It's a very strange time. On the one hand, we have the pandemic and extreme political and societal unrest. In many ways (I'm looking at you, Facebook), the internet hasn't helped and has instead fanned the flames. But the internet is also making it possible for many of us to make it through this New Normal dumpster fire with a degree of moderate success.
One area where the internet is enabling and empowering is education. Previously, we showed some of the best learning management systems that allow universities, colleges, businesses, and organizations to manage the process of learning, from attendance to grading to interacting with students. That was essentially about how to manage the process of learning.
This article is about the learning itself. Below, we spotlight a baker's dozen of online learning platforms. There are literally hundreds of these things out there -- online services with large libraries of instructional material. Rather than try to present to you an exhaustive list, we decided to touch on some of the best and most representative of a wide variety of services and platforms.
Speaking personally, I've been an avid consumer of online learning resources since online learning began. Back in the dark ages when I studied for my engineering degree, we didn't have anything resembling the internet. But the library had a large collection of videotaped courses (on reel-to-reel tape!), and I found myself watching as many courses as I could, on top of my regular course load. When online video became practical, services like Lynda.com started to flourish, and I was there as well.
Back then, the online learning platforms tended to sell courses a la carte. Today, most online learning platforms sell all their courses for a single monthly fee, which means it's now possible to subscribe to a few services and have access to more educational resources than you can possibly consume in a lifetime.
I hope the availability of all this amazing information excites you as much as I do. We may live in a world where there's a pandemic but also where vast sources of knowledge are a click away -- and some are even free.
From 1995 to 2017, LinkedIn Learning was known as Lynda.com, named after its founder, Lynda Weinman. I'm starting with LinkedIn Learning because so many of us have taken courses from Lynda.com over the years. In 2015, LinkedIn (then a standalone company) bought Lynda.com. A year later, Microsoft bought Linkedin.
LinkedIn Learning leans heavily into technical and web development topics. The company reports over 600 coding courses, and a total of more than 2,100 courses on the topics of design, web development, and photography. The company also offers more than 1,200 business-related courses.
If you pay month-by-month, pricing is $39.99 a month, but if you buy a year, you're paying effectively $26.99 per month. Ouch. Since we last looked at LinkedIn Learning a year ago, the price went up by a full 33%! There are also team programs available. If you're affiliated with a college or university, check because two universities I work with provide free access LinkedIn Learning courses as part of student and faculty interfaces.
- Deep selection of professional development courses
- Often excellent instructors
- Acces free through many colleges and universities
- Some product-specific course are out-of-date
- Individual user pricing increased a lot
- Not for K-12 and traditional college subjects
Online and university courses for free (sort of)
Coursera is essentially a distribution channel for university courses. The company partners with a wide range of universities and distributes courses from those institutions online. The big advantage of Coursera is that you can audit classes taught by some of the best instructors at some of the best schools for free.
This works because of Coursera's business model, which can be hard to fully understand. Fundamentally, if you want to listen and watch on your own, it's free. But if you want grading, interaction with instructors, and any form of credential ranging from certificates to actual accredited degrees, you have to pay up. It's a great opportunity for learning, but if you're looking for a piece of paper, you might want to shop around -- although you may well still end up going through Coursera. Degree pricing is steep, but nothing like in-person pricing.
- Astonishing amount of university courses available for free
- Taught by university professors and instructors
- Very wide list of participating universities
- If you want certificates, diplomas, or other confirmation of learning, it gets expensive
- Limited selection of online degrees
- No online doctoral-level degrees
The math of Khan
Khan Academy started on YouTube in 2008 by Salman Khan, who created a set of math-related courses for family members. It's a non-profit which offers all of its classes (now more than just math) for free. Funding has come from Google, billionaire Carlos Slim, AT&T, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
While math is certainly a focus, Khan Academy offers classes in the arts and humanities, science, economics, programming, reading, language arts, and even personal finance. Of special interest to homeschoolers, Khan Academy has special curriculums by grade level, and even includes a wonderful "get ready" series where students can prep for the grade they're going into. Khan Academy also has college test prep programs as well. And it's all free.
- Free, free, free...and free!
- Get Ready series can be hugely helpful
- Great place to come up to speed on math
- Somewhat limited professional development selection
- Great learning for K-12, but not actual K-12 classes
- Hard to find any real cons for Khan
Crowdsourced education with a business model
Skillshare is a lot like a Medium, but for classes. Like Medium, anyone can contribute. But also like Medium, there is some degree of content curating, allowing higher quality material to surface to the site's promotional pages. Anyone can be a teacher at Skillshare, but until a teacher has 25 students, they're not paid.
