For many people right now, especially those in the United States, school is not the same. The pandemic has reduced the commute to class to the opening of a laptop, and it has turned teachers and classmates from tangible to pixelated. But people have actually been learning from pixels on a screen for a while now. Even before online education became a necessary safety precaution, people were logging into newly launched sites like Skillshare and Linkedin Learning to brush up on professional skills.
Informal online education, which started as people posting recipes and practical tips on YouTube, has blossomed into a wealth of information. Almost anything is available to learn about — from animation software to quantum physics.
Skillshare and Linkedin Learning are marketed as a means of furthering career success and building practical skills, and they can be used as supplements to formal education or as means of recreational self-teaching.
Both platforms are a pretty non-committal way of exploring possible topics of interest, and they are certainly a cheaper mode of exploration than regular college classes. They are also a way to explore skills that might not be clearly included in a standard liberal arts undergraduate degree — skills like social media marketing, personal branding and the managerial aspects of small-business ownership.
These learning platforms differentiate themselves from formal education by focusing on real-life application and the reality of living as a working person, as opposed to the development of more abstract educational skills like critical thinking and research. For those who are already working, these platforms could serve as resume builders for the next step, or an avenue to a possible side hustle.
Skillshare claims to be a hub for creatives — a place for artists, videographers, photographers, designers and musicians to congregate and learn to improve their crafts. And it is true that on this site, the number of courses for art and music far outweigh anything strictly STEM-related. It seems like a promising idea, but the site is not without critics.
In 2019, it seemed like every YouTuber was sponsored by Skillshare, which led to a lot of positive hype. But YouTuber Michael Ye jumped in to offer honest critiques of YouTuber Nathanial Drew’s video about the learning platform. Drew argued that one of the techniques he uses to learn skills faster is “going straight to the top,” but Ye pointed out that Skillshare isn’t the best platform for that kind of philosophy.
This is because the people who teach courses on Skillshare aren’t necessarily experts. In fact, literally anyone can upload videos to Skillshare. The Skillshare Help Center website boasts, “There are no applications or approvals” for Skillshare teachers.
What seems like openness on the surface actually indicates a lack of quality control, leaving teachers to upload their credentials and students to think critically about the qualifications of their online mentors. Ye demonstrates this oversight, showing that he could effortlessly re-upload Drew’s video to Skillshare.
As of March 2019, Skillshare offered over 27,000 classes, 2,000 of which were free to the public. At first glance, these are impressive numbers that seem to say “opportunity,” but because of the massive number of options, it can be difficult to decide on one course and stick with it all the way through.
It brings about a kind of FOMO, especially when the course becomes the least bit difficult or dull. It’s easy to think, “Would I be learning more efficiently if I tried one of the other five courses that cover this information?”
I remember taking a course to learn a certain program and wondering why it felt so lifeless. I wondered if the subject matter was boring, or if the delivery of that subject matter was falling flat. I clicked over to another course for that program; I found that, although it was more engaging, important details that the other course had covered were missing.
It seemed like a lose/lose situation, and my motivation to learn the program plummeted. I completed neither program, and I returned to YouTube for instruction. This situation, I think, exposed Skillshare’s three major flaws. It has too many options, inconsistent quality of instruction and a lack of depth and detail in the information covered.
Nevertheless, the site represents the opportunity to skip a Netflix binge and engage in a creative activity, and that alone might be worth at least looking into the 2,000 courses that are offered for free.
Linkedin Learning may not be the optimum place for colorful, right-brained activities, but it does offer the opportunity to build practical skills in business and technology. In fact, many universities provide access to Linkedin Learning to all of their students to help them gain hard skills that make for showy resumes.
On Linkedin Learning, you can expect to find career-related topics like branding, networking, public speaking, leadership and managerial skills, as well as instruction on platforms like Excel. Even if it doesn’t seem like the most riveting subject matter, it is an opportunity to show employers that you’re self-motivated and determined to make yourself the best fit for the job.
The barrier of entry to teachers on Linkedin Learning is higher than Skillshare, leading to more consistent teaching quality. Speaking from personal experience, the difference is quite noticeable. Otherwise, some of the same problems that occur on Skillshare also occur on Linkedin Learning, like the overwhelming number of classes and lack of depth in the information covered.
When it comes to online learning platforms, probably the biggest problem isn’t with the platforms themselves, but with the nature of learning from online videos. It is too easy to mindlessly consume, which really comes down to the vigilance of the learner.
But the platforms also present an opportunity to explore. Even if you’re not that interested in online learning, it might be useful to look around at the courses offered — see what piques your interest. At the very least, the platforms could serve as a means of honing in on an interest, seeing an example and going with it.
Although these platforms aren’t necessarily the most socially engaging or the best ways for storing information long-term, they do offer the groundwork for the “real-life” pursuit of independent learning, and that might be worth at least a free trial.