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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.

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 and 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.

Standalone university sites

webcast.berkeley. The University of California-Berkeley records in lecture halls and classrooms equipped with video- and/or podcast-capture systems. In addition to hundreds of courses, the site offers on-campus lectures, debates, symposiums and other events.

Harvard@home. The site features more than 60 multimedia-rich programs on topics ranging from stem cells to Beethoven.

OpenCourseWare. Here you’ll find 1,800-some academic courses—complete with syllabuses, assignments, exams, and, in many cases, audio or video lectures—that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has put online.

How-to ...

Learning center. Acquire lots of different skills—from organizing your daily life to mastering Google Desktop—from Hewlett Packard’s online classes. Each class includes up to 10 lessons and may also include interactive demos, assignments and quizzes.

WonderHowTo. Curators scour more than 1,700 websites and hand-pick instructional videos—from how to live longer (with University of Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Grey) to teaching your dog to roll over and play dead.

Howcast. Its videos run the gamut from “How to Look Great in Photographs” to “How to Jump-Start Your Car.” Make your own how-to shorts in Howcast’s Emerging Filmmakers Program.

Videojug. This British entry features thousands of “how to” and “ask the expert” videos on a seemingly endless array of topics.

Deep thinkers

TEDTalks. Since 1984, the annual conference that goes by the acronym TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) has brought together some of the world’s top thinkers and doers and challenged them to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes or less. This site aggregates the best of those, including Australian science writer Margaret Wertheim’s presentation about the beautiful mathematical links among coral, crochet and hyperbolic geometry.

Nobel Prize winners. The online home of the Nobel Prizes is packed with interviews with and lectures by some of the world’s smartest people. There’s an interview, for example, with Italian neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, the first Nobel laureate to reach the age of 100. (She and a colleague won the 1986 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery of nerve growth factor.) In it, Levi-Montalcini talks about why this latest period of her life has been the best.

Forum National Network. A consortium of public television and radio stations offers live and on-demand lectures by some of the world’s foremost scholars, authors, artists, scientists, policymakers and community leaders. Recent lecture webcasts included Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot discussing her new book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50. The best starting point for accessing all the multimedia content is through the website of one of its members, the Boston-based WGBH Forum Network.

Big Ideas. This site, courtesy of TVO, Canada’s largest educational broadcaster, presents lectures on a variety of thought-provoking topics that range across politics, culture, economics, art, history, science, and other fields. There’s even a “Best Lecturer Competition.”

Arts and sciences

Health. Three trustworthy stops: WebMD’s Videos A-Z library, which has thousands of videos, catalogued by topic;’s Video Library; and the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Audio/Video Library, which includes interviews with UMMC experts, patient success stories and surgical webcasts.

Languages. The BBC offers audio and video language courses for beginners and intermediates in more than two dozen languages–French, German, Japanese...even Urdu.

Cooking. Tempting sites: “Around the World in 80 Dishes” is a series of video-based cooking classes at; the Culinary Institute of America, the famous school for chefs in Hyde Park, N.Y., offers classes on its YouTube network and its podcasts on iTunes; the Food Network, and the Williams-Sonoma Video Library and Look and Taste, have lots more recipes and how-to videos.

Literature. LibriVox’s goal is to make all books in the public domain available as free audiobooks. Volunteers record the books, chapter by chapter, and release the audio files back onto the net.

Jazz profiles. Take the I-Train to the archive of NPR’s Jazz Profiles, a documentary series hosted by singer Nancy Wilson. You can listen to the shows as podcasts, read profiles of the performers featured in the series and download the playlists for each show.

Finding Your Ancestors. The Mormon Church is well known for its repository of genealogy records, so it makes sense that Brigham Young University would offer online courses in how to research your family history.

History. The online counterpart of television’s History Channel, has a video library well worth checking out. 

Computer programming. Maybe you’ve read about Ethan Nicholas, who earned $800,000 by writing an artillery game called “iShoot” for the iPhone. If you want to try your own hand, consider auditing Stanford’s Computer Science 193P: iPhone Application Programming. The 10-week undergraduate course attracted 150 students for only 50 spots when it was introduced on campus last fall. Online viewers see the same lectures as classroom students.

Bill Hogan lives in Falls Church, Va.

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