You’re strapped for time…how do you choose between taking a free class or shelling our money for a paid course? 

This article will focus on the merits of free versus paid UX courses, including individual courses, certificates and immersive programs. Various other forms of UX education such as events, seminars and degree programs will be discussed in future articles.

Many prospective UX designers & students wonder whether they should spend money on UX classes. I’ve taken both free and paid courses. While some were worth the investment…others were not. This article tries to help students save time & money by:

  1. Discussing why or why not you should for UX classes
  2. The most sensible options considering your personal situation & learning style
  3. How to evaluate if a UX class (free or paid) is worth taking.

The Best Things in Life Are Free…Or Are They?

Thanks to a generous global community of educators, there are tons excellent UX courses for free. One simple Google search for “free ux course,” at the time of this writing, will turn up 20 million + results. UX courses are now a commodity, and tons of companies are trying to capitalize on teaching it.

Free UX classes can be found on platforms like Coursera’s Stanford HCI class or MIT’s OpenCourseWare. As far as credibility goes, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better curriculum taught by thought leaders associated with some of the most reputable colleges. I myself have perused through the Stanford Human-Computer Interaction class and it is a ROBUST curriculum that matches, if not exceeds, the caliber of paid classes I’ve taken.

But wait – there’s a phenomenon that you need to know about MOOCs, or massively open online courses (e.g. the Stanford HCI class is a MOOC): they suffer from low completion rates. In one 2013 study of MOOC completion rates (source), graduate student Katy Jordan found that the average completion rate of MOOCs is 7.6%. Even accounting for outliers and factors such as different course formats, the fact of the matter is that students have a had time finishing these free, high quality courses.

I’ve had at least 3 friends who on separate occasions told me that they’ve sign up for free online classes and never finished them. Personally, when I don’t pay for something, I am much less invested in it. There’s no consequence, no big disincentive, to drop out of free classes, regardless of quality. We can feel guilty, but find comfort that that the course will return in X months. So what’s there to lose?

There’s an old saying that goes “the best tool is the one you use.” It’s awesome to have dozens and dozens of free UX blogs and resources and courses bookmarked…but how often do you actually look at those bookmarks? How likely is it that you’re going to read the whole  article or finish an entire course?

This problem is less about the actual quality of the free ux courses available, and more about the paradox of choice.

Many of us have a fear of missing out (aka FOMO) and hoard a bunch of nice links and free courses, but ironically because we’ve collected so many, it’s too hard to decide which one to invest time in. So we don’t do it at all. Not coincidentally, 100% of my colleagues who’ve never finished a MOOC have signed up for several MOOCs at the same time.

So are you saying that I should only take Paid UX Courses?

Not necessarily. Have you ever bought a Groupon and never redeemed it? I have, on 3 occasions.  Since many of the paid online courses (Udemy, Tutsplus…) are “pay once, access it forever…” there isn’t much social pressure to actually finish the course, beyond the money you’ve spent to purchase it. Unless a large amount (hundreds of dollars) are at stake, the purchase price isn’t the motivating factor for me to finish an online UX course.

So let’s talk about  offline, in-person UX classes. Many colleges are starting to offer UX certificates through their extension programs. There are also private digital schools/bootcamps that offer their own programs, such as General Assembly.

I personally got the most out of these paid, in-person courses.

First, I committed a decent amount of money upfront to take the course.

Second, social pressure is one of the most valuable learning tools. Physically showing up to class, and showing your work + getting feedback from other humans is invaluable. I find this harder to get with online classes, paid or not. With online classes I suffer from lurker’s syndrome, where it’s easy to put in a minimal (if any) amount of work and not contribute to an open forum.

This is because purely online communities are often harder to build than in-person classes, which already have some semblance of community. You’re already sitting next to someone else, you may have to get up in class to present, fellow students loiter around after class to make small talk. It’s these intangibles of being around other motivated designers that helps me learn my material and actually finish the course. The completion rates of both offline, paid courses I’ve taken have been at least 90% or above. Also, it’s a plus that the classes are relatively small (20-25) and you get more individualized learning & attention.

But Wait…Everyone Has Different Needs and Learning Styles

So what does it come down to? I think this matrix below will help you determine your learning preference. Feel free to skip the free offline UX course (Quadrant 2) because outside of one-time events or conferences, offline UX courses are not offered for free. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Online UX Courses Offline UX Courses
Pros Cons Pros Cons
  • Location Independent
  • Time Flexibility
  •  High quality courses available
  • Free 
  • Lower completion rate
  •  Less community presence
  •  Less Personalized Attention
*Not many free offline courses, so this will be about events like meetups, conferences, hackathons
  • Good for learning niche topics and career motivation
  • Community, Networking
  • Low time commitment
 *Due to the nature of one-time free events, offline UX classes have a less structured curriculum.
  • Location Independent
  • Time Flexibility
  • High quality courses available
  • *More specific skill-based training available (e.g. user testing, research, visual design)
Same as above cell, although some paid courses may offer limited class sizes and individualized attention
  • Higher completion rate
  • Community, Networking
  • Smaller class size
  • Individualized attention
  • Typically more job leads (internal job board)
  • Cost
  • Travel time
  • Location Dependent
  • Inflexible Schedule

For most UX Beginners, I would recommend:

Quadrant 1: Free + online UX courses are a great option if you are:

  • Location, time flexibility non negotiable
  • Independent learner (you’ve finished an online course before)
  • Wanting to save money
  • Signs up for just 1 course at a time
  • Takes advantage of community features. Take it with a couple friends and meet up weekly

Quadrant 4: Paid + offline classes are recommended if you:

  • Enjoy in-person, collaborative learning
  • Want more community, connect w/other students & teachers
  • Want more individualized attention
  • If you find online courses boring, hard to finish
  • If you like to ask questions & get live feedback on your designs,

Regardless of which UX course you choose above, I’d recommend ones  with these characteristics:

  • Project-Based. This is a BIG one. A class that offers the opportunity to create one solid portfolio piece is instrumental to your job hunt
  • If your company pays for it (No brainer)
  • Community: a class that offers some sort of office hours, a way to meet communicate and get feedback on your designs, or even a job board

That doesn’t mean the other Quadrants are out of question, but I’d prioritize them differently:

Quadrant 3: Paid Online Classes

My personal opinion is that these are more valuable for learning specific skills / technical training a-la-carte, and as the need comes up.

For example you find that a new project may require user testing and you haven’t done that before, so you pick up a user testing. Paid online courses are great when you need to apply a specific skill in a short amount of time. However, for a general project-oriented approach to learning the basics of UX Design, there are more than enough high quality free online UX classes you can take instead.

Quadrant 2: Free Offline Courses (events)

This is a no-brainer to take advantage of. Go to free events for free networking, learning and free food. Pretty low commitment here.

I hope the above analysis helps you navigate the plethora of options in UX classes, whether they’re online, offline, free or paid.

Happy Learning!

Also published on Medium.

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