12 great free online courses

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Much ado has been made in recent years over the quickly rising cost of healthcare in the United States. But the cost of college tuition and fees has skyrocketed at nearly twice that rate. Going to college today will cost a student 559% more than it did in 1985, on average.

In an exciting talk given at TEDGlobal 2012, Stanford professor Daphne Koller explains why she was inspired — alongside fellow professor Andrew Ng — to create Coursera, which brings great classes from top universities online for free. Coursera classes have specific start dates, require students to take quizzes and turn in assignments, as well as allowing professors to customize their course into online chunks rather than simply recording their lectures.

When she spoke at TED Global, Coursera offered classes from four top colleges — Princeton University, the University of Michigan, Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania — but in July, Coursera announced that they had increased to 16 participating colleges, including five of the schools considered the top 10 in the country by the U.S. News & World Report. The site now offers 116 classes.

Even outside of Coursera, the number of college classes available on a computer screen rather than in a brick-and-mortar lecture hall is staggering. At TEDxEastside Prep, Scott Young gave the intriguing talk — “Can you get an MIT education for $2,000?” — in which he shared his effort to get an MIT education in computer science by taking the school’s Open Courseware free online courses. The result? He’s currently taken — as well as passed exams and completed programming assignments for –  20 of the 33 courses in schools’ curriculum.

Inspired by Young, below, find 12 courses you could take for a completely free TED degree in Big Ideas.

The Course: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence
The School: Stanford, via YouTube
Taught By: Peter Norvig, Sebastian Thrun
Course Description: Artificial Intelligence is the science of making computer software that reasons about the world around it. Humanoid robots, Google Goggles, self-driving cars, even software that suggests music you might like to hear are all examples of AI. In this class, you will learn how to create this software from two of the leaders in the field.
Notes: When Thrun and Norvig first put this course online in the fall of 2011, 160,000 students from 209 countries enrolled. While the course is closed, you can still watch the lectures on YouTube. And see Norvig discuss what he learned teaching the course in the TEDTalk, “The 100,000 student classroom.”

The Course: The Structure of English Words
The School: Stanford, via iTunes
Taught By: Will Leben
Course Description: Thanks to historical, cultural, and linguistic factors, English has by far the world’s largest vocabulary—leading many of us to have greater than average difficulty with words, and some of us to have greater than average curiosity about words. Our historical and linguistic study will cover both erudite and everyday English, with special attention to word meaning and word use, to both rules and exceptions. Most words originated with an image. “Reveal” = “pull back the veil,” “depend” = “hang down from.” Change is constant. “Girl” once meant “a young child of either sex;” an early synonym for “stupid” was “nice.” Are there good changes and bad ones? And who gets to decide?

The Course: Physics for Future Presidents
The School: University of California Berkeley, via YouTube
Taught By: Richard A. Muller and Bob Jacobsen
Course Description: Contains the essential physics that students need in order to understand today’s core science and technology issues, and to become the next generation of world leaders. From the physics of energy to climate change, and from spy technology to quantum computers, this is a look at the modern physics affecting the decisions of political leaders and CEOs and, consequently, the lives of every citizen. How practical are alternative energy sources? Can satellites really read license plates from space? What is the quantum physics behind iPods and supermarket scanners? And how much should we fear a terrorist nuke?”
Note: A complete guide is available to anyone who wants to teach the class at their university.

The Course: Dilemmas in Bio-Medical Ethics: Playing God or Doing Good?
The School: MIT, via Open Courseware
Taught By: Erica James
Course Description: This course is an introduction to the cross-cultural study of bio-medical ethics. It examines moral foundations of the science and practice of western bio-medicine through case studies of abortion, contraception, cloning, organ transplantation, and other issues. It also evaluates challenges that new medical technologies pose to the practice and availability of medical services around the globe, and to cross-cultural ideas of kinship and personhood. It discusses critiques of the bio-medical tradition from anthropological, feminist, legal, religious, and cross-cultural theorists.

The Course: Videogame Theory and Analysis
The School: MIT, via Open Courseware
Taught By: Alice Robison
Course Description: This course will serve as an introduction to the interdisciplinary academic study of videogames, examining their cultural, educational, and social functions in contemporary settings. By playing, analyzing, and reading and writing about videogames, we will examine debates surrounding how they function within socially situated contexts in order to better understand games’ influence on and reflections of society.

The Course: Sets, Counting and Probability
The School: Harvard, via the Open Learning Initiative
Taught By: Paul G. Bamberg
Course Description: This online math course develops the mathematics needed to formulate and analyze probability models for idealized situations drawn from everyday life. Topics include elementary set theory, techniques for systematic counting, axioms for probability, conditional probability, discrete random variables, infinite geometric series, and random walks. Applications to card games like bridge and poker, to gambling, to sports, to election results, and to inference in fields like history and genealogy, national security, and theology.

