Not everyone interested in learning online takes distance learning courses with the ambition of earning a degree, or even a certificate/diploma. Some students appreciate learning for the sake of learning. In fact, during the pandemic, learning for learning’s sake exploded amid adults seeking intellectual stimulation while stuck at home. Much of this virus-induced studying took place via online platforms offering MOOCs—massive open online courses. In this article, we’ll investigate the top ten free (or almost free) online learning platforms and the fifteen most popular free online college courses.
Top 10 Free Online Learning Platforms
Free online learning platforms have unique features and offerings, so much so that they are difficult if not impossible to rank alongside one another. In terms of popularity, Coursera and edX are clearly leading the pack. When it comes to quality and affordability, though, the platforms are comparable. Choosing the best place to learn online is really an individual choice that necessitates a close examination of one’s own preference and learning style. Thus, we’ve listed our picks for the top 10 free online learning platforms in random order:
Founded in 2012, Coursera is a free online learning platform designed to expand access to education to people around the world. Today, the site offers hundreds of free online college courses from more than 200 different accredited universities, including top colleges like Duke, Yale, University of Michigan, Arizona State University, and many more. So many free online college courses are available through Coursera that it’s even possible to earn an entire degree on the platform!
Coursera isn’t just large, though; it’s also extremely diverse. The platform features numerous learning pathways, including online college courses for credit, free college courses for senior citizens, and free courses online with certificates, for example.
An online learning platform similar to Coursera, edX was even founded in the same year (i.e., 2012). Beginning with a single course from MIT, the platform would eventually grow to encompass thousands of free online courses hosted by over 150 different member institutions. Standout providers include the University of California- Berkeley, Harvard, Boston University, and the University of Texas system. With edX, students can work towards a degree with free online college courses for credit or take a course purely for personal development. Likewise, career-oriented learners can choose to take free college courses with certificates for professional development and career advancement.
Unlike Coursera or edX, Khan Academy is a free online learning platform that caters to younger students. In addition to PreK-12 classes, the site also offers free online college courses for high school students, including AP Biology, AP Calculus, AP US History, and more. Though academics are the focus, Khan also offers “life skills” courses in categories such as careers, personal finance, college admissions, and entrepreneurship, for example.
MIT Open Courseware
Best for those looking for free college courses for adults without all of the bells and whistles, MIT Open Courseware is a large repository of MIT’s course material that is free and accessible to learners around the world. There is no fee or registration required to use MIT Open Courseware, but there is also no learner support like the kind you will find with more structured online learning platforms like Coursera or edX, for example. Learning is truly self-paced, and all materials for a particular course may not be available, depending on the instructor’s discretion. Still, this is an incredible resource for individuals seeking truly free online college courses for purely intellectual purposes. No degrees or certificates are issued through MIT Open Courseware.
Open Learning Initiative (OLI)
Operated by Carnegie Mellon University, the Open Learning Initiative—or OLI—is a resource for the university’s students as well as independent learners. Similar to MIT Open Courseware, OLI offers bare-bones free online college courses. This means students will have access to course materials, but there are no instructors or free online learning resources/support. Course offerings span disciplines such as arts and humanities, life sciences, computer science and programming, mathematics and logic, data science, and more.
FutureLearn was founded in 2013. Since then, the free online learning platform has formed partnerships with leading colleges and universities across the globe. These partner schools include reputable U.S. institutions of higher learning such as the University of California-Irvine, University of Colorado, Johns Hopkins University, Penn State University, and the University of Michigan, for example. Like most other e-learning sites, FutureLearn offers both free online college courses as well as premium options, including certificates and even degrees. FutureLearn has been criticized for being a little behind the times in terms of its interface and lack of mobile features. However, if you’re willing to dig a little and learn on your PC versus your Smartphone, there are some good, free online learning opportunities to be had here.
The opportunity to study at one of the most prestigious universities in the world at absolutely no cost and without rigorous admissions requirements doesn’t usually come along every day. With Stanford Online, it does, though. There is a bit of a catch, however. The free online college courses available from this accredited university are not-for-credit classes. They can’t be transferred or count towards a degree program. Still, these free college courses for adults looking for professional or personal development alone will find some quality offerings here. Classes span subjects such as engineering, education, health and medicine, and arts and humanities.
Harvard University Online
While it may seem too good to be true, it is actually possible to take free online college courses from the distinguished Harvard University. In fact, there are currently over 100 free online learning opportunities available through the school’s online division, spanning topics such as computer science, humanities, social sciences, business, and more. In addition to these free online college courses, the university also offers nearly twice as many paid courses, many of them extremely affordable. These paid classes are usually associated with some sort of credential such as a certificate of completion.