When I reached out to Skillshare for clarification, I was told: "One point we want to emphasize is that only those who meet our quality standards can teach on the platform. In the past few years, Skillshare has implemented a rigorous grading system, removed many low-quality courses, and has rolled out 'Staff Picks' to highlight some of the most popular content."
The corporate spokesperson continued, "Skillshare is both an open platform (where anyone who meets our quality standards can teach) and a publisher of original content (aptly named Originals). An advantage of Skillshare's open model platform is the ability to keep a pulse on the types of content the community is creating and watching. This enables Skillshare to better predict future topics and courses that will be in demand."
Classes are focused on three main segments: Create, Build, and Thrive. Create classes include art, music, photography, writing, animation, and various maker skills. Build is about business building, so you find courses on analytics, entrepreneurship, and marketing. And Thrive is about lifestyle and productivity.
Skillshare wins our Holy Cow, Batman Award for Stupendous Price Increases. There are some free classes (these help new teachers build up student followers). But, since we last looked at Skillshare in September 2020, the main program jumped from a $9.99-per-month plan by 3x to a $32/mo plan. You can save a few bucks by buying a whole year at $167.88 (which works out to $13.99/mo).
Finally, I have to criticize Skillshare for hiding their pricing. You have to first create an account to be able to see current pricing. Hiding pricing until after a user signs up is unacceptable. Period.
- Some courses, if you can separate the wheat from the chaff, are great
- Instructors bring personal life learning experience to their subjects
- Good selection of skills-based courses
- They go out of their way to hide pricing
- Enormous price increase over recent years
- Mixed bag of quality, almost anyone can sign up to teach
Home-grown courses, served up a la carte
Next up is Udemy, and after that, we'll look at Udacity. These two are so similar-sounding, it can be confusing. However, they're quite different. Udemy, which we're talking about here, has shorter, more casual courses on a wide range of topics. Udacity offers more in-depth courses but with a deeper dive.
Udemy reports it has 150,000 online video courses on topics like design, development, marketing, IT and software, personal development, business, photography, and music. Instruction is essentially crowd-sourced, in that just about anyone can become an instructor and upload a class. Pricing is different for each course. For example, the APIs: Crash Course is $24.99, while Modern React with Redux is $12.99 (but apparently lists at $19.99).
There is also a business plan that lets a certain number of team members view an unlimited number of a subset of the course library.
- Very wide range of courses
- Courses sold individually at mostly reasonable prices
- Limited instructor vetting
- No "all you can eat" pricing
- Course quality widely varies
Earn nanodegrees (which are not actual degrees)
The audacity of Udacity's big conceit is that they offer "nanodegrees." Now, be careful. I searched the entire site and all I found was this, buried in the FAQ: "Udacity is a private online education provider that is not accredited and does not confer any degrees." Essentially, nanodegrees are Udacity-branded certifications. It's certainly something you can put on your resume. Just don't expect a hiring manager to give it equal credence to a formal degree.
So, that said, what does Udacity offer? They offer a lot of varied tech training, organized into programs. One way they describe themselves is "bootcamp quality at 1/10 the cost," and with a wide range of hands-on courses, that's not a bad view of it. However, what Udacity offers that a lot of online learning platforms don't is access to a mentor, who can help guide students through courses and answer questions.
Finally, Udacity also offers an enterprise program. The program allows for bulk onboarding and prescriptive course planning, tailoring their offerings to your company's needs.
- Bootcamp-style programs
- Onboarding and planning support for enterprises
- Access to mentors to answer questions
- Nanodegrees are not degrees
- They market themselves as offering "degrees" but aren't accredited in any way
Technology and business courses, with a special emphasis on compliance
Skillsoft is a courseware provider that's been around since the late 1990s. According to Forbes, the company has 2,400 employees (or did in 2014). Unfortunately, in June of 2020, Skillsoft entered Chapter 11, "to significantly reduce debt and position the company for long-term success." They did, however, complete their restructuring, so we're hopeful they'll keep running successfully.
