Is there a skill you’ve been meaning to develop? Is there a topic you wish you knew more about? Or do you just want to add some more mental stimulation to your daily routine? Online classes may be exactly what you’re looking for.
Continuing your education is one avenue for personal growth and self-care that you may have overlooked. The great news is that you can do this without investing several years or tens of thousands of dollars. There are plenty of flexible, free education resources to help you enrich your life and accelerate your career.
Why Should I Take Online Classes?
Regardless of whether you have a high school degree, a Ph.D., or somewhere in between, there will come a time when your formal education ends. No more required reading, or hours of late-night studying. No more cramming for final exams as you fall asleep in the library next to a bag of Cheetos and a cold cup of coffee.
It’s a little crazy how many of us go from years of intensive learning to an educational standstill. As adults, most of us need to actively seek out opportunities to learn something new, or our education will only be a thing of the past.
The Benefits of Lifelong Learning
Whether you realize it or not, you may actually miss the thrill of learning new things. The best news is that lifelong learning offers a wide array of economic, health, and social benefits. Practicing a new skill has been found to improve brain performance by stimulating neurons and increasing the brain’s speed of response.
Additionally, research indicates that lifelong learning can protect you from developing dementia as you grow older — and it might even help you live longer. Learning new skills can also drastically increase your earning potential as the job market continues to evolve, and it’s a great way to meet new people and expand your network.
Exploring the World of Online Education
When I completed my undergraduate degree, I found it very difficult to adjust from a full course load to no coursework at all. My discovery of free online classes made the transition much easier. The technical term for these is MOOC – a Massive Open Online Course, or an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. If you’re like me, and you don’t have the money or time to commit to taking courses at a local college or university, free online classes are a great way to keep learning new things at your own pace and in the comfort of your own home.
There are two main types of free online classes: subject-based courses offered by established universities, and niche/skill-based classes offered by various companies or individual experts.
University Courses for Free
You may be surprised to learn that there are tons of free classes on the internet offered by well-known universities. These courses are usually set up to emulate a typical college course structure with a syllabus, required reading, and online quizzes, using a combination of video and text to teach the class. Frequently, the online classes have been created by one or more university professors who specialize in the course material.
When you sign up for a class like this, it’s usually on a website that specifically curates free courses, like Coursera or edX (check out our full list of resources for free online classes below!) These platforms partner with various universities to host the courses on one user-friendly platform. This allows the user to enroll in, say, a Yale course and a UVA course at the same time, all through the same portal.
These types of online classes usually last about a month and can be administered as either a scheduled or self-paced course. If you are motivated by deadlines, I would suggest that you choose the scheduled option. Scheduled classes often lock users out of past course content after a specified time frame, which will motivate you to stay on top of your workload.
Self-paced online classes are a more flexible option, perfect for someone who wants to complete an entire course over a week-long vacation or work at his/her own pace. Be aware that self-paced courses tend to have far less active discussion boards, so you will be doing the majority of the coursework on your own. Ultimately, either option can be just as effective as long as it works for you and your learning style.
Audit (Free) Vs. Certificate (Paid) Courses
You may be wondering how courses from such prestigious institutions can be free. Part of the answer lies in their “freemium” model — giving students the option to audit the course and take it for free, or a paid version that allows the student to earn a course certificate.
Depending on the site or institution offering the class, the main difference between the audit version and certificate version of online classes is that the audit (free) version usually limits your access to some of the course’s reading materials, guides, and discussion boards. In addition to better resources, the paid certificate version of most online classes will give you the ability to share your course certificate on LinkedIn or other job platforms.
If you are looking to improve your resume or increase your earning potential, then officially completing the class for a certificate may be worthwhile. However, if your main goal is to simply expand your knowledge on a new subject or brush up on some old topics, then taking the audited course for free is a great option.
Influencer and Branded Classes
You may have noticed that a lot of influencers and brands have started to offer their own courses on everything from marketing and sales techniques to health and fitness plans. Many of these courses are structured as a downloadable free version with paid add-ons.
Recently, I took a free course through Brit + Co, “Beginner’s Guide To Creative Freelancing” (which I highly recommend to anyone looking to refresh and revive their freelance techniques). Sites like Brit + Co offer a number of basic classes for free by partnering with sponsors, and add a price tag as the course topics become more specialized. Offering online classes for free makes sense for brands and influencers because it enables them to expand their network and builds rapport with their followers.
Employer-Funded Online Education
If you are working a full-time job, look into your company’s policy on covering employee education. Depending on your position, some companies will provide partial or full financial assistance for continuing your education. If your company doesn’t have an existing policy on covering educational expenses, find a course that would be helpful to expanding your skill set in your current role and pitch your boss on why it would be worthwhile for your company to cover the cost for you. It never hurts to ask, and your boss will probably be impressed with your initiative to add value to your company.
Think of all of the companies that call you a client. Many of them offer free resources to their clients online. For example, if you or your company belongs to an investment platform like Fidelity and Vanguard, you can take advantage of the free information they provide online. If you don’t understand something, remember that you always have the option to call up one of their client services representatives to get answers to your questions. (Of course, no matter how reputable the service may be, be sure to consult multiple sources before making any major financial decisions.)
Similarly, look into whether or not there are any free online learning opportunities being offered by the subscription or membership-based services you are already paying. For example, if you have a monthly subscription for design software, the software company may offer online instructional videos for its users. (Calling all Adobe Creative Cloud users: there are numerous online videos available to you on the Adobe website!)
Some websites like Lynda and LinkedIn Learning offer free trial periods. If you’re hesitant to go all-in on an online course, this option will allow you the opportunity to try out a few courses without any commitment and determine whether or not you’d like to continue. When you sign up, set a reminder in your phone to alert you right before the trial period ends so you can decide if you want to cancel or continue with a paid subscription.
Back to Basics
It may require some digging, but good ol’ YouTube offers a wealth of information on just about anything. You can find highly-rated video tutorials on everything from video editing to coding to DIY home décor. Once you find a YouTube user whose tutorials appeal to you, subscribe to their channel and opt in to receive alerts whenever they publish new content.
Now that you know how to get started, you can start learning immediately! Whether it’s Shakespeare, martial arts, coding, glass blowing, or a foreign language, the possibilities to continue your education are endless. You’ll expand your network, keep your brain healthy, and explore new topics that energize and inspire you every day.
Where to Find Free Online Classes:
edX – edX offers high-quality online courses from more than 130 global partners that include some of the world’s best universities and institutions, including MIT and Harvard University.
Coursera — Offers a wide array of 4 to 6-week courses taught by expert instructors, priced ~$29-99. Courses include a shareable online course certificate.
Udemy – The world’s largest online learning marketplace offering an extensive library of over 80,000 courses taught by expert instructors.
CourseHorse – An online marketplace that helps people discover and enroll in trusted local classes in cities nationwide. While most classes are not free, there are many inexpensive options.
SlideShare – LinkedIn’s learning platform that allows users to discover, share and present presentations and infographics on a wide variety of topics
ClassCentral – Class Central is a search engine and reviews site for free online courses popularly known as MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses.
Lynda – Another online learning platform from LinkedIn that helps anyone learn business, software, technology and creative skills to achieve personal and professional goals.
HubSpot Academy – Leader in inbound marketing and sales education online that offers training for the digital age: courses, projects, certifications, and software training.
iTunes U – Part of Apple’s iTunes store, iTunes U is a vast learning resource offering free educational content that users can download straight to their computer, iPad, or iPhone.
Udacity – Udacity provides “nanodegree” programs and online courses built by companies like AT&T and Google to teach the skills needed for career advancement in a digital world.