Author: Melissa Anderson
Reading Level: Grade 9
Reading Time: 13 minutes, 55 seconds
Original Publication Date: September 2021
Technological advancement in online learning is one thing, but to make online education truly accessible to everyone, financial barriers must be removed. In 2011, the first free online college courses were unveiled. One of these courses, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, taught by Stanford professors Peter Norvig and Sebastien Thrun, garnered enrollment from more than 160,000 students across the globe. E-learning had just made a huge stride. That was only the beginning, however. With the establishment of online learning platforms such as Udacity, edX, and Coursera over the next two years, distance education would reach a fever pitch. Today, over 220 million distance learners are enrolled in over 19,000 different free courses offered by online learning providers like Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn. In this ranking, we’ll highlight our editor’s picks for the top free online courses for adults.
#10—Child Nutrition and Cooking
College: Stanford University
Ideal for new parents or for individuals looking for free online learning resources, Coursera’s Child Nutrition and Cooking provides basic instruction in nutrition as well as simple cooking lessons within the context of family health and wellness. Taught by Stanford School of Medicine lecturer Maya Adam, MD, the course addresses topics such as:
- Childhood Obesity in America
- Stocking a Kitchen Pantry
- Hunger and the Glycemic Index
- Sustainable Eating
This beginner-level course is available entirely online and takes just 11 hours to complete. Nearly 430,000 students have enrolled in this course to date, making it one of our most popular easy college classes to take online.
College: Harvard University
Described as an “introduction to moral and political philosophy,” Justice is one of the most popular free courses for adults currently available. Offered by Harvard University and taught by esteemed Professor of Government Michael Sandel, the class probes enthralling topics surrounding the modern justice system, such as same-sex marriage and affirmative action. It also prepares students to be more effective in philosophical debates. General topics addressed through the course include:
- Criminal Justice
- Social Justice
- Fundamentals of Political Philosophy
- Moral Philosophy
The class is estimated to last approximately 12 weeks, and students are expected to devote 3 to 6 hours per week toward their studies.
#8—The Architectural Imagination
College: Harvard University
For centuries, architecture has fascinated scholars, apprentices, and common bystanders alike. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in the field, or you’ve just always wanted to study architecture, you’ll be happy to learn you can do so for free through edX. The Architectural Imagination is one of the most popular free college courses offered by Harvard University, with nearly 470,000 enrollees to date. This introductory course features topics such as:
- Reading Architecture: Column and Wall
- The Dialectics of Glass and Steel
- Aldo Rossi and Typology
- Hegel and Architectural History
The course is self-paced, but students are advised to devote three to five hours per week to their studies. The estimated completion time is 10 weeks.
#7—Marketing in a Digital World
College: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Whether you work in the field of marketing or are just looking for free online classes for fun, you’re bound to find Coursera’s Marketing in a Digital World captivating. Offered by the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and taught by Professor of Marketing Aric Rindfleisch, this online education class explores how the Internet and social media are transforming the field of marketing as we know it. Topics addressed throughout the duration of the course include:
- Online Shopping
- Sharing Economy
- User Generated Content
- Doppelganger Brands
Students can take this course alone or combine it with other online free courses in the Digital Marketing Specialization.
Cost: $0/79 per month
#6—Fundamentals of Graphic Design
College: California Institute of the Arts
If you’re a creative type, Fundamentals of Graphic Design on Coursera is one of the free courses for adults you won’t want to miss. Offered through the California Institute of the Arts, the course requires 15 hours of study and can be taken alone or as part of the larger Graphic Design specialization. Topics include industry trends such as:
- Design Theory
- Fundamentals of Typography
- Techniques of Imagemaking
- Introduction to Shape and Color
This beginner-level course is taught by Michael Worthington, a faculty member from the Institute’s School of Art.
Cost: $0/49 per month
#5—Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies
College: Princeton University
One of the completely free courses for adults, Princeton University’s Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies is an introductory class for individuals interested in Bitcoin. The course is available completely online and takes just 23 total hours to complete. Topics covered by the course’s curriculum include:
- Mechanics of Bitcoin
- How to Store and Use Bitcoins
- Bitcoin Mining
- The Future of Bitcoin
This extremely popular course is taught by Princeton Associate Professor of Computer Science Arvind Narayanan. No certificate is available, making this one of our free online classes for fun or simply for learning’s sake.
#4—The Science of Happiness
College: University of California-Berkeley
Among the most popular free courses for adults on edX, The Science of Happiness is offered through the University of California-Berkeley. Both instructors for the course are affiliated with the Greater Good Science Center at the university, and topics include:
- What is Happiness?
- Fostering Happiness
- Community and Social Connections
The course is 11 weeks long, and students are expected to devote 4-5 hours per week for successful completion. Over half a million students have enrolled in the course to date.
