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You Want Me to Pay for Learning?!

I am fan of open education and have also written quite a bit here on free learning experiences that are available over the Web. On the other hand, I’ve made my living for more than a decade with companies that charge for learning experiences, and before that taught at a university that also charged for learning experiences. Lately I have also become fascinated with large number of subject matter entrepreneurs selling online courses.

So I have started to wonder, if you want me to pay for learning (or, conversely, if I want to charge for an educational offering), what are the conditions that make it possible I will be willing to pay? In my opinion, the learning provider has to offer at least one of the following:

  • Facilitation
    Someone is actually there to help guide the learning experience by doing things like posting new and relevant materials periodically, leading and participating in discussions, and answering questions.
  • Curation
    I’ve posted a couple of times recently about the digital curator concept. Curation, to me, means that someone has made the effort to bring together otherwise fragmented and dispersed learning materials into a coherent form. This has to be more than simple aggregation. Curation should be done with an eye towards ensuring quality, consistency, relevance, and usability.
  • Credentialing
    The learning provider is able to offer credit, a certificate, a certification, or some other form of credentialing that has recognized socio-economic value. Colleges and universities do this. So do many associations. Success in this arena is highly dependent upon brand (see below)—which often comes from delivering facilitation and curation well over an extended period of time.
  • Convenience
    Is the provider able to make access to the learning experience significantly easier than it is for the available alternatives? Are there value-added services like handling submission of credit to an accrediting body, giving me a way to build and manage an online transcript or personal learning portfolio, or bundling in tools that are directly relevant to what I will learn?
  • Uniqueness of Content
    Is the learning content offered something I simply cannot get elsewhere? In a digital world, this distinction is getting harder and harder to maintain for learning objects, i.e., articles, books, videos, on-demand learning modules. Even if you can fight off piracy, and even if you operate in a relatively small niche, chances are high that other smart people will produce competing content objects sooner rather than later. A better source of unique content these days is in the community-generated content that springs up organically around learning objects. This may take the form of discussion forum postings, wiki pages, or reviews and ratings, for example. The success of paid membership sites like Teaching Sells is highly contingent upon the value of the community content generated within them.
  • Brand
    I’m less and less sure about this one. In many ways it is just the residual of doing one or more of the above well over time. Or it is built on the provider’s personal or institutional reputation as an expert. Given the level of expertise it is now possible to access online for free, this distinction seems increasingly shaky. Still, I’ll keep it in the mix for now.

Certainly none of the above conditions require that learning be paid for by the learner. But it seems to me the growing availability of free and open learning content makes it increasingly less likely a learner will be willing to pay without one or more of these conditions in place. In most cases, I am betting more than one of these conditions will need to be met.

What do you think?

If you are an individual learner, how important are the above conditions and are there other conditions you look for before being willing to lay out cash for a learning experience?

If you are an individual learning content provider or represent an organization that provides content, are you finding any of the above conditions more important than others? Or are there others that need to be listed here?


About the Author Jeff Cobb

I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.

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Leave a Comment:

Jeff Cobb says

Thanks for the comment, Don. Kevin Kelly (and Chris Anderson) were definitely among the influences on this post. I look forward to reading your review. – Jeff

Don Frederiksen says

Thank you for these great ideas. I have been thinking about the business of learning trying to explore this type of new thinking for business models. Coincidentally, I find some interesting intersections when I compare your concepts to the writing of Kevin Kelly, re Better than Free. I recently reviewed his work on my blogs, http://intersectable.com/2009/07/21/edge-better-than-free-by-kevin-kelly.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on these intersections which I feel significantly validate your ideas around convenience, facilitation, and convenience.

Jeff Cobb says

Hi Michele–Thanks, as always for adding great thoughts to the conversation here. With respect to the next waves of adopters, I’m not sure if I follow where you are going. Are you saying they will not require these kinds of conditions to be met in order to be willing to pay? Or that they simply won’t be willing to pay for anything online? –Jeff

Michele Martin says

As always, Jeff, a very thought-provoking post. I agree with everything you’re saying here and for early adopters of online technologies, I think these are right on. But I think that the early adopters are more DIY about learning and therefore require these other conditions to be met in order for them to be willing to pay. I’m not sure that this applies to the vast majority of people, who have learned through years of school and work that they should be provided with some kind of structured learning activity and that these activities cost money.

I think, for example, of how early adopters have been so enamored of creating PLEs and PLNs, which assumes a certain degree of self-direction in learning. However, most of the people I know who are starting to get online for learning still have very much of a “course” model in their heads where they’ve paid for units of learning and I’m not sure they have the same understanding and expectations of the free stuff that’s out there.

I think that all of your points are well-taken for a certain segment of the online population, but I’m not so sure that the next wave will have the same requirements.

nicheguru says

I fully agree with your views. I too am a big fan of open source learning and would like to see more of it.

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