The company offers 1,102 leadership and business courses on 41 subjects, 7,151 technology and developer courses on 67 subjects, and 2,747 compliance courses on 38 subjects. Clearly, if you're dealing with compliance-related issues, this can be a good resource for you. I haven't seen that depth of compliance education anywhere else. The company even has a series of classes on learning remotely. Finally, the company has team-oriented programs for businesses, as well.
- Sone excellent career-specialized instruction
- Deep compliance training
- Team-oriented programming
- Company has a history of financial trouble
- Limited courses outside of tech industry interests
Online learning with a hard focus on IT topics
What I like a lot about ITProTV is represented in its name: it's intended for IT pros, pure and simple. You're not going to have to slog through art or music courses or basic "how to do backups" courses. If you want to understand Six Sigma, this is your place. If you want to dive deep into AWS, this is your place. If you're concerned about big data or governance, this is your place. If you're a new IT pro (or you want to get into IT), there's an IT fundamentals series that can get you going.
Courses are sold in all-you-can-eat form for a monthly or yearly fee. You can have access to all the courses for $29 per month or add $20 for practice tests and virtual labs. Take this from a guy with a Masters in Education who had to write entire papers on learning retention: You want the practice tests and labs. Practice tests trigger the concept of observable behavior, which helps you evaluate your skills and drives learning "stickiness." Labs are a form of constructivism or learning by doing. My experience shows that hands-on experience is absolutely essential to building an employable skill.
There are business plans as well, but I recommend you go to the site, set up an account, and start with the IT Starter Pack, a library of about 65 hours of training, for free.
- That free starter pack
- All IT, all the time
- Practice tests and labs
- Practice tests and labs are extra cost
- Not much for beginners
- Definitely not for K-12 STEM courses
Online courses produced by prestigious university partners
edX is a non-profit organization that produces massively open online courses (MOOCs) at the university level. It was originally created at MIT and Harvard and reports 33 million students and something above 3,000 courses. The organization provides courses produced by more than 150 schools. Some additional non-profit organizations and even corporations offer some courses on the platform.
Most courses are free, but many offer a fee-based completion certificate in the $100 to $200 range. There are so-called micro-degree programs (which, as we discussed earlier, are like degree programs in that they include the letters "d-e-g-r-e-e" in their name, but not in that they are not, in any way, degree programs).
edX does offer some legitimate Bachelor's and Master's degrees online, some of which are actually astonishing deals. Georgia Institute of Technology offers a Masters in Cybersecurity for a total of $9,920, or about $3,300 per year -- which is ridonkulously inexpensive for an accredited Masters from a school as well known as Georgia Tech.
- Many free courses
- Relatively low-cost completion certificates
- That insanely low-priced Masters from Georgia Tech
- Another program touting fake degrees
- Somewhat incoherent mix of classes and programs
- No programs offer accredited online PhDs.
Have you seen who's teaching these classes? Wow!
The conceit (and it's a darn good conceit) of MasterClass is you get to take online lessons from the very best in their field. Filmmaking from Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and David Lynch, for example. Jazz from Herbie Hancock. Comedy from Steve Martin. Music for Film by Danny Elfman. Dan Brown on writing thrillers. Margaret Atwood on creative writing. David Sedaris on storytelling and humor. The list goes on and on.
MasterClass courses used to be sold as individual courses, priced in the hundred dollar range. In the last year or so, that changed. For $180 per year (that works out to $15/month), you gain access to the entire library.
My wife and I bought a subscription this year, and so far I've watched the incomparable Doris Kearns Goodwin teach a course on the presidents, Aaron Sorkin (who is far more boring than his characters) teach about screenwriting, Ken Burns teach about documentary filmmaking (and the backstories on some of those are amazing), and campaign strategy taught by Turd Blossom* and David Axelrod.
*Just the idea that Karl Rove (President George W. Bush loved giving out nicknames, and Rove's was Turd Blossom) who masterminded most of W's political career, and David Axelrod, who was President Obama's chief campaign strategist, taught this course together was fascinating enough. It was a complete treat for a politics nerd like me.
OK, so here's how to think about MasterClass. Courses are hits and misses, but the hits are home runs. Remember that the work output of some of these amazing folks isn't necessarily the same as their teaching skills. That said, if you want to learn and experience some backstories, but aren't expecting to apply this to career growth, it's a great investment. I've had a blast with it, and I'm certainly going to try to convince my wife to let us renew for next year as well.
