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Whether you’re gearing up for a big career change, or you’re just looking to learn something new, free online courses can help jump-start your journey.
What is the value of free online courses? Well, they can’t replace a traditional educational program, but these courses still offer a variety of benefits. Our guide explores a selection of the top free online course providers to help you choose a new educational experience (without breaking the bank). Let’s get started.
What Are the Benefits of a Free Online Course?
One of the best parts of a free online course is that it’s—well, free. When you don’t have to weigh the cost, there’s less risk involved with trying out a new subject. You can relax, enjoy and explore.
Free online courses can rekindle the joy of learning. They can also help you take concrete steps toward professional or educational goals. Learners can use free online classes to sample a new career field, build skills for a promotion or brush up on knowledge before going back to school.
Many free online classes are known as massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs allow hundreds or thousands of learners to take a single course, usually for free or at low cost. Because of their affordability and lack of formal entrance requirements, MOOCs offer an accessible, low-risk way to learn.
Who Should Consider Taking Free Online Courses?
- Career changers. Free online courses can help you learn about new industries and potentially qualify for entry-level positions. These courses can’t replace traditional degrees, but they can help you stand out in the job market.
- Working professionals. Free online education makes it easier to stay on top of industry trends. You can also use free online courses to showcase your drive and dedication when applying for a new role.
- Students. Learners can use free classes to prepare for exams, review difficult concepts and curb learning loss over breaks from school. Users can find study resources for elementary school through graduate school levels via MOOCs.
- Lifelong learners. If you want to gain perspective on world events, pick up a new hobby or explore a topic of interest, there are many online learning options available at no cost.
Online Platforms with Free Courses
A pioneer of the MOOC model, edX began in 2012 with 155,000 enrollees. It now boasts over 42 million users.
This aggregate site offers free and paid classes, along with micro-credentials, degrees and professional certificates. Founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), edX operated as a nonprofit until it was purchased by education technology company 2U in 2021.
edX provides diverse course content from over 160 partners, including Ivy League schools like Cornell University, international institutions like Oxford University, prominent companies like Google and nonprofits like the Smithsonian Institution.
Students can take courses in the arts, sciences, social sciences and humanities. They can also study areas like law, tech and healthcare. edX’s micro-credentials and degrees focus on business, technology and social services.
Learners can audit most classes for free, but they must pay $50 to $300 per class if they want graded assignments and completion verification. Financial assistance is available to qualifying students.
The world’s largest MOOC provider, Coursera delivers programs that reach over 100 million learners worldwide. Stanford University computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng founded the company in 2012.
Like many MOOC platforms, Coursera offers content from multiple educational partners. Users can access classes from universities like Yale and companies like Microsoft. Coursera’s learning pathways include standalone courses, degrees, short guided projects and micro-credentials.
Course topics span the arts and humanities, health, mathematics, business, sciences and technology. Learners can study several languages and delve into personal development topics like mindfulness. Coursera’s tech-related MOOCs are particularly robust, with classes in areas like web development, data science and cybersecurity.
Learners can take many courses at no charge, but to receive a certificate of completion, they must buy annual or monthly memberships. Costs range from $49 per month for specializations and professional certificates to $9,000 for bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Coursera also awards scholarships and partners with organizations to provide educational access to underserved populations.
London-based FutureLearn emphasizes social learning. Users can create a profile to interact with other learners. Courses typically include peer feedback and discussion opportunities.
This MOOC hub’s academic partners include several U.S. universities but primarily include international institutions, particularly those from the UK, Europe and Australia. Course content also comes from private and nonprofit organizations.
FutureLearn students can delve into STEM fields like computer science, engineering and mathematics. Individuals can sharpen business skills and explore literature, law, politics and history. Creative arts courses investigate areas like fashion and film, and language classes include less-common offerings such as Irish and Norwegian.
Participants can take many FutureLearn courses for free. They can also upgrade to gain certificates of completion and extended access to course materials. ExpertTracks, micro-credentials, and online degrees all require payment.
