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How to Find College Courses for Free (or Almost)

Updated on September 14, 2011

It's never been easier to study with some of the great scholars of the world. Through a number of sources, people who are interested to continue their education can find free or low-cost college courses that others pay thousands of dollars to attend.

While there may be no official credit for studying through these courses, they can still be a great way to learn some new skills, gain some new perspectives and ideas, or remind yourself of things you once knew. For those considering further education in a new field, these courses can be a good way to sample it.

These resources are good because they organize the information relevant to a topic and present it together. This makes it easier for the reader to learn about the important topics related to a subject in an organized way. For example, if you followed the outline for a course on the history of the Cold War you would get a more complete and coherent picture of the topic than by merely searching online for various sources related to the Cold War.

One disadvantage is that you can't really get feedback on your work. Whether getting grades for papers, problem sets or final exams, this feedback is important to motivate you to work your hardest and to let you know when you don't understand something. Nonetheless, there's still a lot to be gained through these courses.

This page is a guide to some of the best sources for continuing your education for free (or almost) and at your own pace.

iTunes U and Podcasts

If you've got an iPod, the iTunes U courses are a really convenient way to learn while commuting, running, or laying in bed. Even if you don't have an iPod, you can still download the courses and listen or watch on your computer. iTunes U offers courses on nearly every subject from Quantum Physics to Renaissance Art. The courses are generally recorded from lectures at various universities, including big names such as Yale, Berkeley and MIT. Most courses are only available in audio, but some are also on video.

One disadvantage of these courses is that quality can vary considerably. Some professors tend to drone on, and sometimes the quality of the recording is not very high. In addition, sometimes you have to listen to the professor giving bland instructions about upcoming exams and homework assignments. Still, there are plenty of great courses out there.

Podcasts are a great way to keep up with current events and research in a variety of fields. For example, NPR and BBC publish podcasts with recent news in politics, world news, science, technology, the arts and many other areas. The Economist puts out high-quality programs on world news and economics.  Podcasts also tend to be professionally-produced and they're targeted at the home listener.

Cheap Courses on CD, DVD and for Download

If you don't mind paying a bit, try the courses on offer from the companies listed below. One advantage of using these courses is that the professors who teach them have been specially recruited because of their engaging teaching styles. The audio tends to be very clear as they are recorded on higher-quality equipment. Finally, the teachers in these courses are concerned only with the home listener, so you don't have to listen to them going through course-administrative matters with the students in the actual class.

  • The Great Courses: This company produces the most extensive course catalog of the three listed here. Standard prices can be higher, but some courses are offered on sale and can be bought for as little as $10-40. Courses may be offered on DVD, CD or as an audio download. Used CDs and DVDs can be found for considerably cheaper on eBay.
  • Modern Scholar: This series includes well over 150 different courses in a variety of fields, but especially in social science and the humanities. Most courses are on offer for $25 as an audio download.
  • Portable Professor: This brief series, produced my Barnes and Noble, is available on CD only. The courses can be bought new for $40 but can be found cheaper on eBay.

Open Courseware

Open courseware can vary depending upon the institution and course. They usually offer some combination of lecture notes, powerpoint presentations and video recordings of lectures. Some of the course readings may be available for download, and other readings will be listed so you can buy them. In some cases there may be a discussion board for students to communicate and correspond about the course. Listed below are some of the best sources for finding open courseware.

  • The Open Courseware Consortium is a helpful database for searching or browsing through free courses on offer from a variety of schools, including MIT, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan.
  • Internet Archive offers lessons and tutorials for high-school level courses as well as more advanced study.
  • The Open University offers a variety of courses and includes some multimedia learning tools in addition to lectures, discussion boards and other course materials.
  • Youtube EDU provides video recordings of entire courses and individual lectures from many different institutions. The site is comparatively well-organized, making it easy to find what you're interested in.
  • Wikiversity is an open-source approach to creating college-level courses. The format may be more flexible, but the courses are often less coherent and organized than comparable courses offered through other sites. Courses tend to be text-based with less multimedia, though there can be opportunities to get feedback on work from other students.

Google Scholar and Kindle

Google Scholar is a helpful search engine for finding academic papers and, occasionally, entire books. These files can often be found in PDF format, but those in other formats can be converted to PDF using free software. Project Gutenberg is another useful source for free ebooks, but there are many sites where you can find free ebook versions of older books whose copyright has expired.

Finally, if you're planning to read a lot for the course, an e-reader such as the Amazon Kindle is a great choice. This is not only because it's far more convenient and easier on the eyes to read from the Kindle compared to the computer. The Kindle also offers a lot of features that make it far easier and more useful for serious reading than you might realize.

First of all, you can send any text file to a special email address that Amazon gives you when you register your Kindle. Amazon will convert the document to an ebook or PDF file and then send it to your Kindle over a WIFI network. You can keep all of your documents together this way and can carry them with you wherever you want.

You can also make notes as you're reading and highlight your favorite passages. You can search for different terms throughout the text. You can even search through the reading notes you've made. 


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    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 6 years ago from New Jersey

      This hub is a great way for people to quickly and easily find a way to get more knowledge on their own time.

    • ChristinS profile image

      Christin Sander 6 years ago from Midwest

      Thanks for writing this hub. I found a few new resources here in this brilliantly useful compilation of sources. I will definitely pass this one on.

    • Support Med. profile image

      Support Med. 6 years ago from Michigan

      I agree, this is a great list of education resources. This had to take some time to put together, I commend you for your research into this. I'm certain certificates can be obtained from some of the sources and/or depending on what classes the student will be taking. Thanks for this summary. Will be helpful to many. Voted and rated.

    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 6 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      This is a great summary of resources for adults who want to keep learning. Too often people assume learning only takes place in a classroom.