- World-class experts and celebrities teach their specialties
- Wide range of absolutely fascinating courses
- Quality production values
- More edutainment than education
- Great people don't always make for great teachers
- Some topics more shallow than you might expect from their promotion
UC Berkeley Extension
College courses taught with high academic standards
Many colleges and universities offer extension courses. The idea of extension courses began way back in 1867 when a University of Cambridge professor began offering a course to students who were not enrolled full time. Extension programs grew to be a way for employed adults to take university-level classes without having to be full-time on-campus students.
The UC Berkeley Extension is one of many college and university extension programs. I'm spotlighting it here as an example of the genre because I had the honor of teaching there for more than a decade. The UC Berkeley Extension offers a wide range of courses and certificates. Courses almost always bestow college credit which can be applied to a degree program at a later time.
Most of my students were in the San Francisco Bay Area when I started teaching, but over the years more and more of my students were in locations all over the world. If you want to grow your career and do it affiliated with an excellent school, consider extension classes and definitely take a look at those at Berkeley. Go Bears!
- Extension courses designed to meet career needs
- Very high quality instructors
- College-credit available worldwide
- The UC Berkeley name
- Subject areas come and go based on perceived demand
- Courses could benefit from more video-based lectures
Ideas worth spreading
No discussion of online learning would be complete without a spotlight on TED. Although TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences have been held for the technology, entertainment, and design elite since 1990, TED Talks have been available online since 2006.
Topics are all over the map, but they are universally fascinating and thought-provoking. They are almost exclusively given by subject-matter experts steeped in their field, and in many cases encapsulate years of research and analysis into a tight 15- or 20-minute talk.
I sometimes find TED Talks to be the intellectual equivalent of kitten and puppy videos: You can watch them and watch them and watch them and get happily lost in front of the screen for hours. Just as much yapping, but not nearly as much fur.
- Absolutely fascinating topics
- Most lectures short and tight
- That signature TED style
- That signature TED style
- Some topics hit or miss
Absolutely everything, including the kitten and puppy videos
I'll let you in on a secret. YouTube has everything. But it's not just the kitten and puppy videos and weird stunts. YouTube has a vast array of educational content, with folks of all kinds sharing some amazing information. Much of the DIY knowledge I've picked up has come from watching others demonstrate techniques on YouTube.
But here's the secret within the secret. I also used YouTube when working on my graduate degree, because there were often concepts explained with great clarity on YouTube that were opaque in textbooks. I often found that student projects intended to showcase their grasp of knowledge wound up helping me improve my grasp of the knowledge.
Last year, my wife and I upgraded to the $17.95 family plan for YouTube Premium, which eliminated all the pre-roll and interstitial ads. I have to say that it is a luxury, but it makes YouTube a much more pleasant experience.
Along with Wikipedia, I truly consider YouTube to be one of the Wonders of the Modern World. If you want to learn almost anything and are OK with having to sift through junk for the gems, there's great information here, and it's all free.
- Everything you ever wanted to know about anything ever
- Some instruction is incredibly useful
- Free, plus lots of puppy and kitten videos
- Completely ungated and unmanaged video content
- Some content is wildly incorrect
- Some content is downright horrible
How did we choose these online learning platforms?
As usual, when I create lists like this, I start with resources I'm familiar with and I'm proud to recommend. Then I broaden the list by asking folks I respect to make their recommendations. I also take into account those services that are considered leaders. For all these services, I look into what makes them tick, what makes them unique, strengths, and weaknesses, and how they compare in style and offering content.
Which is the right online learning platform for you?
Unlike most other products we look at in a single category, where you might buy one inkjet or laser printer and not need any more, courseware is subject to what you want to learn and how much time you have. I generally have somewhere between one and three learning subscriptions going at any given time -- and I consume them whenever I have free time.
That said, we presented courses that can help you meet a wide range of goals. If you want to pick up an online degree (an accredited degree -- heed our cautions in the article), there are a few places you can turn. If you want certifications, there are some other good choices. If you don't care about the credential, but need the knowledge, there are even more resources to look at -- including a few that focus on specific areas like IT or academics.
Then, there are the free offerings. Khan Academy, TED, and YouTube offer a wealth of information, and they're free. If you're not sure (or can't afford to) budget for a more premium paid service, there's a vast amount you can learn just from those three.
The bottom line is that it's both valuable and wonderful being a lifelong learner. These resources will open doors and open your mind. Enjoy.
If you've used any of these services, or have others you wish to recommend, please share in the comments below.
You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.