#3—Rhetoric: The Art of Persuasive Writing and Public Speaking
College: Harvard University
No matter what your professional or personal ambitions, making a convincinthg argument (whether in writing or in speech) is a useful skill to have. Perhaps that’s why Rhetoric: The Art of Persuasive Writing and Public Speaking is one of the most popular free online courses for adults. Available via edX and offered through Harvard University, this inspiring course teaches students how to construct effective arguments and analyze the arguments of others. Key topics addressed by the curriculum include:
- Rhetorical Structure and Style
- Logical Fallacies
- Argument vs Rhetorical Technique
- Using Rhetorical Devices
This introductory humanities class will take approximately 8 weeks to complete, and students should expect to spend between two and three hours per week on course content and assignments.
#2—Stanford Introduction to Food and Health
College: Stanford University
Food and health are two topics that affect us all, so it’s no surprise that Stanford’s Introduction to Food and Health is among the most popular free courses for adults on Coursera. This short, seven-hour course packs a lot of punch in terms of content, covering topics such as:
- History of Obesity
- Contemporary Trends in Eating
- Sensible Substitutions for Cooking
- Reading Nutrition Labels
The course is available at absolutely no charge to enrolled students, though a $39 certificate track is also available. It is taught by Stanford School of Medicine lecturer Maya Adam, MD.
#1—Introduction to Psychology
College: Yale University
You don’t have to be enrolled in a social sciences degree program to be captivated by the subject of human psychology. Perhaps that’s why Yale University’s Introduction to Psychology is one of the most popular free courses for adults available. To date, well over 700,000 individuals have enrolled in this online class, which is taught by Yale Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science Paul Bloom. As its title implies, the course explores foundational topics in psychology as well as industry trends such as:
- The Psychodynamic Approach
- Parts of the Brain
- Classic Conditioning
- Mood Disorders
This beginner-level course is accessible entirely online and takes roughly 15 hours to complete.
About Distance Education: Then and Now
Today, it’s possible to enroll in an online course at one of the hundreds of different online colleges and begin learning right along with on-campus students. Lectures can now be streamed live or recorded for later viewing. Likewise, class discussions and meetings with professors can occur over Zoom or other videoconferencing software. Students no longer have to be present physically in order to reap the benefits of college classes, even from prestigious universities. Cutting-edge technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality stand to further improve and transform distance learning in the future.
Free Online Courses Are for Everyone
Contrary to popular belief, online learning isn’t just for high school or college students. In fact, there are plenty of free courses for students, adults, and senior citizens. Some of these are free courses for credit, while others are simply free online classes for fun.
Types of Free Online College Courses
Not all online courses are offered through universities. Some are made available by corporations, while others are developed by individuals with a passion for a specific subject. Still, you’ll find that a good percentage of free courses for adults are indeed offered through colleges and universities, even highly prestigious universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and MIT, for example.
Benefits of Free Online College Courses for Adults
Aside from the prestige factor, there are several advantages of pursuing free online courses for adults that are offered through accredited colleges and top universities. For example, you’ll have the assurance that the content delivered through these free online college courses is legitimate. Often, these online classes are taught by the same professors who teach similar (if not identical) courses on campus. In many cases, they are tenured faculty members with advanced credentials in their respective fields, even PhDs.
Another benefit of free online learning from a college or university is the potential to earn credit for your work. Not all free online college courses for adults are associated with credit, though, and in many cases, you may have to pay a small fee to receive verification that you’ve successfully completed a course. In our ranking, these fees ranged from approximately $40-$200 per course. Still, this is a much more cost-effective alternative to traditional college enrollment. Credits earned from online college courses can often be applied toward a degree. Some online learning platforms even have entire degree programs that can be completed through low-cost distance education.
Free Online Courses for Adults Seeking Professional Development
Coursera alone has over a thousand free online courses devoted to professional development. These options span various skill levels, subjects, and skills. There are beginner-level classes on project management, as well as advanced classes on data engineering. You can take a quick refresher course in just two hours or devote months to learning a new skill. Similarly, edX offers free online courses for adults looking to upgrade their skills to align with the modern workplace. These courses follow trends and technological advancements in various fields and industries such as:
Like free online college courses for adults, these professional development classes are often free to audit but may come with an additional charge if you desire a certificate of completion or other verification that you’ve taken the course. Sometimes, an employer may require that you show proof that you’ve successfully met all course requirements, or you may want some sort of evidence of professional development to give you an edge when applying for a promotion or new role, for instance.
Free Online Courses for Personal Development
There are many free online learning opportunities that can boost our wellness, relationships, and other aspects of personal development. For example, the second most popular free online course of all time is The Science of Well-Being, offered through Coursera and Yale University. Other popular and free online courses for adults interested in self-improvement include:
- Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects
- The Foundations of Happiness at Work
- A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment
- Let’s Get Emotional: Emotions & Emotional Intelligence
- Conquering Humor Fundamentals
Whether you want to become a more efficient learner, achieve job satisfaction, or even become funnier, it seems there are free online courses to help you reach these personal goals.