Canvas is a widely used learning management system (LMS) for K-12 and higher education. Canvas has more than 30 million users, so many students and parents may already know of it. The company also offers free online classes, specializing in career development resources for education professionals.
Educators can learn strategies for helping at-risk students, teaching remotely, navigating copyright issues and using the Canvas LMS, among other subjects. Depending on the class, instruction is available in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese.
Courses on Canvas Network are mostly free and self-paced. The site offers only short courses and does not provide certificates of completion. Some individual instructors may include that option.
Khan Academy, a nonprofit, focuses on elementary and high school education—unlike many other MOOC platforms. The platform boasts over 140 million registered users across more than 190 countries.
Khan Academy offers courses in subjects like language arts, science, economics, life skills and art history. Depending on the topic, levels range from pre-K through high school. Learners can also complete prep courses for the SAT, LSAT, Praxis Core and MCAT.
Classes are entirely free, and the site provides resources to help teachers and parents support their students’ success.
Unlike aggregate sites, technology educator Udacity publishes its own courses. The for-profit site develops classes in collaboration with industry leaders like GitHub and Amazon.
Udacity divides its offerings among eight schools, each focused on a tech discipline like artificial intelligence, programming and development or data science. Students can enroll in short courses or longer “nanodegree” programs. Free options fall into the short-course category and last from two to 16 weeks.
Nanodegree programs require paid participation and include academic and career support, discussion forums and project reviews. There is no free certificate option, but credential-seeking students can save through Udacity’s discounts and scholarships.
Many MOOC hubs offer only curated content from partner organizations. Udemy, however, allows anyone to create, upload and teach courses. For this reason, Udemy users may need to vet potential classes more carefully than students on some other MOOC sites. However, Udemy courses feature many highly qualified educators teaching a broad array of subjects.
Udemy divides its courses into 12 broad categories, including IT and software, business, lifestyle and design. Niche topics include TikTok marketing, tarot reading, day trading and aerial photography.
Most of Udemy’s over 204,000 classes require a fee, but the platform also offers more than 500 free options. Course prices range from $19.99 to $199.99, and the site runs frequent sales. Class fees include lifetime access and a certificate of completion. Udemy also provides a subscription option.
Cognitive Class offers individual courses, which typically run from three to 20 hours, along with 10 learning paths in areas like data science fundamentals and deep learning. These three- to five-course sequences allow students to explore subjects more in-depth. Learners can refine their class search using factors like topic, experience level, target skills and preferred language (English or Chinese).
To earn a badge, students must complete review questions and pass a one-hour exam. For many courses, Cognitive Class allows unlimited auditing before participants try for their badge.
This career education provider focuses on high-impact, in-demand skills training. General Assembly’s programs cater to both beginners launching new careers and professionals seeking to enhance their resumes. Offerings include career preparation bootcamps, available online and at more than 30 campus locations worldwide.
Through OpenCourseWare, MIT has provided free online access to the university’s curricula since 2001. Published under a Creative Commons license, OpenCourseWare materials are free to download, use, share and adapt. Since launching its pilot website with 50 courses, OpenCourseWare has grown to include the entire MIT catalog.
OpenCourseWare does not issue credit or certificates, but learners can follow a self-charted path through a vast array of topics like sciences, engineering, social sciences, humanities and arts. Students can search for courses by topic, department and level. Users can also filter classes by whether they offer features like exams, online textbooks or lecture videos.
The Open University
Chartered in 1969, the Open University is a pioneer in leveraging technological innovation to widen educational access. Originally reaching students through television and radio, The Open University began online instruction in the 1990s. Today, the UK-based public college offers degrees, diplomas, certificates and standalone modules and courses.
Launched in 2006, The Open University’s free learning platform OpenLearn provides over 1,000 courses ranging from one to 100 study hours. Users can also access videos, games, quizzes and articles. Over 6 million people use OpenLearn each year.
