Skip to main content

Online Courses: (Often) Free and Just Awesome!

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” -Socrates.

 [UPDATED Mar. 2021]

Acquiring knowledge has been a hobby of mine since 4th grade, so it's no surprise that I'm the proverbial "kid in the candy store" when it comes to online courses!   As of writing, I have followed over 20 so far, and trying to decide what the next one will be...

Utopia or Dystopia?

You ever find yourself imagining the future, and wondering whether it'll turn out to be “utopian” or “dystopian”?
Well, the state of higher education in the United States is decisively dystopian, with its absurdly ballooned costs and runaway student loans (a “bubble” that may burst sooner or later, mark my words!),  BUT there’s a counterpoint that is decisively utopian, namely the explosive rise of free online courses 😊

Here’s a brief 2012 Ted talk about the rise of free online courses, dated but still of interest.
The gist of that TED talk is that online learning has come a long way from its early days. While some courses are simply a video recording of lectures, others offer optional quizzes, discussion forums, graded papers, certificates, etc.

Links to the Free Online Courses

For actual courses, check out some of the providers.  The ones I’ve had positive personal experience with include:
Others I know of – but haven’t tried myself – include:
A place I heard about, but have no direct experience with personally, is a fully accredited – and virtually free – university that offers Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees in a handful of fields, incl. Computer Science, Health Science and Business Administration, as well as an MBA program:

Great Courses, but Organizations that are Questionable/Sketchy/Incredibly Annoying

I'm generally in favor of the increasingly-common "freemium" model, whereby the courses are free but "certificates" and the like require payment.  

However, some organizations are too aggressive in their up-sell, and at times engage in questionable/sketchy practices - such as making past courses just disappear, or locking you out of them!

Sadly, I had to relocate to this category:

  • Coursera  
    I have taken good courses from them in the past, but cannot recommend them at the moment, because at times they inactivate and hide past courses.  Beware that your favorite course could disappear at any time, even while you're in the middle of taking it! I contacted customer support, but instead of an answer, I got a marketing pitch; further complaining on my part failed to get them to release a copy of a fabulous course that to my chagrin they've made disappear!
    Avoid Coursera, if you can....
      If you can't, be on high alert : your course could disappear at any moment, without notice; consider downloading everything, including the videos, if you really like the course

  • [Mar. 2021 UPDATE]   Edx
    While in the middle of taking a course, it kept pestering me that all access would be lost on that particular course, unless I upgraded to a paid certificate program. 
    When that date arrived, I simply created a new account, and resumed the course where I had left off - with a "fresh start" and a new date it now pesters me about.  Khan Academy, are you trying to emulate the obnoxious side of Coursera??  I emailed them about this, but received no answer.
    On a side note, I find the navigation on EdX to be rather confusing.

Organizations, if you want to charge for courses, charge.  But please don't be slimy about it!

Not to Overlook: Modestly-Priced Courses

 Several exists, but in a special category by itself is:
The “Great Courses” offerings aren’t free, and in fact used to be rather expensive, but the company re-invented itself as “The Great Courses PLUS”: with a modest subscription price, it’s “all-you-can-watch” from a fairly large offerings (think Netflix streamed.)

I used to think that paid courses were passé in this age of free online courses, but the modest monthly cost of The Great Courses Plus, their consistently superb professors & production value, and their  fairly wide-ranging offerings make it worthwhile.  Lectures are typically in very “bite-size” 30-minute segments.
Something I especially like about their format is their intermediate level,  typically well beyond a good documentary (or even a series of documentaries) but less involved than a full-fledged college course.  That’s perfect for someone like me, who often finds documentaries too elementary, but doesn’t always have the time or desire to plunge into full-fledged college-level courses.  Over the years, I have taken 22 of their courses so far!

Specialty Modestly-Priced Courses

On occasion I come across some, but have no direct knowledge of any.  For example, ContinuEd offers specialized courses in subjects such as Audiology, Speech-Language Therapy and Early Childhood Ed for $99/yr.

