 😉

15. Set up an RSS listening post: Even if you don’t use an RSS reader for anything else, this is a good reason to give it a try. You can set up a variety of searches and pull then into a single convenient “dashboard.” See 10 Tools for Tracking a Topic or Issue for more on this

16. Take notes and review them: I’ve said my two cents about taking notes and revisiting them in previous posts, but this is a habit that bears highlighting again and again. It’s among the cheapest and most effective ways to ensure that your learning efforts are actually successful. For keeping up with notes online, you might want to have a look at Evernote.

17. Reflect: I’m working up a post on this one, but I have noted before that discipline is a trait we really need to develop as part of our learning efforts. One aspect of discipline, in my opinion, is consistently taking the time to reflect on our learning activities and the progress we are making. More on that soon, but in the meantime, Leo has some great thoughts on the power of reflection.

18. Start a book club: It’s been a while since I’ve been in a book club, but having been in good ones and bad ones, I know that if you can get the right group of people together to discuss a book, it can be a great learning experience. If you aren’t in a position to but together an in-the-flesh book club, try out a service like Library Thing.

19. Try out a social learning platform:  There are a range of platforms out there now that can connect you with experts, teachers and other learners for collaborative learning experiences. Some cost a bit of money, many are free. You might want to try BigThink or Sclipo, or check out 5 Free Web Tools for Learning a Language Collaboratively.

20. Maintain a healthy brain: If you want to learn well, you need to make sure the old central processing unit is in good shape. You might want to check out 5 Key Paths to Improving Memory as a starting point.

21. Start a monthly meeting of colleagues: I get together monthly with a small group of business colleagues in my area to discuss issues we are facing. The meetings are more or less formal, just depending on what has been planned for that month. They are always incredibly valuable.

22. Turn in a term paper in to yourself (and grade it!): Considering going old school and write something substantive, complete, and polished on a subject you really want to know more about. Then set the finished assignment aside for a week, come back to it, read it carefully, and give yourself a grade.

23. Start a blog: You don’t have to become the next TechCrunch, Mashable, or LifeHacker, but simply committing yourself to writing on a regular basis in a relatively focused way can be a tremendous way to learn. I advocate doing this publicly, as it helps add a degree of accountability, but you can also blog privately if you prefer.

24. Comment on blogs: Whether you write a blog yourself or not, taking time to comment meaningfully on other blogs can be a great way reach higher levels of learning. Of course, this means doing more than just “Great post! See my marginally related post at https://marginallyrelatedpost.com.”

25. Sign up for some promos: Brian Clark over at Copyblogger has been pounding the drum for the past year or so about “teaching sells” as a concept. More and more businesses understand that idea and are giving away great educational materials in an effort to build relationships with businesses and prospects. Maybe you are interested in buying, maybe you aren’t, but it may well be worth trading your e-mail address for some free learning.

26. Volunteer to give a speech: This can be a radical move, depending on your comfort with public speaking, but if you really want to get on top of a topic, sign yourself up to speak about it in front of a group of people! Local civic organizations, for example, are always looking for speakers. And check out the folks over at Speak America who are on a mission to help 1 million people find their voice.

27. Volunteer to write an article: Like speaking about a topic, putting yourself on the line to write something meaningful can be an excellent way to rev up the learning engines. In my experience, many small nonprofits and associations are always looking for potential newsletter contributors.

28. Attend virtually: Don’t have the cash to attend that conference in Honolulu? Find out what sorts of digital options are being offered. Many conference now have a Twitter “hashtag” that serves almost like a news ticker for the conference. And many publish on blogs, YouTube, Slideshare, and UStream among other options. I could do a whole post on this one. Just find a conference and poke around to see what the options are.

29. Find a mentor: Having access to someone who has traveled the path before you can be invaluable. You might consider using a service like Find a Mentor to connect with the right person. But also don’t be afraid to contact people in your local community who you respect. Most people are honored by the idea of providing advice and guidance to others. And maybe you’ll get lucky and find something like Seth’s MBA program.

30. Make a list at 43 Things: Create a list of learning goals at 43 Things. You don’t necessarily need to come up with 43, and one of the great things about this service is that others who share your goals can find you, or you can even invite others to join you. And if you choose to try blogging, you can put your list on your blog and even publish to 43 Things from your blog.

Bonus #31: Keep reading Mission to Learn: Didn’t really think I would leave that off the list, did you?

So, that’s my list. It took quite a bit longer than 15 minutes to write up, but the ideas themselves came really quickly. So what are some ideas you have? Please comment and share them!


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