The Course: Introduction to Aerospace Engineering and Design
The School: MIT, via Open Courseware
Taught By: Dava Newman
Course Description: The fundamental concepts, and approaches of aerospace engineering, are highlighted through lectures on aeronautics, astronautics, and design. Active learning aerospace modules make use of information technology. Student teams are immersed in a hands-on, lighter-than-air (LTA) vehicle design project, where they design, build, and fly radio-controlled LTA vehicles. The connections between theory and practice are realized in the design exercises.

The Course: Shakespeare After All: The Later Plays
The School: Harvard
Taught By: Marjorie Garber
Course Description: This free online Shakespeare course focuses on Shakespeare’s later plays beginning with Measure for Measure and ending with The Tempest. This course takes note of key themes, issues, and interpretations of the plays, focusing on questions of genre, gender, politics, family relations, silence and speech, and cultural power from both above and below (royalty, nobility, and the court; clowns and fools).

The Course: Securing Digital Democracy
The School: University of Michigan, via Coursera
Taught By: J. Alex Halderman
Course Description: Computer technology has transformed how we participate in democracy. The way we cast our votes, the way our votes are counted, and the way we choose who will lead are increasingly controlled by invisible computer software. Most U.S. states have adopted electronic voting, and countries around the world are starting to collect votes over the Internet. However, computerized voting raises startling security risks that are only beginning to be understood outside the research lab, from voting machine viruses that can silently change votes to the possibility that hackers in foreign countries could steal an election. This course will provide the technical background and public policy foundation that 21st century citizens need to understand the electronic voting debate. You’ll come away from this course understanding why you can be confident your own vote will count — or why you should reasonably be skeptical.

The Course: Galaxies and Cosmology
The School: California Institute of Technology, via Coursera
Taught By: S. George Djorgovski
Course Description: This class is an introduction to the modern extragalactic astronomy and cosmology, i.e., the part of astrophysics that deals with the structure and evolution of the universe as a whole. It will cover the subjects including: relativistic cosmological models and their parameters, extragalactic distance scale, cosmological tests, composition of the universe, dark matter, and dark energy; the hot big bang, cosmic nucleosynthesis, recombination, and cosmic microwave background; formation and evolution of structure in the universe; galaxy clusters, large-scale structure and its evolution; galaxies, their properties and fundamental correlations; formation and evolution of galaxies; star formation history of the universe; quasars and other active galactic nuclei, and their evolution; structure and evolution of the intergalactic medium; diffuse extragalactic backgrounds; the first stars, galaxies, and the reionization era.

The Course: Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World
The School: University of Michigan, via Coursera
Taught By: Eric Rabkin
Course Description: Fantasy is a key term both in psychology and in the art and artifice of humanity. The things we make, including our stories, reflect, serve, and often shape our needs and desires. We see this everywhere from fairy tale to kiddie lit to myth; from “Cinderella” to Alice in Wonderland to Superman; from building a fort as a child to building ideal, planned cities as whole societies. Fantasy in ways both entertaining and practical serves our persistent needs and desires and illuminates the human mind. Fantasy expresses itself in many ways, from the comfort we feel in the godlike powers of a fairy godmother to the seductive unease we feel confronting Dracula. This course will explore Fantasy in general and Science Fiction in specific both as art and as insights into ourselves and our world.

The Course: Bits: The Computer Science of Digital Information
The School: Harvard, via the Open Learning Initiative
Taught By: Harry R. Lewis
Course Description: This course focuses on information as quantity, resource, and property. We study the application of quantitative methods to understanding how information technologies inform issues of public policy, regulation, and law. How are music, images, and telephone conversations represented digitally, and how are they moved reliably from place to place through wires, glass fibers, and the air? Who owns information, who owns software, what forms of regulation and law restrict the communication and use of information, and does it matter? How can personal privacy be protected at the same time that society benefits from communicated or shared information?

Photo: ShutterStock

Comments (60)

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  • freak qnc commented on Aug 2 2012

    The issues with online courses like these at least at this time now it the ability to get not just a certificate, but a valid recognition title which would be the path to equal opportunity to succeed as those who had the possibility to attend courses costing thousands and thousands of dollars. But that will be highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. I don’t see how the lucrative business of college education will ever turn in a non-profit one opened to everyone even for a few thousands of dollars.

    That said such learning will be partially beneficial for those with disciplines that do not require some heavy level of lab practice and are mostly done through study, reading, and application of the learning on something that won’t require hands on practice involving specialized materials and state of the art labs. From chemistry to medicine, to engineering, biotech and so on, teaching theory, “Informational, historical notions, knowledge and sharing experiences verbally”, it’s already a great thing for sure, but it will hardly be able to achieve the same level of instruction and in-depth knowledge that is available when having access to those additional on-site resources. Therefore that gap will have to be also bridged down the road with world-wide deployed freely accessible labs where remote students will be able to put in practice and test the knowledge they gained to validate what they learned and obtain hands-on experience.

