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Online Classes Offer Free and Easy Lessons

Just log on and learn whatever interests you

En español | 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.

Wave of the Future

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.

Dan Colman directs Stanford University's continuing studies program and 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."


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.

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.

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.

Learning center. Acquire lots of 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.

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 iTrain 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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