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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 coursera.org and edx.org, are aggregators of courses from various sources.  Some, such KhanAcademy.org 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...

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