We’ve noticed a number of interesting developments in e-learning lately. Some have made a big splash, like the recent announcement of EDx by Harvard and MIT. Kahn Academy, Udacity, and TED-ED are among the other high profile initiatives based on a wealth of free content and business models yet to be fully determined.
On other, less obvious fronts, Social Media Examiner is currently running its fourth annual Social Media Success Summit, a virtual conference that attracts thousands of attendees and generates millions in revenue. Virtual conferences are becoming big business in a growing number of markets.
And the highly successful Teaching Sells program is about to open up again. With this program, Copyblogger Media founder Brian Clark has inspired a wave of paid membership learning communities over the past few years. These membership communities, however, are led by entrepreneurs – not by traditional membership organizations.
All of this suggests a sort of “second coming” of online learning, in our opinion.When e-learning first broke big more than a decade ago, there were a lot of questions about its validity and value as a form of education. And the technology was still too complex and expensive for many organizations. No longer. Anyone who has bothered to read the research knows that executed properly, online education can be as valuable or even more valuable than face-to-face. And the technology has become dramatically easier to use even as costs have plummeted. These days, an individual subject matter expert with a bit of ambition can teach a global audience.
One important point to note about the examples we’ve cited above is that free content plays an very important role in each, whether that means the core learning or as part the marketing strategy (and the line is often blurry). If there is a single dynamic driving this new wave of e-learing, it is “content attracts audience, audience provides options.”
You could argue this is simply the “get as many eyeballs as you can” craziness of the dot com era all over again, but this time around, the emphasis on quality is much higher. We are, after all, talking about Ivy League universities getting into the game. And the caliber of the content that groups like Social Media Examiner and Copyblogger use to build their audience is better than a lot of what people have paid for in the past. The audiences attracted by all of this free content are much more focused, engaged, and hungry for practical, useful guidance than the anonymous eyeballs of old.
Which leads to a fundamental question for any organization in the lifelong learning business: what’s our free content strategy?
What kind of immediate, practical value are you providing without charge and how does it pave the path to the greater value you offer? Free doesn’t necessarily mean giving away entire online courses. It can include high value blog posts, white papers, videos, podcasts, and a whole range of other approaches. As I’ve noted before, I think free content plays a particularly important role at the top of your accelerant curve. It also helps fill in the gaps between the experience for which your members and customers pay.
High quality free content, when offered consistently over time, attracts an audience – and it can reengage audiences (including membership bases) that are not as enthusiastic about run of the mill continuing education options as they once were.
Again, with an engaged audience, you have options. That may mean establishing niche learning communities, it may mean virtual conferences that rival the real thing, it may mean creatively leveraging the data generated by bringing large number of learners together. (The Udacity folks, for example, plan to connect their best students with corporate employers for a headhunter fee from the employers. When your courses attract 160,000 students, this becomes an option worth serious consideration.)
There is still a lot to be figured out in this new world of e-learning, but clearly the landscape has changed significantly, and with it, the rules of business will continue to morph as well. Stay tuned for our continuing thoughts on this important topic, but in the meantime, what are you struggling with when it comes to offering free educational content? What success have you had? Use the form below to provide your input and we will use it to shape future newsletter content.
Jeff & Celisa
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