While it doesn’t exactly offer free college courses, Udacity does extend free online learning opportunities for individuals with career advancement aspirations, particularly in the field of technology. While the platform’s scholarships enable some eligible students to study topics such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity at no cost, it’s important to note that students who do not receive financial aid will be responsible for fees associated with Udacity’s course offerings. Still, payment plans and discounts are available. Though not affiliated with any college or university, Udacity does offer its own signature credentials in the form of “nanodegrees.”
Affiliated with The Open University, a UK school, OpenLearn offers open access to its catalog of approximately one thousand free online courses. These offerings span difficulty levels from introductory to advanced as well as academic disciplines including business, psychology, education, politics, and technology, for example. While there are no formal credentials awarded for these free online learning opportunities, certificates of participation along with digital badges are available.
Top 15 Most Popular Free Online College Courses
The following fifteen free courses are listed in terms of popularity, based on the number of enrolled students to date.
#15—The Data Scientist’s Toolbox
College: Johns Hopkins University
Among the most versatile free courses in our ranking, Johns Hopkins University’s The Data Scientist Toolbox can be completed as a standalone course or applied to one of two available specializations. Once enrolled, students will be asked to devote 18 hours of independent study to the required coursework. Concepts addressed over the duration of the class include:
- The Data Science Process
- R Studio
- Github and Git
- Experimental Design
Nearly 650,000 students have taken this course to date, and 96% reported a satisfactory experience.
#14—Entrepreneurship in Emerging Economies
College: Harvard University
Harvard University’s Entrepreneurship in Emerging Economies is a 6-week course offered via edX. Taught by the university’s Business School professor Tarun Khanna, the class covers concepts in:
- Drivers of Entrepreneurship
- Understanding Innovation in Emerging Markets
- Innovation and Legal Constraints
- Branding and Entrepreneurship
While not one of the few free courses with certificates, the verified track for this class is less than $200, and a shareable certificate is available upon completion.
#13—Write Professional Emails in English
College: Georgia Tech
Coursera’s Write Professional Emails in English is the introductory course of a specialization offered through Georgia Tech called Improve Your English Communication Skills. The course takes approximately 14 hours to complete and is taught by the university’s Language Institute Lecturer Gerry Landers. Students enrolled in this course will successfully compose four to five business emails in English and study topics such as:
- Common Errors in Punctuation and Capitalization
- Basic Email Structures
- Effective Subject Lines
- Apology and Request Emails
Nearly 700,000 people have taken this free online course, and it has maintained a 97% approval rating.
#12—Speak English Professionally: In Person, Online, and On the Phone
College: Georgia Tech
One of several popular and free courses for English language learners, Speak English Professionally: In Person, Online & On the Phone is part of a larger specialization offered by Georgia Tech entitled Improve Your English Communication Skills. The class is available through Coursera and requires approximately 16 hours of online study to complete. Topics include:
- Conversational Vocabulary
- Body Language
- Pronunciation: Stress and Intonation
- Group Discussion Language
Twenty percent of people who have taken this course report benefiting professionally from the content.
#11—Python Data Structures
College: University of Michigan
Part of an entire specialization entitled Python for Everybody offered through the University of Michigan, Python Data Structures is a 19-hour class available fully online and at no charge to students. The class provides an introduction to Python core data structures. Specific topics include:
- Building Blocks of Computing
- Python Syntax and Semantics
- Python 3 Programming
To date, over 775,000 students have taken the course, and 98% reported being satisfied with the content.
#10—Algorithms, Part One
College: Princeton University
One of the most comprehensive free courses in our ranking, Algorithms, Part One requires 54 hours of study for completion. This intermediate class for programmers addresses concepts such as:
- Elementary Data Structures
- Java Programming
- Theory of Algorithms
The class is taught by Princeton University computer science professors Kevin Wayne and Robert Sedgewick. Unlike other free online college courses with certificates, this class offers no such credentials. Nevertheless, 15% of enrollees report starting a new career upon course completion.
College: Harvard University
- Database Design
- User Interfaces
- Scalability and Security
- SQL, Models, and Migrations
Approximately 12 weeks of study is required for course completion, and students should devote 6 to 9 hours per week to coursework.