    Until such additional points will also be addressed, the remote e-learning (even powered by the best platforms and smartest engines) will work for some fields like Computer Science and Programming, Law, Accounting, et sim. That’s already a fantastic thing… and it would be effectively working when those who got certificates by remote studies will have access to positions and jobs no differently than those who attended courses by being physically present. Should that not be the case then investing time and efforts in achieving a certificate that would open no new opportunities would be an exercise in futility… indeed still preferable if having the time to dedicate to it since it’s always preferable to increase one’s knowledge, but frustratingly ineffective when it comes to being able to leverage it to advance one’s career and be able to progress in the field of study chosen.

    I do hope that one day eventually there will be courses that won’t require working a lifetime to repay a student loan, because that’s not how education should work, especially today since we do have the means to turn the education system into a high quality, non-profit system open to more than just a few lucky ones. Is my opinion that it’s in everyone’s interest to raise exponentially the level of knowledge across the entire globe and relinquish the long-term damaging elitist model that has been in place for far too long we should’ve allow to remain dominant. A mind is a terrible thing to waste… but that same mind has to be given the chance not to go to waste. For those who possess that “mind” and are determined not to make it go to waste, will alone to do so has never been enough.

    Initiatives like the one proposed with Coursera have many predecessors like “Khan Academy” “ALISON” and the free courses by major Universities like Stanford, MIT edX, Berkley and so on… as long as they will keep their promise of quality education for free, then they may deliver on what they say to be their goal… though in reality the road to effective remote education that will release degrees recognized across the country it steep, winding and rather long at this time… but I am glad to see more steps forward are being taken and I hope none of those initiative will stray from the root principle that caused them to come into existence.

  • Anil Edakkunni commented on Aug 2 2012 is conspicuous by its absence (and Sebastian Thrun is mentioned only in passing.). Like the Khan Academy, they are not only democratizing graduate and post-graduate education, they’re rethinking courses and concepts to make it easy to learn hard concepts, as opposed to the existing prove-you’re-smart-enough-for-this gating approach.

  • commented on Aug 2 2012

    good article, very informative!

  • commented on Aug 2 2012

    Reblogged this on Bobbi's Blog.

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  • commented on Aug 1 2012

    Reblogged this on goAustin and commented:
    this is mind blasting…yep, BLASTING not blowing. my word to you is, learn learn learn.

  • commented on Aug 1 2012

    Reblogged this on Office of Faculty Development Blog and commented:
    This is a wonderful resource for anyone just wanting to learn more…

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  • CJ Fearnley commented on Aug 1 2012

    OT rant against iTunes: why link to them ever? I cannot get the iTunes software to run on my computer. It is an abominable, inaccessible, closed platform from my perspective. The antithesis of academic openness! Sorry. I am frustrated that I cannot access the good content on iTunes (I tried, but it just blows up).

  • commented on Aug 1 2012

    Reblogged this on AHKath's Blog and commented:
    12 great free online courses.

  • CJ Fearnley commented on Aug 1 2012

    I would have linked to the 2010 version of “Descriptive Introduction to Physics” which has supplanted the name for the course at Berkeley:

    I would have included included Coursera’s “Model Thinking”:

    And Open Yale Courses A Big Picture, Conceptual Introduction to Biology: EEB 122:

    Not to mention Open Yale Courses’ excellent course on the biggest of big picture thinkers, Dante,

    Stanford’s “Art of Living”:

    And Columbia’s “World History of 1500 CE”:

    All these are more complete and more big picture than some of the 12 chosen.

  • commented on Aug 1 2012

    A few more:
    - Calculus and Linear Algebra courses from Khan Academy –
    - Stanford database course –

  • Joel Vera commented on Aug 1 2012

    I think it should be Physics for future presidents, but yeah, a course on Psychics advising presidents would be fun! I’d buy that for a dollar!

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  • commented on Aug 1 2012

  • Sayed Miah commented on Aug 1 2012

    Introduction to Finance (University of Michigan via Coursera) is something worth looking into too.

  • commented on Aug 1 2012

    Reblogged this on STEM – ROBOTICS EDUCATION.

  • maggie sokolik commented on Aug 1 2012

    Also, spell Berkeley right….

  • Jasper Heugten commented on Aug 1 2012

    Please change “Psychics for Future Presidents” to “Physics for Future Presidents”

    • Carl Mueller commented on Aug 1 2012

      I joined up just to make the same request, Jasper. Although, I really like the idea of Psychics helping future presidents. Historically, any leader worth his salt had advisors “connected” with the ethereal or other side. If I were prez, I sure would seek all the help I could get!

    • Caitlin Davies commented on Aug 1 2012

      Please change it back to “Psychics for Future Presidents!” I joined so that I could take that class…… it’s very important to keep in touch with the world beyond when in a position of power.

      • Ben Goldberg commented on Aug 1 2012

        Surely you are joking. The world beyond? Do you any memory of the last 4.2 billion years of earth’s natural history? Before you were born, you were nothing; When you die, all that will remain is the memory others have of you (stored in neural pathways that are plastic/malleable in nature) and maybe a plaque on a park bench in your name. Not to be rude, but death is so very absolute and final. “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

        • Ben Thompson commented on Aug 1 2012

          Learn to take a joke. Please!!!

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