If it’s free, I’ll take three!

caucasian hand with wedding band holding up pinky, ring, and middle finger.
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Everyone loves free stuff! Myself included, especially when it comes to online courses.

My name is Frea Uys and I am a serial online course enrollee.

If you offer a free cohort-based online course that I find even remotely relevant to my job or personal development goals, I WILL sign up.

If it’s free, I’ll take three. 

Boromir from Lord of the Rings text post that reads, "One does not simply / Say no to free items"
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image courtesy of Memedroid

I usually have every intention of starting and finishing the course, but I rarely do. Life and/or work usually take priority above a course, especially if I didn’t pay for it. 

I take full responsibility for my flaky course behavior, but I am not alone here. According to a recent study from Columbia University’s Teachers College on EdX and Coursera courses, free online courses had a completion rate of less than 15 percent. 

This shocking statistic compelled me to do some digging – to get to the bottom of this low number and find out if I should give up on free courses altogether.

I found many reasons for poor course completion. I’m not going to go through all of them, so I’ve whittled the list down to the reasons I relate to the most:

Reason 1: Lack of motivation

These online courses require oodles of intrinsic motivation. If you’re not fully committed and there are no external consequences for dropping the course, you probably will.

Reason 2: Time commitment

Life gets busy, and as an adult, you usually don’t have any day left once you’ve handled all your responsibilities. Doing coursework rarely trumps making dinner for your family, preparing for your management meeting, or helping your child with their math homework. Well-designed courses usually require a lot of your time. There are assignments to submit, discussion forums to take part in, and sometimes even synch sessions to attend. 

Reason 3: It’s too difficult or too simple

Catering to a diverse group of people in any course is difficult. Everyone enrolled in your course won’t have the same experience or prior knowledge and you might find that the course isn’t pitched at exactly the right level for your learning goals. 

Reason 4: Poor course design

Not all online courses are created equal. If you sign up for a confusing course that’s difficult to navigate and hard to make sense of, you’re probably not going to be motivated to complete it. Lack of support is also a big theme here. Are you going to stick around if your answers about how the course works are left unanswered? 

They are not all bad though, so don’t be discouraged if you’ve happened upon some less-than-perfect courses. 

Reason 5: Just here for the learning

Often learning is more important than completing the course. You might get what you came for after the first week. Picking and choosing which content to consume and assignments to complete based on what you need is perfectly okay!

Despite all the dropouts, these free courses continue to exist. Thousands of students sign up every day. Universities, schools, course creators, and even businesses are offering really great learning experiences for free!

You can take a free Neuroscience course from Harvard University or even learn to speak Chinese!

Pretty neat, right?

But what’s the catch here? 

Why are these courses offered to us so freely? 

And are they any good?

The science behind the free course

Two Caucasian women scientists looking through a double-headed microscope.
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image courtesy of National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Courses don’t just appear. They have to be created. It takes time, resources, and money to offer, design, and build a thoughtful learning experience with clear learning objectives. There must, therefore, be a very real ROI here for course creators. 

But, you don’t usually get something for nothing, right?


I went with hat in hand to the course manager of the course I most recently flaked out on to get some inside info.

William Cronje, from Eduflow, shared that they created this and other free courses as a marketing tool for their LMS product.

We’re essentially doing demos with thousands of people at a time without spending tons of money to get prospects through a funnel.” – William Cronje

For them, building an academy has been an excellent way to promote their product and their vision for what online learning can look like. Cronje says that many of their current customers were cohort members first.

If courses are mostly being created as a marketing exercise, the completion rate is not necessarily the only success metric. Free courses often have thousands of sign-ups. They have done what you set out to accomplish – you know their name and their product even if you don’t complete the course.

If just 3% of the students enrolled in a course become paying customers, then the creators have probably got some pretty good bang for their buck already.

So does that mean we’re all just part of a secret marketing exercise?

Are free courses really worth it?

Think about it for a moment, you wouldn’t buy a cake from a bakery that gave you a sorry excuse for a biscuit with your tea, right?

It’s human nature to assume that free things offer less value than the things you have to fork out some cash for. 

But this isn’t always the case.

That’s the really cool thing about free courses. Many of them do offer a lot of value. 

Here’s why you should think about enrolling for a free online course:

  • It’s free!
  • You can take control of your own learning and development by deciding what you want to learn and how you want to grow 
  • Prepare yourself for a new position or a promotion. You don’t need to wait for your boss to schedule leadership training before you can be promoted to a managerial position.
  • Future-proof your career by learning new skills. Your career and future are in your hands. You’re not stuck in the mud – decide what it is you want to do and learn about it. Diversify your skill set so you can easily find a new position should you need to.
  • Free courses can also act as a peephole so you can see what’s on the other side of the fence. Figure out how you like to learn best and what subjects you like learning about in a very low-stakes environment.

Now all of the reasons mentioned above (apart from it being free) are great reasons to take paid courses as well. I’m not suggesting you turn your back on paid-for courses, but you don’t always have to part ways with your hard-earned cash to learn

You can get something for nothing!

But how can you make sure that you’re choosing the right course?

Choosing the right online course

Laptop, mug of coffee, pen and notepad, phone, on wood table.
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image courtesy of Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Every free course out there isn’t necessarily going to be valuable to you, in fact, some might be terrible. You need to find the one that’s best for you. Before starting your search, ask yourself a couple of questions to narrow down your options. 

What is your ‘why’?

What skill do you want to learn and most importantly WHY? What is the North Star that’s going to keep you motivated to stay on course (pun intended)? Without a ‘why’ you will lose motivation and flake out sooner or later. Remember that course completion doesn’t have to be your only success metric – learning is the most important factor

How do you like to learn?

Do you enjoy on-demand courses or do you learn better with a time-bound structure? Do you enjoy more or less video content? Are you willing to complete assignments and give and receive peer feedback? Knowing how you like to consume content and choosing a course that aligns with that will make completing a course much more enjoyable. 

How much time do you have?

Decide how much time you can realistically spend each week. Has your boss given you some time off of work or will you have to carve a slot into your calendar after hours? Be realistic about your time commitment. 

Once you have a clearer idea of what you want to learn, how you want to learn, and how much time you want to spend learning, you can start your search. 

Here are some tips for finding the best free online course for you. 

  • Read the course description to see if it matches your expectations in terms of content covered, content delivery, and time commitment.
  • Check course reviews and ratings. Reviews will give you honest feedback about a course and help you weed out the duds. But remember that most credible courses will have a negative review here and there – decide whether the pros of the course outweigh the cons.
  • Check for content quality. This might not always be possible, but some courses allow you to preview some content before signing up. A well-designed course will have good-quality video and audio and easy-to-navigate content. If the preview is awful, the course most likely will be too.  

Are you ready to take three yet?

With so much free content available though, it’s best not to be like me and sign up for every course that comes your way. Zero in on one course and get what you came for before moving on. 

I will be re-enrolling for the course I dropped out from last year, but this time I’m going to be honest with myself about what I can commit to. I’m going to do my research and only sign up for courses that I feel are right for me.

I hope I have convinced you to do the same.


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