College: Yale University
Financial Markets is a course taught by Yale Professor of Economics Robert Shiller and offered via Coursera. Enrolled students will learn about the basic principles of finance as well as the institutions that drive enterprise. With an emphasis on financial leadership, the introductory course will address topics such as:
- Risk Management
- Insurance Fundamentals
- Behavioral Finance
- Shares and Dividends
This beginner-level course takes approximately 33 hours of self-paced study to complete, and course material can be accessed entirely online.
#7—Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills
College: University of Michigan
Taught by Professor of Business Administration George Siedel, Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills is offered by the University of Michigan and hosted by Coursera. One of our top free courses for adults looking to improve their business and personal relationships, Successful Negotiation addresses topics like:
- Types of Negotiations
- Negotiation Styles
- Psychological Tools
- Perspectives on Contracts
The class takes approximately 17 hours to complete, and a certificate of completion is available for less than $50. Financial aid through Coursera is also available.
#6—Covid-19 Contact Tracing
College: Johns Hopkins University
One of the shorter but equally valuable free courses in our ranking, Covid-19 Contact Tracing from Johns Hopkins University trains students to become effective contact tracers amid the coronavirus pandemic. Taught by Associate Scientist Emily Gurley, this 7-hour class addresses topics such as:
- Infection Disease Transmission
- Ethical Issues in Contact Tracing
- Public Health Interventions
- Covid-19 Case Investigation
Currently, all fees associated with this course have been waived, making it one of the few free online college courses with certificates in our ranking.
#5—English for Career Development
College: University of Pennsylvania
One of the best free courses for adults who want to learn to speak English for work purposes, English for Career Development is offered through the University of Pennsylvania and funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Available via Coursera, the class is geared towards career-minded, non-native English speakers and teaches concepts such as:
- English Grammar for the Workplace
- Resume Writing
- Career Networking
- Interview Skills
This 40-hour course is taught in English with subtitles available in nine different foreign languages. Students can access course material anytime via distance education.
#4—Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python
College: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The first of a two-part series of free courses for novice computer programmers, Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python is hosted by edX and sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The course is taught by MIT professors and takes a broad-level approach to topics like:
- Python Programming
- Data Structures
- Simple Algorithms
- Basic Computation
High school algebra is a prerequisite for this course, and some prior programming experience is recommended. Through a partnership with Charter Oak State College, students who elect the paid/verified track may be able to earn college credit upon course completion.
#4—Programming for Everybody (Getting Started with Python)
College: University of Michigan
Among the most popular of the free courses for students interested in computer programming, Coursera’s Programming for Everybody (Getting Started with Python) is offered through the University of Michigan. The course is part of a larger specialization that students can pursue entitled Python for Everybody and is the first of five classes required for specialization completion. Topics covered by University of Michigan School of Information Professor Charles Russell Severance include:
- Computer Programming
- Python 3
- Python Syntax and Semantics
- Variables and Expressions
Students can audit the standalone course for free or enroll in the Python specialization for $49 per month. Either way, coursework is entirely self-paced and can be accessed 100% online.
Cost: $0-49 per month
#3—CS50’s Introduction to Computer Science
College: Harvard University
Offered via edX, CS50’s Introduction to Computer Science is one of the free online college courses offered through the prestigious Harvard University. This class is entirely self-paced and can be accessed completely online. Taught by Harvard computer science professor David J. Malan, the course covers introductory topics in:
- Web Programming
- Data Structures
- Software Engineering
- Computer Algorithms
No prior experience in computer science or programming is required, and the course can be audited at no cost to the student. The course is designed to be completed within 12 weeks, and students should expect to invest between 6-18 hours per week on coursework.
#2—The Science of Well-Being
College: Yale University
Offered through Yale University, The Science of Well-Being is one of the most popular free online courses for adults who want to improve their overall mental health and adopt a more positive mindset. The class is taught by Yale Professor of Psychology Laurie Santos and addresses concepts such as:
- Overcoming Personal Biases
- Misconceptions of Happiness
- Kindness and Social Connection
- Exercise and Sleep
Students who wish to audit the course can do so at absolutely no cost, but to earn a certificate, a payment of $49 is required. The course takes just 19 hours to complete.
College: Stanford University
Taught by Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng, Machine Learning is the most popular free online college course of all time. With over four million total enrollees, this 100% online class is offered through Stanford University and covers high-tech topics such as:
- Artificial Intelligence
- Database Mining
- Best Practices in Machine Learning
- Logistic Regression
This free online learning option in the information technology space consists of approximately 61 hours of coursework that can be completed entirely via distance education. While all course content is accessible at no cost to the learner, students can opt to pay $79 for the opportunity to earn a certificate of completion.
