5 Great Places to Access Online Courses for Free

The rapidly evolving realm of online education is ditching its price tag — sort of. Now, a host of websites, independent organizations, and elite universities are serving up free online courses that promise to teach students how to program a robotic car, listen to the music of six world music cultures, or study Greek and Roman mythology. Technology makes it possible, with video lesson segments, YouTube videos, online quizzes, immediate feedback, and self-paced learning embedded in the curriculum.

As David Brooks wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times, "online learning will give millions of students access to the world’s best teachers." As waves of students sign up, these experimental ventures will undoubtedly continue to evolve. For students who do not mind being the guinea pigs, a list of the programs currently available are below:

  1. Coursera. Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan have partnered with the social entrepreneurship company Coursera to offer free online courses available to everyone. Coursera, founded by two Stanford professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, hosts courses from all of these schools, as well as the University of California, Berkeley, in areas such as the humanities, social sciences, medicine, and computer science. Currently, the site lists 45 courses; classes began in April, and several more are scheduled to begin in the coming months. Offerings include classes such as "A History of the World Since 1300," "Modern & Contemporary American Poetry," and "Securing Digital Democracy."
  2. Udacity. Sebastian Thrun, a research professor at Stanford, made headlines earlier this year when he, along with co-founders David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky, began offering free online computer science courses. Together, they founded Udacity, an online learning startup that currently offers six classes: Building a Search Engine; Design of Computer Programs; Web Application Engineering; Programming Languages; Programming a Robotic Car; and Applied Cryptography. To date, they have attracted 200,000 students to these courses.
  3. MIT OpenCourseWare. Launched in 2001, MIT’s OpenCourseWare has grown from a respectable collection of 50 courses to an overwhelming library of more than 2,000. The Web-based program provides free access to course materials at the undergraduate and graduate level. Class listings include "The Architecture of Cairo," "The Solar System," and "Videogame Theory and Analysis." Learners can find syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, and exams on the site. Some course materials also include interactive Web demonstrations, quizzes, complete textbooks written by MIT professors, and video lectures.
  4. iTunesU. iTunesU was created by iTunes to serve students and educators. The service and the downloadable application allows educators to distribute and manage course materials, including video and audio content and PDF files. Individuals can access more than 350,000 downloadable files, including course lectures and lab demonstrations. Member institutions, including New York University, the University of Texas, the Open University, and hundreds more, have their own site on the service. Students can survey classes on European civilization, or stream language learning courses in Chinese, German, Portuguese, and more. These courses might include a syllabus, handouts, presentations, quizzes, and other items.
  5. edX. In early May, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced edX, a new nonprofit venture to offer learning opportunities online. Together, the schools have committed $60 million to the joint venture. The first set of courses will be announced in the summer and will begin in the fall of 2012, when it is expected to offer five courses. Professors will teach classes in engineering, a subject easily adaptable to the online platform, as well as classes in areas that are less frequently tailored to fit the online format, such as humanities courses, in which essays might be graded through crowd-sourcing. The institutions will also use edX to research how students learn online, and how technology can facilitate teaching.

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