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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.

Do I need special software to play files? While many audio and video files can be played with a standard Web browser (like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Mozilla’s Firefox), you’ll often need software specifically for that purpose. The easiest and most popular is Apple’s iTunes. It’s free. Other choices: QuickTime, Apple’s basic playback software (for both Macs and PCs); Windows Media Player, Microsoft’s digital media player and library, which works only on PCs; and RealPlayer by RealNetworks (for both Macs and PCs). All are free, at least in their basic versions.

How can I keep track of all the files? There are lots of ways to organize. You could simply store them on your computer in multiple folders and sub-folders, much like an electronic filing cabinet. If you use iTunes, there are seven built-in “libraries” to help you categorize.

What are podcasts? Think of them as a subscription service for video and audio files. The files you’re interested in are made available to you online for downloading via an automatic “feed.” You can then watch them or listen to them whenever you want, either on your computer or a portable media player.

You mean I can learn on the go? If you want to take your lessons with you—to the gym, on a walk—you can transfer them to a portable media player, such as Apple’s iPod or Microsoft’s Zune HD. Increasingly, smartphones, such as Apple’s iPhone or Motorola’s Droid, are equipped to handle audio and video files. Some even double as eBook readers.

Will I need hard copies of books? For many online university courses, you’ll need textbooks or other titles on the syllabus. Online marketplaces such as AbeBooks.com and Alibris.com typically sell used textbooks for as low as $1 apiece.

Guide to E-Learning Sites

This sampling of e-learning opportunities is generally limited to video-based content that’s meant to be free, without restrictions or catches. Other education and enrichment discoveries are limited only by what your search engine of choice turns up. Or stay on top of new offerings at Open Culture, which scours the Web for free cultural and educational media.

Smorgasbord sites

iTunes U. Apple has been building this online “university” and filling it with free content—at last count, more than 100,000 educational video and audio files—from top universities (London School of Economics), NPR stations (Minnesota Public Radio’s “Grammar Grater,” a weekly podcast about English words, grammar and usage), famous museums and other cultural institutions all over the world.

Academic Earth. Here you’ll find thousands of video lectures from the world’s top scholars—from Yale’s Shelly Kagan on the “Philosophy on Life and Death” to investment banker Stan Christensen and former San Francisco 49er quarterback Steve Young on “Football vs. Business Negotiations.”

YouTube. The rapidly expanding default site for user-generated video now includes an education “channel” called YouTube EDU, with content from top universities and other institutions.

ResearchChannel. Where on the Web can you find Milton Masciadri, professor of double bass at the University of Georgia, discuss the largest and lowest-pitched bowed string instrument used in the modern symphony orchestra? Here! A consortium of leading research and academic institutions share with the public more than 3,500 videos produced by its members.

Videolectures.Net. The site offers video lectures presented by distinguished scholars and scientists at conferences, seminars, workshops and the like. A project of the Jožef Stefan Institute in Slovenia, it has a decidedly international feel.

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