The Rise of E-Learning
Online education, once little more than a pipedream, is now big business. According to industry research, the market for distance learning has already surpassed $250 billion and is expected to expand by another 21% by 2027. The popularity of distance education cannot be denied. As the popularity of online education grows, so too does the accessibility of online courses. Advancements in distance education technology have made it possible for learners all over the world to access information that was once out of their reach. The wide availability of free online college courses has implications for all types of learners, not just those with degree aspirations.
Types of Free Online College Courses
There are various types of free online college courses students can enroll in. Below, we’ll briefly discuss some of the common kinds of free online courses, including:
- Free Online College Courses for High School Students
- Free Online College Courses for Credit
- Free Online College Courses for Senior Citizens
- Free Courses Online with Certificates
Free Online College Courses for High School Students
Is it possible to take advantage of free online college courses even before graduating high school? In some cases, the answer is yes. Qualified high school students may be eligible to enroll in online dual credit or dual enrollment classes, which allow high school students to earn credit for both high school and college simultaneously. Free online college courses for high school students can also help prepare a student for the rigors of college without all of the risk. By taking introductory college courses online, high school students can get a feel for postsecondary academics and explore possible majors prior to actual enrollment at a college or university.
Free Online College Courses for Credit
While it’s a bit more difficult to find free online college courses for credit, it’s not impossible. Most of the free online learning opportunities you’ll find on platforms like Coursera and edX, for example, can be audited at no cost, but to earn any sort of credit, there is a fee. Still, financial aid is often available, which can cover most or all of the costs for students with limited financial resources.
Free Online College Courses for Senior Citizens
Senior citizens are in a unique position when it comes to accessing free online college courses. In the United States, seniors are granted discounted or free tuition from most colleges and universities, so students of a certain age can take advantage of the school’s online courses at substantial savings. Still, not all of these opportunities will result in credit, so it’s best to check the fine print. If you’re not looking to earn a degree in your golden years, though, taking non-credit free online college courses can have other advantages, such as helping you maintain cognitive function or teaching you a new skill or hobby.
Free Courses Online with Certificates
Finding free online courses with certificates is a bit like finding free online college courses for credit. While it’s not impossible, it’s also not the norm. Typically, students can find plenty of courses online to audit at no charge, but when it comes to earning a certificate of completion, there is usually a nominal fee. Still, financial aid is sometimes available to cover the costs of these certificates, depending on the platform as well as student need/eligibility. Earning a certificate of completion can provide proof that you’ve fulfilled the requirements of free online courses, which can help you earn academic credit or professional advancement, for example.
Advantages of Free Online College Courses
It’s not every day you see the words “free” and “college” in the same sentence. Add the term “online” to the mix, and you’ve got a situation that seems almost too good to be true. The technological advancements in distance learning that have led us to this new reality have certainly made it a good time to be alive, especially for those who value intellectual pursuits and lifelong learning. Aside from the cost savings associated with free online college courses, there are a ton of other benefits to be reaped from these incredible online learning resources.
Free College Credit
To begin with the most evident benefit of free online college courses, we’ll state the obvious: earning college credit at zero tuition cost is, undeniably, the biggest draw that the e-learning industry offers students. Aside from receiving a scholarship or grant, there are few other options for students who hope to earn a college degree without amassing loads of student debt. Enter free online college courses for credit. These distance learning options have the potential to be a game-changer for students who want to transfer credits to the college or university they plan to attend, saving both time and money towards their degree. Beware, though, not all e-learning classes meet the criteria for a credit award. In fact, free online college courses for credit represent only a small percentage of the free online learning options available.
Flexible Learning Modes
Whether you’re a college student or a nontraditional learner, another advantage of free online college courses you’ll enjoy is the ability to learn at your own pace. Even when education is a priority, it’s sometimes difficult to fit classes into a busy schedule. E-learning helps alleviate this common issue for students by eliminating the commute and freeing up time for other responsibilities and activities. With free online courses, you can usually learn at any time of day or night and any place where you can access the Internet. For some learners, this flexibility makes taking classes easier; for others, it makes it possible.
A note of forewarning, though—not all free online college courses are alike, and some have more stringent requirements than others. If you’re enrolled in a synchronous class, for instance, you may be required to log in to the class at a specific time to view an interactive lecture or participate in a class discussion. Be sure to review all of the attendance requirements prior to enrollment.
