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. This is thanks to millions of 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. We’ll also identify the fifteen most popular free online courses. Consider this your beginner’s guide to online learning!
Top 10 Online Learning Platforms
Online learning platforms have unique features and offerings. This can make it difficult if not impossible to rank alongside one another. Regarding 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. You must closely examine your own preference and learning style. Thus, we’ve listed our picks for the top 10 no-fee online learning platforms in random order:
Founded in 2012, Coursera is an online learning platform designed to expand access to education to people around the world. Today, the site offers hundreds of free online courses from more than 200 different accredited universities. This includes top colleges like Duke, Yale, University of Michigan, UC Boulder, Arizona State University, California Institute of the Arts, and many more. So many of these free online 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 many learning pathways. Examples include online college courses for credit, free online courses for senior citizens, and free courses online with certificates.
A massive open online course provider and learning platform like 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 individual courses (including free online courses and archived courses) hosted by over 150 different member institutions. Standout providers include top schools like the University of California- Berkeley, Harvard, Boston University, and the University of Texas system. With edX, students can work towards a degree or take a course purely for personal development. Likewise, career-oriented learners can choose to take classes with certificates. These certificates are available for professional development and career advancement.
Unlike Coursera or edX, Khan Academy is a free platform that caters to younger students. Aside from PreK-12 classes, the site also offers 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. Examples include classes for careers, personal finance, public speaking, political philosophy, college admissions, and entrepreneurship.
MIT Open Courseware
This platform is best for those looking for college courses for adults without all the bells and whistles. MIT Open Courseware is a large repository of MIT’s archived courses, including 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 for massive open online courses like Coursera or edX, for example. With these free online courses, learning is truly self-paced. Yet, 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 classes 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. Like MIT Open Courseware, OLI offers bare-bones online courses. This means students will have access to archived courses and course materials from top schools, but there are no instructors or free resources/support. Free online courses span various disciplines. Examples include arts and humanities, world literature, public speaking, life sciences, computer science and programming, mathematics and logic, data science, public health, and more.
FutureLearn was founded in 2013. Since then, the free 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,. Like most other e-learning sites, FutureLearn offers both free online courses as well as premium options. Premium options include certificates and even degrees. Topics include global history, political philosophy, world literature, and sustainable development among many others. FutureLearn has been criticized for being a little behind the times in terms of its interface and lack of mobile features. But, if you’re willing to dig a little and learn on your PC versus your Smartphone, there are some good opportunities to be had here at no charge.
The opportunity to study at one of the most prestigious universities in the world at absolutely no cost and without rigorous admissions requirements? Opportunities like that don’t usually come along every day. With Stanford Online, they do, though. There is a bit of a catch. The free classes available from this accredited university are not-for-credit classes. They can’t be transferred or count towards a degree program. Still, adults looking for professional or personal development alone will find some quality offerings here. Free online courses span subjects such as engineering, design thinking, education, health and medicine, climate change, and arts and humanities.
Harvard University Online
While it may seem too good to be true, it is actually possible to take free classes at your own pace from the distinguished Harvard University. In fact, there are currently over 100 free online courses available through the school’s online division. These span topics such as computer science, political philosophy, humanities, social sciences, business, and more. In addition to these free classes, 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 classes, Udacity does extend free opportunities. These are mostly for individuals with career advancement aspirations, particularly in the field of technology. The platform’s scholarships enable some eligible students to study topics such as machine learning, design thinking, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity at no cost. Still, it’s important to note that students who do not receive financial aid will be responsible for fees associated with Udacity’s course offerings. Keep in mind, though, that 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.”
OpenLearn (The Open University)
OpenLearn is affiliated with The Open University, a UK school. This platform offers open access to its catalog of approximately one thousand online courses free of charge. These free online courses span difficulty levels from introductory to advanced. A variety of academic disciplines from The Open University are also represented. Examples include business, modern psychology, education, political economy, sustainable development, and technology. There are no formal credentials awarded from The Open University for these free opportunities. But certificates of participation along with digital badges are available.
