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Are No-Cost College Courses for You?

Open online education is making it easier than ever to pursue knowledge without going broke. Here's what a number of prestigious schools are offering you.

WHEN PRINCETON UNIVERSITY OFFERED A FREE online course on algorithms in the summer of 2012, some 80,000 students signed up—about 10 times Princeton's combined undergraduate and graduate population. This incredible turnout testifies to the unprecedented ways that technology has made top-notch education available to anyone online.

Generally speaking, you won't earn credit for free courses. But if your primary interest is in learning for yourself instead of for a degree, you can increase your proficiency in subjects as diverse as a new language or the history of the cosmos. For those in or nearing retirement, the trend reflects an expanding roster of continuing education choices, one that previous generations could only have dreamed of. It's a new opportunity for people to experience the pure joy of learning—or prepare for second careers.

As you investigate the options, a term you'll quickly become familiar with is "massive open online courses," better known as MOOCs. Usually offered for free, MOOCs feature video lectures that can be viewed by thousands of students in remote locations. In addition to video lectures, study materials for MOOCs are often available for free online. You can find a representative list of MOOC courses at mooc-list.com.

Remote learning is now the norm even among degree seekers, with more than a quarter of all college students enrolled in an online course.

A survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education found that 79% of professors who had taught online courses—including many who were initially skeptical—found them to be "worth the hype." Almost half reported the classes to be as rigorous as the ones they taught at their brick-and-mortar universities. Indeed, remote learning has proven so successful that it’s now the norm even among degree seekers, with more than a quarter of all higher education students now enrolled in an online course.

Here are just some of the education options available at no cost to you:

Elite Schools Turn All-Access

Stanford popularized MOOCs by making a few courses available online in fall 2011. Introduction to Artificial Intelligence attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries—not to mention the attention of colleges and universities everywhere. Eventually, volunteer translators made the course available in 44 languages, according to The New York Times. Stanford still offers a wide array of courses ranging from "Careers in Media Technology" to "Child Nutrition and Cooking," depending on the semester. (online.stanford.edu)

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In addition to Princeton, several other Ivy League schools have jumped on the MOOC bandwagon. Yale University offers free access to a selection of introductory courses taught by their distinguished teachers and scholars, with all lectures recorded in Yale classrooms and available in video, audio and text transcript formats. Harvard, through its Extension School's Open Learning Initiative, offers a selection of free videos featuring lectures by Harvard faculty on topics from computer science to ancient Greek heroes. (oyc.yale.edu; http://www.extension.harvard.edu/open-learning-initiative)

Platforms Offer Something for Everyone

As of December 2016, over 1,700 courses were offered on the MOOC platform known as Coursera, a for-profit industry leader in large-scale online education. The company has partnered with top universities to offer free lectures and non-graded material to anyone. One hundred and fifty institutions, including Princeton, Columbia and Duke, provide Coursera course offerings. Launched just five years ago, the company now reaches 23 million learners worldwide. Coursera also provides students opportunities to receive credit through organizations such as the American Council on Education, offering the potential for students to receive transfer credit to college degree programs for select courses. (coursera.org)

While Coursera leads the industry, similar platforms abound. Initially launched by Harvard and MIT in 2012, EdX now offers 1,300 courses from over 90 institutions. And Udacity, which evolved from Stanford’s “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” online course, provides classes from top Silicon Valley employers for current and prospective tech professionals. (udacity.com; edx.org)

Even Apple is on the education bandwagon with iTunes U, a free app that gives students access to more than a million free lectures, videos and books. Some of the hundreds of colleges and universities available on iTunes U include Oxford, Stanford and MIT, along with other renowned institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress. (www.apple.com/apps/itunes-u)

3 Questions to Ask Your Advisor

  1. I need college credit to advance in my career—can I afford it without jeopardizing other goals?
  2. I'm thinking of switching careers. What other factors besides education costs should I be considering?
  3. Can I use a 529 College Savings Account to pay for my continuing education?

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