Let’s talk Content & Courses with Don Spear, CEO, OpenSesame, Andrew Barnes,CEO, GO1, Laura Baldwin, President, O’Reilly Media

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Perspectives. When it comes to 3rd party content/courses from publishers and/or providers, most folks just focus on the courses/content they want for their learners, regardless if they are association members, customers, clients, partners, employees or students.

Yet the folks who are overseeing these entities are rarely asked their take on the industry, the approach and other aspects around the industry of content/courses and its application in L&D, Training, HR or other areas.

I reached out to three key players in the 3rd party content/courses space to take a deeper dive.

  • Don Spear, CEO of OpenSesame, an aggregator of a couple hundred content/courses, from publishers, for the learning system space – You can purchase their courses/content either thru a learning system marketplace (via your learning system) or contact them directly, and then add it to your learning system (if the system does not have a partnership in place). One of the top two aggregators in the industry. Plays huge in the corporate market (inc. associations).
  • Andrew Barnes, CEO and Co-Founder of GO1, n aggregator of a couple hundred content/courses, from publishers, for the learning system space. You can purchase their courses/content either thru a learning system marketplace (via your learning system) or contact them directly, and then add it to your learning system (if the system does not have a partnership in place). You can also go direct to GO1 and use them as your learning platform with the publishers content on the system already (you can access the admin side too). You still pay for the courses/content though. The other top aggregator in the learning system space. Plays huge in the corporate market (inc. associations).
  • Laura Baldwin, President, O’Reilly Media – 3rd party course/content publisher. You can purchase their online courses/content and add it to your learning system OR use their platform with the courses/content on it. They, for whatever reason, are not a player in the learning system marketplace, nor space itself, even though they have a strong brand name recognition with F100 companies – especially around leadership development – they are also known in the “EdTech” – higher education segment and K-12.

Note: There are vendors, including publishers/providers who use the term “EdTech” to refer to corporate, associations, education and government, which only adds to the confusion. The term really means education (hence educational technology) – K-12 and HigherEd. In the case of O’Reilly Media, the use of the term in this interview, refers to every market (inc. corporate), and not just education.

Responses have been slightly edited for clarity (when applicable).

My questions are in “bold”, their responses are in “italics” with their first name, prior to the response, thus – Don, Andrew, Laura.

One additional note, for those vendors who have a marketplace (the client – i.e. whoever is overseeing the program – are the ones who purchase the content/courses and then provide said content/courses to their learners for free). There are way too many vendors who only have either GO1 or OpenSesame, which to me is a major error on their part. Add both, and thus reduce the need for folks who are clients of either, to reach out their preferred and have you the vendor, take the time to setup the API etc. It’s a pain for the client, and a pain to the learning system vendor.

The most common method nowadays in the content/course publisher/provider is the all you can eat buffet, where you purchase the seat(s) and then each learner gets unlimited access to all the courses/content, rather than say a bundle or per item.

Let’s Talk Content!

Q: There is a lot of off-the-shelf content/courses available. What should a buyer (client) look for when choosing a vendor?  Should they just focus on the topic (they are interested in) or should they consider other factors as well?

Don: When choosing a vendor, buyers should take a wide range of factors into account. For example, there are a variety of course formats that should be considered. We like to say that “one size does not fit all” because different learners and departments require different approaches.

Buyers should also ask about quality standards. The range of topics is, of course, important

Companies should also ask about languages and localization.

Andrew: You can look at off-the-shelf content two ways.  One is for specific content for a given department or team.  An example of this is Pluralsight who has some fantastic content which serves a specific purpose for a specific group. These vendors are typically higher in cost, but you might only need to purchase them for a subset of employees.

The other way is to look for a vendor who is going to cover the topics needed for the majority of your learning program needs – everything from compliance (say from Skillsoft) to leadership (for example from Harvard Manage Mentor).  These providers usually provide more general topics but the content can be used to build growth plans, reskilling programs, and meet general compliance needs. 

Regardless, it’s important for a buyer to think beyond their department needs to see how content can serve the whole company and its employees.  Online learning can be a great benefit to offer to learners to help them meet their personal and professional goals.

