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You don't need to pay a lot of money to receive a high-quality education. There are lots of online resources that allow students to gain new knowledge and skills, for both personal fulfillment and career advancement, at little or no cost. Many top-ranked universities and colleges provide free online courses, or MOOCs, with the belief that making knowledge and education accessible to as many people as possible provides big benefits to us all.

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What Are MOOCs?

"MOOC," or Massive Open Online Course, is the general term given to any free courses offered on the Internet. The quality and content of MOOCs varies depending on the institution, but many include recorded lectures, reading material, and quizzes and tests. Taking these classes is a fantastic way to learn about a variety of subjects, but there are a few drawbacks: The vast majority of free online classes do not offer college credit, certifications, or degrees; some courses do not have much depth; some reading material may need to be purchased; and those who take MOOCs usually don't have the opportunity to interact with classmates or faculty. 

These things may change as MOOCs become more prevalent, but for now, MOOCs can't be considered as a substitute for traditional or online degree programs. This means that just because you went through the lecture notes for a course from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) through its OpenCourseWare (OCW) program, it doesn't mean that you can tell employers that you attended MIT, nor will you receive any kind of academic recognition for it. OCW courses are designed primarily to enhance your personal enrichment.

Here are some of the most popular MOOC providers:

What Is OpenCourseWare?

Many universities and colleges share courses through a program called OpenCourseWare (OCW). The OCW Consortium is comprised of universities, colleges, and other associated organizations who participate in and are committed to advancing OCW. The OCW Consortium website has a link to OCW websites grouped by language, which in addition to English, includes languages from Arabic to Urdu. Students may also search for courses by subject, language, and institution. Browsing through the list of courses available in English pulled up a total of 4,486 as of March 2013. Registration is not required to access these courses.

These are a few examples of some of the higher education institutions offering free online courses through OCW:

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers free online courses alongside informative articles about new discoveries that will affect different educational subjects. Reflecting the university's focus on technological, scientific, and research areas, many of MIT's free online courses are in science and technology subjects. Some of the courses available as of March 2013 include thermal energy, intro to aerospace engineering and design, communication systems engineering, and logistical and transportation planning methods. Students interested in the humanities and social sciences also have courses available to them. Free humanities and social science courses include American urban history, classics in Western philosophy, rethinking the family, and feminist political thought.

  • Tufts University: Tufts University's OCW courses are concentrated mainly in the life sciences. All of the school’s departments offer free online introductory courses and include seminars and other educational resources. Available courses as of March 2013 include topics such as geriatric dentistry, agricultural science and policy, law and veterinary medicine, and international multilateral negotiation. Materials vary with each course but may include lectures, slides, and supplementary material.

  • University of Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame often publishes materials from its traditional courses and makes it available to OCW students. Published material comes from many different core subjects, such as sociology, theology, writing, history, philosophy, mathematics, English, classics, architecture, computer applications, anthropology, and mechanical engineering.

Can I Take Free Online Courses From Any Other Institutions?

Yes, there are also many universities and colleges that provide free online education courses outside of OCW. Here are just some of the options:

  • Carnegie Mellon University: Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative offers a rotating list of several courses for free. Some of the current open courses as of March 2013 include biochemistry, logic, media programming, and statistical reasoning. Students may open a free account to save their work, or they may choose enter the course without an account. Courses are presented in lecture-style presentations, divided by chapters or units, which students click through as they progress. Some courses include additional resources.

  • Stanford University: Stanford University offers free courses through an iTunes application. This iTunes U app allows students to access an archive of audio recordings and videos. Course material includes lectures, presentations, school highlights, and music. The school offers a wide variety of core subjects through this unique technology.

  • University of California, Berkeley: The University of California has a wide variety of free courses. Many have been recorded as video and uploaded onto YouTube, while others have been made into audio files for iTunes. There are so many free classes available that they provide an online search option for those interested in a specific subject. Some of the subjects include Japanese, journalism, legal studies, history, psychology, anthropology, economics, geography, physics, philosophy, and engineering.

  • University of Washington: The University of Washington has a small sampling of free online courses available in the subjects of art and history, such as the American Revolution, the American Civil War, World War II, Greek mythology, the history of jazz, Shakespeare's comedies, Hamlet, Gulliver's travels, and the works of Tolkien. Science and computer courses consist of HTML basics and energy, diet, and weight classes. Course lectures and material are mostly given in text format.

  • Yale University: Yale University wants to create critical thinkers and foster student imagination through their free material. The free courses at Yale University cover a wide variety of introductory subjects traditionally taught at the school, such as economics, history, physics, religious studies, clinical science, astronomy, chemistry, and American studies. Lectures and classes are recorded and made available online, and learning formats include video, audio, and text transcripts. 

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