With hundreds of online degree programs being offered, more than 400 university channels on YouTube and more than 200 universities posting their courses on iTunes, navigating the world of online learning can be overwhelming. But the abundance of material isn't so bad once you determine what you're interested in and how you prefer to learn. Whether you're interested in enrolling full-time in an online program in pursuit of a degree, want to complement your current coursework with online resources or are looking to learn just for fun, we've selected some of the best resources available to help you get started.
If you're interested in enrolling in an online program and taking courses for credit, see this separate feature article on Distance Education, which is devoted entirely to that topic. Read on to learn more about the course material available freely online from such respected institutions as Harvard, Columbia University and Cambridge, and to find out how you personally might best consume this material, from your laptop to iPhone to television.
Since the Massachusetts Institute of Technology started posting select course material online in 2002, many other universities have joined the initiative, which is referred to as OpenCourseWare (OCW). These course materials are created by universities and shared freely online, letting people explore subjects from Victorian literature to organic chemistry at their own pace. Posted materials can include syllabi, handouts, reading materials, and audio or video tracks. Though the approach is completely self-guided, the online material replicates the average college course pretty accurately -- without the pressure of grades, deadline or class participation. In some cases, OpenCourseWare taken under the guidance of an instructor may be accepted as credit toward a college degree.
If you know you want to "take" a course or browse material at a specific university, you can find a list of participating universities here. If you go to Carnegie Mellon's OCW site, for example, you can click on "Find a Course" and see all courses the university offers. "Peek in" on a course to read more about what it entails, and to browse the assignments and lessons of that course. French 1, for example, is comprised of 15 lessons, which use videos, audio and interactive lessons to help you learn how to understand spoken and written French as well as improve speaking and writing skills. To "join" a class, you will have to create an account, which is a free and quick process, and helps track and save your progress.
If you don't have a specific course in mind, or even a specific university, but know that you're interested in a specific topic a good place to search is the OpenCourseWare Consortium. If you're interested in learning about Shakespeare, for example, simply typing "Shakespeare" in the "Search Courses" field generates 34 hits. From there, click on "Course Details" to read more about it and see if it's what you're looking for. You can also check out the OCW members to see a list of the colleges and universities worldwide that offer free course material online, and get direct links to their OCW websites. The site can search available courses in 10 different languages. For more guidance on deciding what course to "take," we've outlined some of the most noteworthy OCW offerings in several subject areas.
One key advantage to browsing course material at the website of a university is that most schools will list supplemental material -- including lecture notes; projects and examples; assignments and solutions' and exams and solutions -- that may not be available from other resources.
If you're less interested in taking an entire course YouTube EDU is a fantastic resource. More than 400 universities and colleges worldwide have YouTube channels, where you can watch videos, from a 60-minute 2006 commencement speech to a three-hour football game to 15 two-hour lecture videos that together comprise an entire semester-long course. This site is great if you like watching videos and want to feel more engaged with lecture material. Many of these videos make you feel like you're right there, sitting in on lecture at Harvard University, for example, as the lectures are filmed live. You can take some time and watch the videos on your computer or take them on-the-go and watch them on any Internet-enabled device.
To get started, you can browse this listing of universities with a YouTube channel and click on any one to go directly to that channel. If you're more keen on searching by topic, go directly to YouTube EDU, where you can enter a term in the search field or search by category, including Business, Education, Engineering, Fine Arts & Design, History, Law, Literature, Math and Science. For some recommendations on noteworthy courses in each category, see our list of Notable YouTube EDU courses.
The coolest part about the site is that whatever video you decide to watch, YouTube EDU will recommend related videos. So, for example, if you start watching Yale University's Introduction to Psychology with Professor Paul Bloom, YouTube EDU provide quick links to the 19 other videos that comprise this lecture series, and you can decide what order to watch them in. Watching all of them means you will have taken the entire PSYC 110 course, minus the homework and tests.
While you're at the site, be sure to check out the most-viewed YouTube EDU videos of all time.
Some of the exact courses posted on YouTube EDU and OpenCourseWare Consortium are also available on iTunes. All material is freely accessible through iTunes, though you'll need to download the iTunes application, which you can do for free here. The main perk of consuming material in pure audio is that you really can take it with you anywhere. Just download the audio files of a course, add them to your iPod or iPhone, and you can learn on the treadmill, the subway, even the grocery store. The resource does also offer video lectures and other material, where available, such as course handouts or assignments.
To start, go to the iTunes Store and click on "iTunes U" at the top. Then, click on "Universities & Colleges" on the right. This will give you an alphabetical listing of all the universities and colleges that offer material on iTunes. Click on a university to see the lectures and courses it offers. You can browse by topic (e.g. "Business" or "Math") or click on "Power Search" to enter a specific search term.
For some good recommendations on noteworthy courses, iTunes provides a list of "Noteworthy" courses on its main window, as well as a list of the top downloads. For even more guidance, see our Notable iTunes U page, which outlines many of the most popular tracks, as well as some of our personal favorites, in every category.
Lastly, you may want to check out the one-time lectures, special events and breakthrough research projects at universities around the world. YouTube EDU is a great resource for finding these videos, as are the direct links on this page of college video and channels.