What are Online Classes? 

Some of the above organizations, such as and, are aggregators of courses from various sources.  Some, such and The Great Courses Plus, seem to design their own curriculum.  Others, such as MIT, are individual universities.

Older courses are simply videotaped lectures. But newer courses are made-for-video, and often include optional homework and many other extras, such as quizzes, discussion forums, graded papers, certificates.
Some are archived classes (already took place, but you can take them at your own time), while others are real-time (but you can fall behind if you want.)
Some are targeted to people who simply love learning – the Great Courses Plus is a perfect example of that – while others are targeted to college students, or high-school students, etc.

Alternatives or Supplement to College?

Are you thinking of going (back) to college? Or just thirsty for knowledge?
First, you might want to check out the many excellent free online courses, especially before you enslave yourself  to pay out-of-your-nose for absurdly high tuition!

You might be able to get college transfer credits or a certificate of completion, if that matters to you…  Some courses offer certificates upon request – if you complete the homework and other requirements.  I don’t know how transferable the credits are… and it’s probably going to be a hot issue in flux for some years to come…  but, if you acquire knowledge in any manner, you can perhaps use it to get college credit by exam.  (Check with your school, of course.)
Fully-accredited online schools, such as University of the People, also seem to be making their appearance – though I’m seeing limited choices so far.
I certainly don’t advocate replacing schools with online learning… but the latter can serve many great roles. In particular, they’re perfect for someone like me who loves learning just for the pleasure of knowledge, and has already done college and graduate school.

Are Online Courses Right for You?

Of course, online courses require one to be self-directed.  It’s a personality trait that comes naturally to some people.  Personally, I knew that about myself from a young age – I was reading Einstein’s popular science books on Relativity in elementary school, lol.  But what if being self-directed isn’t your strong suit?  I suppose it might be cost-effective to hire a P/T tutor, or a few different tutors, to help give you direction and discipline (maybe also hire a Dominatrix on the side??), as well as help with course materials.

Free Online Courses Rock!

In short, enjoy them casually as in-depth documentaries… or take them seriously as college courses… or anything in-between!
Shop around for fascinating subjects and awesome profs, from all over the country and abroad! Fill up gaps in your knowledge, venture into new horizons…
And nothing beats the pleasure of pausing or “firing” the prof, or watching in bed in your pajama!

Examples of Excellent Courses

As I said, I feel like the proverbial kid in the candy store!  I have taken about 20 [Jan. 2021 update: 27] online courses so far, just for fun and Love of Knowledge. 

I list and briefly describe them in a separate blog entry : most have trailers; check them out, and maybe some will catch your fancy!  Physics, History, Earth Sciences, Finance, Music, Math, Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Engineering, Psychology, etc...


Popular posts from this blog

Graph Databases (Neo4j) - a revolution in modeling the real world!

(UPDATED 11/2022) - I was "married" to Relational Databases for many years... and it was a good "relationship" full of love and productivity - but SOMETHING WAS MISSING! Let me backtrack.   In college, I got a hint of the "pre-relational database" days...  Mercifully, that was largely before my time, but  - primarily through a class - I got a taste of what the world was like before relational databases.  It's an understatement to say: YUCK! Gratitude for the power and convenience of Relational Databases and SQL - and relief at having narrowly averted life before it! - made me an instant mega-fan of that technology.  And for many years I held various jobs that, directly or indirectly, made use of MySQL and other relational databases - whether as a Database Administrator, Full-Stack Developer, Data Scientist, CTO or various other roles. But there were thorns in the otherwise happy relationship The root cause: THE REAL WORLD DOES NOT REALLY RESEMBLE THE