Top 15 Most Popular Free College Classes Online
The following fifteen free online courses are listed by 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 online courses in our ranking, Johns Hopkins University’s The Data Scientist Toolbox can be completed as a standalone data science course. Alternatively, it can be applied to one of two available data science 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 data science students have taken this course to date. An impressive 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
- Political Economy
- Global Financial Crisis
This is not one of the few free online courses with certificates. But the verified track for this class is less than $200, and a shareable certificate is available upon completion to show potential employers.
#13—Write Professional Emails in English
College: Georgia Institute of Technology
Coursera’s Write Professional Emails in English is the introductory course of a specialization offered through Georgia Institute of Technology called Improve Your English Communication Skills. The course in effective communication takes approximately 14 hours to complete, and students can work at their own pace. It 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 course at their own pace, and it has maintained a 97% approval rating.
#12—Speak English Professionally: In Person, Online, and On the Phone
College: Georgia Tech
This is one of several popular and free online 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. Students work at their own pace, and 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
This data science class is part of an entire data science 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 for data science students working at their own pace 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 online courses in data science, Algorithms, Part One requires 54 hours of study for completion. This intermediate data science class for programmers addresses concepts such as:
- Elementary Data Structures
- Java Programming
- Theory of Algorithms
One of the courses offered through prestigious universities, the class is taught by Princeton University computer science professors Kevin Wayne and Robert Sedgewick. Unlike other free college courses with certificates, this class offers no such credentials. Still, 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. Course material can be accessed entirely online.
#7—Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills
College: University of Michigan
This course is 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. It is one of our top online courses for adults looking to improve their business and personal relationships. Successful Negotiation addresses topics like:
- Types of Negotiations
- Negotiation Styles
- Modern Psychology
- 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
This is 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 in public health addresses topics such as:
- Infection Disease Transmission
- Ethical Issues in Contact Tracing
- Public Health Interventions
- Covid-19 Case Investigation
- Global History of Pandemics
Currently, all fees associated with this public health course have been waived, making it one of the few free courses with certificates to show potential employers.
#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. It is 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. It 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
This is the first of a two-part series of online courses for novice computer programmers and those interested in data science. 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, critical analysis 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
The University of Michigan offers one of the most popular of the free courses for students interested in computer programming. Coursera’s Programming for Everybody (Getting Started with Python) is part of a larger specialization that students can pursue entitled Python for Everybody. It is the first of five individual courses 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
CS50’s Introduction to Computer Science is one of the free online courses offered through the prestigious Harvard University. This class is entirely self-paced and can be accessed completely online. Taught by Harvard 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 mental health and adopt a more positive mindset for everyday life. 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
This class is taught by Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng. Machine Learning is the most popular free college courses offered via distance education of all time. With over four million total enrollees, this 100% online class is offered through Stanford University. It covers basic concepts as well as high-tech topics such as:
- Artificial Intelligence
- Database Mining
- Best Practices in Machine Learning
- Logistic Regression
This is one of the free online courses in the information technology space. It consists of approximately 61 hours of coursework that can be completed entirely via distance education. While all course content is accessible from Stanford University 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 it 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, remote college courses has implications for all types of learners. It’s not limited to just those with degree aspirations.
Types of Free College Courses Online
There are various types of free college courses students can enroll in via online education. Below, we’ll briefly discuss some of the common kinds of courses, including:
- Free College Courses for High School Students
- Free College Courses for Credit
- Free College Courses for Senior Citizens
- Free Courses Online with Certificates
Online College Courses for High School Students
Is it possible to take advantage of free 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. These programs allow high school students to earn credit for both high school and college simultaneously. These 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. They can also explore possible majors before officially enrolling at a college or university.
Online Courses for Credit
While it’s a bit more difficult to find online college courses for credit without paying a fee, it’s not impossible. Most of the free academic 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 costs for students with limited financial resources. These types of courses may be more challenging and require a higher level of critical thinking.
