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Free Online Courses: Resources, Lectures, and More

By Brendan Conway updated on Monday, January 28, 2013

When things are free, they just feel better, don't they? That's true even in the world of education. And as it turns out, there are great options for "free" in education that you may never have heard about.

I'm talking, here, about free online courses. Not just any free online courses, either. Free online courses from accredited, established, respected universities. Collegiate level academic courses, made available online, for your consumption, at your will.

There's a whole cavalcade of options out there if you're looking for free college courses from good universities. Different organizations, different individual colleges, and more are all offering up the goods for you, if you know where to look.

The Open Courseware Consortium
The OpenCourseWare Consortium was established in 2008, and now includes colleges and universities from across the world. The Consortium collects and offers free course materials online, for anyone to consume. The Consortium was founded by MIT and a number of other universities, and it has only grown over the years.
 
Through the OpenCourseWare Consortium, you may be able to find just the course for that thing you were interested in. Want to know more about how 17th century scientific and cultural thought relates to the modern world? Who doesn't? Fortunately, the Consortium has the right course for us 17th-century lovers. 

Want another example of what you can get through the Open Courseware consortium? Take a look at "Mathematics in Toys and Games" .

This is one of the courses offered in MIT's OpenCourseWare Consortium, and it can probably keep you occupied for some time. Or maybe drive you a bit insane. See, you might think this one's innocuous. "Mathematics? In toys and games? Hah! Such trifles cannot affect me," you say. But then you go look at some of the resources offered through the consortium, and you find out all about the complexities involved in the strategy of Risk, and you read topics such as "Surreal numbers" or "Dynamic programming with impartial games," and you learn about the creation of a four-dimensional Rubik's hypercube.  And you sit back in your chair, eyes wide. Mind blown.

And all of it for free.

You can check out some more courses from MIT here.

Open Yale Courses
Yale University started up its own program for free courses in December 2007. Open Yale Courses only has 35 courses available right now on its website, and they're taken from the offerings of Yale's introductory courses. But, that said… Free courses. From Yale. You need to hear more?

Okay, fine, a bit more.

Open Yale Courses provides overviews of individual class sessions, along with video recordings, audio recordings, and transcripts of those class sessions. There are some restrictions on what Yale can and cannot release in these recordings, due to copyright issues, but even so, you're getting most of a full lecture from Yale University. Some courses have up to 25 or more recordings of class sessions.

Some of the courses offered up by Open Yale Courses right now include "Introduction to Ancient Greek History," "Game Theory," "Cervantes' Don Quixote," and even "Death." 

Okay, let me just say it again, just to make sure you get it.

Free, recorded college courses. From Yale University.

Just sayin'.

Open Education Resources Commons Initiative
The Open Education Resources Commons Initiative was established in February of 2007 with the hopes of compiling and facilitating the use of open educational resources. That term, "open educational resources," is another way to refer to free courses, though it is a bit more complex; specifically, open educational resources are freely available to all of those who would use them. A teacher could use open educational resources as much as a student could.

The Open Education Resources Commons Initiative offers course materials for students and for teachers on courses and topics ranging the educational spectrum from kindergarten up all the way through college courses. The OER Commons has peer-reviewed electronic textbooks, lecture videos, interactive lessons, and more. Its partners include Harvard University Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the National Science Digital Library, and Encyclopedia of Earth.

Open Learning Initiative
Think you've got enough open and free resources for learning? You do? Come now, that's silly talk. You can never have enough!

The Open Learning Initiative is a little different from some of the other resources we've talked about above. Instead of simply compiling and offering up open educational resources in a single database, the Open Learning Initiative actually creates its own courses and materials for use by interested students and educators.

The Open Learning Initiative offers Open & Free courses, which are designed for would-be students who want to learn at their own paces, without instructors, with no costs, and Academic courses, which are designed to be taught with an instructor. That second type isn't really accessible to all comers over the Internet as a result, but the OLI's Academic courses are being taught all around the world, at universities like Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, and Cal Poly.

Open and Free courses offered by OLI range across a variety of topics, including chemistry, logic, foreign languages, and more. 

Academic Earth
By the end of this article, you're going to have enough free academic resources to gorge your brain for the rest of the days. We want your brain to get corpulent -- on knowledge! (I should write slogans for some of these resources.)

Academic Earth is another database of lectures and resources collected from top scholars around the world. The goal of the organization is to provide high-quality education to everybody around the globe, free of cost, and they're making it happen, too. They compile resources from many of the top schools worldwide, like Columbia, PrincetonHarvard, Yale, NYU, and more. They offer full lecture and course videos, organized by subject, university, instructor, and into playlists for easy consumption. (You can just hear your brain going om nom nom already, can't you?)

They have lectures from a few months ago, and lectures from ten years ago. They have lectures on economics, natural science, philosophy and morality, and even simply college survival. They let you download their courses, either in direct download format, or in podcast format. They even provide their courses with letter grades, so you know which ones are tops.

It's a brain buffet over there. Get to the scarfing!

I'm suddenly hungry. 

Livemocha
Livemocha is a bit different from some of the other courses and resources above. Instead of being a repository of academic information, recorded lectures, and other such goodies, Livemocha actually offers you the opportunity to learn a language from regular people, just like you. Well, not just like you, because they're liable to be from a different part of the globe. But pretty much like you.

Livemocha connects people with others worldwide in order to foster language education. It functions pretty much like this:

  • You put in what language you speak.
  • You put in what language you want to learn.
  • You're presented with a tremendous number of potential resources and courses.
  • You learn what you want.
  • You provide your own contributions as a learned speaker of your own language in order to help other people learn your tongue.
  • Profit.

Learn a new language, help others learn your language, and get it all for free. Really. Who's going to argue with that?

Well, if you used Livemocha, you could. In multiple languages.

What you might miss out on with a free course
Free courses are great and all, but there are a few things that, sadly, you'd be missing out on if all you ever did was take advantage of free resources. The benefits of a class session, complete with other students and a professor, are not to be underestimated. Discussion with professors and other students can deepen your learning in ways that simply aren't available without the discussion.

Also, all you're going to get out of these free online courses is a solid education. That may be more than enough for you, but sometimes you'll want to get the actual degree or certification associated with a college education. In those cases, free online courses just aren't going to cut it.

None of that should discourage you from taking full advantage of all the great, crunchy learning you can find with the above resources.

Heard of any other cool, free college courses? Have any stories of success with free college courses that you'd like to share? Drop us a line on our Facebook page
 

About the Author

Brendan Conway is the Web Content Editor for Peterson's Interactive and is well-versed in the world of higher education and admissions. He is a graduate of Hamilton College, and has been working in admissions advice, test-prep advice, career planning advice, and similar fields for the majority of his career since graduation. Brendan endeavors to provide the most relevant, useful, and interesting information via Peterson's Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ feeds. Brendan enjoys lexicological oddities and voraciously reading in his free time.

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