Laura: It’s important for buyers to evaluate the quality of the content they’re purchasing and ensure that it’s coming from a reputable source. The number of course providers (and instructors!) is exploding right now. There’s been significant investment in edtech as a category, and of course that’s leading so many to jump in, make their own contributions, and take a share of the growth that’s happening. Many of these new learning companies are offering a marketplace-based approach, where anyone can come and learn a skill from whoever chooses to build a course or content. But are these instructors being vetted to ensure they have the skill to teach that material? And has their content been checked for accuracy?

Q: What metrics do you capture, that you can provide to buyer if they are interested?  How many clients ask for such data or even if you offer it?

Don: We provide our customers with a wide range of data. Some of the data points that companies are typically interested in include: most popular/most taken courses, most popular courses within the customer’s industry, and most popular courses within a given topic or category.

Andrew: We help organizations track metrics such as completion rates, how long users spend in a given course, what content is well rated (or not), what is shared and recommended, and much more. We also have information on the courses that are most consumed and the most searched for topics. 

What people like in online learning can be so subjective though and working with a variety of industries makes it so our data is helpful, but it’s also important for buyers to know that just because something is popular doesn’t make it the right fit for them or just because something isn’t popular, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable to the right set of learners.

Laura: Historically, we’ve taken our own approach to measuring the efficacy of learning. While we do provide completion data for courses, we don’t believe completion data alone provides a proper understanding of whether or not someone has actually learned new material. Checking a box might tell some of the story, but it isn’t as important as testing and validating that someone has actually built those skills and can use them in the workplace.

So a few years ago we introduced several new metrics to our platform based specifically on millions of sessions of activity from our users. First, we saw that while some learners on our platform were working diligently to build knowledge in specific topics, many were logging in to quickly reference material to solve an immediate problem. So we created a dashboard that showed our customers how much of their learners’ behavior was linear (absorbing something new from start to finish) and how much was nonlinear (finding fast answers in the flow of work). Some customers have even told us exactly how nonlinear learning behavior helped them solve urgent and costly business problems that cropped up unexpectedly.

Note from Craig Weiss – “Nonlinear” this means that the learner does not have to go sequential, i.e. first chapter completed, then goes to the next chapter, so forth – the term is referred to as synchronous-based. “Nonlinear” the term is referred to the industry as asynchronous-based, which means the learner can bounce around at any time, into different chapters, pages, etc. without having to follow the classroom method, of you complete this first, then go this. WBT was created specifically for the power of non-linear learning. From my experience, learners retain more, and comprehend more following this method, because it will validate what their actual interest is in, where they want to know more or learn more, which aids in discovery for you, the person overseeing the system/department/area, what they know or don’t know, and what content/courses you need to add/change/remove that are beneficial to said folks. Skill gaps are best identified via nonlinear learning.

Back to the interview

Q: How do you decide what “new” topics/categories to add? Do you rely solely on clients? Do you look at trends? Do you pay attention to the market in general?

Don: OpenSesame relies on various types of information when deciding whether to add a new topic or category. Our primary reference points include customer feedback, course completions, external market research, and market trends.

Andrew: Because we partner with some innovative providers in the industry, we often get new content topics because our providers are watching the industry and respond to the requests they are seeing.  A great example of this is recent content we received around Being Your Authentic Self at work.  This is a hot topic on LinkedIn and we have a course specific to not only being your authentic self at work but how to manage in a way that allows your employees to feel safe to do the same.

Outside of the content we get from existing providers, we use requests from our customers (inc search queries) and trends we see through Learning and Development associations to identify what content we should be seeking out. 

Laura: We do this in a few ways. First and foremost, we have an in-house editorial team that’s been tracking technology trends for more than 40 years. They watch the industry and speak with experts (and prospective authors) and business leaders to understand what might shape technology in the future.

Next, our authors, experts, and others within our talent network are all practitioners in their fields, so we work with them to help understand what’s important and create content in the areas that are sure to be emergent. Lastly, we keep an eye on usage trends on our platform. However, these are often backward-looking metrics—they tell us what’s already happened or is happening now, but they’re less likely to help us understand what will happen in the future. Our value is in letting our members know what’s next, not the other way around.

