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Is There Any Value in Free Online Classes?

Updated on January 27, 2014

Online Education

The idea of “free online classes” is off-putting to some. Online courses have a bad reputation to begin with. When online classes first appeared they were seen as something akin to the correspondent’s schools that used to advertise in the back of comic books and online universities were seen as little more than diploma mills.

If you take that reputation and add the word “free”, many people will assume that there cannot possibly be any value. “There is no such thing” after all “as a free lunch,” much less a free university course. Real, bricks and mortar, universities have become incredibly expensive; just ask the students, recent graduates and not so recent graduates who are drowning in debt.

But if there is no value in free online classes then why would some of the world’s most prestigious universities risk their reputation on them? In 2014 Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Duke, UC Berkeley and many others all offer free online courses including free courses with certificates for completion.

The truth is that most online courses were never as bad as their reputation. At least part of people’s skepticism was due to an overall fear of change. Professors, administrators and employers simply didn’t trust online courses because it was so different from what they had experienced.

Online vs. Traditional Courses

Modern online courses can be every bit as good as traditional courses.

In a traditional course you listen to lectures from a professor. In an online course you listen to lectures from a professor, but you do it when it’s convenient and you can pause and rewind.

In a traditional course you can ask questions. In an online course you can’t (usually) ask the professor questions, but you can ask the internet questions. If Google can’t provide an answer, chances are your professor couldn’t either.

In a traditional course you do homework and if you have trouble you ask for help. In an online course you do homework and if you have trouble, again, you ask the internet for help.

In a traditional university experience you have friends and classmates you can talk to. In an online course you do not, but it’s not exactly a secret that university friends and classmates can be as much a distraction as a help.

With online courses you don’t have a schedule. There won’t be anyone to motivate you but you and it will take some self discipline to stick to it and finish the work and the course. Only you know whether you are up to that or not. If you don’t have the motivation to do the work, you probably wouldn’t have the motivation to do well in a traditional course either.


A Few Situations Where Online Education is Valuable

So, what is the realistic value of free online education? It depends largely on what you hope to get out of it. Here are a few examples of situations where it could be useful.

First, there is the simple love of learning. I won’t spend too much time on this one because if you do not have an inherent love of learning for its own sake then I can’t really instill that in you with a few words.

Second, there is continuing education and career advancement. The value your employer places on online classes depends entirely on who your employer is. Some will see it as the equivalent of a traditional course, others will see it as having no value at all. In general though if, for example, supply chain management is important in your job very few employers will ignore a certificate from MIT that says you completed a course in supply chain management.

Third, there is learning new skills that will be helpful to you. If you work in sales and you take courses in psychology and interpersonal communication, there is an excellent chance that you will be better at sales. Even if your employer doesn’t believe there is any value in it, skills are skills. If you are better at your job, it doesn’t really matter if your employer recognizes the value of the courses.

Fourth, there is the integration of online learning into a more traditional course of learning. Lets say you’re in high school and plan on attending a state university. Online courses probably won’t be transferable, but if you take history courses from Harvard, Oxford, Stanford and Berkeley you will probably do very well in your history course at your state university as well.

Ultimately, you will have to do your own analysis. You will need to look at your situation and ask how and if online classes can help. In any case you will, at the very least, not be hopelessly in debt when you are done.


For those of you who are still reading and who think they could benefit from online courses, here are a few resources:

Open Culture has tons of free stuff, including convenient lists of 825 free online courses and 800 free courses offering certificates.

Coursera is a collective of universities offering free online education to the world. Although many universities are involved Coursera works like a single institution offering a catalogue of courses either for free or at very low cost.

iTunes U offers tens of thousands of lectures, including entire courses from universities around the world. iTunes you works with anything that iTunes does (Mac, PC, iPad, Phone etc).

Academic Earth offers free courses from a number of universities including Johns Hopkins, MIT, Princeton, Oxford, MIT, Stanford, New York University and more.

Alison offers free online education certifications in areas such as human resources, project management, workplace safety, operations management, food safety and more.

Khan Academy works with students and teachers to teach skills in a non-traditional environment. Unlike most of these institutions, Khan academy starts at a 3rd grade level and teaches math, science, economics, humanities and more.

Open2Study offers a personalized experience in a (online) community environment it brings together students and educations from around the world.

EdX offers free online courses and certificates and brings together content from world class universities including MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, Rice, Cornell, Boston University, the University of Texas and many, many more.

OEDB: A searchable database of more than 10,000 free online courses

Specific Schools: Most universities will have sections on their website devoted to their online offerings. Those listed here are just a few, if you're interested in a different university try a google search.


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    • bestonlineschools profile image

      Best Online Schools 3 years ago from UK

      With many online universities and colleges promising that your final certificate will not show that you got your certificate through online classes. Then online classes are worth it, whether they are in free or paid form. Hence it is better to cross-check what you are going to get out of each class you enroll before enrolling into it.

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

      I like how you put learning for the sake of learning, as this is still a worthy pursuit. Good article.