Online College Classes for Fun, Profit (and maybe Credit)

Category: Education

Learning is a life-long process. Going back to college used to be a daunting ambition for working adults, but today it’s easy, often free, and just a few clicks away. So-called “Massively Open Online Classes” (MOOCs) presented by top universities provide opportunities to learn at your own pace, in your style, from wherever you happen to be. Read on to learn what you can learn!

What is a MOOC?

In most cases, you won’t get academic credits for MOOCs, much less a Harvard MBA degree. But if you’re looking for tools to use in your job, or skills to help you find a new job, then MOOCs make perfect sense. Some do offer course certificates to share with your professional network and potential employers. At least one offers a path to accredited online master’s degrees. Many people are just looking to learn for the pleasure of learning, and MOOCs are ideal for them, too.

Various styles of MOOCs have evolved to suit the learning modes and preferences of different students. Yes, some MOOCs are dry, sparse things consisting only of reading texts and taking quizzes. But others include interactive communication with an instructor and even fellow students.

MOOCs - free college classes online

Video chat sessions closely approximate the traditional classroom environment, allowing all students to see and hear a lecturer and submit written questions that are answered at the appropriate moments in a lecture. Usually, you don’t even have to take notes; the video and chat sessions are preserved for students’ later review.

Class discussions are just another application of videoconferencing technology as applied in MOOCs. Online forums where students and faculty can communicate publicly but asynchronously are just like any other Yahoo! Group or Google Hangout. You may find that what you seek was discussed a year ago by another group of classmates, or you may post a question and get fresh answers in nearly real time.

The software platform on which a MOOC is presented has a big impact on the student’s experience. One of the most widely used MOOC platforms is Coursera which currently hosts over 3700 courses from almost 200 partner schools. Over 35 million people have used Coursera to learn new skills. In general, it’s easier to learn a course’s content when you’re not busy learning a new platform.

What Can You Learn?

Coursera and Khan Academy are just the tip of the iceberg in online learning. See my three part series: Free Online College Courses, Free Online College Courses: Part Deux, and Free Online College Courses: Part Three

Coursera says all their courses are taught by top instructors from the world’s best universities and educational institutions. Among Coursera’s partner schools are names like Carnegie Mellon, Duke University, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. Courses include recorded video lectures, auto-graded and peer-reviewed assignments, and community discussion forums.

Some of the most popular Coursera MOOCs are Programming for Everybody, Data Science, Chinese for Beginners, Introduction to Public Speaking, and How to Understand Arguments. (Is anyone else recalling a Monty Python sketch after seeing that last item?) Coursera offers Courses, which will help you learn a new skill in 4-6 weeks. Most are priced at $29-$99. Also available are more in-depth 4-6 month Specializations to help you master a specific career skill. These are priced at $39-$79 per month. Accredited online degree programs in business, computer science, and data science are offered via Coursera's university partners, and require 1-3 years of study.

And there are a bunch of free Coursera classes too! Topics include Machine Learning, Photography, Successful Negotiation Strategies, Financial Markets, Philosophy, and Cryptography.

Platforms, Styles and Results

Udemy offers over 100,000 online courses taught by experts. You can learn computer programming, web design, photography, business skills, music and many other topics. If you have expertise in a certain field, you can even create your own online course at Udemy.

Khan Academy is another platform for MOOCs, which I reviewed in my 2011 article How to Learn Almost Anything For Free. Its style is the short, 15-30 minute video presentation that pares a subject down to its essence. Some academics fault Khan for its brevity, but many busy working students appreciate its cogency. Millions of people have taken free Khan Academy classes since it started in 2009.

Are online classes as effective as in-person on campus learning? Of course, that depends on the student. A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that "classes with online learning (whether taught completely online or blended) on average produce stronger student learning outcomes than do classes with solely face-to-face instruction."

Is a MOOC right for you? If you are looking to earn transferable degree credits, perhaps not; very few schools accept MOOC coursework for credit. But if you want to learn (to gain new skills or just for fun) without taking out a second mortgage or losing sleep, then a MOOC is something to consider.

Have you ever taken an online course? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Online College Classes for Fun, Profit (and maybe Credit)"

Posted by:

Nina Eriksson
26 Aug 2019

Try MasterClass for specific subjects. Taught by top professionals in their field.

Posted by:

H. Buskirk
26 Aug 2019

Thanks Nina- just checked it out. I had no idea such programs existed!

Posted by:

H. Buskirk
26 Aug 2019


Posted by:

26 Aug 2019

I've taken a few from Brit-based FutureLearn -- classes available for free or (for a fee) with a certificate. I'm retired, so I've chosen the "free" option. I've taken mostly history/culture classes, but I did take an introductory Python class which was fun.

Posted by:

11 Jul 2020

The use of technologies like video conferencing has greatly helped the education sector in taking education industry to next level. Now, students can attend classes, lectures, courses etc. from anywhere anytime. Tools like webex, R-HUB HD video conferencing servers, gomeetnow, gotomeeting etc. are widely used by educational institutions for conducting online classes, online trainings etc.

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