Q: Let’s have a hypothetical – The client has a learning system, and they select you as a course provider (regardless if you are in the marketplace – the vendor’s or not). How can you ensure that the course(s)/content they have access to – is appropriate for their use case?  

Don: To ensure that the courses/content they have access to is appropriate for their use case, we review feedback from all stakeholders, insight on the company’s key business objectives, and current business challenges that the company is navigating.

After users complete the courses, we analyze the data. Course engagement/usage helps determine if the courses/content was appropriate.

Andrew: As part of the onboarding process, we work with customers to understand their needs and their culture and make recommendations of providers and topics that will best fit their needs.  Because the customer is going to know their company best, we encourage them to become familiar with the library and best search practices to be able to find the content that is going to best match their company’s needs.  Their dedicated customer success manager is always available to help them with additional curation, if needed.

Laura: We’ve spent a lot of time looking at our data and speaking to our customers to understand whether or not we should be adapting our content by industry vertical, and we’ve learned that it’s not needed.

In technology, the use cases and skills required aren’t typically all that different across companies regardless of industry—technology in financial services isn’t that different from technology in a software company or a healthcare provider. They’re fairly vertical agnostic. So we primarily focus on the technologies themselves and build content that provides a deep understanding of them.

For example, when a business is looking to migrate to the cloud, it needs engineers and developers skilled in either Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, or Google Cloud (or perhaps more than one if they’re running a multicloud). The skills we teach match the way those cloud providers operate rather than being unique to a company or industry. Once team members learn a given tech, they can determine how to leverage it in a way that works for their organization.

Ultimately, it’s not up to us to tell members how to run their business. It’s up to us to empower them to run it better.

Q: A lot of folks believe that assigned learning is a necessity, even in some cases a must. They talk about the completion as validation that the learner has acquired the knowledge and retained it.  Do you concur?  Is assigned learning the best way for someone to acquire knowledge? Or should non-assigned and learner picks what they are interested in, the best method?  

Don: We do not agree that completion is validation that the learner has acquired the knowledge and retained it. Engagement is a better determinant of knowledge acquisition and retention. For many topics, the learner will be more engaged if they can choose their own content and take it when they choose.

Courses in safety and compliance is a different case, in that completion generally validates that the learner has acquired the knowledge. Lack of safety and compliance training can put others at risk, and therefore the best practice is to assign courses at specific times.

Andrew: There are some topics that have to be assigned, particularly around compliance or content that a manager may want their team member to focus on.

Generally, allowing the employee to have some control over their learning helps with buy-in and engagement, particularly when it comes to upskilling and creating a culture of learning in a company.  Providing employees with a few options around a certain topic can allow them to complete the course that matches their interests or areas they feel they need the most assistance in. 

Leadership training is a great example of this. Most leaders come into a role with some leadership skills but probably have a few areas that they can improve in.  Offering them a variety of courses on delegation, empathetic leadership, feedback, etc. can allow them to pick a few that work best for them.

Real validation of learning happens after the learning, not just during.  Completion can help with reporting and is nice to have during a performance review to show what has been done, but ideally, the learner is meeting with their manager, discussing what has been learned, and making a plan on how to implement those new skills into their job in a way that is measurable.

Laura: There’s a time and place for everything. Assigned learning can be valuable if you have a team or department who are all adopting a new technology at once and you want to make sure everyone understands the gist of it. However, I think organizations should want employees who are naturally curious and interested in exploring new topic areas, so nonassigned learning should equally be encouraged. You never know what new idea, business improvement, or optimization it may lead to.

And in terms of assigned learning, completion data might be able to tell you if someone took a course, attended an event, or played a video. But it can’t reliably measure whether or not a team member actually has the ability to practically apply needed skills. That’s why we’ve introduced things like challenges into the O’Reilly learning platform—so that organizations can assess whether or not a learner can actually apply the knowledge they’ve been building. And we’ll continue to head more in this direction.

