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Distance Education

How to Learn Just About Anything Online — for Free

From academic courses to music lessons, you won’t have to spend a nickel on class fees.

Stan Peirce had been looking for new pursuits after a long career as an electrical engineer with Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, Tenn. Then, last year, while searching the Internet, he stumbled on nearly 2,000 academic courses that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had put online. Peirce saw MIT’s offerings—its OpenCourseWare project complete with syllabuses, assignments, exams and, in many cases, audio or video lectures—as nothing short of an educational gold mine.

“I couldn’t believe all of this was available—for free,” he says.

Welcome to “e-learning.” Curious about world history or quantum physics? Want to stretch your mind by learning to speak a new language or to play the accordion? Need to fix a leaky faucet or teach your dog to behave? Now you can learn just about anything you want to learn without setting foot in a classroom.

Years ago the Internet paved the way for learning online from schools that charged tuition for their courses. And they still do, for academic credit. But e-learning is different. Though it doesn’t earn you credits, it does allow you to learn pretty much on your own schedule, without spending a nickel on class fees.

Wave of the Future

Dan Colman, who directs Stanford University’s continuing studies program, sees no end to the growth of e-learning opportunities. Colman, who founded and edits Open Culture, a website that tracks free educational and cultural media on the Web, considers these materials to be an important resource for personal enrichment, not a replacement for a college education. “I think we’re entering an era where lifelong learners will have access to limitless amounts of free, noncommercial educational opportunities. Arguably, we’re already there.”

And still moving forward, if Congress passes President Obama’s $50 million proposal to develop new “open online courses” at community colleges as part of his American Graduation Initiative, announced in July. Curtis J. Bonk, author of The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education, calls Obama’s plan “so spot-on in terms of what’s needed,” particularly because it focuses on community colleges rather than the elite universities that have led the e-learning movement. The measure passed the U.S. House of Representatives but is stalled in the Senate.

The E-Learning Curve

After discovering MIT’s free online courses, Stan Peirce soon became a student again. His first stop: linear algebra, as taught by Gilbert Strang, a renowned mathematician and MIT professor. Then came other classes in math, chemistry and physics, all building on the biology degree he earned in 1972 but never put to use.

He’s now paying for credited courses at his local community college to become a medical laboratory technician and, at 62, is eager to get back into the workforce.

“I feel like the MIT site has helped me decide what to do with my life for the next few years,” he says.

Getting Started

 

Here are a few tools and tips to keep you at the head of your e-learning class.

What kind of Internet connection do I need? Many courses deliver classes in large audio and video files (multimedia files) that you download. That means you’ll definitely want a high-speed Internet connection (cable, DSL, fiber-optic, etc.). Dial-up service is too slow.

How do I play audio and video files? This is sometimes as easy as hitting an onscreen “download” or “play” button. You’ll probably save and organize these files on your computer so that you can use them whenever you want.

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