Association eLearning vs Free Online Courses

There are a multitude of blogs and articles outlining the benefits of taking free online courses for professional development to advance your career, but do these courses actually deliver the value and opportunity they profess to provide to adult learners? Why should adult learners concerned with career development consider Association eLearning programs as providing superior value and career opportunities?

The following are the top reasons suggested to promote free, public online courses, such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course):

  1. Cost Efficiency: Lower costs of attendance and time-saving as a result of removing need to travel and ability to access content online at a time that suits the learner. Lower fees for learners due to the lower costs of delivering education online.
  2. Discovery: Ability to find a course that matches the learner's interests, and to discover new topics to expand their knowledge and skills in related fields or completely new areas of study.
  3. Convenience: Ability to access online courses at any time that is convenient to the learner, or to complete courses in the learner's own time, for self-paced learning.
  4. Opportunity: A major claim made about free online courses is that they create new opportunities for learners to advance their career, or enable a career move into a new or related field, as a result of the learner developing new skills and knowledge.

While three of these purported reasons to take free, public online courses are technically true, and also apply to Association eLearning, how valid is the claim that free, public online courses create career opportunities? Both free online courses and Association eLearning programs require a commitment in terms of the learner's time. Adult learners need to be able to determine which type of online education offering provides the most value for their time.  This Business Insider article titled Here's the Only Time When Online Courses Will Help Your Career asks "is it worth your time investment?". The answer:

"Online courses are only helpful for career advancement when the course-taker can demonstrate to an employer how the knowledge or skills obtained could apply to their job"

This idea of the ability to connect the relevance of online learning with real-life applications and benefits is one of the four key principles of andragogy as defined by Malcolm Knowles, which determine the successful design of education programs for adult learners. In terms of Knowles' principles of adult learning, how well do free, public online courses stack up in comparison to Association eLearning programs?


Experience should be at the root of all learning tasks and activities
This principle  ensuring that adult learners have the opportunity to participate in experiences that help to consolidate their learning, rather than assessing adult learners on rote learning or memorization. This could be accommodated in the design of both free online courses and association eLearning programs, by incorporating projects and exercises that enable the learner to apply what they are learning to create experience, and to learn from their mistakes.


Adult learning should be problem-centered, rather than content-oriented
Adult learners will want to see how their learning will help them to solve problems outside the learning environment. The instruction provided must not focus on the simple delivery of content, but instead offer opportunity for learners to actively practice what they are learning. This could be accomplished in both free online courses and association eLearning programs through activities and assessments that enable adult learners to analyze rather than memorize, and to repeat specific tasks to build experience and improve retention of their learning.


Adults must be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
Free, public online courses are designed to be attractive to the widest possible audience, and as such tend to be completed autonomously, be self-paced, and focus on more generic professional development or career skills, such as interview, presentation or communication skills. Learners are not usually involved in the planning of course content and though they may have the opportunity to provide feedback on the instruction received, this usually takes place after the course is completed. There is little opportunity for active involvement in course design.

Association eLearning programs are designed to apply to a specific audience within a clearly defined trade or profession, meaning that professional development content is designed to match the unique educational requirements of the learner's career or workplace. Associations are acutely aware of the changes and trends impacting members and professionals within their specific industry, and because associations are constantly in communication with their members, this communication and industry knowledge informs the design, content, and iteration of eLearning programs to ensure they are continually relevant and applicable to the learner's specific career requirements. Associations using a Learning Management Systems (LMS) for the delivery of online education programs can also analyze surveys, course evaluations and learner feedback, or review reports on learner participation, achievement, and purchase patterns to inform the design and updating of elearning content and assessments. This enables the learners to be both actively and passively involved in planning and evaluation of the instruction offered.


Courses should have relevance and real-life applications in order to have a beneficial impact on learner's lives.
This is where the intended audience of the online course or eLearning program will again influence both the course content and thus the learner's experience. Free, public online courses created for a diverse audience of interested learners from a wide variety of professional backgrounds will have limited relevance to specific individual's career goals. Even courses that are designed for a specific subject area are usually offered by online universities, which focus on a more academic understanding of the topic, than a practical application of knowledge which will help to advance the adult learner's career. Some of these courses offer a certificate of completion or continuing education credits, but often the certificate or credit is not available for free, requiring the learner to pay for this 'premium' education service.

Association eLearning programs certainly provide more value in terms of the relevance and beneficial impact on learners' careers. As Association education programs are designed specifically to help develop the learner's knowledge and skills relevant to their profession or trade, the content of these programs is based on real-life application of the instruction.  This is especially true in the case of online certification programs offered by associations, which are designed to provide verified qualifications to learners in a specific area of career specialization. In addition, Associations that use a Learning Management System (LMS) can also provide a categorized course catalog, complete training history, and descriptions of learning pathways for specializations or certifications, that allow the learner to clearly see how participating in a specific online course or curriculum will benefit their career or professional development goals.


So it seems that both the intended audience and the channel or platform through which the online learning is delivered can affect the impact of eLearning for the adult learner's career development. If we return to the quote above, it becomes clear that Association eLearning programs are helpful for career advancement, because the course-taker can demonstrate to an employer how the knowledge or skills obtained will apply to their job. In this way, Association eLearning programs are superior to free, public online courses where professional development and career opportunities are concerned.

Find out how a learning management system, such as TopClass LMS, could help your association to deliver relevant, impactful education programs to support your members's career development, and help your learners to see the benefit of association eLearning programs over free online courses.


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