Life123 : Quantitative Modeling of Biological Systems

(UPDATED 8/2022) - Are we ready to embark on a next-generation detailed quantitative modeling of complex biological systems , including whole-cell simulations?  An anticipated up-jump in computing power may be imminent from Photonics computers (which I discuss here ), and GPU's are rapidly gaining power as well...  Are we in ready state to put existing - and upcoming - power to good use? This is a manifest, and a call to action What's Life123? It's about detailed quantitative modeling of biological systems in 1-D, 2-D and full 3-D, as well as a multi-faceted software platform for doing so. What's (pseudo-)1D?  For now, let's say it's like the inside of a long, thin tube - with no interactions with the tube.  Likewise, (pseudo-)2D can be thought of as a Petri dish, with no interactions with the lid or the bottom. Website : A purposeful decision to also utilize 1D and 2D But why?  Yes, it's in part about "walk before you run&quo

Discussing Neuroscience with ChatGPT

UPDATED Feb. 2023 - I'm excited by ChatGPT 's possibilities in terms of facilitating advanced learning .  For example, I got enlightening answers to questions that I had confronted when I first studied neuroscience.  The examples below are taken from a very recent session I had with ChatGPT (mid Jan. 2023.) Source: In case you're not familiar with ChatGPT, it is a very sophisticated "chatbot" - though, if you call it that way, it'll correct you!  'I am not a "chatbot", I am a language model, a sophisticated type of AI algorithm trained on vast amounts of text data to generate human-like text'. UPDATE:  this article focuses on some of the impressive abilities of ChatGPT.  For a good glimpse of its weaknesses, in the context of poor intuition about Physics, as well as Math errors, check out this great short video:  ChatGPT does Physics For a high-level explanation of how ChatGPT actually works -

D3 Visualization with Vue.js : a powerful alliance (when done right!)

[UPDATED MAY 2022]  D3.js is a very powerful visualization tool, especially for specialized/custom needs...  On the flip side, it's rather hard to use - with a steep learning curve. Even worse if one also wants interactivity ! But why is D3 so hard/clunky to use?  And what can be done about it? Spoiler alert: Vue.js (or other modern front-end framework) to the rescue - if done right... All code in the examples is available in this GitHub repository . The Root of the Problem In a nutshell, what makes D3 awkward to use is that, for historical reasons, it tries to do too much : most painfully, it uses an old way to do direct DOM manipulation (i.e. restructuring the page layout) - an operation that nowadays is superbly handled in a far more friendly way by modern front-end frameworks, such as Vue.js Document Object Model ( DOM ) is a programming interface for web documents.  In simple terms, it's the structure of the elements on a web page (text, images, etc.) Let the front-e

To Build or Not to Build One’s Own Desktop Computer?

“ VALENTINA ” [UPDATED JUNE 2021] - Whether you're a hobbyist, or someone who just needs a good desktop computer, or an IT professional who wants a wider breath of knowledge, or a gamer who needs a performant machine, you might have contemplated at some point whether to build your own desktop computer. If you're a hobbyist, I think it's a great project.  If you're an IT professional - especially a "coder" - I urge you to do it: in my opinion, a full-fledged Computer Scientist absolutely needs breath, ranging from the likes of Shannon's Information Theory and the Halting Problem - all the way down to how transistors work. And what about someone who just needs a good desktop computer?  A big maybe on that - but perhaps this blog entry will either help you, or scare you off for your own good! To build, or not to build, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of OEM's cutting corners and limit

Brain Microarchitecture : Feedback from Higher-order areas to Lower-order areas

Some questions that arise in Machine Learning involve the prospect of using feedback from Higher-order areas (downstream) to Lower-order areas (upstream), and using Global Knowledge for Local Processing.  A desire to gain insight into those issues from Neuroscience ("how does the brain do it?") led me to some fascinating investigations into the Microcircuits of the Cerebral Cortex.  This blog entry is a broad review of the field, in the context of the original motivating questions from Machine Learning.   Starting out with a quote from the “bible of Neuroscience”: From Principles of Neural Science, 5th edn  (Online book location 1435.3 / 5867).  Emphasis and note added by me: Sensory pathways are not exclusively serial; in each functional pathway higher-order areas project back to the lower-order areas from which they receive input. In this way neurons in higher-order areas, sensitive to the global pattern of sensory input, can modulate the activity of neurons in lowe