Online Courses for Senior Citizens
Senior citizens are in a unique position when it comes to accessing free courses. In the United States, seniors are granted discounted or free tuition from most colleges and universities. Thus, students of a certain age can take advantage of the school’s online courses at substantial savings. Still, not all 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 online college courses can have other advantages. These include helping you maintain cognitive function or teaching you a new skill or hobby.
Free Classes Online with Certificates
Finding no-fee online courses with certificates is a bit like finding free college courses for credit online. 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. It just depends on the platform as well as student need/eligibility. Earning a certificate of completion can provide proof that you’ve fulfilled the requirements of the courses. This, in turn, can help you earn academic credit or professional advancement, for example.
Advantages of No-Charge 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. This is especially true for those who value intellectual pursuits and lifelong learning. Aside from the cost savings associated with these online college courses, there are a ton of other benefits as well.
Free College Credit
To begin with the most evident benefit of no-expense 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 online courses for credit at no charge. 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. This saves them both time and money towards their degree. Beware, though, not all e-learning classes meet the criteria for a credit award. In fact, no-expense online college courses for credit represent only a small percentage of the free distance learning options available.
Flexible Learning Modes
Another advantage of online 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 ease this common issue for students. It does so by eliminating the commute and freeing up time for other responsibilities and activities. With 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 online classes 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 take part in a class discussion. Be sure to review all attendance requirements before enrolling.
Professional and Career Development
You might think these 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 no-expense online learning opportunities. They may do this 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 college courses is the perfect avenue for professional development due to its convenience and flexibility. The availability of free distance education courses for adults means that you can study in your pajamas. Plus, 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 no-charge 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 gain new skills to pass English proficiency tests like those required by colleges and universities. Other classes help students improve their pronunciation. Still others emphasize language usage in the workplace and for everyday life, for example. Some of the English as a Second Language (ESL) classes that can be classified as free remote learning opportunities include:
- Preparing to Network in English (University of Washington)
- How to Write an Essay (UC- 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 online learning opportunities available at no charge for students who want to take classes for pure enjoyment or to learn new skills. Sometimes these classes are promoted as free college courses for senior citizens, but anyone can take them. For decades, universities have given older students the opportunity to audit courses for free. 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 these online courses from home. This effectively eliminates any physical barriers to learning and encourages lifelong critical thinking.
Disadvantages of No-Fee Online College Courses
Nothing is perfect, not even free distance learning. Before you invest your time in the pursuit of knowledge via no-charge online college courses, you’ll want to be well-informed of any potential drawbacks.
Low Attrition Rates
One of the biggest disadvantages of no-fee college courses online 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 with online courses. The situation may be particularly challenging with asynchronous courses. These 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. This could lead to a sense of alienation from the classroom environment. We suggest taking advantage of any interactive features your distance learning platform provides. Think chat features, virtual office hours, or Zoom conferences.
Hefty Self-Discipline Requirement
Many students enjoy the autonomy afforded to them in an online 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, some students may have a hard time sticking to self-imposed deadlines. Students enrolled in remote 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 expect 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 Tuition-Free College Courses Online
Just because certain 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 demand a significant investment of your time and effort. These two things are arguably just as valuable as any monetary asset. Before you enroll in one of these learning opportunities, make sure you have all your questions answered. Below, our editors have compiled a list of the most frequently asked questions about these types of online courses.
Q: Who can take free college courses remotely?
A: Anyone who has access to the Internet can take free college courses. Thus includes high school students, adults, English Language Learners, and senior citizens.
Q: Are these 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 online college courses?
A: Completion times vary significantly, depending on the breadth and scope of the course in question. Often, 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 no-fee 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 online courses that you would a traditional college course.
Q: Are free online courses legitimate?
A: Many of them are. In fact, the free online courses highlighted in this ranking are offered from prestigious universities and accredited colleges.
This concludes our ranking of the top free online college courses and platforms.
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