There’s a lot of free content online, but it can’t replace instructor-led learning.

Recently someone left a comment on the blog asking a very provocative question. Our commenter wanted to know whether a certain type of course content was still relevant, given the number of tutorials learners could find for free on the same subject on YouTube. Although this comment was related to a specific type of course, the question applies to almost all online learning.

YouTube is full of videos about any number of subjects, from dance tutorials, to cooking shows, art classes, leadership seminars, language lessons, computer programming courses, and more.

And it’s not just YouTube. You can find this content all around the Internet. So with everything available for free, who’s going to pay for your course?

I believe there are a lot of good answers to this question. But I also believe that many would-be educators give up on online education before they begin because they don’t think they’ll be successful. So, if you’re on the fence, here are my top reasons why you should consider launching a course and not worry about what others are giving away for free.

1. Free content has never put teachers out of a job in the past.

Probably the biggest misconception about online education is that, once learners have the content, they won’t stay for the instruction. While this might be true in theory, the reality is that most people don’t learn well on their own. Even those of us who are highly motivated do better with guidance, instruction, and outside feedback.

After all, free information is nothing new, but the existence of public libraries hasn’t made teachers redundant. As anyone with any knowledge of instructional design will tell you, delivering information isn’t the same as teaching it.

2. The value of an online course extends beyond the content.

There is one kind of course creator who should feel threatened by all the free content on YouTube, and that is the kind of instructor whose whole course is just a series of YouTube videos. In reality, most courses are comprised of much more than that. After all, YouTube content is passive. It does nothing to check how well learners have mastered the material.

On a very concrete level, online courses add value to content by providing:

However, there’s also a soft component to this. As I said earlier, few learners do well on their own. And even those who can learn on their own often prefer to work with others. That’s because the social side of learning can make the process more enjoyable while also achieving better outcomes.

In terms of soft skills, online courses add value to content by providing:

If your course isn’t providing value in either or both of these areas, then it’s time to rethink your course.

3. Learners are looking for trusted resources. Your perspective and expertise matter.

One of the most valuable things a good online course can provide is structure. A learner working through content on their own has to decide for themself what content is trustworthy. They may struggle to find content that is appropriate for their skill level, or that covers the material in a consecutive fashion. They may feel one topic is covered extensively, while another is glossed over. Tracking down free content that answers all their questions takes time, and they may not even realize there are gaps in their knowledge, because they don’t know what they don’t know.

As a course creator, you bring organization to the chaos. But you also bring a unique perspective to what material is taught, and how it is presented. This is most true in coaching and lifestyle courses, where the instructor may have a reputation and a certain level of prestige. But even if you aren’t known for your personal brand (yet!), your beliefs about how your subject should be taught are a selling point.

4. There’s always more to learn—and plenty of it isn’t on YouTube.

Remember how I just mentioned the gaps that can often be found in YouTube content? For all the videos that have been uploaded to the site, it isn’t hard to get so specific in your search queries that you hit the limit of available material. I’ve done this numerous times—in trying to find resources for drafting sewing patterns, in looking up spoken examples of rare dialects, in searching for explanations on how to use an unusual ingredient when cooking.

Even when I find a video, it’s often the case that it isn’t detailed enough, or that it’s poor quality. A lot of YouTube content is fairly surface level. While it’s easy to find incredibly niche videos, those videos may not be relevant to a learner’s needs. Online courses can fill in the gaps.

5. YouTube isn’t new, but it hasn’t slowed the growth of online education.

If you need one final point, consider this: The global online education market is projected to be worth nearly 250 billion USD by 2024. That’s how much people are willing to pay for education, over and above the high quality videos that are available for free.

More often than not, free content feeds the desire for paid content.

While it may seem counterintuitive, online educators shouldn’t view YouTube as the competition. Sure, there may be some course creators on YouTube who are competition, but this is far from clear cut. Instead, the free content on YouTube is more likely to be driving interest in paid content.

A person who knows nothing about cooking may begin their journey by googling a YouTube video for how to poach an egg. Their curiosity might then lead them to a recipe for shakshuka. Pretty soon, they’re buying cookbooks and signing up for your class on canning and preserving food. They still look up plenty of videos on YouTube, but nothing can replace the network of friends they’ve found in the forum on your community page, who are willing to answer their questions and celebrate with them when a recipe turns out well. They’re even looking forward to your upcoming jam and jelly-making course, in which you take them through a whole year of preserving seasonal foods.

In short, online instruction is about more than delivering information. Provide value, and your learners will pay for it.

Laura Lynch photo

About Laura Lynch

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She has been reading and writing about WordPress, instructional design, user experience, marketing, and branding for over five years.

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Great post! Totally agree!

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