Online Learning: Take a Free Course on Anything, Anytime

September 28, 2011

By Marilynne Rudick

Free Online LearningHave you always wanted to study classical music, Renaissance art or game theory? Do you wish you’d gone to Harvard? Now you can study just about anything at Harvard, MIT, Oxford, or your choice of institutions worldwide. Best of all, the courses are online, so you can learn whenever you want.

Thousands of colleges and universities let you earn a degree by taking online courses. As in any degree program, you pay tuition. But even more institutions offer noncredit courses online because of a commitment to lifelong learning. Many of these courses are free.

Online courses vary in format. Most are recorded lectures-audio or video. Many feature renowned experts. You see and hear exactly what the students in the classroom do. You may be able to download course materials and assignments and interact with the instructor and other students via online discussion forums and chat.

How Do You Find the Best Online Courses?

Finding an online course may be as simple as a Google search. For example, Googling online course+ art history turns up 68,000 hits. How do you find the best art history course in this educational haystack?

Online elearning portal sites make finding the right course easy, because many of the courses on these sites are pre-screened. And they may be rated by popularity or graded by students.

Here are some of the best places to find top-flight online courses.

Academic Earth

This site offers 1500 video lectures from top tier universities: MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. For example, you can download an MIT lecture The World Is Flat by New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman. You can take an entire course of 26 lectures on Nonviolence: From Gandhi to Martin Luther King from Berkeley Professor Michael Nagler. Students give letter grades to the courses. That can help you determine which courses are worth your time.

OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCW)

This consortium offers more than 6000 high-quality, free university-level courses from 64 institutions. Courses are offered in 12 languages, including French, Spanish Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Hebrew. You can search the course database by subject, language or institution. You can take Ethical Issues in Public Health at Johns Hopkins, Ancient and Medieval Philosophy at Notre Dame, and Atomic Physics at African Virtual University. You can download the syllabus, readings and lecture notes. Open CourseWare Consortium Communities is a companion to OCW. It offers course-related discussion forums.

iTunes U

If you can’t find a course on a topic of interest on Academic Earth or OpenCourseWare, check out iTunes U, the behemoth of online learning. Over 800 institutions offer more than 150,000 elearning opportunities. Courses may be offered as audio, video or both. Taking a course is as easy as downloading a song from iTunes. You can download a course to your computer, iPhone or iPad. Choose something as prosaic as a Music History from McGill University or as esoteric as Chinese Astronomy from the University of Arizona. You can search for courses by subject matter or institution. Everyone can and does offer courses at iTunes U, so the choice can be overwhelming, the quality uneven. You might want to start by browsing the most popular courses. (If you don’t have the iTunes app on your computer, you can download it for free.)

Online learning is a great way to learn anything. You can learn in your pajamas. You don’t have to submit an application, a transcript, or SAT scores. The only requirement is the desire to learn something new.

Marilynne RudickAbout the Author: Marilynne Rudick writes about web tools and technologies in her WebOver50 blog.  She believes the web is wasted on the young, and her blog explains web apps– social networking, blogging, YouTube, and the treasure trove of new web tools—for people like herself: an over50 history major.

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