College do-over! Free and cheap ways to get smarter online

Should you worry about Greece? Find out at Khan Academy.

More than a few times, I’ve wished that I had taken every single class that interested me in college (Pottery and Abnormal Psychology, I still mourn you). Of course, requirements for majors, minors, and you know, graduating, got in the way, as did having a kick-ass time. While I would never trade some of those fun memories for anything, I wouldn’t mind another chance to continue learning, and in some cases re-learn what I missed the first time.

In the past few years, there’s been a movement to bring free or low-cost education to the masses, from iTunes U podcasts and videos to Khan Academy’s seemingly impenetrable number (3,200+) of free instructional video links, Coursera’s free but intensive (from 4 to 12 hours of work) array of courses taught by professors from some of the country’s most esteemed universities, and new start-ups like Voxy, which teaches foreign language in a contextualized format. In essence, the Internet is your educational oyster. Here’s how to crack that baby open: 

Not ready to immerse yourself in what will feel like full-time school again? Pick and choose from videos on Khan Academy‘s website, where you can just click and watch a video on the subject of your choosing from categories such as the catch-all “Humanities,” “Science,” “Math,” and more — including “Test Prep,” which features practice problems for a ton of fancy math tests and the GMAT, broken down by test section. There are also videos breaking down life’s confusing stuff like the Electoral College, FICA tax, and intriguing concepts like Intro to Cryptography and a breakdown of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” It’s all free, and for math enthusiasts especially, it’s nirvana.

iTunes U was one of the forerunners in distributing free education via podcasts and video lectures, and continues to provide fantastic series, from National Geographic Live! features to Harvard Kennedy School’s “American Conversation Essentials.” Since you don’t have to enroll, you can go at your own pace and watch/listen as often as you like.

Though not as organized or aesthetically pleasing as other programs on here, YouTube EDU still provides some lecture series and inspirational speeches.

The Voxy app.

Voxy was founded on the premise that learning a foreign language is far easier when the subject is immersed in culture and daily life activities where they come across the language, rather than attempting to teach yourself via textbook. Voxy is all linked up to your smartphone so it applies the new language to your mobile habits (check-ins, what news outlets you like, photos you take). If you take a photo of a cool bike you see, the program creates an audio flash card of it the word; games and quizzes can also be done in the language. Currently, Voxy teaches English to Spanish and Portuguese speakers, but they are working on a beta version for those interested in learning Spanish.

Into more computer-centric pursuits? Code Academy is a start-up born out of the same frustrations the guys at Voxy felt — that learning to code and program in a vacuum just doesn’t work very well. Code Academy is free, and you can track your progress with specific goals on a clean, user-friendly layout as you learn to create websites, games, and apps.

For more language games in Spanish, Italian, French, Italian, German, Chinese and Portuguese, check out MindSnacks apps, which Apple named one of the best educational apps for 2011.

A number of top schools, including Duke, Michigan, Penn, Princeton, Stanford, and more, have joined forces with Coursera to bring free online learning to “hundreds of thousands” of students around the world.
Though the courses are challenging, the biggest thing you have to sacrifice to get complimentary instruction is your time. These courses aren’t going to be for the casual student — they are geared towards people who are dedicated and willing to put in the effort, with some classes requiring up to 12 hours (!) of work a week, which includes watching video lectures and homework. Coursera employs an Honor Code to which all students must agree before beginning their studies, and many courses offer you a signed certificate upon completion of the course.

Most courses feature free online texts for their required readings, and those that don’t (or can’t, due to copyrights) suggest editions that you’ll probably want to add to your bookshelves anyway.* My favorite part of the syllabi is that the professors have done the vetting of the best editions of subjects in which they are experts, eliminating any guesswork on your part and securing you the best translation, foreward, notes, or discussion points — even if you don’t end up taking the class.

You can elect to search Coursera’s offerings by university, area of concentration, and start date. Each class runs from 4 to 12 weeks, and topics include: “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World,” “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry,” “Game Theory,” “Drugs and the Brain,” “A History of the World from 1300,” “Computer Science 101,” and “Know Thyself,” among many others that run the educational gamut. Upon receiving my welcome email from my new Coursera professor, who has taught his course many times and still delights in it, I felt a shiver go up my spine. I’m back in the game — and I won’t be accruing a penny of debt

*Though if you don’t want to buy, you can always rent your textbooks or class texts through Chegg, another start-up in the educational arena that allows you to rent, sell what you’ve already got, and buy (print or e-version). 


  1. Meredith Olson

    Coursera has added 17 more schools, including 4 international ones, to its community of online classes:

    Berklee College of Music
    Brown University
    Columbia University
    Emory University
    Hebrew University of Jerusalem
    Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
    Mount Sinai School of Medicine
    Ohio State University
    University of British Columbia
    University of California, Irvine
    University of Florida
    University of London
    University of Maryland
    University of Melbourne
    University of Pittsburgh
    Vanderbilt University
    Wesleyan University

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