A "Seismic Shift" in Longevity Science : Mainstream Acceptance + Large Funding

"You are incredibly prescient!"   I woke up to those words from a former colleague on Jan. 19, 2022: the bombshell announcement that the Chief Science Officer of pharma giant GSK, where I worked until recently, will become the CEO at the new, $3 BILLION longevity science company Altos (presumably also funded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos.) Big Pharma is at long last embracing Longevity Science. The corollary: longevity science is entering Mainstream (with capital "M") But let me backtrack... The Decade of Longevity Science When Harvard professor David Sinclair declared the 2020's to be the " decade of the paradigm shift about age reversal ", one could perhaps be dismissive of it as just an outburst of enthusiasm... But in the past couple of years, we're seeing strong evidence that his forecast is right on the mark! While I worked at GlaxoSmithKline - a giant, top-10, pharma company - I vigorously advocated forming a Longevity Science dept., and sp

PET/CT Combined Scanners - a 2018 Breakthrough of the Year... and a Personal Story

Image source Recently, a co-worker in her 20's was diagnosed with a brain tumor!  At times like these, the importance of medical imaging jumps to the fore! Most people have heard of CT ("CAT") scanners – at least enough to know that they don't actually involve cats – but less well-known are PET scanners (which likewise don't involve pets!), and the synergistic combination of the two. A Marriage Made in Heaven What do those scanners do?  And why are they being combined in single devices? Voted 2018 Breakthrough of the Year by a science magazine , the improved PET/CT combined scanner has been a game changer. The EXPLORER PET/CT scanner – the world’s first medical imaging system that can capture a 3D image of the entire human body simultaneously – has produced its first human images. Developed by UC Davis scientists and a multi-institutional consortium, EXPLORER can scan up to 40 times faster, or use up to 40 times less radiation dose, than

RDF Triple Stores vs. Property Graphs : How to Attach Properties to Relationships

Time for the opening shot of a series about Semantic Technology , and in particular contrasting-and-comparing the opposing (but perhaps ultimately complementary) camps of:   RDF Triple Stores , aka Triples-Based Graphs.   For example, Blazegraph or Apache Jena   (Labeled) Property Graphs .  For example, Neo4j or Blazegraph (For this article, I'll assume that you have at least a passing acquaintance with both.  Here is background info on Triplestores and Property Graphs ) It’s my opinion that modeling in terms of Subject/Predicate/Object triples (aka RDF ) might be appealing to mathematicians or philosophers for its minimalist foundation (though a lot of baroque add-on’s quickly come out of the closet!) Modeling in terms of (Labeled) Property Graphs might be appealing to computer scientists, because such graphs appear more usable and less clunky once you start actually doing something with them. Perhaps because I straddle both the Math and CS camps, I’m currently on t

Anti-Aging Research: Science, not Hype

Last updated December 2022 Q: "How is aging a disease?" A: "It's a dynamic system that veers away from its homeostasis (normal equilibrium point): hence a form of slow-progressing illness. Labeling it as 'natural' is a surrender to our traditional state of ignorance and powerlessness, which fortunately is beginning to be changed!" The above is my standard answer to an oft-asked question. The science of aging is by all evidence very misunderstood by the general public.  Hype, misinformation and unquestioned assumptions often prevail, unfortunately. Aging as a systemic breakdown of the body, rather than a series of isolated events and conditions. This 2013 diagram from NIH is a good way to jump-start contemplating the big picture: The diagram originates from the Cell journal: The Hallmarks of Aging   Telomere shortening is perhaps the one most talked about - but just one of several processes.  As stated in the above paper: Each