Professional and Career Development
You might think free online college courses are just for students seeking a degree, but you’d be wrong. The reality is that many professional and working adults seek out free online learning opportunities as a way to build their skills and remain competitive in their particular industry. If you think about it, e-learning in the form of free online college courses is the perfect conduit for professional development due to its convenience and flexibility. The availability of free online courses for adults means that you can study in your pajamas, and you don’t have to take time off from the office to complete your classes. Win-win!
Resources for English Language Learners
You may have noticed that some of the most popular free online college courses are geared towards non-native English speakers. These classes can help prepare English language learners for their academic and professional pursuits in the United States. Some of these courses are specifically designed to help students pass English proficiency tests like those required by colleges and universities. Other classes help students improve their pronunciation or emphasize language usage in the workplace, for example. Some of the English as a Second Language (ESL) classes that can be classified as free online learning opportunities include:
- Preparing to Network in English (University of Washington)
- How to Write an Essay (University of California- Berkeley
- Write Professional Emails in English (Georgia Tech)
- The Music of American English Pronunciation (University of California- Irvine)
These are just a few examples of the many online courses available right now for ESL learners.
Many people associate learning with an end goal such as academic achievement or career advancement, for instance. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with learning for a purpose, learning has an inherent value as well. That’s why there are a variety of free online learning opportunities available for students who want to take classes for pure enjoyment. Sometimes these classes are promoted as free online college courses for senior citizens, but anyone can take them. For decades, universities have given older students the opportunity to audit courses for free, and some even offer free tuition for retirees. Online college courses for senior citizens make these affordable learning options even more accessible. Now, seniors with health conditions that affect their mobility can take free online courses from home, eliminating any physical barriers to learning.
Disadvantages of Free Online College Courses
Nothing is perfect, not even free online learning. Before you invest your time in the pursuit of knowledge via free online college courses, you’ll want to be well-informed of any potential drawbacks.
Low Attrition Rates
One of the biggest disadvantages of free online college courses is their low attrition rates. This just means that a large percentage of online learners never finish the classes they start, especially if these classes are free. Human psychology dictates that when we don’t pay for things, we tend to value them less. It’s not rational, but apparently, it’s the reality. Our advice? Before clicking the “enroll” button, do a quick cost-benefit analysis, and then commit!
The Engagement Factor
A well-documented problem with online classes of any kind is their inability to engage students. If you thrive on face-to-face interaction with classmates and instructors, you could find yourself struggling once enrolled in free online college courses. The situation may be particularly challenging with asynchronous courses that enable students to work primarily at their own pace, requiring no specific log-in times. With this mode of content delivery, students may never cross virtual paths, which could lead to a sense of alienation from the classroom environment. We advise taking advantage of any interactive features your free online learning platform provides. Think chat features, virtual office hours, or Zoom conferences.
Hefty Self-Discipline Requirement
While many students enjoy the autonomy afforded to them in an online learning environment, others struggle to find the self-motivation and discipline to stay on track. With no set schedule and a lack of oversight from professors, students may have a hard time sticking to self-imposed deadlines. Students enrolled in free online college courses for credit may have less trouble, but without a specific goal to work towards, self-discipline may peter out quickly. If you anticipate problems in this area, try writing out your assignments on an actual calendar, or set alarms for your assignment deadlines via your smartphone.
Frequently-Asked Questions About Free Online College Courses
Just because free online college courses don’t require you to open your wallet doesn’t mean you should go into them blindly. After all, these online classes will require a significant investment of your time and effort—two things that are arguably just as valuable as any monetary asset. Before you enroll in one of these free online learning opportunities, make sure you have all of your questions answered. Below, our editors have compiled a list of the most frequently asked questions about free online courses.
Q: Who can take free online college courses?
A: Anyone who has access to the Internet can take free college courses, including high school students, adults, English Language Learners, and senior citizens.
Q: Are free online college courses really free?
A: In many cases, yes. Some online college courses promoted as “free” actually charge a fee for students seeking credit or a certificate of completion, though. Be sure to read the fine print.
Q: How long does it take to complete free online college courses?
A: Completion times vary significantly, depending on the breadth and scope of the course in question. In many cases, the length of time it takes to finish a class will depend on the number of hours per day or week you can devote to your studies.
Q: Are free online college courses hard?
A: Some of them are quite rigorous, yes, but the level of rigor will depend on the course. You should expect to invest the same amount of effort in your free online courses that you would a traditional college course.
Q: Are free online college courses legitimate?
A: Many of them are. In fact, the free online college courses highlighted in this ranking are offered from prestigious, accredited colleges and universities.
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