Course subjects fall into eight categories covering a variety of academic topics. Some courses allow learners to earn digital badges or statements of participation. Students can’t contact instructors, but they can communicate with peers through each course’s comments section.
Featured Online Schools
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Insights, advice, suggestions, feedback and comments from experts
Expert Introduction: As an enthusiast and expert in the field of online education and e-learning, I have extensive experience and knowledge in the realm of free online courses and their value in today's educational landscape. I have closely followed the evolution of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and the impact of platforms like edX, Coursera, FutureLearn, and others on the accessibility of quality education. My expertise extends to understanding the benefits of free online courses for various demographics, including career changers, working professionals, students, and lifelong learners. Additionally, I am well-versed in the offerings of prominent online learning platforms such as edX, Coursera, FutureLearn, Canvas Network, Khan Academy, Udacity, Udemy, Cognitive Class, General Assembly, MIT OpenCourseWare, and The Open University.
Value of Free Online Courses:
Free online courses offer numerous benefits, despite not replacing traditional educational programs. They provide a low-risk opportunity to explore new subjects without the financial burden. These courses can reignite the joy of learning and help individuals take concrete steps toward professional or educational goals. Many free online classes are MOOCs, which allow for accessible and low-risk learning due to their affordability and lack of formal entrance requirements [].
Who Should Consider Taking Free Online Courses:
- Career Changers: Free online courses can help individuals learn about new industries and potentially qualify for entry-level positions, standing out in the job market.
- Working Professionals: These courses make it easier to stay updated on industry trends and showcase dedication when applying for new roles.
- Students: Free classes can aid in exam preparation, reviewing difficult concepts, and preventing learning loss over breaks from school.
- Lifelong Learners: Individuals seeking to gain perspective on world events, pick up new hobbies, or explore topics of interest can benefit from the availability of free online learning options [].
Online Platforms with Free Courses:
- edX: Offers diverse course content from over 160 partners, including Ivy League schools, international institutions, prominent companies, and nonprofits. Learners can audit most classes for free, with financial assistance available to qualifying students [].
- Coursera: Provides content from multiple educational partners, offering standalone courses, degrees, short guided projects, and micro-credentials. Learners can access many courses at no charge, but to receive a certificate of completion, they must buy annual or monthly memberships [].
- FutureLearn: Emphasizes social learning and offers courses in STEM fields, business skills, creative arts, and language classes. Participants can take many courses for free and upgrade to gain certificates of completion and extended access to course materials [].
- Canvas Network: Offers free online classes, specializing in career development resources for education professionals. Courses are mostly free and self-paced, without providing certificates of completion [].
- Khan Academy: Focuses on elementary and high school education, offering entirely free courses in various subjects and prep courses for standardized tests [].
- Udacity: Publishes its own courses in collaboration with industry leaders, offering short courses and longer "nanodegree" programs. Free options are available for short courses, while nanodegree programs require paid participation [].
- Udemy: Allows anyone to create, upload, and teach courses, offering both free and paid options across a broad array of subjects. Course prices range from $19.99 to $199.99, with frequent sales [].
- Cognitive Class: Delivers free, self-paced online training in data science and cognitive computing, offering individual courses and learning paths in various areas. Learners can earn badges to showcase their skills [].
- General Assembly: Focuses on high-impact, in-demand skills training, offering free courses, workshops, and intensive bootcamp programs at a cost. The platform also provides live-streamed webinars and resources for beginners [].
- MIT OpenCourseWare: Provides free online access to the university's curricula, covering a vast array of topics without issuing credit or certificates. Learners can follow a self-charted path through various subjects [].
- The Open University: Offers over 1,000 free courses through its learning platform OpenLearn, covering a variety of academic topics and allowing users to earn digital badges or statements of participation [].
This comprehensive overview of the value of free online courses and the platforms offering them showcases the diverse opportunities available for individuals seeking to enhance their knowledge and skills without breaking the bank.