The need to keep skill sets and knowledge up to date is crucial in many industries and professions -- IT, medicine, legal, education, accounting and finance, lobbying or policy advocacy, and a range of government-related professions to name a few.
Professional development has always come in a range of different forms, from classes to reference books to interactive learning software. Gaining access to these resources has traditionally been a mixed bag. Some companies provide training opportunities internally or pay for employees to take pre-selected classes. Others leave the entire process and cost to the worker.
But just like with a lot of technology tools, the power is shifting to the user.
New learning and training systems are empowering workers to take control of their professional development in ways that were impossible a decade ago. They're also making it a lot cheaper, or even free -- a radical change from the status quo just a couple of years ago.
Here's where the revolution is taking place;
- Conferences -- For many fields, conferences offer excellent professional development opportunities as well as networking opportunities. Although industry and vendor conferences aren't new, major factors are opening up the conference experience. As consumer technologies have become common in the workplace, many new vendors are developing their own user conferences or one-day events that offer a deep dive into specific technologies and resources. Often these events are easier to attend than larger conferences associated with massive trade shows and offer a more intimate and focused learning experience. Another trend is that many conferences are now adopting social media as an integral part of the conference experience. This offers two major new advantages. First, allows attendees to maximize the learning and networking potential of a conference. Second, social media content from attendees and speakers can provide a way to gain information and insight for those not able to attend.
Conference videos and related content -- Many conferences now record all or part of their sessions and make them available online to professionals unable to attend the event. In many cases these resources are made freely and publicly available, which dramatically expands the potential for individuals to gain knowledge from a conference's content.
- Webinars -- Many companies, professional organizations, and industry groups provide free online presentations or classes. These are often one-time stand alone events that tackle a specific topic or technology. Often they center on a PowerPoint presentation delivered over the Internet to a web browser or native app along with live or recorded audio. Although narrower in focus than most training classes or conference tracks, webinars can be great ways to learn about products, practices, and trends affecting specific markets and professions.
MOOCs -- Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been big news over the past several months. Pioneered by organizations like Coursera and Udacity, MOOCs include college and university classes recorded and presented for free to anyone with an Internet connection. More than simple lecture recordings, MOOCs include required reading, projects, and essays that are reviewed and graded by fellow students using a peer-review approach. Most MOOCs also include online discussion forums and some have even spawned in-person meet ups and study groups. Although a great resource, MOOCs are still new on the scene and are somewhat experimental. Most offer a certificate of completion at the end of the course, but not college credit or industry certification although that is changing as schools explore and test ways to offer credit to MOOC students.
- iTunes U -- While MOOCs are gaining ground as a learning and professional development, Apple's iTunes U has been offering similar features for quite some time. The service allows colleges and universities around the world (as well as some K-12 schools and non-academic institutions) to make recorded lecture content from classes available to anyone and everyone at no cost. iTunes U offers hundreds of thousands of recorded lectures on virtually every discipline or topic imaginable. Early in 2012, Apple expanded iTunes U beyond simple lecture recordings to include reading assignments, electronic textbooks, presentations, and links to class web content, creating an even more useful and comprehensive experience, though the majority of classes are still lecture-only. One drawback is that access to that new integrated course experience is restricted to iOS devices and the iTunes U app. That said, lecture content can still be downloaded through the iTunes Store and played on a Mac or PC through iTunes.
Internet course materials - iTunes U isn't the only source for online college content. Many schools and professors make lectures available as podcasts and/or publish them on YouTube. Often a school or class website can point you to that content. Some organizations also specialize in developing independent content and bill themselves as free colleges. The most well known of these are Open University and University of the People. Other services like Lecture Fox, Academic Earth, the Open Courseware Consortium, and Open Culture focus on aggregating lecture content into in a single catalog similar to iTunes U.
- Training sites -- In addition to college and university content, there are a number of excellent non-academic training sites. The most well known is Lynda.com, which offers a range of training classes that include excellent instructor-led lectures and demonstration videos along with optional hands on exercises. The service currently offers more than 1,500 classes across a range of technology and business topics to individuals and organizations via a handful of subscription options. The lesser known Universal Class offers similar content via a mix of free and fee-based options across a wide range of subjects. Many technology vendors also offer online training resources. Microsoft Virtual Academy is one excellent example.
Digital textbooks -- Digital textbooks are available for many higher education topics from a handful of sources. Although the digital textbook market is primarily designed for students attending college, many textbooks are available to anyone who wants to purchase them. That provides up to date knowledge about virtually any topic available, which can be good if you're building your skill or knowledge set or looking to update knowledge from the textbooks that you used in college. Digital textbooks are available from Apple's iBookstore, Amazon's Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble's Nook Study program (Nook Study textbooks can only be viewed on a PC or Mac, not a Nook tablet or ereader), and Kno, which specializes in electronic textbooks that can be used on an iPad, Android device, PC, or through a web viewer.
- Safari Books Online -- If you're looking to add or update technology skills, an excellent resource is Safari Books Online. This subscription service that launched in 2001 is offered by a consortium of major technology publishers. A subscription provides access to incredible library of technology books across every key topic and skill level along with some video content, short digital-only ebooks, and access to new books while they are still being written, a feature known as rough cuts.
Brick and mortar training facilities -- Training and certification programs exist in many fields, including IT. Many industries that require professional certifications develop training and testing facilities for workers to attain those certifications as well as to to update or renew them as time goes on. For many professions, these facilities are associated with higher education institutions including community colleges, for year schools, and universities. They can also be offered by industry organizations, government agencies, or standalone training centers.
- Traditional online schools -- The University of Phoenix pioneered the fully online college/university experience decades ago. The model, adopted by many other for-profit colleges as well as some traditional universities, has been one of the most widely used professional development resources. Although online schools aren't new, they are a major resource for workers looking at a career transition or who need a specific degree to pursue career options in their existing field.
Beyond all these training options that are provided by various institutions and professional sources, there's a wealth of information and training options out there on the Internet. YouTube alone offers thousands of instructional videos on anything you might want to learn about -- personally or professionally. Wikipedia, while not a scholarly source, is a great reference tool. LinkedIn and other social networks make it possible to connect with individuals and resources directly or through profession-specific groups. Industry-specific organizations, unions, companies, and individuals make a lot of information available to anyone who needs it, often without called it training or education content.
There has never been a better time in the history of employment to find information, training, and professional development resources.