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Learn: The TAO Blog

3 Ways to Learn New Skills (for free, in your own time!)

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

Skill building. Professional development. Retraining. These phrases may fill you with dread, and understandably so! Anymore, few professionals want to spend their time in grimy hotel conference rooms watching endless PowerPoint presentations. Even worse would be paying tens of thousands of dollars for a degree from a for-profit, online college that may turn out to be a fraud.

conferences not working for you? Find alternatives
Photo credit: Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

Customize your learning to your needs.

Before joining TAO Websites, I was a librarian specializing in business research and free/affordable resources. Another degree--or days at expensive conferences far from my work and family--is not in my immediate plans. But I am a professional lifelong learner dedicated to keeping up the skills I need to do my job. It’s important to me that professional development be:

  • Free, or at least affordable. Too many people end up paying for degrees and credentials that plunge them into a lifetime of debt, as Netflix’s Money, Explained series described in an episode about student debt.

  • Flexible—ideally available 24/7. I’m an adult who already works, has friends, volunteers, and has family responsibilities. Learning needs to accommodate these other important parts of my life.

  • Customized. I don’t want to invest time and money acquiring credentials for skills I already have or don’t need.

To meet my learning needs, I turn to three primary resources: libraries, the web, and community colleges. Here are the key tips and resources about each of these options:

Use the Web.

There’s no shame in Googling, and nothing wrong with using Wikipedia to get a quick overview of a trending new idea! I learn new professional and personal skills on YouTube almost daily, on topics from camping to graphic design. I consider languages one the most transferable skills, and I also look to YouTube for Spanish news and other content to maintain and improve my listening skills. I also make use of free mobile apps like Duolingo and online dictionaries.

Don’t stay in the shallow end.

baby splashing in pool
Photo credit: Derek Thomson on Unsplash

There are drawbacks to only relying on Youtube and Google, though.

  • We all know that the web is full of disinformation. Trusting and spreading outdated or untrue information can damage professional reputations. Be sure to verify the credibility of important claims.

  • You may find that Google results become repetitive, or you only find previews and snippets of the most useful information. It’s easy to get trapped in the shallows on the internet.

Leverage high quality, free learning resources.

Here are a few ways to plunge into the depths of the best free, online learning tools.

Get free online textbooks and whole courses from reputable colleges, universities, and nonprofits. Use free content from colleges and universities. Higher education is making massive investments in OER, or open educational resources. If you like learning from free books, check out the Open Textbook Library. If you want to use syllabi or full courses (many of which rely more on video than text), check out Canvas Commons, one of many places professors share their resources. Coursera and EdX also offer a lot of free course content from top universities, as well as the option to pay to earn degrees and certificates. Nonprofits like Goodwill (GCF Global) and the Khan Academy also provide high-quality, video-based tutorials.

Use free training and documentation from industry leaders. Companies that provide tools and software to industries often provide excellent, and free, documentation and tutorials on how to use these tools. For example, Adobe Creative Cloud is a standard (and fairly complicated) software package for design, and Adobe provides free tutorials. Computer science companies provide cutting-edge educational tools to help learners master their technologies. Microsoft offers many certifications you can earn for free and Cisco also helps you build skills, for free, with their Network Academy.

Check Out the Library.

Did I mention I worked as a librarian? If you haven’t visited your public library since you or your kids went to story time, check them out! Libraries have changed rapidly in the last few decades.

Libraries = free, exclusive learning resources.

Public library cards are usually free to city or county residents, and sometimes community members can also get library cards at local colleges and universities. With your library card you can access ebooks anytime, anywhere. Library websites provide free digital access to large collections of magazines, videos, and trade publications that you would have to pay for if you found them on Google or Amazon. Of course, you can also get print books from your library--and often even from other libraries (this is called interlibrary loan). Before I buy a book for professional learning or fun, I first check to see if I can get it through my library.

