Marketing Technology for Growth

How Free Online Learning Can Impact Your Bottom Line

free online learningWith the continuing shift to the Internet and all things social mobile, everybody’s talking about the necessity of online content marketing and “repurposing” existing marketing content. Though I for one am in total agreement, a parallel development in free online learning suggests we need to be thinking about repurposing our human resources along with our marketing content. For those interested in learning exactly what I mean by this, read on.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this new online learning model is that it is free. Led by such pioneers as The Kahn Academy, Stanford University, Coursera and Udacity, other prestigious universities like MIT and Harvard are now jumping on the free online learning bandwagon. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) such as Udacity and Coursera have the potential to be disruptive because they offer for free the same core assets that universities charge for: educational content and instruction. This democratization of knowledge cannot be understated, especially given the model’s limitless scalability.¹

In this post, I’ve chosen to highlight the Khan Academy and Udacity, as I feel they represent two types of free online learning that not only complement each other, but may eventually prove to have a massive impact on your company’s bottom line.


Founded by Salman Khan, a MIT/Harvard-educated polymath turned Wall Street hedge fund analyst (Khan has a BS in mathematics, a BS in electrical engineering and computer science, an MS in electrical engineering and computer science, and an MBA from Harvard Business School-just like me).After tutoring his cousin in math using a Yahoo!’s Doodle notepad, Khan realized he could help others, and began distributing his tutorials on YouTube. He eventually quit his job and worked on building up the “Khan Academy” site.  His work eventually caught the eye of Bill Gates, who saw the transformative nature of Kahn’s vision.  The Khan Academy, structured as a non-profit, now receives backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, among others.

Khan Academy’s YouTube channel has over 150 million total views. It also has twice as many subscribers, at more than 320,000.The Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. As a non-profit, Khan Academy’s goal is simple but profound: to change education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere.³

All of the site's resources are available to anybody free of charge. The site has amassed a library of over 3200 videos covering K-12 math, science topics such as biology, chemistry, and physics, finance and history. At 10 minutes long, each video is structured to be a realistically consumable chunk of information 10 minutes long.


The Khan Academy model soon became the inspiration for others. Stanford University Computer Science Professor and Google Fellow Sebastian Thrun (one-time director of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) saw Kahn’s success, and decided to bring his class on Artificial Intelligence online for free. 160,000 people ended up signing on to the course. Once he realized the power of interactive online learning, he knew there was no going back. Thrun said, "Having done this, I can't teach at Stanford again. You can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture to your 20 students, but I've taken the red pill and I've seen Wonderland."¹

In the past, he thought that becoming a Stanford professor was the pinnacle of achievement for a computer science teacher. Then he discovered Khan Academy was reaching millions of students. Suddenly, his popular lectures drawing upwards of 200 students didn’t seem so impressive.¹

Thrun’s reasoning behind this is instructive. If we presume that most professors really are passionate about their subject matter, and actually want to teach others what they know, it stands to reason that many would prefer an educational model that allows them to reach the broadest number of students.

Looked at from the perspective of self-interest, which is more prestigious- teaching at Stanford, or becoming an online superstar with millions of followers?

When you read Udacity’s mission statement on their “about us” page, it is clear that the site is focusing on transforming the future of education:

“We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we've connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students in almost every country on Earth…Now we're a growing team of educators and engineers, on a mission to change the future of education.”

Udacity’s course offerings are currently focused on computer science, which is likely a reflection of the strengths of its three founders. It also has a distinctively vocational feel. In a recent interview with TechCrunch, Thrun talked about how he will help students improve their careers. This is a significant point, as it may herald the business model of the future.

What if companies could hire sharp young employees and actually pay them a modest wage to learn exactly the skills the company needs? For example, if I need a project manager who has an understanding of coding, rather than making a $50,000 investment in someone with credentials who may or may not end up working out, why not hire a student with a high GPA who has proven they can learn, and then have them acquire the exact skill-set my company needs through online learning? Moreover, with time, the credits students earn from such online sites as Udacity may be the only credentials they need.

To take it a step further, why not use the model to learn yourself? I am experimenting with this very idea by enrolling in Udacity’s Intro to Computer Science course; according to Udacity, I don’t need any background in CS to do so. We’ll see how this plays out in reality (I must admit, I am excited to learn how to create my own search engine). In theory, I can achieve a fairly high-level of expertise in programming and web development with Udacity’s current course offerings, which they are adding to all the time.


Why is this relevant for businesses? As the world goes high-tech at breakneck speed, having a familiarity with computer programs and the languages that drive them (the new lingua franca of the world?) will become increasingly necessary to compete. Moreover, as technology brings greater efficiencies (and pressures) to companies of all sizes, business owners, executives, and managers need to find new and creative ways to source talent in a cost-effective manner.

As the quality of free online learning models improves with demand, early adaptors will realize the full import of the phrase “knowledge is power” in both their human resources, and their bottom line.


¹ PolicyMic, “Online Universities: The Future of Elite Education

² TechCrunch, “Ex-Stanford Teacher’s New Startup Brings University-Level Education To All

³ WikiPedia, Khan Academy

 Image Courtesy of The Employable



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Topics: Integrated Digital Marketing, Marketing Technology Trends