Q: Do you believe you have a responsibility to ensure that all content is good? That the instructional design is sound? That the knowledge or insight to acquire new skills or retain them, are effect in the course(s) or content you offer? How can you ensure that the course(s)/content you offer retains it’s “Freshness” if you will? Have you put in processes?

Don: As a vendor and content provider, we have a responsibility to ensure all content is better than good, actually world class. This means that courses are innovative, flexible, diverse, global, and come from a reputable source. We test our courses internally before launching to ensure the instructional design is sound, and that every course provides opportunities for the learner to acquire new skills and knowledge.

Our Curation Team has a process and list of requirements to determine if a publisher and their courses meet the OpenSesame standards. This process/checklist ensures our courses retain their “freshness.”

Andrew: “Good” in learning may cover many factors.  This includes both subject matter relevance and presentation. Some customers love animation. Some customers love videos. The benefit of the size of our library is that customers can find content that uses a format that will work for their employees.  What is our responsibility is to work with partners who are committed to providing instructionally sound content.

As we continue to evolve our library, we are constantly adding more ways to effectively review content and ensure that all content meets the criteria of quality in production and instructional design.

Laura: Absolutely! That’s why we rely so heavily on our in-house editorial team. They work directly with our talent network—who are all experts in their fields—to create great content and ensure effective instructional design. All our content is also put through a peer review with other experts to validate that the information is technically accurate. And we evaluate all of the content on the platform on an ongoing basis to see what we should drop, what we should revise and re-release as technologies evolve, and what we should add as information changes.

Q: Lastly, what topics are you seeing that are “popular” with your content/courses by usage, and what topic or topics do you believe is a necessity for the remainder of 2022? 

Don: Reskilling and upskilling courses for the last 2-3 years have been popular, specifically the ones designed for the tech industry. Learners crave the opportunity to access practical tools to advance their careers and reach new milestones. Having an up-to-date, highly skilled workforce is a key advantage in tech is one of the most critical elements to making this a reality.

Recently, in the wake of COVID-19, coaching and mentoring courses have been more popular than ever. The transition to a remote/hybrid workforce has forced managers to adapt and become more flexible to meet employee needs. Research shows the relationship between a manager and employee is extremely important when determining if an employee will remain in their role, therefore training around coaching and mentoring has never been more popular.

Training around recruiting and hiring practices has increased in popularity due to the so-called Great Resignation. Many companies are struggling to attract, hire, and retain highly skilled employees.

Andrew: (A few areas off the top of my head)

  • Servant/Empathetic Leadership
  • Technical skills
  • HR Best Practices
  • Neurodivergent Workforce content
  • Managing to avoid burnout

Laura: Cloud computing remains a hot topic. We’re seeing organizations move away from a lift-and-shift approach to the cloud and embrace cloud native technologies. Hybrid, multi-cloud, and edge environments are growing, setting the stage for new distributed cloud models. And all this means that software architecture is arguably more important than ever (proved by the fact that content on the topic is highly sought out on our platform). Businesses are determining how to best architect for distributed cloud and cloud native but also for data and machine learning.

Deployment technologies like Kubernetes and Docker continue to see widespread adoption (with respectively heavy usage on our platform). And increasingly, security has become a focus. Last year, following a number of major attacks, like the one on Colonial Pipeline, we saw a 300% surge in usage around content designed to help defend against ransomware. Security and defense against cyberattacks has to be on the mind of every business leader today—or should be.

Bottom Line

To visit each vendor:

My newest platform, FindContent.io (two systems in one), where you can view courses/content (100% free, with several “full courses” and not just snippets; compare content/course providers and publishers; save, request more information, will officially launch the third week of September. OpenSesame can be viewed now, GO1 is still adding their information, thus they are not yet “live”, and O’Reilly Media at this time, is not on the platform. We are brand new, but will be continuing to add publishers/providers thru 2022 and going forward. Feel free to start today, just be aware we are working to add more vendors, still trust me, it isn’t anything you have ever seen before in the industry. And as a reminder, we are not a reseller nor partner/affiliate with any of the publishers/providers on FindContent.io

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