Libraries can help you learn core skills and prep for exams. Libraries also offer online learning tools that can help you prepare for exams, learn new skills, and even get badges. Two of my favorite free (to library patrons) tools offered through my local library are:

  • LinkedIn Learning (formerly LinkedIn Learning offers high quality video tutorials with quizzes that allow you to earn badges that you can display on your LinkedIn Profile. I’ve used it to update my skills in graphic and instructional design, and I was very happy with my experience.

  • Learning Express Library. While the interface of Learning Express Library is much clunkier than LinkedIn Learning, I’ve found the tutorials, ebooks, and practice tests in this resource helpful for students I help to prepare for the GED. In addition to college prep and computer skills modules, Learning Express Library’s Career Preparation Center helps you study for exams in cosmetology, culinary arts, real estate, plumbing, teaching, and many other fields.

Check with a librarian in your community today to see what online learning tools you have access to!

Libraries provide technology and teach you to use it. Libraries make sure everyone has access to basic tools like the internet, computers, scanners and printers. Some libraries have maker spaces that provide free access to technologies like graphic design tools, 3D printers, and even sewing machines. Most maker spaces have staff or volunteers who will train you on how to use these tools. This can allow entrepreneurs to learn and test out a new tool or service before fully investing in it. Even if your library doesn’t have a formal Maker Space, they may offer free classes and workshops on topics like email management, office productivity software, and social media.

person holding an octopus made with a 3d printer
Photo credit: Maker[Space]Ship at the San Jose Giants Game by San José Public Library ( is CC BY-SA 2.0.

Explore Your Local Community College.

Some people learn best face-to-face or in traditional classrooms. Maybe you need structure or enjoy learning with others. I like to learn most things online, but Duolingo, textbooks, and TV weren’t getting me where I wanted to be with my conversational Spanish skills. So, I took a placement test at the community college where I worked and enrolled in a remote class (I met with my professor and classmates on Zoom). My Spanish got much better, and I enjoyed the human connection during the dreary months of the pandemic.

Community college classes are affordable or even free.

As a former community college librarian I may be biased, but I think community colleges provide the best college experience for your money. The class sizes tend to be small compared to bigger and pricier universities. Depending on your income, state of residency, and other variables, you may be able to take community college classes for free.

Community colleges offer options for everyone.

screenshot from the show Community
Photo credit: © NBC Universal

If you are simply trying to learn new skills, study for a certification, or keep up in your profession, then community colleges also offer more options. Most community colleges are open enrollment, so anyone can take classes. They offer short term career training programs targeted at career preparation for working adults. The length of these trainings may be one day, several weeks, or several months. You can get certified in First Aid, become a phlebotomist, or learn to drive a truck professionally. Non-credit community education classes can help you quickly get up to speed on everything from social media to resume creation to conversational Spanish. There may even be small business development centers that will provide you with free advice and resources.

In short...

Know what you need.

There are so many options for learning now: online and in-person, at fixed times (synchronous) or anytime (asynchronous), free or expensive, for credentials or not, through books or videos. Take a moment to reflect on what you are trying to get out of your education before you start looking.

Look into how an educational service is funded. You (or someone else) might be “paying” for it already!

Public colleges and universities (including community colleges) and libraries are free or affordable because they’re taxpayer-funded. Nonprofits rely on donors rather than tuition dollars. Software companies provide free training because they want you to use their tools.

Why are for-profit colleges (think the now-defunct ITT) so expensive? Because they rely on student tuition not only to operate, but also to aggressively market, increasing their enrollments and profits. This doesn’t mean for-profit educational opportunities are never the right option, but at least consider other choices that may spend more on your education and less on marketing.

Use free tools to preview career paths and pick up microskills quickly.

Even if you do ultimately decide to pay for a pricier option like a degree or a conference in Hawaii, free resources can help you prepare, gain confidence, and make sure you’re on the right path. Oftentimes I need to learn to do something very specific very quickly, like repair my printer or phone. In those cases, free tools are perfect for the job!

These are just some of the tools and methods that work for me and the people I’ve helped. I hope you’ll share ways you stay current in your field or learn new skills in the comments!

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