The Best Free Online College Courses

Textbook with computer mouse.Obtaining a college education is a highly sought-after achievement. Attending a college or university affords us the opportunity to expand our network and learn in great depth about almost any subject. While many students seek degrees for their studies, others may want to take a course just for fun or to advance their career where a degree is not necessary. In these cases, there are some great substitutes for your traditional, brick-and-mortar colleges. With the ever-expanding amount of information available online and the growing importance of a college education, a new wave of learning has arrived in the form of free web-based classes.

But with so many options to choose from, I want to explore some of the best online college course offerings available. Before I get into the options, I want to make it clear that none of these courses are applicable towards a degree. While this may seem like a big negative to you, don’t forget that you’re still gaining some amazing knowledge and education for free!

iTunes University

I use iTunes for music management, podcasts, and videos, but was floored when I discovered and started using iTunes University about a year ago. “iTunes U,” as it is commonly known, is a vast collection of course choices from over 600 colleges and universities. You may think that these classes are all for simpletons who have trouble with their multiplication tables, but that is not at all the case. There are plenty of offerings that are far above my own cognitive level, and I consider myself a pretty smart guy. Class choices cover just about any subject you could want, whether you are looking to take “Nano to Macro Transport Processes” from MIT or keep it simple and fun with “Sex in the Ancient World” from the University of Warwick. Furthermore, you can often choose your favorite method of delivery for the materials. If you are a visual learner, many courses offer video downloads. For auditory learners, lectures and audio books are available. If those two delivery options are not as effective, try downloading notes, syllabi, or getting the book for the course. Regardless of your preferred learning methods, you should be able to find many courses suited for you.

Every course at iTunes U is offered at no cost to the user. There is also no timetable for completion of courses. If you want to absorb all of the lectures in a couple of days, go for it. But if you would rather take your time and spend a few months going through the material, you can do that as well.

More and more schools are starting to offer parts of their curriculum with iTunes U, also at no cost to the recipient. These types of classes are perfect for anyone who wants more knowledge on a particular subject, but either cannot afford or has no interest in obtaining a degree for their effort. I realize that some people do not really understand the purpose of learning for the sake of learning, but as one who does understand, allow me to explain a bit more.

Among many other subjects, I have an interest in religion. Not any particular religion, but the study of religion as a whole. Most cultures derive their origins, histories, and traditions from their religions and this really intrigues me. With that in mind, I decided that instead of making religion and cultural studies part of my college curriculum, I would study these subjects on my own. This ended up being much easier than I could have imagined. Thus far, with the help of iTunes U, I have been through three courses on religion alone, my favorite of which was “Politics and Religion: Culture Wars,” offered by the University of Illinois, Springfield.

If your main goal for taking these courses is to further your own career, these courses are still extremely applicable. Just imagine your supervisor or manager’s surprise when you begin to showcase newly-obtained skills or knowledge from courses you are taking at home, at your leisure!

Courses Direct from the School and Other Learning Resources

If iTunes and its platform are not for you, there are many universities that offer their courses to the public for free, but it is up to you to decide what learning method works best for you. Utah State University offers over 60 free courses, all available for download as zip files. UC Irvine also has a rapidly growing “open course” curriculum. When taking their courses, you get the syllabus, lecture notes, assignments, and exams. The total package! I could go on all day showing you, school by school, what offerings are currently available, but I recommend you check it out for yourself. You should easily be able to find a course that suits your learning needs.

Virtual Professors, FreeByte, and OEDB are just three of the many other free education service providers that will teach you or lead you in the right direction for a continuing education. Between iTunes U, university and college websites, and these three resources, you should be able to find what you are looking for. If none of these resources help find the course you want, you are probably out of luck for the time being.

3 Potential Drawbacks

1. Many would agree that the biggest downside to these free online classes may not be your willingness to learn or even how much time you have to devote to the courses, but the fact that nothing offered for free is applicable toward a degree. iTunes U, college websites, and other online education service providers who offer courses for free are unable to actually offer you any official credentials that could be used towards a degree. This may be a deal breaker in your book, but these programs are only growing in popularity and traffic, proving that this form of knowledge sharing is getting more popular.

Have you ever heard the term “knowledge is power”? It may sound corny, but it is true. The more expertise you have on a particular subject, the more marketable you are and the more income you can earn throughout your lifetime. This is true even without a degree.

2. One other issue you may run into is the inability to test your newly acquired knowledge. Some of the available courses are lecture or text only, which could leave you wondering if you learned what you were supposed to from the course.

3. Another possible snag in your “free” learning experience is that it may not actually be completely free. Occasionally, you will have to buy a textbook for the course. The upside is that you can easily purchase used textbooks inexpensively and resell them when finished with them.

Final Word

Free online courses are part of a growing trend in society to gaining a wealth of knowledge and education. No matter what your goals are, there is a place in your life for free online courses. If you do decide to further your education using these free online methods, let us know how it goes. I have had great experiences with the few lectures I have downloaded, but have never taken a whole course (including tests). I would definitely like more feedback from those who have firsthand experience with these courses. What are your thoughts on the concept of free online college courses?

  • Melyssa

    Thank you for sharing. I read lots of blogs abour finance and fitness. But to actually take a course would provide me with even more indepth information regarding the topic.

    Free education rocks!

    And well, who doesn’t like FREE?

    • mattbreed

      Nobody I know!

  • Nerdizen

    I remember attending university by correspondence overseas when it wasn’t so cool to do so and then busted my butt over a decade to get a traditional education. Free is always appetizing and then you can take college-level exams to get credit for your free courses through the University System of New York (SUNY). You’ll have to spend a few dollars, but hey, you save a bundle on getting your degree.

    • Matt Breed

      Which university in NY? That’s where I’m from originally.