Although I haven’t seen any official research showing actual numbers, all evidence that I have gathered from the people I work with and talk to indicates that training dollars have been some of the first to disappear from budgets in the current economic climate. Of course, there’s still training going on, but more classes than usual are being cancelled, and classes are smaller.

Even training events (as opposed to formal training classes) are feeling the pinch. TechEd Australia was so desperate for registrations that they offered registrants a free netbook. (You can read about the offer at www.istartedsomething.com/20090630/teched-australia-attendees-free-hp-mini-windows-7.) The offer must have worked because Microsoft is considering TechEd Australia to be "full" and is taking new registrations only for a waiting list.

Doesn’t education itself have a value? Do you need freebies to sign up for training events? The first time I met Bill Gates in person, about 18 years ago, was at a meeting of training managers from software vendors around the country. Bill spoke to us about how valuable he though education was, and he was disappointed in how little money was being spent on employee education. Of course, at the time he had a very vested interest in the money aspect, as Microsoft ran its own public training facilities. Shortly after that, Microsoft outsourced all its training to Authorized Technical Education Centers (ATECs) but continued to develop training materials and certifications. Microsoft also began publishing information online and has a very major web presence today. Public help forums, sponsored by Microsoft, provide training on a one-off basis, with experts available to answer questions 24/7. Microsoft continues to make more and more information available online, with new white papers being published almost weekly.

In addition to Microsoft’s website, vendors are frequently publishing white papers and other educational information, and technical blogs are proliferating at a rapid rate. With so much free information available online, do people expect not to have to pay for knowledge or training? And it’s not just online training that’s free. Free one-day SQL Server training events are being offered through "SQL Saturday," which you can read about at www.sqlsaturday.com.

If training is free, how are the people who provide the training supposed to earn a living? Obviously, I’m not just a casual observer here. I make my living primarily by training, but because I have a very focused topic area, with not a lot of competition, I’m not suffering too bad. But classes are smaller, and requests for private training are fewer. For years, I have been thinking about how I could incorporate online training into my business model, but having to compete with all the free content available, I think it would be a tough road.

In an ideal world, the people offering training or educational material would be those who spent most of their time using the products on real systems and solving problems that they could then discuss in their articles or presentations. Although this training can happen at conference-type events, most of the people I know who work on real systems full time don’t have additional time for writing, or for the in-depth research needed to present a good training course. The full-time SQL Server developers or DBAs are the ones who are looking for good educational resources to answer their in-depth questions. So there’s a need for people who primary work at developing and delivering content and have the time and the resources to put together the best training experience.

I believe there’s a place for both free content and formal training events and classes. White papers and other online content are usually very specific and deal with very specific topics. If you know what your questions are, AND you can find a source that can answer them, you’re in luck. But for new users who don’t even know where to start, or for more experienced users who want to go to the next level but don’t know what they don’t know yet, more formal training with a live, interactive instructor might be needed.

Of course, quality can vary. Whether you’re looking at free training or paid training, some sources are excellent and some are not. There are blog posts that contain incorrect information or make suggestions that go against best practices. People are answering questions on newsgroups who really don’t know what they’re talking about. But the good news about the online sources is that they’re public, and chances are that if the information provided is incorrect or inappropriate, someone will post a comment or reply to point out this fact.

Some people say, "You get what you pay for," to indicate that the free resources are of lower quality. I don’t completely agree with this; it should be more like "You get back what you put in." If you’re paying for training, you still need to put in time to find out the background of the content developer and the presenter. If you’re taking advantage of a free resource, you still need to cross-check the information against reality (i.e., test it out when possible) and check multiple resources to look for verifications and/or contradictions. I have always believed the best education is one we have to work for.