Free Online Classes for Fun
These distance education opportunities can be a game-changer and have the power to transform the way we view learning. And they’re not just for kids. There are hundreds of free online courses for adults that celebrate learning for learning’s sake. Here are some examples:
- Writing for Video Games
- Stand Up!; Comedy Writing and Performance Poetry
- Seeing Through Photographs
Most Frequently-Searched Free Online Courses for Adults
Below, our editors list the most frequently-searched free online courses for adults as well as our picks for the top courses in each category.
Free Online Courses for Animation
Pursue your passion for animation or hone your existing skills with these free online classes for fun and skill-building:
- CS50’s Introduction to Game Development
- Digital Design
- Introduction to Programming and Animation with Alice
Free Online Courses for Business Management
Learn to be a more effective leader with free online college courses in business management:
- Fundamentals of Project Planning and Management
- Data Analytics for Business
- Improving Your Business through a Culture of Health
Free Online Courses for Coding
Qualify for a job or promotion in coding with the following free online courses:
- Computer Science: Programming with a Purpose
- Introduction to Python Programming
- Basics of Computing and Programming
Free Online Courses for Data Science
Learn about data science and its many applications with these free online college courses:
- Data Science: Machine Learning
- What is Data Science?
- Introduction to Data Science in Python
Free Online Courses for Education
Discover trends in educational theory and pedagogy as well as hands-on instructional techniques with these free online college courses for teachers and aspiring educators:
- New Learning: Principles and Patterns of Pedagogy
- Leaders of Learning
- Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom
Free Online Courses for Digital Marketing
Find out how the field of marketing is being transformed by digital technologies or upskill by learning new digital marketing techniques with the following free online courses:
- Digital Marketing Analytics: Tools and Techniques
- Fundamentals of Digital Marketing, Social Media, and E-Commerce
- The Strategy of Content Marketing
Tips for Taking Free Online Courses
Below, you will find our editors’ tips for successfully navigating these online learning opportunities offered through some of the best universities in the country.
Choose Something that Motivates You
It’s crucial to practice discernment when choosing from the free online classes available to you. Whether you’re learning for school, work, or for yourself, it’s important to select a topic aligned with your interests or, at the very least, your goals. That way, when boredom sets in, or you just decide you’d rather do something else besides study, you can remind yourself why you enrolled in the class in the first place—and you’ll have a good reason!
Consider Paying a Little
It’s an unpopular opinion, but paying for an online class instead of auditing it for free can have some substantial benefits. For one, we tend not to value things as much when we get them for free, so paying a fee (even a small one) can make us appreciate the experience more. Moreover, forking over some dough for your otherwise free online learning experience may add something in the way of accountability. It’s like paying for a gym membership—you may be motivated to show up just because you know you’re on the hook financially. Some online courses have fees as low as $30, so you may find it worth your while to reach into your wallet as opposed to only considering free online courses for adults.
As we’ve mentioned, another advantage of paying for these courses is that doing so grants you access to a certificate of successful completion. These digital credentials can have real-world benefits in the form of college credit, employment opportunities, raises, and more. And even if you’re taking free online classes for fun or for personal growth, having a token of achievement can give you a self-esteem boost or motivate you to continue your online learning pursuits.
Use Tangible Tools and Resources
Turning your virtual studies into something physical may help you connect to them on a more meaningful level. It doesn’t have to be extreme. To get started, you may find that printing a chart or diagram so that you can hold it in your hand may be beneficial. Other strategies include ordering the print version of your online textbook, making hand-written notes, and adding assignments to your physical calendar. Remember, just because you’re taking free online courses doesn’t mean that everything needs to be digital.
Frequently-Asked Questions About Free Online Courses for Adults
Q: Are free online courses really free?
A: Yes. All of the courses highlighted in this ranking are free to audit. You may have to pay an upcharge for a certificate of completion, however.
Q: How long does it take to complete these free courses online
A: It varies depending on the specific class you’re enrolled in. You could complete the class in ten hours, or it could take you ten weeks. Usually, the course complexity and scope will determine the time commitment required.
Q: Will I have to attend class at a specific time?
A: It’s possible. While most of these free online courses are asynchronous in nature, meaning you can log in at your convenience, a few of them could require live attendance at preset times. Check with the course website for specific details and expectations.
Q: Will there be deadlines?
A: Typically, yes. While you may have some flexibility in terms of deadlines, there is usually an expectation to complete all assignments by a certain date.
Q: Which free online courses are accredited?
A: Typically, only free online college courses from colleges and universities evaluated by accrediting boards that are approved by the U.S. Department of Education can be considered accredited. A course must be accredited in order to be eligible for college credit.
Q: Who can enroll in free online courses?
A: There are truly free online learning opportunities for everyone. Most beginner-level courses have no prerequisites. Look out for intermediate or advanced courses that may require mastery of certain skills prior to enrollment, though.
- The Advantages of Free Online College Courses for Credit
- Challenges of Online Education
- Top 25 Free Online Colleges
- Free Online College Courses and Platforms
- Free Online College Courses for Credit
- Online Education FAQs
- Advantages of Online Education
- Online College Courses for High School Students