The Pros and Cons of Off the Shelf Learning


Sometimes you just can’t do it all.

So when internal course design isn’t the answer to training requests, how else can the training team help out?

The answer of course is to offer ready-made, off the shelf learning developed by third-party education providers.

These courses are generally available as a service: the learner simply logs in to a website and is able to take courses approved by their manager. The courses are usually a mix of text and video lessons and include assessments along the way or after course completion. Badges and certificates of completion are usually also available.

With enterprise-level access to such platforms, managers and the L&D team can track the usage and progress of learners, usually all through a single dashboard.

While off the shelf courses might not present themselves as the perfect option, oftentimes L&D teams need to rely on them to deliver training when internal resources simply aren’t available.

Let’s have a look at some of the benefits and risks of such off the shelf learning.

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Pros of Off the Shelf Learning

Some benefits of off the shelf learning include:

1. Courses are ready to go

No project plan, no ADDIE, no instructional design, no development: if the course aims to teach a skill that employees need, all that’s required is the creation of an account and method of payment, and voila: the course is ready.

2. Cost-efficient

With bundles, volume pricing, discounts, and other plans familiar to buyers of SaaS software, off the shelf courses could end up costing much less than building a similar course in-house.

Annual subscriptions to LinkedIn Learning can be as low as $19.99 per month, as reported in US News.

3. Tested, vetted and reviewed

Popular off the shelf learning providers boast millions of learners and thousands of courses. Learning leaders and students can measure courses based on ratings and other criteria, leaning on the “hive mind” to determine which ones make the most sense for their organizations. Udemy, for example, claims 40 million learners across 155,000 courses.

4. Familiar to learners

Learners might already be using such third-party learning platforms for their own professional advancement. With less and less time provided for training on the job, many employees are spending their own time and money to learn what they feel would be beneficial for their careers, and popular learning sites will be familiar to them.

According to Training magazine’s 2020 Training Industry report, companies provide their employees on average with 55.4 hours of training per year—representing a little over one hour per week for training.

measuring learner engagement

Cons of Off the Shelf Learning

Off the shelf learning is not without its challenges. Here’s a look at why.

1. Cannot be customized

This is of course the biggest disadvantage of leaning on off the shelf, ready-made courses: they cannot be customized for your organization. As such, the course might fall short, omitting necessary skills the learner needs to do their job, or conversely, “overteaching” concepts the employee will never need to know for their roles in your organization.

2. Requires independence

This is an issue with all distance learning, even with courses custom built in house. However, learners can easily be distracted by other courses in the “marketplace” aspect of the platform. Using a third-party platform requires that the learner be focused on the single course at hand.

3. Technical and UX issues

As with any eLearning course, the platform must be fully functional and user-friendly across all platforms, operating systems, and devices. While Udemy and LinkedIn Learning, with their thousands of courses, are most likely user-friendly across every platform, courses provided by a smaller provider might not be.

4. No competitive advantage

If thousands of other learners have taken the same course—including learners working at your organization’s competitors—the value of the course might be diminished.

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Finding Off the Shelf Learning

So how you do discover and vet the most appropriate off the shelf courses for your learners? You could of course rely on Google, but there are other strategies to consider.

Employee’s network

Oftentimes, the employee may know exactly what learning resource is needed. The employee might be a member of a professional association or online networking group in which a particular vendor or set of courses is considered the “standard” for learning or maintaining a particular skill.

To facilitate the process of identifying the right courses, you can even ask this question or a similar one in the training intake request form.


If you’ve attended any type of corporate learning conference, no doubt the vendors in the “partner showcase” included all sorts of online universities, MOOCs, and platforms. These vendors can give you an idea of the scope—and all associated costs—of their online offerings.

Be sure to ask them the hard questions—after all, they want your business—and even ask if there is a “try before you buy” option. Perhaps you can start a pilot program with a handful of employees; garner their feedback and then decide whether you want to move forward with that vendor.

Your ATS

As a less conventional way to find learning providers, ask HR if you can search through their Applicant Tracking System (ATS).

Job applicants often add certificates earned from online education providers to their resumes, especially if that provider delivered a skill necessary for the applicant to land the job. With some simple search terms, your ATS can pick this up from resumes that have been scanned in the system.

If these delivered the skills necessary for that employee to succeed, then these could be good sources for you to explore for employees who need training.

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The Pros and Cons of Off the Shelf Learning